Transform Your Art Room by Assigning 3 Projects at Once

I like to have three projects going at the same time in my classroom. This practice does a lot for me. It keeps my kids busy and eliminates a lot of my smaller classroom management problems. When I presented on a related topic at a past AOE Summer Conference, I got more questions about that small section of my talk than the rest of what I said combined. So, I decided I better fill everyone in on how and why this practice works.

3 projects title

The How

It’s actually not that difficult to run three projects at once. What I like to do is introduce a new project each day for three consecutive days. Each day, I will let my students adapt their ideas; they brainstorm, sketch, plan, and make whatever changes they may need for the rest of the class period. Then, on the fourth day, they are free to work on whichever of the three projects piques their interest the most.

Each day, they have their choice of which project they would like to work on, so you eliminate the problem of projects that seem to drag on and on. If kids need a break, or if they need a breather from a particular project, there are always options of what they can do otherwise. Some kids are always finishing earlier than others, and having three projects eliminates the downtime that’s created by those earlier finishers. They always have a backup project to which they can direct their attention when they’re finished with their first.

The What
Alexis Wheeler--Pipe Wrench

The second most common question I got from my talk was about which projects I give my students when we’re doing three projects at once. What I like to do is give one teacher-directed project, a second that is a combination of teacher direction and student choice, and a third which is a general and open-ended sketchbook assignment. You can download one list of prompts that I give to my students below.

Click for free sketchbook prompt download!
Click for free sketchbook prompt download!

For example, my first project for the year is generally a tool drawing that focuses on precision, shading, and line. This would be my teacher-directed lesson. Secondly, I would give students a theme focused on construction or destruction, and they could come up with their own idea of where to go with their student-directed lesson. Then, I give students a brief art history lecture and writing assignment along with a sketchbook assignment. Between that combination of work, there’s always something for students to do.


The Why

Far too many of our minor classroom management issues appear when kids have nothing to do. I’m not talking about the big blow up types of behavior; sometimes the most dramatic misbehaviors can’t be controlled.

But a lot of the minor occurrences–the annoyances, the little things that kids do to get on your nerves–those can be eliminated by keeping them busy. With multiple projects happening at the same time, students are engaged and actively working–which is what our art students should always be doing when they’re in the room.

Due Dates and Grading

A big concern a lot of people have is about when each of these assignments are due and how they are graded. I don’t have hard and fast due dates in my classroom. I simply tell my students which day we will be moving on, and if they are not done with the previous project they need to finish it on their own time. As far as grading, I don’t penalize kids if they don’t get projects done. That comes with the caveat, however, that students need to be engaged and working if they are going really in depth on a single project. I can’t penalize them in good conscience for not doing the other projects if they completely direct their focus, interest, and inspiration at a single project.

If they’re being lazy, I’m more than happy to put a zero in the grade book for the incomplete projects, but not when they are putting forth their best effort. What would you rather have: one outstanding project that a kid put everything into, or one decent project and two rushed ones that were terrible in terms of both process and product?
As you can see, running three projects is not actually that difficult. It may take a little bit of adaptation to what you do in your own classroom, and a little flexibility on your part, but it will pay off in student engagement, student activity, and lack of misbehavior. I would encourage you to give it a try.

Do you have students working on multiple projects at once? 

How do you structure your assignments?

Timothy Bogatz

Learning Team

Tim is a high school teacher from Omaha, NE. His teaching and writing focus on the development of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills.


  • Natasha

    Excellent! That “finishing gap” always drove me crazy at every age level. I called it “done in 60 seconds” vs. “takeforever-itis.” I completely agree with your grading philosophy as well. The constant on-line grading system makes that challenging, but you can raise the number of “daily assignment” points and if a student works double on one thing but never starts another, you could exempt them. I found it worked for grading an animation course, because their styles were so different and the complexity of their work was so different, I just didn’t want to standardize the requirements for assignments.

    • Tim Bogatz

      You’re right–this is great for differentiation. I definitely have a lot of “exempt” grades in the gradebook, but I’ve found if I’m proactive with parents in explaining why that is happening, they are supportive.

  • Kristy

    I love this idea. It is nice to know that other art teachers allow their students time to finish when they have been working diligently. However, I am curious how this can work for AP art. Do you use this method in your AP class?

