But Is It Art, a (reflected upon) lesson plan


what would you title this?

The school year is now officially over.  As if on cue, it suddenly warmed up here in Osaka.  The Japanese plum blossoms are blooming, whispers of pale yellow, baby blue and pink.  There are a few students still in the building as I write this.  They’re taking make-up tests.  I wonder how they can concentrate when, even as a teacher, I think there are so many more important things to do than sweat over a test.  I’m probably more sympathetic than usual.  I’m going to be spending my spring sweating over the assessment module of the dip TESOL.  That means plowing through three books on how to make and score tests.  I’m not sure that learning how to make a proper test is any more appealing during the start of summer than taking a test.  Still, things are quiet now, I’ve got a free minute and a notebook full of lesson notes to reflect on, so…

A MegaSuper Kind of Cool Writing Lesson 

Adam over at Teach Them English, has a blog post titled “The Greatest Creative Writing Activity Ever.” The lesson plan is clean, imaginative, and great for almost any level student.  I read it and was reminded of “Is It Art?” one of my own favorite writing focused lessons.  Before I started teaching in a high school and kind of got chained to a syllabus and administrative expectations (oh, that recurring anxiety dream about low TOEIC scores), I used to run this lesson at least twice a year.  That was about five years ago and the mega-super-coolness of the lesson as I remembered only grew with time.  So I blew the dust off “Is It Art” and headed up to room 403 to use it as my end of the year lesson.

Prep Time: about 15 minutes if you have a color printer or LED projector

Total Lesson Time: 90 minutes

Student Level: from beginner to advance

Activity 1: Give That Picture a Title

Materials Needed: Copies of 4 abstract art paintings (you can get some good ones off the internet, the abstract art entry over at Wikipedia is especially useful).  Just print up the paintings (or download JPEGs for your projector) and slap them up on the classroom board at the beginning of the lesson.  Label each of the paintings with a number.


  1. Break the students into pairs.  You can also do the activity in small groups if there’s a large number of students.  Have the groups think of a title for each of the four pictures.  I don’t usually require the students to use any specific language at this point in the lesson, but if you are looking for a grammar hook to hang the lesson on, this is a great opportunity to have lower level students work with noun phrases.  That’s pretty much how it played out in my class this time.  Some of the titles my students came up with included “Sunshine,” “The Purple Fireworks,” and “Flowers Floating on Water.”  At higher levels, you could direct students to come up with titles that used relative clauses or a tricky verb tense.
  2. Once all of the students have finished coming up with titles, direct them to write three sentences about what is happening in the picture.  The teacher will need to be roaming around the room at this point and provide feedback so students can have polished sentences for step 3.
  3. Each group writes up their title and sentences on the board.
  4. Once all of the titles and sentences are on the board, make sure to give the students time to read what’s up there.
  5. Have students write the number of the painting they think is being described next to each group’s title and sentences.

If you’re wondering what might get produced, here’s a sample of what my students came up with:

Unexpected Disaster Issues: Some of my students were wonderfully non-abstract.  One group wrote, “There are blue dots at the top of the picture,” about a painting that had a lot of blue dots floating at the top of the canvas.  I ended up having to take some time out of the lesson to have a short discussion about abstract art in general.  After the lesson was over I remembered that when I used to teach this lesson, I often introduced the phrases, “It reminds me of…” “It makes me feel…” and “It looks like…”.  I would definitely recommend introducing these types of sentence heads to help students frame how they will write and talk about the paintings during this activity.  It might also be worthwhile to see if your students actually know something about modern art before starting the lesson.  It turned out that out of 12 students, only 3 had ever been to a modern art exhibit.  Finally, one of the abstract pictures I picked looked a lot like flowers.  Needless to say everyone titled that one something having to do with flowers.  So definitely go with as abstract an image as possible.

Activity 2: 5 Minute Masterpiece

Materials Needed: Crayons, markers, and paper


  1. Tell students they have 5 minutes to create their own abstract masterpiece.  Start the stopwatch.  Watch them draw.
  2. When five minutes are up, tell the students to think of a title and three to five sentences about what is happening in the picture.  They don’t have to write it down and they definitely shouldn’t share the information with anyone in class.
  3. Finally, collect the drawings, throw them up on the board, and number each picture.

Unexpected Catastrophe Issues: Maybe this one shouldn’t have been so unexpected considering what happened in activty 1.  Two of my students just kind of refused to draw abstract pictures.  One of them drew a beautiful picture of a duck.  Another drew one of flowers.  The duck artist got a little embarrassed about the non-abstract nature of his picture after seeing what the other students had done and demanded an extra five minutes to draw a new picture.  I tried to assure him that his picture was just fine (it was a very excellent picture of a duck).  But he was pretty insistent (artists!).  Anyway, I gave in.  Another student started complaining about the fact that his picture didn’t mean anything, so he couldn’t think of a title for it, let alone think of three sentences to describe what was happening in a picture of nothing.  He probably had a valid point.  Next time I run this lesson I’m going to be a bit more explicit with my instructions and give students more warning about what’s coming next.

