How to Develop a Unit Using the New Visual Arts Standards

If you are like most art teachers, your curriculum is driven by the word LESSON.

“I found a great new Lesson to teach on Pinterest.” 

“This is one of my tried and true lessons I do every year.”

“I need a good assessment for the end of this lesson.” 

You get the idea!

One of the biggest changes you will notice when implementing the New Visual Art Standards (read 10 things you might not know about the standards right here) is the shift from teaching individual lessons to infusing big ideas across your curriculum. Today we’re going to show you how to do just that.


To start, it’s helpful to wrap your brain around the term “Big Idea.”

Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Education, sums up big ideas like this, “An idea is big if it helps us make sense of otherwise meaningless, isolated, inert, or confusing facts. A big idea is a way of usefully seeing connections, not just another piece of knowledge.”

So what do Big Ideas mean for curriculum planning?

Infusing big ideas into your curriculum means pushing outside of your comfort zone. Sure, lessons will still be the building blocks for many of us, and they absolutely work within the framework of the New Standards, but the New Standards are challenging us to think beyond each isolated lesson. At AOE, we like the idea of designing your curriculum in terms of Units of Study instead of “lessons.”

To help you visualize how you might create a Unit of Study, we’ve created an example for you to look at.

The sample Unit below includes a variety of art lessons, activities, and exercises that focus on the common theme or “Big Idea” of “Shapes as the building blocks of art creation.” You will notice I have chosen to link 6 of the Visual Art Standards, which could be implemented sometime during the shape unit, and often could be repeated throughout the different activities.

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Click for Free Download!

You see, you don’t teach the New Standards in isolation, but in a spiraling fashion. The goal is to hit each grade level’s standards sometime during the year. Each standard isn’t perfectly aligned with a single lesson, and you wouldn’t want it to be! Even if you don’t hit all of the standards at each grade level (with 10 plus standards at each level, it can be difficult) it will be a goal you can continually work toward.

What are your thoughts about teaching with Lessons, Units and Big Ideas?

What are some ways you are changing your curriculum to better implement the New Art Standards?

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Laura

    Thank you!!! I love the unit plan you made, its a great template and it shows how to set it up…because really, what is online right now is overwhelming. I work at a Catholic school, and I don’t really have any administration on me about my curriculum, even though I just align everything with the state standards and the school’s….but I still want to keep up to date, in the event I ever got a job at a public school.

    Can I ask, along with this unit plan, am I supposed to (on the next page, imagine if I had this in a binder) list the lessons I plan to teach? So if my principal observed me and wanted to see a hardcopy, I would hand him the Unit plan (like what you made above) and stapled to that would be the lessons within that unit…correct?

    • Laura – Yes, you are correct. The unit would consist of several lessons or ‘art experiences’ that make up the total unit. You could include practice exercises before the lesson, and reflections after. There are many opportunities to infuse the standards beyond the lesson AND within the lesson. So glad this was helpful!

  • Bertie

    Where did you get that poster in the picture? It looks very handy. I love the new Common Core standards. Thanks for showing some ways to embrace them.

    • The poster was a “First Glance” copy they handed out at the NAEA convention in San Diego this fall. I do believe they have an updated version of the poster now, and you can receive a copy when you subscribe to one of the journals. And yes, it’s VERY handy. (and large!)

      • Cristina

        Hi Jessica,
        How does one subscribe to a journal? I would love that poster!

  • Tessa MacDonald

    is there a unit/lesson plan format download like the poster above we can use?

  • Lauren Cryan

    Does anyone have ideas for other ways to organize units? I am debating whether to do so by elements, media or another way. Any thoughts?

    • marnioberpriller

      An art teacher friend organizes his elementary art curricula as a timeline, going through the history of art each year with a different units of study pulled from art history in order from ancient to modern.

      • Lauren Cryan

        Thank you for the suggestion!

  • Sabrina Weiland

    Is there a list of the standards by grade level that I can copy and paste from? I can only find pdfs.