My Favourite Cross-Curricular Visual Arts Activities

I love Visual Art. It was always one of my favourite subjects in school and I was fortunate to have several teachers who engaged me in unique and exciting art projects. Tragically, I can’t have my students do Visual Arts all day, every day – bummer! Over the last few years, I’ve tried to find ways to integrate a bit of Visual Arts into many other subjects in ways my students don’t expect. Here are a few of my favourite projects from the last four years:

1) Quilts

What the project was: Working in groups, my class and another class of Grade 4/5 Middle French Immersion students designed, cut, and assembled baby quilts. At our annual art show, we ran a raffle for parents ($1/ticket). The proceeds from the raffle (over $300!) were donated to a charity. All of the material we used was donated by parents – much of it fabric ends from household projects, but some also salvaged from old pyjamas and blankets that were no longer wanted or needed.

What it taught my students: This project was a joint Visual Art and Mathematics project. From the VA side, it taught the use of tools (including electric sewing machines), complementary colours, patterning, and adapting to/solving design challenges. From the Mathematics side, it taught area and perimeter, measurement, and patterning.

What was challenging: We had 50 students cutting fabric, assembling quilts, and using sewing machines at the same time. The project took months (working one day a week) and the help of a few parent volunteers. I ended up giving up a few of my lunch breaks towards the end so that my students could finish their quilts before our art show.

quilts1 quilts2


2) Graphic Novels

What the project was: Students in my Grade 4/5 class each chose a fairy tale to retell in the form of a graphic novel. Their story had to be different in some way from the original without changing the overall message. They started by brainstorming, then created storyboards, then moved from storyboards to the actual comic panels.

What it taught my students: This was a joint VA/Language Arts project. From the VA side, it taught students composition, shading, line, perspective, and creating a narrative work of art. From the LA side, the expectations are always a little different depending on the grade level and program I’m teaching.

What was challenging: This project takes a long time. There are a lot of steps involved in getting to the final product, and students need a bit of guidance not to get too caught up in their storyboards. Many of them also needed to be encouraged to scale back their story so that it wasn’t 20 pages long – because 20 pages of comic panels is a LOT of drawing and colouring!

comic1 comic4 comic5


3) Carcassonne Variations

What the project was: Students in my Grade 4/5 Middle French Immersion class worked in groups to create their own versions of the board game Carcassonne. They had to plan/draw/colour their tiles and design a scoreboard. If they added any extra tiles that weren’t in the original game, they had to explain them with written rules.

What it taught my students: This was a joint VA/Mathematics project. I’ve used it to teach a variety of concepts in both areas. It changes a bit each year! For VA, I’ve used it to teach line, shape, colour, and texture. For Mathematics, I’ve mainly used it to teach probability (as the game involves drawing tiles from a bag) and fractions.

What was challenging: The first year that I did this project, I let students choose their own groups. Whoops! I ended up with several imbalanced groups – some with lots of artistic talent but who struggled with the mathematics side, others with lots of mathematical aptitude but who struggled with the artistic side, and everything in between. The next time I did this, I put students into groups, trying to balance artistic ability and mathematical aptitude… but as with any group put together by a teacher, occasionally my students had difficulty working together to plan and design a project like this.

carc1 carc2 carc3



Without going into too much detail, here are a few other Visual Arts activities I’ve done over the past few years:


Oliver Jeffers-inspired Picture Books (Visual Arts/Language Arts): We love Oliver Jeffers. His stories are whimsical, funny, colourful, and poignant. One of my favourite things to do with my students is have them create their own stories in the style of Oliver Jeffers. They get very creative!



Collaborative Mural (Visual Arts/community building): Each student received a piece of the mural without knowing what the final design would be. Their page had only black linework on it, with some areas coded to be coloured with hot colours and others coded to be coloured with cold. When they finished, we assembled them according to the numbers I had put on the back of each page.


Melted Crayon Art (Visual Arts/Science)

Why I Love Teaching “Unusual” Things

I have a bit of a reputation for being a quirky teacher. My students can often be found in the hallways at school, engaged in some strange new whim that I have managed to tie into the curriculum in some way. There just isn’t enough room in a traditional classroom for my students to really get into their work without feeling cramped or overwhelmed by the proximity of other sutdents.

Up until this year, my classroom was located on the second floor of the school, surrounded by other hard-working classes with students who were much quieter and more studious than my boisterous, exuberant class. I think I know why I was moved to the bottom floor this year, and I can sum it up in one word: ukulele. I’ve talked about teaching ukulele before – about how it benefited me tremendously, because I never have to teach dance any more.

