Curriculum Design

How Long is Too Long for a Lesson? (Ep. 124)

It’s the age-old question–how long is too long for a lesson, and how do we know when it’s time to move on? AOE writer Abby Schukei joins Tim to talk about the idea of abandoning a lesson before it’s finished, the idea of deadlines in the art room, and strategies to keep kids motivated as they finish a project. Full episode transcript below.


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Welcome to Art Ed Radio. The podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Tell me if you’ve run into this issue before. You’ve taught a pretty good lesson. You’ve introduced your kids to some pretty good artists and your students are doing some amazing work and it’s going great for the first week. Soon after that the project starts to drag and by the end of the second week your kids just don’t care anymore. At that point, what happens. Do you abandon your project. Do you move on without kids finishing it. Do you move on and let them finish if they feel like it.

I don’t think there’s necessarily one hard and fast answer there because everyone’s tolerance for failure is going to be different. It’s tough to admit that a lesson has flopped and it can be tough to have that conversation with your kids. But I think it’s important that we are able to dive into that. That we are able to admit that something’s not going as well as we want it to.

Your kids realize it probably just as much as you do. Maybe even before you do. I think those are kind of the ideas that we need to explore today. How do you decide when a lesson is going on too long. How do you decide when it’s time to move on. Like I said those are tough questions but the always awesome Abby Schukei is her to talk about them with me so lets bring her out now and we’ll share some notes and maybe see what we can come up with.

I am here with Abby Schukei. Abby thanks for joining me. How are you?

Abby: I’m good. I’m good.

Tim: I’m glad to hear it. We are here to answer the age old question of how long is too long with a lesson. To start us off can you tell us a story of when this has happened to you. Have you ever been in the middle of the project and just said why is this taking so long? When has this happened to you.

Abby: I don’t know if I can come up with an specific example right now. Let me think. I definitely know that this has happened to every single art teacher. I think it always happens when we try something new. You see something and you’re like, “Holy smokes, this is going to be awesome.” It is going to be awesome but it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time. Your students are excited about it at first and then three months later …

Tim: You didn’t see problem A, B, or C coming?

Abby: No. No.

Tim: Each one of those is a delay.

Abby: Yeah. So I think … It’s happened a lot. I think it happens a lot with massive projects, if you’re doing anything too large, or my drawing projects always seem to get a little lengthy.

Tim: Yeah they can get bogged down especially if kids are super worried about detail. They really feel like drawings need to be perfect. They feel like there’s no room for any mistakes so it really slows down. It can paralyze them almost. That can lead to a lot of trouble.

Let me ask you though, if you’re stuck in the middle of a lesson have you ever just abandoned a lesson without finishing it. Just said to yourself, “This is taking too long we’re wasting our time? Forget it, it’s time to move on. We’re doing something else.

Abby: Oh definitely. I have definitely done that before. You always get those few students that are like, “Oh, but I really want to finish it.” If that happens I always give them the choice. It’s like, “Hey, you can work on this if you want to.” I give all my students the option of, “Hey, maybe you just want to store it in your bin and when you have extra time you can work on it. Or if you want a break from a different project.” Projects like that usually are high detail or maybe more, takes more of a process or maybe it’s little too boring.

Tim: Maybe you just designed the lesson poorly.

Abby: Yeah. I think if you give your students a choice or the opportunity to go back and do it that’s okay. Yeah, It’s happened.

Tim: I remember the first time it ever happened to me. It was a new project like you mentioned. This drawing thing that I thought was going to be amazing. A still life that we were all excited to set up. It was going to be super detailed. These were going to go in portfolios. It was going to be great. We were two weeks in and everybody was a fourth of the way done. Just dragging in class. They come in and they’re just like, “Uh.” Getting stuff out. Not excited at all.

I remember I just said you know what guys I’m okay if we scrap this project and they all just look at me with these wide eyes like, “Are you serious?” I said, “Yeah did you guys want to scrap this?” They’re like, “Yes.” And it was just this huge exhale and everybody is so excited to put it away.

I think we had two kids go back and finish it. For the most part the class was just relieved. I think it is probably okay to abandon a lesson. A lot of times it can be a relief for you and for your kids.

Abby: So then what do you do with that … I’m assuming it was like a paper, drawing paper? Do you recycle it? Do you have them make it into something else? What do you do logistically?

Tim: Usually we just recycle that. With that particular one the kids hated it so much it was like, “You know what if you guys want to rip this up that’s okay.”

Abby: I thought you were goin to say you had a quick bonfire outside.

Tim: I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

Abby: Raku firing.

Tim: Yeah. There you go. No but kids can finish that. They can just leave it in their bin for some indeterminate amount of time. There are a lot of times there are even art schools that want to see unfinished work. They want to see stuff in process so it’s good to keep that stuff around if need be.

Let me ask you though, how can you tell when a lesson’s taking too long or project’s taking too long? What are some of those warning signs that it’s starting to drag and that maybe you’re not going to get your kids’ best work?

