Grades/Level: Upper Elementary (3–5)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
Three to five class periods
Author: Karen Lin, Teacher, Broad Avenue School, Los Angeles Unified School District


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Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

In this extension to the Open Court Reader unit on "City Wildlife," students look at a still-life painting. They discuss the observation of nature by scientists and artists and explore the symbolism of biological life cycles depicted in a painting.

Learning Objectives

Students should be able to:
• observe and identify plant and animal life depicted in a still-life painting and in their own environment.
• use adjectives correctly.
• make a connection between the biological life cycles they observe in nature and the symbols of life and death they see within a still-life painting.
• use the concept of balance to create a still-life incorporating plant and animal life observed in nature and in a painted still-life.


Open Court Reader textbooks
• Art supplies: white construction paper, pencils, crayons, watercolors, brushes, butcher paper, and tagboard (for the frame)

Lesson Steps

1. Students read the "City Wildlife" unit in their Open Court Reader and learn what wildlife is and where it lives. Discuss how wildlife thrives in the city and the different living things that adapt to the city. Discuss the difference between growing cultured plants and finding wild plants in the city. Also, talk about how city wildlife can make its way into our houses.

2. Have students spend a few days outdoors sketching living things—both plants and animals. They can write journal entries about their observations and have class discussions about the nature of living things. Does wildlife always live outside? Do you think different types of wildlife live together, communicate with each other, help each other? Discuss how the wildlife food chain in the city may be different from that in the wilderness. This can lead to the discussion of life and death and cycles of life.

3. Review what an adjective is. Introduce the van Huysum still-life and have students spend one minute looking and listing on paper the plant and animal life they can see using an "adjective-adjective-noun" format (e.g., "big, red flower").

4. After students list as much as they can see, have them share their observations orally. Some students will have seen things others did not, or will use different adjectives to describe the same elements.

5. Have students translate the adjectives they chose into feelings about the painting. Ask them why they used those adjectives. How does the tone, color, texture, or light in the painting make you feel?

6. Discuss why van Huysum painted this picture of plant and animal life. Introduce the idea of symbolism. Remind students of their earlier discussion about cycles of life. Ask them to identify and find examples of life and death in the painting. Then ask them to think about what the animals and plants in the painting may symbolize.

7. Define balance and symmetry for students and discuss ways that the painting is balanced or symmetrical. Note how the flowers are spread out and placed on the canvas. Point out that the flowers do not touch the border of the painting. For comparison, Van Gogh's Irises is a work where flowers do touch the border.

8. As a class, have students create a large collaged mural of a still-life. Each student creates a few elements from the van Huysum painting and their own observations of nature to add to the mural. Students also incorporate elements that represent life cycles. Use crayons, watercolor, or cut out pictures and paper shapes. Students should pay careful attention to maintaining balance in the collage as they glue their contribution to the picture.

9. Finally, have students write essays about the still-life they created as a group and the life cycles represented in their artwork.

Vase of Flowers / Huysum
Vase of Flowers, Jan van Huysum, 1722

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 3

Artistic Perception
1.0 Students perceive and respond to works of art, objects in nature, events, and the environment. They use the vocabulary of the visual arts to express their observations.

Language Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 3

2.2 Write descriptions that use concrete sensory details to present and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.

Listening and Speaking
2.3 Make descriptive presentations that use concrete sensory details to set forth and support unified impressions of people, places, things, or experiences.

"I learned that everyone wanted to paint the big, red flower at the top because it stands out the most. Students also really had to look twice to find the little tiny bugs in the painting just as we would in real life. The art of balance was difficult for third graders." —Karen Lin