7 Things Art Education and Our Students Need From Us This Fall

artwork by favianna rodriguez

Let’s take a collective pause. These past few years have been nothing short of exhausting. Days filled with grief, anger, and frustration have also contained joy, hope, and love. As we recharge our souls this summer, it’s important to reflect on this past school year. What have you noticed that feels so different than previous years? Take a moment to journal your observations and wonderings right now.

How do we move forward?

The fall of 2020 was a hopeful, albeit overwhelming, time to rethink art education for the better. We had a momentary opportunity to shift and reimagine what our art classes and students needed. As schools pivoted in different directions, this opportunity quickly fizzled while teachers grasped for their oxygen masks. We have navigated an insurmountable mountain of change over a short amount of time.

We are now, however, moving into a new educational landscape. What shifts and changes can we anticipate? How can we prepare our classroom, curriculum, and mindset to best meet the needs of our learners?

Let’s take a look at seven things on the art education horizon to be cognizant of this fall.

workout equipment

1. Build stamina for engaged learning.

Attention span, resiliency, and perseverance are just a few pieces that have eroded. With collective trauma and lack of consistency came a disruption in how we think, learn, and retain information. Students need information, experiences, activities, and instruction broken down into bite-sized chunks. This doesn’t mean we have to hand-hold students through everything. What it does mean is that we have to rethink how we deliver our curriculum to build confidence and resiliency. Through practice and repetition, scaling down the size of a project, building in authentic learning breaks, and incorporating engaging media, students will feel less overwhelmed with the big picture expectations. We need to take time to build this muscle memory consistently over time.

What does this look like?

2. Nurture social skills and connections.

We are all still building back our social skills that were “lost” during the pandemic. While most students are back to school in person, they still missed out on formative social development opportunities. These skills include asking for help, navigating conflict, being a team player, or even understanding the part each person plays in the classroom or community. These social skills can be easily integrated into our routines and procedures. Modeling and practicing appropriate behaviors can help students get back on track.

What does this look like?

pile of art supplies and clock

3. Incorporate ways for students to be flexible.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, flexibility is “the ability to change or be changed easily according to the situation.” We know students thrive in environments with consistent routines and procedures. We have learned that we need to be responsive to each student’s needs at the moment and remember those needs vary. Offer flexible approaches where students can choose what they create, how they create, with whom, and when. It’s important to do this with clear expectations, scaffolded support, and a growth mindset in place. Teach students how to set goals and manage their time. Give them autonomy in how they demonstrate learning, and hold them accountable to high expectations.

What does this look like?

  • Provide opportunities for students to create artwork independently, in partnerships, or in small groups.
  • Give different materials for students to demonstrate a specific skill or concept.
  • Allow flexible deadlines with the support of time management and communication.
  • Outline an if-then situation for creating, such as, “If you choose a larger project now, then you may have to create something smaller to fit in the time frame remaining.”
  • Let a student demonstrate two skills in one project instead of creating two separate projects.
  • Brainstorm seating options such as using the floor, working at a quiet table, or standing at a countertop.

4. Ensure learning has purpose and meaning.

No one wants to do busy work. Worksheets that help students practice and build skills sometimes feel disconnected or excessive in our students’ eyes. Students struggle to stay engaged in learning when they don’t understand or see the connections between what we are doing, where we are going, and why. Help students define their own “why” and give meaning to those value scales and test strips. First, identify the purpose of practice and artistic thinking. Then, demonstrate how the practice supports the product and outcome. Lastly, connect all of those skills to their lives.

Be cognizant of prompts or themes that may be sensitive for some students. Making learning meaningful does not mean every lesson must be linked to social justice reform. The key is to connect learning and the purpose of creating to everyday life. Make sure what you are having them do is essential to the next step in learning.

What can we do?

  • Allow students to connect their interests and experiences to their artmaking to create investment.
  • Integrate cross-curricular approaches such as writing, Design Thinking, or STEAM.
  • Provide various entry points to support self-expression, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
  • Engage students with real-world issues, concerns, problems, and global topics with thematic prompts.
  • Connect artmaking to the world at large through activism and visual communication.
  • Support student discussion, dialogue, and research of difficult and controversial topics by focusing on “listening for understanding.”
  • Break your regular exercises into differentiated groups. If students demonstrate understanding and application, move them forward without extra practice.

artwork by favianna rodriguez

5. Consider equity and fairness.

Just like the rest of the world, students are keenly aware of the turmoil around them. They are thinking, breathing human beings with a critical lens and opinions to voice. Students are looking for ways to make sense of the world, and artmaking can be an important part of navigating through this. However, it is good to remember we do this in a system that is not always equitable or fair. While “learning loss” is a hot topic, opportunity gaps are a long-standing equity issue. This shows up not only from town to town but also directly within the classroom. Students are more engaged with their learning when they know their teacher strives to be fair.

What can we do?

6. Put the well-being of students and staff first.

There must be a clearly voiced, authentic concern for students, teachers, and all staff. Adding in mood checks and “feel good” exercises can be an easy way to inject connection into the art room. But students and teachers alike deserve routine meaningful care. Students and staff want to know that others are actively considering ways to address their stress, anxiety, and burnout. When we create authentic social-emotional learning experiences, more students have the opportunity to thrive.

What can we do?

  • Create authentic SEL experiences woven throughout the curriculum. These should not be “add-on” activities disconnected from your current lesson.
  • Address concerns specific to your population and their needs. Learning and artmaking are not a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Remember your colleagues. The greatest form of care is fostered through community connection. Form bonds and caring experiences with your colleagues. Don’t expect this to come from the top-down. Even small connections such as saying “hello” in the hallway, checking in on a colleague, or dropping some chocolate and a thank-you note in a mailbox can go a long way in creating a community that feels valued.

7. Advocate for the arts consistently and on an ongoing basis.

Advocacy does not mean you have to go big or go home when it comes to this year’s art show (Unless, of course, you want to!). You do, however, need to be strategic and consistent in your message to your students, community, and stakeholders. Even small gestures remind everyone of the importance of the arts in all aspects of our lives. Although advocacy is ingrained in us, it’s important to reinforce what we all learned during the pandemic. Continue to reinforce the positive impact the arts have on mental health, developing creativity and problem-solving skills, and boosting student engagement in school. Keep these benefits at the forefront for your students and community without adding another task to your plate.

What does this look like?

  • Foster a presence through social media, newsletters, and emails home.
  • Develop a mission statement and align your teaching outcomes with your and your school or department’s values.
  • Connect student learning and artmaking to global contexts and life skills.
  • Promote the arts visibly through posters in your classroom and wearing arts-positive swag.
  • Create a form letter and email your legislators, copying your administration.
  • Check out 6 Powerful Ways to Advocate for Your Visual Arts Program Post Pandemic.

thank you notes

The pandemic and other major events in both the country and the world have left students and teachers alike on high alert. Remember, there is no need to reinvent the wheel or add more to your plate. Taking time to reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and why is an ongoing process. Adjusting how we approach teaching and learning is important to serving our students where they are. If what you have been doing is leaving you frustrated and burned out, it’s time to consider the lists above. Instead of relying on our status quo and years of experience in this new educational landscape, let’s prepare to respond to what students need now.

What changes in education as a whole have you observed this past year? 

What needs do you anticipate for this fall, and in what ways will you adjust your teaching to address those needs? 

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.


Janet Taylor

Janet Taylor, a high school art educator, is also AOEU’s K–12 Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer. She geeks out about choice-based curriculum, assessment strategies, and equipping new teachers.

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