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Story Totems

Subject: Arts and Humanities: Language Arts, Visual Arts
Grades: 9-12, Special Education

Brief Description

Students choose a living creature and write a story that offers insight into survival issues that animal faces. They paint a picture of the creature on a wooden board to accompany the story.


Students write and illustrate stories to explain the habitats and life cycles of animals.


art, environmental education, animals, food chain, story, illustration, wildlife, survival, ecosystem, life cycle, totem, Native American

Materials Needed

  • a board, 6 inches wide by 3 feet tall, mounted on a 2-inch by 4-inch base (one per student)
  • student-researched sources about the life cycles of animals
  • computer with word processing program and printer
  • pictures of wildlife
  • acrylic paints
  • paintbrushes
  • natural objects, such as pinecones, leaves
  • glue

Lesson Plan

ABefore the lesson, make the totems to the specifications noted above. Read stories about the life cycles of different animals. Collect real objects -- for example, pinecones, leaves, branches -- to represent the animals' environment.

Writing the Story

  • Ask each student to choose a living creature (for example, a bird or a bug) and create a story that provides insight into survival issues the animal faces. Tell students their story plot should include the answers to the following questions:
    • What puts your creature at risk?
    • Is there another animal in the food chain that preys upon your creature?
    • How does that animal survive?
    • What type of animal does your creature prey upon for survival?
  • Students choose a format for their stories; for example, they might write a humorous story, a dramatic story, a folktale, a first-person account, a point-of-view piece, or a story song.
  • Have students use a word processing program to type their stories; set margins at 6 inches so the stories will be the same width as the boards. Have students print out their stories and set them aside.
Creating the Art
  • Provide students with pictures or photographs of their animals. Ask them to note the animals' characteristics, for example, how many legs the animal has or if it has rounded or pointed ears.
  • Distribute the totem boards and paint supplies.
  • Tell students they will paint a picture of their animal. They may paint their picture in any style. The picture might be realistic, cartoon style, Cubistic (a good way to show an animal at risk of extinction), or any other style.
  • Explain to students that the picture should take up as much of the front of the board as possible; they should paint the entire front surface and outside edges with paint to make it look like a finished work of art. Encourage students to be creative and have fun!
  • Students should give their totem a title and paint the title on the front of the base.
  • After the paintings have dried, let students glue their stories onto the back of the boards.
Suggest that students glue some real objects of nature to represent the animal's environment; for example, pinecones and leaves if the animal lives on the forest floor, small branches if the animal is a bird or squirrel, or smooth creek stones if the animal is a water creature. Display the totems.

See Story Totems to view some completed story totem projects.


Students critique their own work and decide whether they have met the objectives.

Lesson Plan Source

This lesson is an extension of one I learned at the Environmental Education & Arts 2000 Workshop Weekend, at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. The instructor was Carmen Gonzales. I restructured the lesson to incorporate the eco-cycle concept, specific objectives, and natural environmental embellishments.

Submitted By

Angie Cook, Copper Basin High School, Copperhill, Tennessee

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