Abby: The sign that your students are totally engaged with the project that you’re doing is as your students come into the room they actually do what they’re supposed to do. Or for me, we do a weekly sketch every day, or daily sketch that they are working on the first five minutes of class so you know that they’re really engaged when they skip that and just directly get their project out. They get their materials out without you even asking.

There are times when it is every single student. Sometimes they’re like, “Can we get this? Can we get this?” Eventually they just do it anyway. When every single student is working you’re like, “Okay, they love this.”

Then you know when your students don’t really like what’s going on when it’s the opposite. When you constantly have to remind them, or tell them. To get to work. That probably means that they’re not engaged with the project that you’re doing or they’ve just been working on it for too long and they are ready to move on.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. Let me ask you this though lets say you have a project that’s going well. Kids are still engaged but you had planned a week and a half for this and all of the sudden you’re starting week four. It’s just taking way too long. Do you give kids a deadline at that point? Do you just say, “Hey, lets keep working on this for a few more days and see how it goes?” How do you approach it when you know that it’s time to go on to the next lesson but you still have a ton of kids that are working on that first project.

Abby: I kind of like to look at it as like half … If over half of the students are still working we’re not ready to move on yet. Kind of majority rules. I kind of go from there. I don’t necessarily have hard deadlines. I have deadlines more of like a floating deadline. Where students know after that date I’m going to start putting some stuff in the grade book and we’re going to move on to the next lesson but that doesn’t mean that they can’t still work on that. We’ll just have a couple things going on at once which is okay. You gotta do that because students work at different paces.

I used to think about it has to be turned in by this date and it’s like, “Well students just don’t work at the same pace.” That’s not a realistic goal for some of those things. I think you kind of have to be a little loose with it. Does it matter if your students are that engaged with it and they want to finish it, let them do it.

Tim: I’m the same way and kind of like you mentioned, my thinking has evolved on that over my whole career. It used to be, “We are finishing this on Wednesday. Thursday we’re starting a new lesson. I don’t care if 26 out of the 28 are not done. I’ve got a curriculum to follow.” I’ve loosened up. Maybe a little bit too much. To the point were I’m like, “Okay guys well on Thursday we’re going to be moving on. If you’re not there yet that’s cool don’t worry about it. Just keep working. Just get it too me whenever.” I feel like I maybe need to find a balance there.

Abby: I do feel like if you have that hard deadline you get a lot of crappy work at the end because kids are like, “Ah.” They get all worked up. I would just rather have them create quality work that they’ve spent some time on.

Tim: That’s the point that I always drive home for them. “I’d rather have your best work two weeks from now than some crap that you’re turning in now just to meet the deadline. That’s another thing that kids need to realize. We talked a little bit about when it is time to move on how you let kids work, turn it in when you’re done. A lot of times it’s tough once you’ve moved on to get kids to go back and finish that. Do you have any specific strategies or incentives to keep them going and keep them working?

Abby: Yeah. One of the biggest thing it’s going to come down to is the student pace. It’s always going to be the same students that turn things in last.

Tim: Yes.

Abby: That’s just the way that they work so I think if you give them choice in size that can really be helpful rather it’s the choice of a paper size or maybe you limit that’s student’s size if you know that it’s going to take forever. We were starting this drawing project and I had this student who I had a variety of all different sorts of paper sizes cut up for them and they just needed to let me know if they wanted different size.

I had this girl come up and she’s like, “I want the biggest size.” Which is like 24 by 30. I was like, “Oh my gosh.” She’s got this beautiful plan of this drawing and I just said, “You know what do you think that’s going to be the best choice for you?” She’d be working on it until the end of the year. She’d be working on it for three more months.

I think if you’re able to give more options than that students usually pick a realistic size for what they want or what’s going to fit their project best. So if you can limit size in that kind of thing that kind of helps.

One of the projects for me that always goes crazy longer than what I want it too but kids are always engaged that’s why I’m okay with it. There are some times where it’s four weeks. I see my students every day so that can be long time. We do a recyclable sculpture project. Kids start out small and then before you know it sculptures are literally coming out of the classroom door because there’s no space anywhere.

Kids get so excited about it and they’re building, I call these trash sculptures. They are just building with trash and they’re creating these awesome things. Then we put plaster on them and it gets wild and it takes forever and things get huge but I don’t really mind because everybody is enjoying it every single day.

Tim: I’m the same way. My go to lesson with that that we always do way too big and it always takes way too long is the Robert Longo drawing project. I wrote about this for AOE four years ago now. Just throwing nerf balls and we take pictures in those weird poses and then we draw them and I let them go as big as they want so there are kids who do these life size drawings. Literally six foot tall drawings and they’re amazing. They love them but they take for freaking ever.

I guess that brings up the next question for you. How long is too long when you’re working on a project? Here, let me tell you story. Let me ask you a question and then interrupt myself and tell you a story.

Abby: You’re so rude.

Tim: Then we can go back to it. I was at this art show once upon a time. An art competition and this girl won with this amazing painting that was huge. It was three feet by four feet. Incredibly detailed and they’re talking to her after she was awarded her second place ribbon, whatever it was. They asked her what other things have you been working on besides this and she’s like, “This is it.” That’s all she did for an entire semester.

