Why Intro to Art is Your Most Important Class (Ep. 096)

Intro to Art is a class that a lot of teachers consider a throwaway–a class that remains an afterthought while attention is directed to advanced classes. AOE writer Debi West makes a convincing argument, however, that Intro to Art is actually your most important class. She and Tim get together to compare notes on teaching Intro and discuss their strategies to make the class run effectively. They talk about why the elements and principles are so important (4:30), how you can use visual journals to enhance your students’ skills (11:00), and how we can make each student feel successful (17:15). Full episode transcript below.


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

When I first moved from teaching elementary school to teaching high school, I’ll be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. It was such an overwhelming thing taking over a new program that I didn’t even know where to begin, so I decided to start at the beginning. I poured all of my time and all of my energy into redesigning the intro to art class, and it absolutely turned out to be the right decision for me because intro to art is the place where kids fall in love with the art class and the art program, and it’s where they develop their base of knowledge that’s going to stay with them for their entire time in the art room.

One person that has shared a similar experience to me is Debi West, one of our writers here at AOE. She and I were discussing how we organized and structured our intro courses one day. We had a great conversation, and in fact, it ended up with us collaborating on an article together. It’s on the site right now. In fact, it was published yesterday, and it’s pretty good if I do say so myself. We put together a lot of great things: a list of lessons, directions for those lessons, sketchbook prompts, et cetera. More importantly, we also talked in the article about a lot of the big ideas behind why we do what we do in the intro to art curriculum, why visual journaling is important, why the elements and principles are important, why we structure lessons the way we do. It’s a great read, and it’s full of resources, so make sure you check it out. You can go to the site now, or I will put the link in the show notes as well.

Of course, a few paragraphs in an article don’t necessarily do all of these ideas justice, so I want to dive into them a lot more here on the podcast. Knowing Debi, she’s going to be really excited to talk about all these things, as am I. I think this interview might last awhile, so let me go ahead and bring her on so we can get started.

Debi West is here now with us. Debi, how are you?

Debi: Doing great, Tim. Thanks so much.

Tim: Yeah, I’m really excited that you can be on. You have that awesome article that came out with all things intro to art or art I or whatever people want to call it, but let me just start with this: Why are you so passionate about teaching intro to art, and why do you think it’s so important just as a class?

Debi: It’s a great question. Well, first of all, I always like to say that I teach kids before I teach art, but with that in mind, I think that at the secondary level, the most important class that they take is intro art. It really is the key to the success of their artistic career, realistically. I’ve had so many people ask me, “Oh my gosh, how do you get such awesome AP work?” and, “How is your advanced work so great?” and I look at them with complete sincerity and go, “It’s all about that intro class.”

Many of them are stunned. I think they’re surprised to think that you have to really invest so much time and effort and planning in that intro class because that really is where the kids are going to be getting their foundation. It’s where they’re going to be learning time management. They’re going to be learning skillset. They’re going to be learning to think creatively and working through prompts, and I just feel like if we don’t put our time and effort into that intro class, we really are doing our kids a disservice when we’re expecting them to work at such high levels in their art II, art III, and AP courses.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. If we can talk a little bit about that planning that you mentioned, can you talk a little bit about your curriculum because I know you focus a lot on the elements of art, principles of design. I guess my question is why do the elements and principles form a basis for what you do or for what you’re teaching?

Debi: Well, I think that art elements are the building blocks of art. I hear from a lot of teachers that say, “I really don’t teach the elements and principles,” but to me, it’s like, well, that would be telling elementary students that the alphabet doesn’t really matter, and then yet expecting them to write an essay. The building blocks, line, shape, texture, color, form, space, like that, it really matters that kids don’t just know how to regurgitate it, but really know how to internalize it and use those to create strong visual stories.

As far as curriculum goes, it’s interesting, and I’ve worked at the elementary level for 14 years. When I came to the high school, they kind of handed me this giant notebook full of lessons, and in the same breath, also made me department chair, which was kind of awkward, but it was great. I realized later it’s because the other two just didn’t want the job, so there we go.

I had this big notebook, and I’m reading through it, and Tim, I’m not kidding you, I was horrified. I could not believe that these intro kids were coming in, and a lot of these kids, juniors and seniors haven’t done art since they were 10, and they’re like, “Here, draw this pepper for two weeks.” I’m like, “Okay, come on, guys.” As a team, I kind of charged all of us with going home over the summer and really thinking about what you want to learn as a 14 or 15 or 16-year-old student just coming back into art, or maybe being that proficient artist who’s been taking art classes, after-school classes forever, what is it that you need to learn and you need to know to be successful? I think that the team really, really loved being able to have that input instead of using an old curriculum.

