"Eyes on Progressive Education" Blog

A Green Acres School journal that chronicles progressive education in action, the research that supports and informs our practice, and ways in which we live out our mission each and every day.


7th & 8th Grade Art: Transforming Art Skills into Essential Questions

Hallie, Art Teacher

There are a few critical elements, principles, and skills that any middle school art teacher wants to cover during their 7th and 8th grade curriculum: concepts like texture, color, composition, and balance. As a progressive educator, my goal is to transform these skills and units of study into essential questions that guide students as they work, in order to encourage independent and critical thinking. 

The first 7th and 8th grade art unit focuses on observational drawing. This unit emphasizes “learning to see,” so that students are moving from drawing what they think they see, to what is actually in front of them. Instead of traditional still life, our classes focus on objects or photographs chosen by students that reflect their own personal interests. This allows every student the opportunity to express their creativity and individual style, while learning a basic drawing technique. 

The second unit of 7th and 8th grade art is color. In a progressive art room, less emphasis is given on the technical ways to approach color theory. Rather, we act as facilitators while students take initiative and create their own unique colors. The more we allow students the opportunity to experiment freely with color, the more confident they will be in their work as they begin more advanced painting techniques in high school. This results in an authentic retention of knowledge (the goal of progressive education!) that is specific to each student. At this point, students have spent several years discussing the meaning behind color in artwork and in everyday life. In 7th and 8th grades, students can then begin to apply their knowledge of the powerful weight color holds in our world to their own work and artistic voice. 

Our printmaking unit combines these ideas of “learning to see” and color work. Students draw portraits and landscapes from observation as a step of the mono printing process. They are introduced to block printing ink, a thicker and denser medium, which allows for more experimentation with color mixing and layering as students complete each print. 

One of the benefits of integrating progressive education into a middle school art curriculum is the amount of versatility we have. If a student decides they are not comfortable with one medium, they have the option to use another for each assigned project. At Green Acres, we offer a ceramics course to 7th and 8th graders who are more comfortable with sculpting and creating three dimensional pieces. Incorporating a 3D unit into our curriculum is essential for student growth, since it allows students to tap into their own ability to transform a 2D sketch into a 3D form. By providing students with the opportunity to work with sculptural mediums, we’re giving those students who struggle in other areas another chance to find success in the art room. 

Our final focus of the progressive approach to 7th and 8th art education is non-objectivity or abstraction. At this age, students are somewhat conditioned to associate shapes with recognizable or pre-existing forms. When students begin to learn about abstract art, we discuss important art elements such as composition and balance, but we also begin discussions about the benefits of making mistakes in art and the benefits of focusing more on the process of making, rather than on the result. 

Students often have a tendency to compare their work to others’ which sometimes results in a decline in student performance, effort, or self-confidence. But in the progressive art room, and especially when we encourage non-objectivity and open-ended work, we push students to learn from each other so that they can bounce ideas off of one another and learn how to talk openly about art in a way that is beneficial to each student and the class as a whole. At Green Acres, we encourage our students to understand that each piece can be viewed differently; there’s never “one way” to properly describe or break down meaning behind a work of art. 

Posted by Mrs. Sara Kendall Huneke in Middle School on Monday March, 11

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