What I didn’t really talk about was how the ukuleles – and other unusual undertakings like them – benefit my students.

First, let me tell you a little bit about some of the more unusual or exciting projects my students have worked on over the last few years:

– Melted crayon art: Using hair dryers, hot glue guns, bristol board, and a lot of patience, my Grade 5s explored physical changes of matter by using wax crayons to create works of art for our annual art show.

– Original musical compositions: Using online musical notation software, my Grade 5s composed original pieces of music to accompany short stories they wrote for French Writing. The following year, I had my Grade 5s use the same software to create pieces of music that represented different fractions. One activity, multiple curriculum connections!

– Board games: In Mathematics, my Grade 4s and 5s created their own versions of the popular board game “Carcassonne” to explore fractions and probability.

– Quilts: For our art show last year, my Grade 4s and 5s designed and created small quilts using sewing machines and donated fabric. The quilts were auctioned off and the proceeds were donated to charity. This project was a part of both our Mathematics and Visual Arts programs.

– Dream homes: I have had Grade 4s and 5s design their “dream home” using a set of parameters (specific area and perimeter, specific rooms they must include, etc.).

– Weblogs: As part of my Language Arts curriculum, I have had my Grade 4s and 5s create personal weblogs (password protected) where they responded to writing prompts, wrote about their lives, and read and responded to peers’ posts.

It has been a phenomenal experience teaching my students to do these things. Some of them are REALLY fun, some of them are REALLY hard, but they have all been beneficial. These projects have allowed my students to explore the curriculum in ways that they wouldn’t have imagined on their own.

You’ll notice that a lot of them have to do with Mathematics – and that’s been a conscious focus on my part. When I ask my students at the beginning of the year what their favourite and least favourite subjects are, the majority of my students list Math as one of their least favourite subject. I try to change that by having them look at Math in a different way. A lot of my students don’t realize, at the beginning of the year, that Math is an integral part of music and graphic design. It’s exciting to watch them discover fractions and patterns in a musical composition, or figure out ratios to make different colours in visual art, or carefully and painstakingly measure out quilt squares to ensure that they will fit within the design they have envisioned. These activities help my students see that Mathematics has more to do with everyday life than just adding up numbers or memorizing multiplication facts. They see why Math is important to learn and how they might actually use it in the future. It is made less abstract by being placed in a real world context.

The blogs, on the other hand, give my students a purpose for their writing that goes beyond “writing in a notebook that only my teacher will see.” Their voices as writers change when they are writing for their peers instead of their teacher. It’s exciting to watch them interact in their second (or third, or fourth…) language through the comments on their weblogs. It’s also a way for them to make connections with other students that they might never have spoken to or sought out before. I have watched new friendships form in our protected online sphere, then watched as those students brought that friendship into the real life classroom. By having them write for one another instead of me, I find that my students are more willing to take risks with their writing and worry less about getting it “perfect.” They have fun. They talk about things they wouldn’t have talked about before. They enjoy writing.

These projects take a lot of forethought and preparation. They are not small undertakings by any means, nor are they particularly easy. There is a learning curve with these kinds of things, and not all students will enjoy all of these activities. It’s worth doing things a little outside the traditional realm of teaching, though. I’ve never seen some of my students laugh as much as they do when they’re making up a ridiculous song on the ukulele about smelly feet. I also never imagined that a group of very athletic, very boyish boys would take quilt design and sewing quite as seriously as some of my students did last year.

The best part, though, is seeing every student in my class find something to be proud of. Sometimes it’s the fact that they got up and performed a song in front of the class, other times it’s the new skill they learned, other times it’s that they actually knew HTML before I taught students how to make weblogs and they were able to jump in and help other students learn. It is really exciting and rewarding to see my students engaged in these activities and taking charge of their learning.

Even if I’m a giant disruption to my colleagues when I take over the foyer of the school with six sewing machines (and 50 students) every Monday morning for two months straight… or when my 25+ students are scattered through the halls of the schools plucking away at the strings of their (mostly out of tune) ukuleles… or when we blow a breaker on one side of the school with all our hair dryers so none of the hallway outlets work.

I am that teacher. My students are those students.

We have a LOT of fun learning.

Our Classroom Voice

At the start of September our classroom looked bare and generic. Although a few motivational posters would have provided some aesthetic visuals to liven the room up, I refrained. Instead, I waited to see how student voice and interest would fill the wall space.