Obviously, you look at your county standards, that they matter, but the fortunate part about being an art teacher is that you’re not given the set curriculum. You have the ability to be really creative. We all came back together and talked about some things that we thought were important, and they all really were very element-of-art based. It is key that kids understand contour line, it is key that kids understand color theory, it is key that kids understand line quality and shapes, when lines close, shapes appear, and then how do you keep those shapes so that they are proportionate and that you’re measuring space as you’re creating composition, variety. Now we start playing with, we’ve got the elements of art, now how do we organize those elements of art so that we’re really creating either a balanced or asymmetrical or a piece that’s going to be engaging to the viewer.

It really worked. It’s a work in progress. Even 10 years into this, we still go, “Oh, gosh. We were at this conference, and we saw this cool lesson,” so it’s always changing. The other fun thing is that the three of us don’t teach the exact same thing. We just teach the same concepts. It’s not a, everything has to be doing this exact lesson. We’re doing the lessons that work for us, that work for our kids in our specific area, but the concepts are all there. When the kids finish with that first semester of 2D art, they’ve got it. It’s great stuff.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool, and I think you’re hitting on a lot of the points that Andrew and I talk about on this podcast a lot, which are just you need to keep things fresh, you need to be always on the lookout for new lessons, new ideas, and you have to teach things that work for you, that you’re passionate about, and so I think that’s really good to hear.

In that same vein, one thing that I’m really passionate about, and I know you are too, is visual journals. Can you talk a little bit about how you use visual journals in your intro class? Specifically, what kind of activities that you have kids doing or assignments you have them doing in visual journals or sketchbooks? More importantly, what do you want them to learn from the process of visual journaling?

Debi: Yes. I’m so happy that you brought up visual journal. They make me so happy. In the beginning, they don’t really make my kids so happy, but at the end, they really do make my kids so happy. I just really think that practice is key to becoming a better artist, and I tell that to my kids. I go, “Y’all want to be a baseball player, and your goal is to play for the Braves? Well, guess what? You gotta be out there every day hitting, throwing, catching, batting. This matters.” Dancing, singing, any other passion that kids have, they see the importance and the relevance and practice, but for some funny reason, they come to art, and they’re like, “Okay, here we are. Here’s the art teacher. She’s going to teach me everything I need to know in this 47 minutes. Go.”

I’m going to teach you a lot, but you’re going to have to take what I teach you, and you’re going to need to play with it and mold it and bend it and make it yours because that’s when true learning happens. My journals are really a huge part of my teaching practice. I truly believe that when you give them three parts, it makes the journals a little bit more exciting. Obviously, the most important thing to become a better drawer/observer/seer is direct observation, so every journal prompt that I give them has to have a direct observation piece in there, preferably 40-50%. I get some weeks when they’ve got a lot of stuff going on, it’s a little bit more difficult to get those really great direct observation drawings in, but this is why I give them their list of assignments on day one of the school year.

The other thing that I have them incorporate into that direct observation piece is collage and text, and however much they want to put, or add collage and text, is completely up to them, but I feel like, even the kids that are a little bit hesitant with that in the beginning begin to see how that does nothing but enhance the final composition, and so being pretty to how you can go in and use collage, either by making paste-papers and cutting them into pieces or scraps or magazines or internet images and then changing them and altering them to collage them on.

Then that text part to me is just, I guess the old graphic designer in me comes out, but I feel like that’s a really pretty powerful part two that can become part of the visual story, and it doesn’t need to be necessarily a word. It can be a letter, it can be a number, it can be a symbol, but something that’s going to take that final visual journal to the next level.

Then finally, they are, as I mentioned, they’re all prompt-based. I give them a list. In my intro kids, it’s not just a one word. My intro kids, like the first one is who am I, and so they’re like what do I mean, and I’m like, “I don’t know what I mean. You go to tell me what I mean.” That’s the thing that gets them in the beginning is they’re like, “This lady’s crazy, man. What is she talking about?”

That’s when I have to remind them, especially at my school, which is a very high-achieving school, like these kids expect to gets As, I’m like, “Yeah, in this class, you’re going to work really hard to get that A. I want you to be that divergent thinker. I don’t want you to think that I’m going to give you the answer. The way that you’re interpreting that prompt is right. It’s already right. Now, you’re going to take that direct observation, which is going to get better each week the more you practice, combine that with collage and text, and bam, you’re going to have awesome journal that you’re going to be really proud to share with me,”

Tim, that’s another thing that I think is really important, is how we grade and assess the kids’ journals. We’re expecting them to put all this work into these journals, and then we’ve got to then give them the time back. What I do is, every Monday that we have journals due, and I generally do that 12-14 a semester, just depends on how it works with holidays and whatnot, and on those Mondays, I’m sitting in my journal chair, and I say, “All right. I’m going to journal you.”