Activity 3: Art Critic

Materials Needed: student notebooks and pencils


  1. Each student picks their favorite picture, gives it a title and writes 5 sentences about it in their notebooks.  For higher level students you can have them shoot for a cohesive paragraph.  It’s basically, the same kind of thing as activity 1, just with a little more meat.  I find this activity provides lots of opportunities to work with students’ emergent language.  I was lucky enough to be running this class as a team teaching situation, so there were two of us helping students find the language they needed to say what they wanted to say.  I think it could also work well as a paired activity, partnering lower and higher level students.
  2. Students introduce the picture they wrote about to three other students.  After a student introduces a picture, their partner has to write down the number of the picture that they thought was being introduced as well as the reasons why they thought so.
  3. The big reveal: each student announces which picture they had written about.
  4. The big reveal 2: each student introduces their own picture, letting the class know the title they had given it and what they had imagined was happening in the picture when they drew it.

Fully Expected Issues: Students would listen to their partner and then, instead of writing in their own words why they thought picture x was being described, they would just snag their partner’s notebook and copy a sentence down into their notebooks.  If I had to do it again, I would probably institute a “no looking at your partner’s notebook” rule during this part of the lesson.  Or even better, I would give the students a bit of time to remember what they wrote in their notebooks, collect them, and make them work from memory.

Partially Expected Issue: Mr. Picture-of-Nothing had nothing to say about his picture.  But no one seemed too concerned about it.

Final Thoughts:

While I still like this lesson I realize that, at least with the students I work with now, it’s not quite the prep-free lesson that it once was.  On the other hand, running and reflecting on this lesson has shown me that maybe it was never quite as prep-free as I had imagined.  There are all kinds of avenues for expanding this material that I had never really thought about before.  It would be pretty easy to turn it into a genre focused lesson, where you passed out reviews of art exhibits, had students identify salient aspects of the genre and then used that as the base for students to produce a more academic text.  It could also be one of a series of lessons focused on art in general and personal esthetic values.  For examples, you could include the last auction price for each of the paintings in the first activity and have a pretty cool discussion about how society determines the price of a work of art and how that sometimes is at odds with our own personal values.  Anyway, “Is It Art?” might not be my absolute favorite writing lesson anymore, but if I were a critic, I would still give it 3 out of five stars.  Not quite a Chagall but maybe a little better than a Rockwell.  But to each his or her own tastes.

(no random squiggles were injured in the planning or execution of this lesson)

Bonus Suggestion: Mr. Chris Wilson tweeted about a lesson he ran in class which required students to draw pictures and ended with a role play at an art gallery/museum.  This seems like a nice way to frame the last activity in this lesson.  I’ve always wanted to include a gallery walk in one of my classes and this lesson seems like a perfect opportunity.  Thanks for the idea Chris.


5 thoughts on “But Is It Art, a (reflected upon) lesson plan

  1. Great stuff, Kevin. I've rarely used art in classes, especially since I moved on to EAP, but there's still a place for it I'm sure. I always try to consider what value the activity provides in terms of transferable skills beyond grammatical. These types of creative activities ask students to make connections between what they know and the art that can be interpreted in any way. I like this as connection-building to personal experiences (be they life experiences or with other texts, videos, etc they've encountered) to understand a text is a very authentic way to read. Building these connections beyond the obvious, or at least trying to, is something my students struggle with yet is so paramount in university study. If only they'd realise developing this 'skill' will make their lives easier in years to come!I'm inspired by both Adam and your writing posts. Mine, however, will come from a different purpose and angle. 🙂


  2. Nice ideas. I just wonder though if – with this being modern art – the artist hadn't thought, "I'm going to put some blue dots at the top of the canvas," and left it at that! 😉


  3. Hi Tyson,Thanks for taking the time to comment. And giving me a new framework for looking at how usful a given set of activities can be. I've never (I'm kind of ashamed to admit) thought about these types of creative activities in the light of language personalization. But that is obviously what they are. Very timely as I think I will be able to use this on my upcoming dip TESOL exam.Looking forward to your take on writing from an EAP perspective.Kevin


  4. Thanks icaltefl for the comment. Just ran over and looked at your web site. Very nice collection of articles. Happy to have found and bookmarked it.You know, I think you're right (even if it was meant as a half-joke) that any good discussion of abstract art is going to need to include that blue dots are sometimes just blue dots. But that the ability to take those surface forms and bring personal meaning to bear is where the language becomes more creative and turns into a forced-output activity. Kevin


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