Curriculum Design

4 Units Every Middle Schooler Should Experience

color swatches

When it comes to curriculum, art teachers are incredibly lucky. If you’ve ever had a curriculum conversation with a math or science teacher, you know an art curriculum doesn’t compare. Most art curricula don’t tell us exactly what we have to teach; instead, they provide us with content to guide our lessons with our own twists. For some this might be challenging because it means we actually have to be creative with our content delivery–but that’s where the magic happens!

Some middle school art teachers may only have one year of required art for their students. In my district, 7th-grade art is required, but 8th graders can choose to take it as an elective. After 7th grade, some students may never take an art class again! Because of this reality, I want my students to get the most out of their art lessons. This means my units need to be content heavy, engaging, and fun all at the same time! It may seem challenging, but it is possible.

Today I am going to share 4 units that should be taught in every middle school art room.

1. Observational Drawing Unit

Drawing is an essential skill in the art-making process. If a student struggles with drawing, they certainly will have to work hard, but that also means there is room for growth. Teaching an observational drawing unit in a middle school class will ensure student growth and really emphasize “learning to see.” It can be difficult for students to learn to draw what they see (rather than what they think they see), but this is why is it so important to teach observational drawing.

observational drawing of shoe surrounded by different designs

To begin an observational drawing unit, create blind contour drawings. Although this is certainly not a new or novel concept, it works. You’ll find your middle school students giggling at their drawings, yet still focusing on “seeing” to make their drawings better. To continue the theme of “learning to see,” move on to a project focusing on contour lines. Allow students to choose a simple everyday object, like a shoe, to begin. Using the blind contour technique and only focusing on the detail lines will allow students to learn to draw from observation.

2. Color Unit

While there are so many concepts to cover in color, it’s important to keep it simple. Students should be able to tell you the primary colors. At this point, it’s not in the best interest of your students to simply memorize the color wheel. Go beyond the color wheel and let your students really explore color! Because color theory can be woven into other units quite easily, students can learn through discovery.

color swatches

At the 2016 NAEA Conference, I went to Olivia Gude’s session on color. When I took the ideas back to my classroom and switched up my color unit mid-year, I saw the learning change! Allow students to discover how colors mix on their own. By painting simple shapes with different hues mixed together, students will be amazed at the new colors they create. Exploring color in this way will result in authentic retention of knowledge, rather than simple regurgitation of facts.

3. Three-Dimensional Unit

collection of student ceramic pieces

One of the great factors in an art curriculum is versatility. With many materials and techniques to explore, if a student does not find success with one, they can usually find it with another. Incorporating a 3-D unit into your art curriculum is essential for student growth. This allows students to tap into their problem-solving skills to turn a 2-D sketch into a 3-D form. Although most students beg for it, this doesn’t have to come in the form of clay. Don’t be afraid to explore other sculptural mediums. This unit will provide those students who might struggle in other skill areas a chance to find success.

4. Abstract or Non-Objective Unit

non-objective painting

Teaching about abstract art might not always be the most exciting thing to do. However, middle school students are fascinated by it. Allowing students to create in an abstract or non-objective way is imperative in their artistic process. It allows them to discover that mistakes can turn into something successful. To middle school students, creating abstract art isn’t as intimidating as creating a realistic, gridded self-portrait. Giving students the opportunity to create in an abstract way requires students to know artistic styles, techniques, and composition.

Creating curriculum content that suits your teaching style and student needs may take some time. Units of study will fluctuate from time to time, but when developing new content for your middle schoolers ask yourself: “If this is their last bite of the “art apple,” what is essential for students to know?”

What units are staples in your art room?

How do you find the balance between project engagement and content for middle school students?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Abby Schukei

Abby Schukei, a middle school art educator and AOEU’s Social Media Manager, is a former AOEU Writer. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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