Combining art and social studies, this totem project was one we almost did not do in the Spring session, but squeezed it in, and I'm so glad we did!
Clay is a HOME RUN with children. Some love it more than others, but there is always universal enthusiasm in the art room when this material is brought out. I am not a ceramicist or clay expert of any kind, so maybe the euphoria is because my students know that pretty much anything goes when using clay, except throwing. We have a very strict NO THROWING clay policy. Otherwise, I say do what you want and have fun!
For this particular project, I talked a little about Native American totems and what they symbolize for our Native American and First Nations people. As you may know, a totem is made to read like a vertical story. These tall wood carvings are made by North American Indians from Alaska, down throughout the United States and help provide records of Native American lives. Traditionally, these totems were placed outside the home or used as porch columns because they are too big to serve as decoration inside a home. Typical symbols include the form of animals, birds, reptiles and occasionally people. In the end, most of my students ultimately decided to create animals that were their favorites and not necessarily tied to any specific symbolism. We had seals, and whales, and snakes, and birds. I'm pretty sure there were some bunnies in there too.
We used Crayola Air-dry Clay for this project and each student was given a little more than 2 lbs. I provided some animal silhouettes from the internet as visuals. We reviewed the scratch-and-attach method of adhering clay shapes together, but I gave them no special instructions on how to form specific animals. Quite frankly, the kids didn't need them. After they were constructed, we let them dry for almost two full weeks before painting them. We used simple, inexpensive craft paints to paint them. Once the paint was dry, I sprayed them with acrylic varnish to give each totem a shiny finish. These were fun and the finished pieces were impressive.
For a finishing touch before the varnish is applied, you can add small details with Posca paint pens, like shown here for a bit of added texture and interest. This project is excellent for 4th grade+.