For me I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, how are you supposed to learn anything if you worked on one project the entire semester.” Obviously I’m not going to take that long with anything but do you think there’s a point that you’re going too long on something? How do you know?

Abby: If you are not able to expose your students to different materials or different mediums that’s a strong indication. If you are not giving your student’s exposure to enough things. That’s kind of a big sign. Just in the nature of materials different materials are going to take longer times or different times. Clay projects always take longer than what you think they’re going to and that’s something that you don’t want to rush your students with because you can have problems with firing in the kiln if things are not constructed correctly. Also working with that you can run into problems of things getting too dry just from overworking and things like that.

You have to keep in mind what the nature of the material is and what is the best time cap for that. Maybe a painting project isn’t going to take as long and if you don’t really know how long something’s going to take … I don’t know that I can give you a number. “Sculptures should take three weeks.” It’s all just the nature of the materials. A three week drawing project is probably pretty long but I don’t know. I don’t know.

Tim: Just depends but three week sculpture project is completely normal.

Abby: Totally.

Tim: Let me ask you this. Maybe a tough question and I don’t know that I have my own answer to this. Lets say that you’ve done a couple of amazing projects and they’ve taken too long and now you’re curriculum is crunched. You don’t have time in the semester to finish up everything that you’re supposed to, everything that you wanted to. For you personally what would you drop? What would you try and eliminate? I know it’s the tough to put you on the spot.

Abby: I think that’s probably all happened to us once or twice and I’m okay with it. I’m okay with that happening because I would rather spend a little more time on things and students are actually loving it.

Tim: Yeah especially if they’re engaged.

Abby: Yeah. I don’t know. If they are those engaging projects that you want to continue to do what ways can you kind of incorporate more mini lessons or things like that that you’re still hitting all the checkpoints in your curriculum but still giving them all of those opportunities of the things that they always seem to love.

Tim: I think that works really well and I like the idea of letting kids choose. Lets say we only have two weeks left and we have four projects that we still want to get to a lot of times I’ll demo two projects the first day and then I’ll demo two projects the next day. I don’t know if that fits into your mini lesson idea or exactly how you describe that. You just show kids, “Here are your options.” And let them choose. Let them decide what they want to do, what they want to be engaged with. Sometimes that works out really well. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s a good way to give them the options to dive into something if you have been going too long.

Abby: What do you do with your students who you’re working on a project forever forever ever and there are some that are done. What do you do then.

Tim: I have talked about this before and where we always have three projects going at the same time. We have the project I’ve assigned, the one that’ you’re talking about. We also have a sketchbook assignment every week so kids can always work on that. High school it’s a little easier because you can expect them to spend more time on their sketchbook and then we always a live term choice project that they’re working on. Something that they have planned out. Something that’s big and ambitious that they can work on trough out the semester and those three options are always available to them.

If they are taking too long or if they are just losing steam on something because they have been working too long they can switch out to one of the other two projects and work on that for a little bit until they’re ready to come back or until we’re ready to move on as a class. Just having options available to kids is the best way to go.

Abby: Definitely.

Tim: Cool. Alright well I think it’s time for us to wrap it up so Abby thank you again for coming on and hopefully we’ll talk to you again soon.

Abby: Awesome.

Tim: Thanks.

I’m not sure if Abby and I have reached a consensus on here or have a specific answer for how long is too long for a lesson but I hope we’ve given you some things to think about.

Before we go I want to tell you about the Art Ed Now Conference. As we’ve been talking about recently the conference is on the horizon. It’s just about a month away. Contemporary artist Jen Stark will be there as the featured presenter and we have another 20 presentations that you are going to love. We are also busy putting together some downloads and resources to go with every presentation.

You are going to have everything you need to start out next year implementing some of those amazing ideas. I’ll be hosting the conference again this time around and I’m also trying to talk Abby into showing up and making a cameo appearance as well. If that doesn’t do it for you I don’t know what will.

If I have convinced you that you need to be there, and trust me you need to be there. Head on over to to see all the details and get yourself registered.

Now some final thoughts on ideas from today’s episode. I think if you’re trying something new both you and the students are going to make mistakes and not every lesson is going to work the first time. You need to remember this. Just because a lesson fails doesn’t mean that you need to give up on it completely. You can reflect on it and you can see what you can improve the next time around. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to move on if you’re just spinning your wheels.

I think my biggest advice would be that if you’re in the midst of a project that is failing, don’t fight it. You probably have a personal need, and I know I’m stubborn this way, a need to see it through to the end. What you need to think about is is that really what’s best for your students? You need to ask yourself that question and you need to act accordingly. Even a lesson you abandon can still be a valuable experience. You can learn from it, your students can learn from it, but it’s up to you to realize when it’s time to move on.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Next week Mr. Andrew McCormick will be back again. Who knows where that conversation is going to go but I’m sure it will be enjoyable. As always, thank you for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.

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.