Grades/Level: Upper Elementary (3–5)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
Four 45-minute class periods
Author: Margaret del Palacio, Elementary School Teacher
Humphreys Avenue Elementary School, Los Angeles Unified School District


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Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

Making Tamales at Christmas / Ramirez

Students will observe a holiday depicted in a picture from a 16th-century manuscript. They will interview family members and write a paragraph about a family tradition. After a class discussion on how an artist creates the illusion of depth, students will create a collage illustrating a family tradition with a distinct foreground, middle ground, and background.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• describe and make interpretations about a painting depicting a holiday.
• interview family members and record a family tradition.
• write a cohesive paragraph with a topic sentence, time-order words, and supporting details about a family tradition.
• discuss how an artist divides the space of a composition into foreground, middle ground, and background to create the illusion of depth.
• create an artwork illustrating a family tradition.


• Reproduction of Villagers on Their Way to Church by Simon Bening
• Grade-appropriate book about family traditions, such as:
Remembering My Roots and Living My Traditions by Trans-National Latinas
Too Many Tamales and Snapshots From a Wedding by Gary Soto
The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant
Family Fun Nights by Lisa Winters
• Lined paper
• Pencils
• Drawing paper
• Watercolors
• Paint brushes
• Construction paper
• Scissors
• Felt-tip markers
• Glue

Lesson Steps

Part 1: Looking at the Painting

1. Show students the reproduction of Villagers on Their Way to Church by Simon Bening. Have students look silently at the artwork for 30 seconds. Then guide a class discussion by asking the following questions:
• What do you see in this painting?
• What do you notice about the setting?
• What season do you think this is and why?
• What do you think these people are doing and why?
• What details do you notice about the people?
• What do you think is going to happen next in this scene?

2. Chart students' responses.

3. Prompt students to take a closer look at the work of art, focusing on the element of space. Explain that artists can use the space of a manuscript (or paper) to create the illusion of depth. Guide the discussion by asking the following questions:
• What is in the foreground, the middle ground, and the background?
• Which part of the painting appears to be closest to you?
• Which part of the painting appears to be farthest from you?
• Notice the size of the objects in the painting compared to each other. How does the artist show that certain things are far away or close up?
• Does this painting remind you of anything you do with your family?

4. Share some background information about the artwork. Tell students that a man named Simon Bening created this work of art hundreds of years ago in Belgium. This landscape scene shows a group of villagers on the way to church. They are holding candles as they enter the church in celebration of a church holiday observed in February. This small painting was cut out from a manuscript—a book written, illustrated, and assembled by hand. This painting came from a page in the calendar section of a book of hours, which listed important days for the church. (For more information on illuminated manuscripts, see "Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion.")

Part 2: Literature Connection

1. Read students a book on family traditions and talk about the different family traditions depicted in the text. Guide the students in a discussion about the definition of a family tradition. Explain that family traditions can be holiday celebrations, places they visit regularly, gatherings they attend, special meals, birthday celebrations, special time with the family, or religious functions. For example, some families spend Friday nights eating pizza and watching a movie together. Others have big family get-togethers in the park every summer.

2. Display the reproduction of the Bening manuscript page again. Ask students to recall the family tradition depicted in this work of art.

3. Ask the students to talk with their families (parents, relatives, or guardians) about two or more family traditions. Have students write them down for homework.

4. The next day, ask students to share their favorite traditions with the class.

Part 3: Writing about Family Traditions

1. Tell students to write a cohesive paragraph about one family tradition. Begin the writing activity by having them use a graphic organizer or thinking map, such as a tree map, to organize their ideas. The graphic organizer should include the following subheadings: Who? Where? When? What? Why?

2. Guide students to write their topic sentence. Then have them add supporting details to their paragraph, reminding them to use descriptive words about the setting and time-order words (e.g., first, next, then, later) to connect their ideas. The closing sentence of the paragraph can express an opinion about how they feel about this tradition.

Part 4: Family Tradition Collage

1. Instruct students to share with a partner the family tradition they wrote about in their descriptive paragraph. Then ask students to explain how they might visually represent the tradition. Students will share the characters (family members) and the setting of the collage with a partner.

2. Pass out the watercolors and brushes.

3. Have students pick three colors. Model how to paint a watercolor wash by dividing the picture plane into foreground, middle ground, and background. Tell students to select a different color for each section and begin. Remind them to cover the entire paper with paint. Let it dry thoroughly.

4. Tell students to depict their family tradition with paper cutouts on top of the watercolor wash. Before handing out scissors, remind students of the way Bening used size in the manuscript painting by asking these questions:
• Look at the manuscript again. What size are the figures and objects in the foreground? Middle ground? Background?
• Think about your own artwork. Where do you want to put the people, objects, and elements of your setting (e.g., buildings, trees, furniture)? What size will you make them?

5. Pass out construction paper. Have students cut out the figures, objects, buildings, trees, or furniture that will be in their collage. They might want to sketch details on paper before cutting out the elements. They may also either cut the whole figure from one piece of paper, or cut out separate parts of the body and glue the pieces together.

6. Before they glue the figures and objects onto the watercolor wash, have students arrange them on the paper by placing the smaller plants or objects in the background. Next tell students to place the medium-size figures or objects in the middle. Some of the objects in the middle may overlap those in the back. Then have them place the larger objects, figures, or trees in the foreground.

7. Tell students they can add details to the scene with fine-point felt-tip markers.

Part 5: Class Presentations

1. Have the advanced students revise their paragraphs to include any details they added to their final collages.

2. Have all students present their paragraphs and artworks to the class.

Villagers on Their Way to Church / Bening
Villagers on Their Way to Church, Simon Bening, about 1550


Students will be assessed on:
• their understanding of the vocabulary (size, foreground, middle ground, background) during oral discussions.
• how well their illustrations reflect an understanding of vocabulary (size, foreground, middle ground, background).
• whether their paragraphs have a topic sentence, supporting details, and a closing sentence.
• their use of descriptive words and time-order words.


Ask students to assemble the artwork and descriptive paragraphs into a class book.

Have students read more books on family traditions (see list of books in the "Materials" section).

Students may listen to and sing the song "De Colores" by Joan Baez.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 3–5

3.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
4.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
4.3 Identify the reasons and evidence a speaker or media source provides to support particular points.
5.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
5.3 Summarize the points a speaker or media source makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence, and identify and analyze any logical fallacies.

3.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
4.4 Produce clear and coherent writing (including multiple-paragraph texts) in which the development and organization are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California State Public Schools

Grade 3
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.3 Identify and describe how foreground, middle ground and background are used to create the illusion of space.

2.0 Creative Expression
2.3 Paint or draw a landscape, seascape or cityscape that shows the illusion of space.

Grade 4
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Describe how art plays a role in reflecting life (e.g., in photography, quilts, architecture).

English–Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 3
1.0 Writing Strategies
1.1 Create a single paragraph; develop a topic sentence; include simple supporting facts and details.

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

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

"Students need some guidance when deciding what to illustrate. There's a tendency to want to represent too much. Remind them to keep it simple, kind of like a snapshot of a scene within a scene."
—Margaret del Palacio