In only one month, our room is taking shape with student work, anchor charts, and art that is unique to the community of students in Room 8. Included in the room is:

  • a row of self-portraits. These are simple line drawings with multi-coloured marker lines, similar to the style of John Lennon’s Imagine album cover. They provide a visual reminder of our diverse group and represent how each individual imagines their own image.
  • an array of clear plastic page covers stapled to the bulletin board. One display of each student’s current published writing. Using the plastic covers allows the work not only to be protected, but stored throughout the year as a tool to show development.
  • a large picture graph on grid chart paper. This graph shows the Multiple Intelligence strengths of each student in the classroom. In the first week of school we used a survey to determine our M.I. strengths. Then after photo day, we used one set of the small photo stickers to make a visual graph of our strengths. We have already referred to the graph on numerous occasions, and other teachers (French, Phys. Ed) have appreciated the graph as well to easily identify student strengths.
  • a math gallery. When students solve problems in small groups, they are all provided with the same size paper. After they complete their work, we hang it on a bulletin board (math gallery) where the other groups can view it, add sticky note responses, and refer to it when working individually.
  • an inquiry corkboard. This dedicated space grows as we add newspaper articles, photocopies of book covers, questions, photographs and data that support our inquiry questions. Our current question is “How are we all connected?” This question has led many discussions about water and our inquiry board is reflecting the questions and knowledge building of the students.
  • logos. The students created their own logo contest for Room 8. There is a display of six logos that were created, then the students voted. Although they selected one winner, all the logos will stay in the classroom on display. We are using the winning logo as our image for our class Twitter account.

There are still many blank spaces to be filled, but I would rather they get filled by student work that is meaningful and authentic, then just decorating the space. As I look around the classroom, I realize that what I see (and more importantly, what they see) is a reflection of their own interests and perspectives. It is their voice.







Adjustments in September


With all the plans we make for those first days and weeks in September, it is worth being open to making adjustments, for your benefit and the benefit of the students. Here are some examples of how I have adjusted the environment and the program in the first few weeks:

  • I have changed the layout twice. We were pleased to get 6 rectangular tables and 1 round table in the second week, but have rearranged them twice to suit the needs of the students. This means that there are two sets of tables put together seating groups of up to 12 students who like to work together, and one table seats only 4 students who require more personal space. I planned for an even distribution of students per table, but am responsive to their different requests regarding space and collaboration.
  • The area carpet was originally placed in one corner of the room for community discussions and knowledge building sessions. The students enjoyed these talks, but found it hard to get close when we are limited with only two accessible sides to the carpet for rows of chairs behind those who are seated on the carpet. So, I moved the carpet to the centre of the room and it connects to the small carpet area of our class library. Now there is less movement of chairs as students turn to the centre of the room for discussions and use the extended space of the class library to sit.
  • We took a Multiple Intelligence survey to get to know our own learning strengths and the strengths of all the students in the class. We continue to consider these and reflect on them by referring to graph compiled in the class to remind us.
  • I finally typed out my schedule last Thursday. It took me that long to juggle our literacy block and periods for Science and Social Studies with withdrawal for ESL and special education support. I have added 15 minutes of literacy to the end of our day when we review our agendas with a poetry cafe allowing dedicated time for the reading, sharing, and writing of poetry.
  • We introduced “Minutes for Mindfulness” each afternoon. After lunch and a transition for French class, some of the students had difficulty settling for a full-class discussion regarding our inquiry topic. I asked if they wanted to try some mindfulness techniques, and a new student shared a website/app called that his teacher used last year. This adjustment not only helps the students, but I benefit from the 2 minute relaxation exercises as well!
I am sure our class will continue to grow and change. Allowing for adjustments to your best made plans is necessary to be responsive in your teaching practice – and everyone will benefit.

Engaging Idea

A new year is an opportunity for introducing new routines or learning opportunities. If your routines are already established and your planning is complete, you may just want to add a new “twist” to the assignments, addressing different learning styles and increasing student engagement.

Depending on the age group that you teach, – receive infographics on a wide-range of topics at Daily Infographic, see This is a great way to get comfortable with the use of infographics. View before sharing with students.  Infographics (information graphics) are all around us in subway maps, advertisements, and historical representations. They provide students with an alternative way to read information as well as present information. An infographic is a graphic visual representation. Larger amounts of data or information are presented in a visually appealing way that the reader is able to easily retain. Infographics can include timelines, maps, charts, graphs, illustrations or photographs, making them a useful and beneficial resource for social studies, math, language, science and art.

Suggestions for introducing or integrating infographics:

– receive infographics on a wide-range of topics at Daily Infographic, see This is a great way to get comfortable with the use of infographics. View before sharing with students.

– in Google search a selected topic and “infographic” to find a reputable author/creator of an infographic that connects to your lesson or subject. Preview the infographic. Provide it to your students to read individually or have them discuss in small groups.

