Our family has been using the Classical Conversations curriculum since 2012, but this fall will be our first year in the Challenge level! As my oldest moves into 7th grade, I find myself having to re-work the way I approach school with my son. Among the many exciting changes is the introduction of a lot of drawing into his school work. 

(This blog post grew too long, so I’ve covered the 5 main issues here and the drawing tools you can use in this follow up blog post:)

Now, I’m an artist and art teacher, so I’ve been encouraging my kids to draw illustrations to accompany their IEW (Insitute for Excellence in Writing) papers (and granting screen-time bonuses when they actually do it) for years. We’ve also been tracing maps for many years in Foundations. However, this feels different.

Over the years, as friends’ kids have progressed into Challenge, I’ve talked with many parents and several students about how to draw in Challenge. While they are drawing for science as well, the cartography strand is typically where most students struggle

Why is that and how can you avoid it? 

I have noticed 5 main issues with drawing in Challenge that seem to cause this anguish: 

  1. Limiting Mindset
  2. Unclear Goals 
  3. Limited Methods
  4. Perfectionism
  5. Lack of Scaling

Let me explain what I mean and how to address each of those:


1. Adjusting Your Mindset

I have no idea where this idea started from, but most people seem to believe that the ability to draw well is a God-given talent that some people are born with and others aren’t.

This is so wrong.

Drawing is a skill developed with practice, just like every other skill. 

It’s imperative that you and your students believe that anyone can learn to draw!! 

Do some skills come a little quicker to some people and slower to others? Sure! I’ll never be an olympic runner. However, I can still run and, with practice and coaching, I can improve on my running. I’ll never be a world-renowned guitar player, but with practice and coaching I can learn to play the guitar and improve my skills. 

So, when we think about drawing, we must think of it as a skill that will develop at the rate at which we practice it. Practice is tedious for sure, but learning to endure and maybe even appreciate tedious practice is a key to learning any and every skill. 

One of my main goals as a parent is to teach my children the value of repetition. So whether it’s Latin vocabulary, math facts, or map-drawing, I encourage them to notice how the tedious work yields results.  When we’re focused on the good coming from it, maybe we’ll eventually learn to even enjoy what we once found tedious!


2. Setting Goals

Why are we drawing in Challenge? Why are we drawing the world in cartography? Why do we include a sketch with each science paper? The point is noticing and memorizing. Drawing is a great way to accomplish this goal! (You can read about other reasons to include art in your education here.)

A beautiful work of art is not the goal here, so several sketches will be more useful than one beautiful drawing. Really, gaining drawing skills is also not the goal, however, it may be a nice byproduct.

I also want my students to have a love of learning and a curiosity about the world. If I see the workload is overwhelming, I’ll adjust something. Maybe we’ll verbally name each place on the map instead of having him write each name. Maybe I’ll shorten the list of assigned locations to memorize. (More on this in the scaling section!)

One mom I recently spoke with about drawing in Challenge said this:

“If I were to tell someone about it, I would say that it’s a good challenge that may give your student another tool in their arsenal for methods of learning and recording their observations. I think it helps with developing finer motor skills and focuses the mind in observing details that could easily be overlooked. In the process, they may develop a new skill that will bring them enjoyment for years to come.”

-Rachel Miller

So what are your goals? Be sure your students know the goal(s)! Knowing what the goals are will help them focus on what will be most helpful. 


3. Using all the Methods

Keep in mind that there are many different methods or tools for learning to draw what we see: 

  • Tracing
  • Use a Blob Map (Basic shapes/Elements of shape)
  • Grid drawing
  • Contour drawings
  • Negative space drawing

What works best for one student might not be the best for another student. I suggest you learn the basics of each and then use what works when drawing in challenge. I often use them all in the same drawing.

In my next post I’ll explain each method in more detail!

I have a lot I could say and have said about tracing. Don’t believe anyone who tells you to never trace! It’s a GREAT tool if you will really focus on what you’re drawing as you trace.

Tracing is also a great first step. I often find that after I’ve carefully traced something once, I am more likely to notice how the lines bend and curve. Then when I’m drawing, I first think in large shapes (like a blob map) and then look for the more nuanced curves in the lines. All the while I try to shift back and forth between looking at the positive and negative space. 

Give your students a lot of freedom in how they accomplish the goals and keep in mind the Progression of Drawing (explained in more detail in my book, Anyone Can Teach Art) activities. If your student is struggling, step back one step.

List of drawing activities from easiest to hardest

4. Overcoming Perfectionism

This is a big one for so many of us. Sometimes it’s due to comparison- comparing my drawing to yours or comparing my traced drawing to my non-traced drawing. Sometimes it’s due to a fear of failure. Sometimes it’s due to unrealistic expectations of how quickly I think I should advance in my skills…

However, it’s an important life skill to learn how to deal with each of these. We need to know how to press on in spite of comparison, how to be intrigued by our failures and how to put in the tedious practice required for advancing any skill. If your student is struggling with any form of perfectionism, it’s a good time to have a conversation about it. 

Practically, one small thing that’s been helpful in our household is to sketch on a whiteboard. Misplaced marks are easy to erase and it’s temporary by nature, so the pressure feels less. If you end up with a drawing on a small white board that you love and want to keep, scan it or photograph it. 

Another tip is to remember that you can sketch on one piece of paper and then trace your sketch onto the final version. Tracing your own free-hand drawing isn’t “tracing” in the most common sense of the word. Instead it’s a technique that helps overcome the ghostly remains of the lines you tried to erase. Many professional artists do this so they never have to use an eraser on their high-quality, expensive, final copy paper!


5. Scaling

YOU are the teacher and you get to decide what work your students need to do. Keeping in mind your goals and your child’s past experience and current workload. In any geography or cartography curriculum, you’re allowed to make changes to the assignments! 

What’s the minimum work that needs to be done? What will you look for to access/grade the work? 

Personally, I told my son the goals I have for him for geography and asked him if he has any other goals for himself. I told him that I expect him to draw and label a map once a day. I will not grade on how recognizable it is, but on how complete it is. When he shows me his map each day, I say something like, “good work. What new things did you notice today? What do you want to do different tomorrow?” This way I can keep redirecting his mind to the goal as well.

I’ve heard of other parents having their kids trace and label a map each day and draw it once a week. You can also scale the number of places and features they need to label on each map.

Pick a standard for your student and then reassess it if the situation changes or if it’s not working for your student. Remember your goals!


I hope these 5 concepts helped shift how you and your student are thinking about drawing. I’d love to hear about any other issues you’ve seen and what you’ve done about this.

If you know anyone struggling with drawing in Challenge, please share this with them!

In my next post I’ll explain the practical drawing tools you can use in your daily cartography work!

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