Instructional Strategies

How to Help Students Make Original Meaningful Art

Pair of Terra Forma Cards

In general, when we share new ideas and techniques with our students, they are excited to dive in. But sometimes, no matter how much we front-load or demonstrate, students feel stuck. They may spend days trying to develop an idea and still come up short.

On one hand, we want our students to create meaningful work. On the other, we don’t want any wasted days in the art room. Class time is precious, and we want students to make the most of it!

That’s why I’m so excited to tell you about Terra Forma cards. They help students maximize their time when planning and create original, meaningful work.

Let’s look at how to use this tool in your classroom to help students generate amazing ideas.

Terra Forma Cards

What are Terra Forma Cards?

Terra Forma cards are an interactive springboard activity that helps students generate ideas when planning an artwork. Michael Warren, high school art teacher and founder of Terra Forma, developed the cards as an instructional tool to help students organize and connect concepts. The best thing about these cards is that they do not tell students what to create. The ideas generated are based on student interest and connection, allowing for the production of personal, meaningful work.

Getting Started

There are six different Terra Forma decks. The Elementary Art Edition, Art Edition, and Innovative Design Edition are perfect for the art room. Each deck has fifteen pairs of cards. Pairs are denoted by the matching pattern in the middle of the cards.

Pair of Terra Forma Cards

This activity can be used by individuals or with a group of students working on a collaborative piece.

To get started, have the students follow the two steps below:

  1. Have students choose three to five pairs of photographs.
  2. Have students go through and choose their favorite card from each pair, discarding the rest. Make sure students know there is no right or wrong answer. They should choose the imagery that speaks to them the most.

Once students have selected their top three to five photos, they can begin generating ideas.

Planning an Artwork

In the planning stage, the idea is not to have students copy the photographs when making art. Instead, students are encouraged to draw inspiration based off something they were drawn to.

Here’s how to finish using the cards to find inspiration:

  1. Have students flip their photographs over.
  2. On the back of each photograph, students will find six categories with a bank of words for each. The six categories are Themes, Process, Actions, Subject, Concepts, and Media. The word banks describe the photo on the front of the card.
    back of Terra Forma Cards
  3. Have students use the provided Catalyst Card to form a question. The Catalyst Card has five Mad Lib-style questions students can fill in using the words from the word banks on the backs of their chosen cards.
  4. The resulting question becomes the problem they must solve in their artwork. For example, a sentence generated from the cards might read, “How can I use abandoned sites to explore growing up in my drawing using colored pencils?”
    student artwork

Using this approach will allow for thousands of combinations for idea generation!

Classroom Use

As you can imagine, Terra Forma cards can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. For example, if you are doing a choice independent art project and a student is struggling to come up with a concept, you might use the cards as a differentiation tool to develop ideas.

Or, you might assign a particular medium, like watercolor, that must be used when working with the cards. Although this constrains the students somewhat, it allows them to find a meaningful connection to the subject matter. In this way, you become a facilitator helping students foster unique ideas.

Developing exciting original concepts for artwork can be a challenge for some students. Terra Forma cards allow you to provide students some structure while developing their independence and confidence. If you find some of your students struggling, give these cards a try!

Have you used Terra Forma cards in your classroom?

What other strategies do you use to help students generate ideas?

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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