Curriculum Design

What to Teach in an Exploratory Art Course

If you teach in the middle school or junior high setting, there are some unique features to the schedule. It’s a transition time where students are weening out of the familiarity of the elementary setting and preparing for the high school setting. Each middle school is different, and with this can come some complexities in scheduling. In some schools, every single student might be required to take an art class throughout the year, which means classes might run by trimesters, hexters, or something similar. If your middle school consists of 7th and 8th-grade students only, they might be required to take an art class in one grade, but not the other.

All of these scheduling intricacies influence how we plan our curriculum. We want to expose our students to as much art-related content as possible, but time is not usually on our side. For some of our students, middle school art might be the very last time they ever take an art class, so we want them to leave with as much knowledge as possible. We also want our classes to be exciting for those students who can elect into our class the next year to boost class numbers. That’s a lot to think about, and we haven’t even started planning content yet!


So, how can you meet all of these demands, while still planning an effective and engaging curriculum? With a little trial and error and planning, it is possible. If you’re struggling with planning your curriculum, let’s walk you through an Exploratory Art middle school course that lasts seven weeks.

Week 1: Get Your Students Started Immediately

With only seven weeks, there’s no time to waste, which means you need to get your students to work right away. The first day of class might require some general housekeeping as you familiarize students with the new class. But, there is absolutely no reason to go over a syllabus with students. Give your students the essential information and consider creating a sketchbook on the first day so students can be ready to use it on day two. Take a look at these cost-effective sketchbooks that can be made by your students.

After day one, get your students to work! An excellent first unit to get started with is watercolor. For the remainder of that first week, students can begin exploring watercolor techniques. Use these watercolor technique videos as a guide for your students.

Week 2: Continue Watercolor

Watercolor is a great medium to introduce in an exploratory art course because students might already be somewhat familiar with the material, but have not explored it to its maximum potential. Because this also might be the last time your students ever take an art class, watercolor is a versatile, accessible medium that can be used later in life. After you take students through learning watercolor techniques, take them through mini guided watercolor paintings to learn how to layer and be patient with the material.


Week 3: Finish the Watercolor Unit

At the end of week two, you’ll want to start setting your students up to create an independent watercolor painting. As students have worked on guided activities, here is an opportunity for them to show you what they’ve learned. Throughout this unit, you’ll also want to make a note to review color theory. Consider selecting a theme to guide students and think about what requirements need to be in the piece. Here are some things you might consider:

The painting must include:

  • Foreground, middle-ground, background.
  • The use of at least four watercolor techniques.

Week 4: Move onto a 3-D Unit

clay mugs

Whether it be working with clay or any other sculptural material, there’s a level of interest and engagement with our students. So, it’s essential to include it in your curriculum. If this is going to be your students’ only access to 3-D materials in this course, consider allowing students to use clay if that is an option. During this week, you will want students to plan their clay projects, practice any skill-building activities, and begin building their final project.

Week 5: Continue Your 3-D Unit

If you’re not exactly sure how to introduce a clay project to your students, try out this slab mug lesson.  It’s a lesson that allows students to explore a variety of skills and choices while helping students at all skill levels to find success. Because this particular lesson explores functional pottery creation, it’s also an excellent way for students to recognize art creation in their everyday lives. During week five, you will need to set a date when students need to uncover their clay pieces to give them time to dry for firing.

Week 6: Try Grid Drawing

grid drawings on a wall

While students are waiting for their clay project to go through the firing process, introduce them to the grid drawing method. Drawing is often a skill students want to improve. Grid drawing is one tool you can introduce to students to help them better this skill and add to their drawing skill toolbox. This lesson could take a variety of forms in this drawing unit, but remember time isn’t going to be on your side. As you plan for your students, consider keeping the size of the drawings smaller to ensure students complete the lesson. You can find an excellent introductory superhero grid drawing activity here.

Week 7: Finish up the Course

In this final week, you and your students will be working on finishing everything. Clay pieces should be fired, and students can work on glazing them. You will probably have a few students who need to finish their grid drawings, and they’ll have time to finish them after glazing.

At the end of the course, students will have spent time exploring painting, drawing, and 3-D creation. Most likely, students will complete three major projects in a seven-week timeframe. This doesn’t initially seem like a lot of work, but with a limited amount of time to create, students need to gain exposure to a variety of areas while still being successful in the work they’re creating. If you’ve been struggling to develop a comprehensive curriculum to meet the needs of your students, use this seven-week guide.

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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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