– use infographics for specific knowledge-building. For example, if studying First Nations treaties with the Canadian Government, a government produced infographic is provided at: This infographic provides factual information in an interesting format for students that is easy to understand.

– after using infographics and understanding the components that make them effective, have students create their own infographics. It could be their own life story, their community or outer space. It could replace the pamphlet idea for presenting information on another city, country, or issue.

– create a campaign against bullying (or address various social issues) using student created infographics modelled on a reputable resource such as the infographic at Stop Bullying Gov, see

– students can design their own infographic with pencil or paper, or electronically with tools such as or Piktochart.


Enjoy introducing something new to your students for the New Year!

End of the Year is Near!

Summer is almost here and the kids know it. Their lack of attention and wanting to be outside in the beautiful weather is hard to compete with. What do I do to keep the boys attention? How or what do I keep teaching when my reports are completed and in? No air conditioning or fan – my room is known as one of the hottest in the school. Why fight it – I take their learning outside and still teach curriculum.


I try to keep them inside as long as we can handle it; which means sometime between morning recess and lunch. At this point of the year, I am changing my day plan slightly. It is based on which lessons do I need the whiteboard or computer connection for? I teach those lessons first. For language, I take a book and read it to them while the boys are lying down under a tree. I ask questions about inferring, point of view, comprehension and relating the reading to their own life experiences. However, this is all completed orally, some questions are discussed in partners (while I go to every group and engage the students) and some are large group discussions.


For Math, I may take them on a walk looking for 3D shapes or angles in nature. This can also be done in your playground. I also may play a game with them related to probability or multiplication baseball. I look for ways to connect Math to their real world experiences. Having the students show me and themselves why we need Math in our everyday lives.


For Art, we have gone out into the community and sketched trees and flowers; items in our environment. We also have used digital cameras to take pictures of structures in our environment and used photoshop to add to their pictures.


I also am finding ways to take the kids on affordable field trips. While planning field trips, the boys have an input and have often asked for the trip to be just our class. We have one planned for the division to go to a Park, and my class want to go to a different area of the park. We are taking the TTC and exploring our city. Doing a walking tour of the city (while taking pictures) was one of the boys’ most favourite trips this year.


At this point of the year, I am finding ways to have fun with the class and also relate it to the curriculum. They seem to be enjoying it and even understand why we are learning certain aspects of the curriculum. The community environment we have developed is one I hope the boys will always remember.

Working with or as an Occasional Teacher

When thinking about occasional teacher planning many questions could go through one’s thinking process (what do I leave, how much, what do I bring?). If you are an occasional teacher you need to be able to teach for the time you are in the class with plans or not. If you are a contract teacher, you want the occasional to teach what you would do even if you were there. I just finished having a student teacher in my classroom and as her practicum was coming close to an end, the conversation of occasional teaching came up. She wanted to know how I decided what to leave for an occasional and how much but also what she should expect as an occasional teacher. Below is a summary of what I shared with her:


Planning for an occasional teacher

1) Make sure you leave a current seating plan.

2) Leave tips and notes about your students but remember to be professional as sometimes notes are left in the room for kids to see. Only phrase things in a positive language, leave strategies to help the occasional connect with your students, and 1 or 2 students who the occasional can ask questions about the routine.

3) Leave as much information about your class as possible but remember all information will not always be read. Don’t forget to highlight the allergies in the class and if epi-pens are used (if so, where the epi-pens are stored).

4) Leave lessons which your students will be able to complete. Usually, I still leave my lesson (as if I am there), I make sure I am prepared to complete an assessment for learning when I immediately return. The reason for this is the classroom teacher understands how each student learns, the comfort is there for the student to ask questions and clarify misunderstandings. Also, sometimes occasional teachers don’t have enough background information to connect the lesson for the students, students sometimes behave differently with occasional teachers and lessons are taught differently; the full lesson might not have been taught. I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to my class with a note stating the effort was made but the redirection of behaviour took up too much class time. That being said, I make sure lessons are connected to the curriculum but sometimes I may need to do something different than following my unit plan. It sometimes helps to make the occasional teacher’s day a little more fun.

5) Schedules – leave them in the supply folder. All resource, yard duty, classroom schedules need to be available for an occasional to view.

6) If you need items for a science experiment or art lesson, leave items out or in one location and share the location of items with the occasional teacher.


Working as an Occasional Teacher

1) Arrive as early as possible to give yourself time to review notes and lessons left by the classroom teacher.

2) Be familiar with the grade curriculum (if possible).

3) Try to connect with the neighbour teacher and ask any questions you may have.

