Lesson: Descriptive Writing with Still Life

  • Grades: 6–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts

Students will learn what a still-life painting is. They will observe and discuss two still lifes and then write a three-paragraph descriptive essay based on their observations. Students will then draw a still life based on their classmates’ descriptive essays. They will then discuss the similarities and differences between their writings, drawings, and the original paintings.


  • Students will write a three-paragraph descriptive essay.
  • Students will create a drawing based on classmates’ essays.
  • Students will compare and contrast their own ideas and understandings with those of the artists in discussion and in writing.

Vocabulary: still life, medium, composition


Still life painting with pitcher, bowls of strawberries, and plate of cheese
Levi W. Prentice, Still Life with Strawberries, c. 1890, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Purchase: Mary Oliver Robinson Fund, bequest to Women’s Committee of the Museum of Art, and Women’s Committee Acquisition Fund © Public Domain

Discuss with the class what a still-life painting is. (The subject matter of a still-life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead.) Give them an example of one to look at. Once the students have a good understanding of what a still life is or can be, divide the class into two groups. Give each group a different painting of still life to observe. For example, Still Life with Brioche (1880) by Edward Manet or Still Life with Strawberries (ca. 1890) by Levi W. Prentice. Make sure that each group of students doesn’t see the other group’s painting.

  1. Have each group create a graphic organizer such as a circle, idea map, or word bank about the still life they were given. Tell them to list everything they see in the still life. For English language learners, you may wish to provide a word bank already containing words that may describe the still life, or you might display real objects that are visible in the still life.

    Have each student write a three-paragraph essay that describes the still life in detail. The essay should provide enough information for someone to draw the still life based solely on the written description.

    The essay should include the following parts:

    • 1st paragraph: Students write an introduction that explains what the artwork depicts, the orientation of the composition (landscape or portrait), and its medium. (Medium can refer both to the type of art—such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing—as well as the materials an artwork is made from, such as pencil, ink, pastels, painting, watercolor, acrylic, oil, film, mixed media, collage.)
    • 2nd paragraph: Students create a detailed inventory of what is included in the composition, using adjectives to identify and describe the objects in the still life.
    • 3rd paragraph: Students describe key details (e.g., colors in foreground and background, details about positive and negative space, size and placement of the objects in relation to each other).

    After students complete their first drafts, have them proofread their essays and revise them as needed.

  2. Tell each student to trade essays with a classmate in the other group. Then pass out white construction paper and drawing pencils. Have each student draw what is described in his or her classmate’s essay. Give them the following instructions:

    • Read the essay thoroughly.
    • Begin sketching out the composition with pencil.
    • Add color to the drawing using pastels, crayons, colored pencils, etc.

  3. Compare and contrast students’ drawings with the works of art created by the original artists. Lead a discussion asking the following questions:

    • How are the works of art similar? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • How are they different? What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What could you have written to help your classmate make a more accurate drawing?
    • What could your classmate have written to help you make a more accurate drawing?

    Have students revise their essays based on the class discussion and what is inaccurate in the drawings. Students then complete their final drafts.

Lesson: Chairs in Space Design

  • Grades: 6–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies

Students will observe and discuss a variety of chairs and determine whether they are aesthetically pleasing, supportive, how they were constructed, etc. They will then design their own chair that can withstand space travel and being on the planet Mars. Students will do research to determine the best design.


  • Students will use context clues to make interpretations.
  • Students will explain their own ideas and understanding in discussion and in writing.
  • Students will research life in space and Mars.
  • Students will design a chair prototype.
  • Students will cite sources to back up their design rationale.

Vocabulary: aesthetic, texture, prototype, modernist/modernism


Contemporary wooden chair designed with a zig-zag shape
Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, Zig-Zag chair, c. 1938, deal and hardwood, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Mary Jo and James Winokur, © Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Beeldrecht, Amsterdam
  1. Show students Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair and ask them the subsequent questions, following up with “What do you see that makes you say that?” after each one:

    • What materials do you think were used to make this chair?
    • Does this chair look like it would support a person’s body? Why or why not?
    • Who do you think is the intended user for this chair?
    • In what ways is the chair aesthetically appealing to you? Explain.
    • How do you think the chair was constructed?

    Brief Background

    The Zig-Zag chair was designed in 1934 by the architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld. This particular one was made in 1938. In the early 1930s, Dutch department store Metz & Co. asked Gerrit Rietveld to do something unprecedented: design a chair for mass production. The architect agreed to the challenge, proposing a Z-shaped perch. Its deceptively simple Z-form arose from his desire to create a chair from a single piece of material. When this proved impossible in various materials—metal was difficult to sit on and plywood fell apart—he resorted to durable cherrywood. It worked! The chair was surprisingly sturdy, braced by dovetail joints and an unorthodox method of bolting together planks of hardwood to give the impression of a continuous form.

    Despite its jagged angles it is comfortable. There is give between the seat and legs; it softens when you sit. This was far from traditional furniture construction. The drill-holes and grain of the wood provide the only decoration to this chair, whose silhouette typified the uncompromising nature of Modernist furniture of the interwar period. The chair was, in the words of Gerrit Rietveld, “a designer joke.”

  2. Now show students some of these chairs:

  3. Discuss the subsequent questions, following up with “What do you see that makes you say that?” after each one:

    • Which chair do you find most aesthetically pleasing? Why?
    • Which chair do you think is the most comfortable?
    • Which chair do you think is the most supportive?
    • What do you think the texture of each chair is like?
    • Do you think the chair is heavy or light?
    • How did the designer plan for the user’s body to interact with each chair?
    • What purpose do you think the chair was designed for?

  4. Now instruct students to design a prototype chair for astronauts traveling to Mars. The furniture will serve many functions in environments where maximum flexibility and minimum fuss is crucial.

    Things to consider:

    • You’re going to have very limited space.
    • There will be partial gravity—Mars has roughly one-third of Earth’s gravity—so you can make your furniture a lot lighter and weaker than Earth-bound designs.
    • Astronauts come in many sizes, think adjustable.
    • The chair will be used for working, relaxing, and mealtimes, so it should be comfortable.

  5. Have students create a “furniture journal” where they keep notes about every chair they interact with for the following week. Ask students to think about why they feel the design is good or bad (is it aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, supportive, heavy, light, etc.?) and how aspects of each chair may benefit their design.

    At the end of the week, students will write-up and draw their proposals. Their write-ups should include and address, at the very least, the “things to consider” and how their journals and further research led them to their final design (citing sources where available). Each student should present their findings and design to the class.