Then they come up, I call them up one at a time – the class is working, and that’s our special time. That’s showing them that I care. That’s giving them an opportunity to go, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to show you what I did,” or every now and then, “I had a really rough week. This one isn’t so great.” Then, together, we kind of grade it, like, “How do you think you did? Did you give me your very best?” I tell you what, when you do that and you show them how much you care about the time that they’ve invested, you should see the journals I get. They blow me away. I would, I pin them to Pinterest boards. I’ve got thousands of these journal spreads and journal pages that are pinned, that are really wow.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool, and actually, I want to dive in a little bit too because I wanted to ask you about critiques and talking about artwork, and I think having kids share their journals is kind of a good way to get into that. Can you speak a little bit to what kind of things you’re talking to kids about what that journal, and maybe a little bit bigger picture, like how you do critiques and how do you think those critiques or those discussions help kids out in the long run?

Debi: Sure, sure. Well, for every project that my kids get, they have to do a self-evaluation form. I call it a project evaluation form. They really have to bring some language arts literacy into their writing, which, of course, the administrators love, but I think it’s really important that they are able to talk about the art they created and they’re not just, you’re supposed to say, “Yeah, this is good. This was fun. I like it.” Okay, yeah, why? Why? Why? Why?

Really prompting them to think deeply, and then thinking about, did you use and think about vocabulary, and what vocabulary words did you, art vocabulary words did you think about as you created this? How did you use to texture to portray this emotion, or what is the whole idea about this, and is it something you’re proud of and why?

Those evaluation forms are really, really important as far as them critiquing their work. Now, we do peer critiques, which I think are really important, and I tend to do more in-process peer critiques. Basically, when we’re about three-quarters in the way finished with the project, we put table easels up, and all the kids put their art up, and we spend about 10, 15 minutes just very quietly with that soft music playing, and the kids will walk through the room, and they will look at and really stop and look at the art that they’re seeing. They each have three sticky notes, and they are required to then write two words and a grow on each sticky note. It’s just a quick little sentence, and then respond to at least three pieces of art in the room.

Now, if they go up to a piece, and they’re like, “Oh, I love this, but it already has five or six sticky notes,” move on because the key is that every student in the class gets a couple sticky notes. Again, on your sticky notes, the kids are writing, again, what I like to call two-glows and a grow, and that two things that are strong, like what’s really working in this piece and why, and then what’s something that maybe they want to consider or think about that could make this piece little bit stronger.

I think that when we do those in-process critiques, it gets them thinking. They know that their peers are going to be looking at their work and discussing it, and I think that matters, and then also, I have a really big sign in the room, Tim. It says, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When we do these critique walks and these sticky note evaluations, it’s not about comparing your work to another because that’s not fun, but it’s learning from another and helping another.

In fact, we’ve got kids that are coming from all areas of art world to, “Hey, I’ve never really taken an art class, but I think I like it,” so how do we make them each feel successful and let them know that their marks really matter. I think that those critiques really, really, really do well. Obviously, the first one you do, like crickets, but by the time you get to the third or fourth one, they’re like, “Ah, we’re going to do a critique day.” The critiques are maybe 15, 20 minutes max, and then we go right into studio work. I think that’s important. We have to teach our kids to talk about the art that they’re creating, and be open to suggestive criticism.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a tough thing for kids to get into, both the discussion and that mindset, but the more you do that, the easier it becomes for them, and I think when you give them a specific critique, a specific way to do that, like your two glows and a grow, it makes it a lot easier for them.

I have just couple of questions that are more, I guess, looking at the big picture. With all of this focus that you have on the basics of learning the process through visual journals, basics of critique, basics of elements and principles, how do those things help develop skills and help kids develop artistic voice as they move on to future classes? I guess if I ask this in another way, how does what you do in intro psyche kids up for success in their future art classes?

Debi: That’s another great question. Again, teaching them the skillset, and when they leave intro, they know how to draw, they get contour, they understand elements, principles, and then the prompt-based, so I think it’s, let me go back to that for a second, really important that we teach kids technique and give them time to experience and experiment with media. I would never say that I would teach them exactly how to use media because I don’t really believe there is one way to use media, but I want them to experiment and play and learn and grow and fail sometimes, because in the failure, they’re going to grow and learn and go, “Okay, well, that didn’t really work, but what if I put sawdust in the paint? Well, that’s pretty cool.” Giving them those opportunities is going to help build their creative voice, their artistic voice.

With the prompt-based stuff that I’m doing, that’s where that really, how do I want to word it, I guess ability to be divergent creative thinkers comes into play because we’ve gotta get our kids thinking outside of the box, we’ve got to open up and just remind them that there’s no wrong answer if it’s their answer and push that creativity.

