Last spring, I watched my fourth grade student David part with his eyes. It wasn’t easy; he’d grown pretty attached to them. David had spent an entire class period with a hunk of Crayola quick-dry clay, sculpting. His eyes represented “anger” – an emotion David feels a lot, and one he’s learning how to express in words.
Once David had completed his angry eyes he presented them to be added to the monster our class was working on together. This was a challenge; at first, David wanted to take his eyes home. He didn’t want to share them with the rest of the class. But after some persuasion from his classmates, he realized that he’d feel proud to have the eyes he’d sculpted on a creation that would be shared by everyone. It was a big step for David.
My favorite lesson of all time is Building A Monster, a sculpture unit I bring out at the end of the school which requires a heavy dose of collaboration. Over six weeks, students in grades 2 through 4 work together to construct a full-scale papier-mâché monster. They’re challenged to engage in conversations about the way the monster will look, the emotions the monster will convey, and how the monster will be put together.
I work with kids in New Orleans who have characteristics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, or Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances. I integrate visual arts and theatre to teach social emotional skills – including self-acceptance, emotional literacy, conflict resolution, and collaboration. Collaboration is the most advanced skill of the gamut: most adults are unable to successfully work together, especially within work worlds that are inherently individualistic and insular. But economists agree that collaboration ultimately lends itself to happier and more innovative work environments. Working together on a project yields a greater diversity of ideas and results, fostering strong community and inventive thinking.
Over six weeks of the Building a Monster project, students work together to construct a full-scale papier-mâché monster. They’re challenged to engage in conversations about the way the monster will look, decide on the emotions the monster will convey, and how the monster will be put together.
I begin our monster-building unit by having children work individually. They start by using clay to sculpt eyes for the monster. Every student looks at pictures of human and animal eyes for inspiration, and then sculpts her own set of monster eyes, challenging herself to convey a specific emotion.
For David, this was easy. He looked at a picture of owl eyes and said, “They look angry! I love them.” He spent the rest of the class period meticulously crafting a set of square-shaped eyes with perfect owl slits in the middle. Other students make one big eye that they shape and reshape over and over again throughout the class. The nice thing about clay is that it lends itself to scrapping an idea and starting over from scratch. If a student feels unhappy with the ten little happy eyes she makes, she can lump them altogether and create one big nervous eye instead.
The following week, we repeat the clay-sculpting process with lips. Students who finish early are allowed to go back and paint their eyes with acrylic paint. Once all the facial parts are finished, it’s time for the hard part. It’s time to build the monster’s body parts.
Building the body parts isn’t difficult in and of its self. It’s actually pretty simple.
Students, in groups of five, receive piles of corrugated cardboard, masking tape, thin cardboard, newspaper, thin wire, and scissors. Then I assign each group a body part (usually it’s two legs, a torso, two arms, and a head), and challenge each group to work together to build the part using the materials they have. That’s all there is to it.
The difficulty comes with the only rule: everyone in the group must be actively working on the body part at all times. Beyond that, I give no instructions. I don’t model anything. I don’t offer suggestions. I let my students figure it out.
I’ve seen students do some pretty amazing things with these instructions. Last year, David’s group, which was made up of five boys, was assigned a leg. The group decided to have one boy climb up on the table. They traced his leg on the parchment paper. Then they cut two parchment legs out, used the thin wire to stitch the legs together, and crumpled up newspaper to stuff the legs.
Another group, assigned an arm, felt torn about the balance between aesthetics and functionality. Two of the group members wanted the arm to be sturdy enough to “survive an earthquake” (as one student put it). The other two group members felt it was integral that the arm look beautiful. They compromised by breaking into subcommittees. The functionality team took on the bulk of the arm, reinforcing it with cardboard and wire. The aesthetics team spent the entire class period designing and actualizing individual heart-adorned fingernails.
Each team presents its body part to the rest of the class, and the class is invited to compliment the work of their peers. Then, I use the wire to “sew” the monster together. There is nothing like watching a room full of fourth graders the first time they come face-to-face with a monster of their own creation. A hushed awe creeps over the room that can only be described as marvel.
The final two weeks require even more patience and collaboration. The entire class works in shifts to papier-mâché and paint the monster. This can be complicated because individual students can feel some possessiveness over the parts of the monster they worked hardest on. Last year, one of the girls from the heart-fingernail group got frustrated when a boy from the group that made the head started slathering the beautiful hand she’d worked on with papier-mâché. I stopped the class and we had a conversation. After both students were able to state their feelings about the hand, the class came to a consensus to leave the heart fingernails uncovered.
The last step is adding all our eyes and mouths from the first two weeks. I do this with a hot glue gun, while students instruct me where to put the pieces. This was the part that was hardest for David. He had wanted to take his owl eyes home.
But then someone in his class said, “But David, your eyes are the COOLEST! They ‘re gonna look AMAZING on Jambalaya!” (Jambalaya is what our class voted to name our monster.) Reluctantly, David relinquished his eyes to the monster. The class voted on gluing them to the center of Jambalaya’s stomach. As soon as the square owl eyes were attached, David’s entire mood changed. He lit up. It was as if he was getting a taste of how it feels to play a role in something greater than the sum of its parts.
I have done this set of lessons with seven different classes of students over the past two years, and every time we begin, I am invariably terrified that there’s no way it’ll ever get done. It’s pretty difficult to ask 30 children to be involved in one creation — with constant insistence that every person participate and weigh in on its construction.
But, once students grow invested in their creation, there is no holding them back. Without even realizing it, they engage in conversations and constructive debates in order to create the best possible monster. All seven monsters – totally unique and awesome – still hold places of honor in the schools where they were constructed. And all 200+ children who worked on the monsters can still walk by the monster they helped to make and say, “I was a part of that.”