How To Assess Your New Students Abilities In The First 30 Mins

Back to School Art Ideas: Positive & Negative Space Drawing Lessons

Last year, during my first week teaching art at a new primary school, I came up with a few quick and fun art lessons that could easily help me understand my new students abilities and skill levels right off the bat. These lessons included many aspects of the projects that were to come throughout the year. Things like cutting, gluing, drawing, creative exploration and more. I could get a feel for what my students have difficulties with and might've been to easy. This was especially helpful since I didn't just have one class. I had 12!

I taught 2 classes of 30 kids in each year group from Year 1 to Year 6. Awholelottakids! Between class introductions, demos, discussions and clean up, I was left with about 30 minutes to get them creating something decent. They were new to me I had no idea what their abilities were, no idea what art supplies I would have on hand (or the condition of them) and I was unsure of the school routines and procedures. So, I needed to keep it simple.

Draw! I knew I would be introducing Matisse the following week, and his work has a lot of positive and negative space concepts. So my first week lessons were all Pos/Neg drawings for each Year group. I altered the difficulty level, and objectives for each, while introducing them all to the same basic Elements of Art & Design and vocabulary: Shape, Line, Form, Space, Repetition and Harmony.

Here’s what I was observing:

  • Seeing skills – ability to replicate images and shapes

  • Drawing/Colouring Skills – craftsmanship, neatness

  • Creativity – imagination, originality

  • Cutting Skills – fine motor skills, neatness

  • Following and remembering simple directions

  • Listening

  • Classroom behaviour

Once I determined this I could tweak or ditch lessons in my plans.

SIDE NOTE I've said it before that I typically don't make examples of art projects for my students, because I find that a lot of children try to copy my example rather than be inspired by the idea. However, because it was my very first time meeting them, I did present examples for most of these projects. 

*My example is shown on the Left Side and students work is on the Right Side.


First we discussed what collage means, and we talked about different kinds of shapes. They coloured in this shapes handout I made before cutting out all the shapes. They were to glue the shapes into the first page of their sketchbooks. After they were all stuck down, they were to draw the exact same shapes on the second page before colouring those in too. We also discussed the difference between colouring and scribbling. Aside from cutting and colouring, the idea here was to see how well they followed these simple instructions as well as how they compare object size when draw things they see. I purposely did not show them an example of the finished activity. Once they finished this, they grabbed this cutting sheet, where they were asked to cut along the lines and hand the finished sheets to me. 


I got them fold a piece of paper in half, trace their hand on one side and then on the other side but upside down before colouring them with their choice of crayons. We discussed the difference between colouring and scribbling, and let them get on with it.


I’m a big advocate for using your creative imagination and drawing what you want. But this was an observation analysis on their seeing and replicating skills. I gave them a bit of wiggle room like where they can place the squares, colour choices and adding extras like a sun or another flower. The idea here was to copy what I drew and how I drew it. I gave them the option to try drawing either the flower or the hot air balloon. They basically copied the picture, and were to use a piece of card I gave them to trace a rectangle onto the picture. Anything inside the rectangle was to be coloured with colour pencils, anything outside the rectangle was to be black, except the sky.


We discussed the terms silhouette, and talked about what defines negative and positive shapes. They were to draw an autumn tree and let the branches run off the page. They then had to fill in any negative space with a different pattern. We also talked about what a pattern is. They actually found this quite challenging and some students felt discouraged about their abilities to draw this type of tree. I might do a tree sketching lesson with them in spring term and do a before and after comparison.


Similar to the tree lesson, these students were to draw an animal silhouette and fill the negative space with different patterns. We first discussed shape and outlines, and asked them to tell me how they could figure out what animal it was without any details shown. I reminded them to use those answers when drawing their animal shapes. We went on to discuss positive and negative space. Then we talked about what a pattern is and I demonstrated different types of lines they could use to help them along with their pattern making. They seemed to enjoy coming up with patterns and just colouring while socialising. Some had difficulties drawing animals from memory, and most could not remember to leave the animal details out. There were a lot of fur, eyes, and toes erased that day.


The Year 6’s were to draw a shape of their own design right to the edge on a piece of 3″x 2.5″ card and cut it out. They then had to vertically fold a piece of paper in half, trace the shape several times down the fold and fill the negative space of one side with zentangle patterns and fill the positive space of the other side in zentangles. We discussed the meaning of positive and negative space and what zentangles patterns were. A few students had forgotten not to fill the negative and positives of the same side. But I helped them find ways to work with their mistakes. Others had difficulties creating lines for the zentangles and made them wayyy to small to draw inside. And most could not draw their original shapes large enough to cut out. (Remember the card was only 3 x 2.5 inches !)

So that’s it! That’s what I covered in the first week to evaluate my students abilities, difficulties and strengths. What activities have you tried in the first week at a new school? I'd love to hear from you. Shoot me and email or comment below to share your ideas!

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