In my Art II classes, the prompts are one word, and that really freaks them out in the beginning because they really are like, “What are you looking for?” “I don’t know, but I can’t wait for you to tell me again,” because it’s magic when they dive deep and come back, and they’re like, “You’re going to … ” like they literally are walking in the room going, “Dude, wait until you see what I did this week. This is awesome,” and that’s the kind of stuff that you want to see because that is their voices, and it’s disserving to me when you see artwork coming from classrooms that’s kind of always the same, so I’m applauding that ability of them to be able to experiment and push and really dig deep into creating something that they’re like, “Look at what I made,” and it is absolutely their voice, their signature that’s all over it.

That’s why we’re so successful. I mean, our kids are just rocking it on AP, and not that that’s the most important thing by any stretch of the imagination, but that is definitely, for them, they succeeded. They’ve got a rich portfolio, they’re getting crazy scholarship offers, and they are just kicking it on their portfolios, and that, it matters. I think it’s important.

Tim: Yeah, I think it is too, and I think for a lot of my kids, when they put together a good portfolio, when they get a good score, when they earn a scholarship, it kind of validates all of the work that they’ve put in. I think it’s a good example for all the kids that are coming up behind them in Art II, Art III and they see that the work is worth it, and so I think, for that reason, it is something that you can focus on and something that can be important.

If we can go ahead and wrap it up, I’ve one last question for you. If you could take this whole 20 minutes that we’ve talked about intro and just narrow the discussion down to one or two points, what do you think they would be? What are the most important things to keep in mind if you want to develop a successful intro course?

Debi: Oh, gosh. Another great question from Tim. I think, basically, it’s three parts. It’s getting the kids the ability to experiment and really play with material. It’s teaching kids that technique matters, and this is what a marker can do and this is what crayons can do and this is what paint can do and the different types of paint. Teaching them elements and principles is, by far, a key to their success. Then giving them prompt-based lessons that are a little bit more open and not quite so closed so that they really have the ability to explore their own creativity. I think when you combine that technique with that creativity and then believing in them, letting them know that you care, I think that those are the three ingredients that’s going to set them up to be successful, successful artists and successful people because that matters too.

It’s just … I’m still that old teacher, let me take that back, that seasoned teacher that absolutely loves teaching intro. It’s almost like I’m throwing the fishing line out there, and you can go, “All right, you struggle with this a little bit, but look how great you are with this,” so when you’re then guiding them into what art II classes they’re going to take that is, it’s one of my greatest joys to see them go, “Oh my gosh, I’m a photographer,” “Oh my gosh, I’m a sculptor,” “Oh my gosh, I’m totally a painter.” You continue to give them all these tools to figure out where their voice is going to ultimately go, so. Isn’t that a fun thing to call ourselves art teachers? Man, I love it.

Tim: It is. It’s amazing, and you make a lot of great points there, but I think that’s probably a good point to wrap it up. I just want to say, Debi, thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of your advice, all of your wisdom from the seasoned veteran, and everything you had to say, I think will be really helpful. Thank you very much.

Debi: Thanks, Tim. I appreciate it.

Tim: Thank you to Debi for coming on. That was a fun conversation, and I hope it was a helpful conversation if you’re thinking about everything that can be done or even should be done with your intro to art course.

Now, before we go, I want to tell you about our upcoming Art Ed Now Winter Conference in February. If you loved hearing from Debi here on the podcast, you can also hear from her at the conference. She’s going to present some of her favorite and most successful portrait lessons from every level. Go to to check it out to see what it’s all about. In short, it is an amazing day of professional development. Over 20 presenters, the awesome contemporary artist Alexa Meade who you heard on the podcast last month, as the featured presenter, and more resources and lesson ideas than you can even imagine. It’s taking place on February 3rd, and you will have access to all of the presentations and resources for a full calendar year after the conference takes place. Again, you can see everything at

All in all, I think that was a good episode. We’re able to dive in to a lot of those big ideas that Debi and I both wanted to cover. I hope it was a conversation that was worthwhile for you, and I hope you check out the article on the same topic that’s on the site right now. It was a fun collaboration between Debi and I, and it’s great to see all of those resources put together in one place. Use what you can from it, and keep exploring those new ideas, keep reflecting on what you do, keep looking for new ways to do things, and keep putting together the best curriculum you can because as Debi said, that first impression is when kids fall in love with art, and your intro course is what sets your kids up for success in everything else they do. You owe it to them to make your course the best that it can be.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at We always love to hear from you, so send us your questions, comments, anything else you want to share at Thanks for listening, and we will be back next week. Talk to you there.



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.