4) Have a Language, Math, Science lesson in your bag, as a back up. On very few occasions you may walk into a classroom which has no lessons available for the day. If you have a lesson for each of these subjects, you can fill the day. Based on the grade, have some addition, subtraction, multiplication, division review fun sheets in order for the kids to complete (begin with asking the students to complete any 5, then to pick another 2, and so on). If no photocopier is available, write the questions on the board or display them on the smartboard and have the students record the questions and answers in their math workbooks. For Science or Language, you can have a story book related to the environment. “Where the Forest Meets the Sea”by Jeannie Baker or “The Lorax”by Dr. Suess are two great examples which can begin discussion on environmental issues, based on a situation you give them have the students develop different endings. Another Science activity might be a recycle sort — go through the classroom garbage bin (bring plastic gloves) and sort out what can be recycled or put in a compost. Again, there are many story books you can tie this theme to. For Language, you can use the newspaper and have the students discuss an article you feel is age appropriate. You can also have the kids write down 3 truths and a lie about themselves — then each student presents the 4 statements to the class. The class has to guess which is the lie. The students really enjoy this activity and it does take up an hour and sometimes even more (if the class size is bigger). Please don’t forget about your diversity of learners and adjust your lessons as needed.

5) Don’t forget about yard duty.

6) Try to deal with classroom behaviour in the class. But of course, if safety of yourself or other students is/are at risk, make sure you immediately contact the administration. Having a little reward planned for the end of the day helps students to look forward to something. Making the connection by saying hello/good morning to every student as they enter helps to start off the day well.

7) Say good bye to the administration and thank you to the office assistant(s).

8) Most of all…enjoy the day!


When I taught Kindergarten last year, it was a half-day program. This was challenging for excursions, since we only had a two and half hour window to go somewhere and get back to the school so the children could meet their day-care providers for pick-up. This year, with my Grade 1/2 class, I have enjoyed many class trips. Most of them I organized or booked back in September to support the learning of our “big ideas.” A couple of trips were more spontaneous, like a trip to hear an orchestra, which was organized by the school.

On one of the trips, a parent volunteer that joined us for the day asked, ” Why do some classes in the school have more trips than others?” She thought that the trips were arranged by the school (administration?) for each particular class. This surprised me, but I explained that it was the discretion of the teacher. Years ago, my mentor suggested taking students on a trip once a month. I remembered this, and tried it out this year.

The places we visited were connected to our big ideas. I found the excursions worthwhile as it engaged the students, affirmed our sense of community as we ventured out of the school together, and provided alternative contexts for the students to create new connections and understanding. We visited a variety of facilities ranging from museums to conservation parks, which offered a range of indoor and outdoor experiences appealing to the many learning styles of the students.

Taking photos on the trip is a great way to document the learning. These photos can be shared with parents on a website as a form of communication or presented back to the students to promote more questions and thoughts. I often asked the students the same question when we returned, “What did you notice?” And it always amazed me how this open-ended question elicited observations that I never expected. We then recorded the observations of the students and used them for further investigation or discussion.

Class trips are like family vacations, you may not recall day to day events, but you often remember the big trips with happy memories.











Our class gets a guided tour at the zoo.

The Whole Child

As a third grade teacher, I sometimes get caught up and distracted by the fast approaching EQAO assessment.  Our school doesn’t fair very well in the EQAO world and there is a lot of talk about getting the students ready.  One way our school is preparing students for the assessment is by providing them practice runs at previous EQAO questions.  As Sangeeta mentioned in a previous post, I also worry about the amount of pen and paper tasks our students complete.  Don’t get me wrong, knowing how to read and write are VERY important skills that must be acquired, but there are many ways to learn how to read, THINK and write, technology being one.

As we neared the end of the calendar year, I allowed myself to forget about EQAO and teach the way I taught when I taught grades 4 and 5 and kindergarten!  Even though my students receive their music and art instruction from other teachers, I decided to include it in my program as well. Visual literacy, music, drama, art, movement, design and technology were springboards for incredible thinking and prompted the most meaningful and well crafted writing I have assessed so far this year!   More importantly, the level of engagement in my class springboard as I observed students focus and participate in ways I was not able to observe when I did not integrate the arts in my teaching.

I know this! Why do I allow myself to get caught up in the EQAO frenzy?  Don’t get me wrong. I actually like the EQAO assessment and take the responsibility of teaching STUDENTS the Ontario curriculum very seriously— but sometimes I think we get turned around and teach the CURRICULUM to students.  I think there is a difference.   My goal for 2012, is to make sure I teach to the WHOLE CHILD everyday and allow students to explore the curriculum in different ways before bringing out the pen and paper:)