    • Tim Bogatz

      This idea actually originated with my AP Studio Art class. I found that always having something to work on really eliminated a ton of excuses and a ton of procrastination. We’ve started this year with an avalanche of teacher direction, and we’re now letting their ideas come into fruition a couple weeks into the year. It works really well for me.

  • Jennifer Rodgers

    This is a great idea. Like you, I don’t have specific deadlines for my advanced classes. Usually I have them hand several finished works by the end of the quarter. Sketchbooks are grades weekly and I give a daily participation grade.

    I’m definitely going to try it with my AP Studio Art class this year. I really like the idea of letting them work on a self directed project simultaneously to give them autonomy over their work. It seems like a great way to develop breadth and concentration pieces early on in the school year. In the past, we start concentration works in January which never seems to give them enough time. Your approach would allow for both!

    Off topic a bit, but how would you manage homework assignments in terms of timing? I have a ton of assignments that can be completed at home. Typically O assign a homework drawing on Friday with it due back on Monday for a class critique. They then have until the following Friday to turn it in. It’s a lot to keep track of in terms of grading. I’m in search of a simpler way and curious of your thoughts.

    • Tim Bogatz

      I generally have teacher-directed work go toward the breadth section, and the student-directed work go toward their concentration. I’ve found that works better than the first/second semester split.
      My homework is generally development of ideas, sketches, and hashing out plans over the weekend, then we will critique on Monday and begin working. A lot of the process takes place at home, we extend the process a little more on Monday (and sometimes into Tuesday), then the product starts happening.
      The process and development part would be my formative grades, then the products will be the summative grades (usually). I do not like participation grades, but that’s a discussion that’s coming with an article next month :)

  • Hilary Paine

    I always have a teacher guided lesson and a sketchbook assignment (which are due on a specific date), I do like the addition of a student guided project. I think I will be pushing that this year. If there is a question I dislike hearing from my students it’s, “What do I do now?”
    They learned last year very quickly that they have sketchbook assignments, 6 per grading period to complete if they are done with their in class projects.

  • Erin

    Okay, I do this to an extent in my room. I have anywhere from 4 to 6 projects going at once due to the way my class is structured. I have a mixed bag of high school classes: Art 1, Art 2, Art 3, and Advanced Art all during the same 90 minute block.

    Each class has a teacher directed project. My Art 1 has a sketch due every week so if they finish early, they can always work on that. Any students that are early finishers or double enrolled (last year I had 18 that I saw in more than one 90 minute period. We have A and B days in my district, so I might have a student during the 2nd block on an A day and the 3rd block on a B day) got to work on a portfolio concentration. They had to pick an area or theme that they wanted to try/improve in. Each project needed to have my approval but it worked SO much better than me trying to give them busy work!

    When we hit the 9 week mark, we would have a portfolio critique. We could readjust their goal number based on the pieces they had created thus fair and they could choose to tweak their statement of interest. I had some that didn’t really work but the majority of my students took it very seriously and created some awesome work.

  • Hilary McLean

    I think I am going to try this, thank you. A big concern I have is my special ed students, who might get overwhelmed and confused. I have about 1/3 of my students that are special ed.

  • Diana

    Has anyone tried this approach with any segment of K-5 ? Interested to hear about any experiences.

    • Mel

      Me too. I only see my kids once a week. By the end of three weeks, they’ll have forgotten the first project!

  • Karen

    Thank you for the explanation. It seems like such a simple basic way to keep my middle grades working and not have the down time. Duh… Why didn’t I think of that!

  • Matty Miller

    I’d like to try this with my upper primary aged students but I’m wondering if you have any advice on when to introduce projects. I see them for a 2 hour block once a week. Would you recommend introducing a project each week for 3 consecutive classes?

  • Hilary McLean

    I took the plunge and have started overlapping assignments since I first read this. I was worried that when one project was in progress, and I introduced a second one, that students wouldn’t start it until they finished the first one, and then would need everything reexplained to them and that I would have to that a lot. But it hasn’t worked out that way because I make everyone start the new project at the same time so they all get what to do, and then they choose which one to work on during independent work time. This works great for those projects where something needs to dry before you can do the next step.

    Loving it! Thank you!

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  • amy

    I imagine it can be difficult for the teacher when it comes to grading assignments. However, I believe having the students work on multiple projects can eliminate downtime for early finishers. Thank you for sharing your 3 projects approach!

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