Integrating Writing and Art: Authenticity in Descriptive Writing

We are always looking for ways to make writing more authentic for kids, and another teacher and I found just the way to do that while combining the fun and excitement of the October and November holidays. My third grade class teamed up with a second grade class down the hall. It started with the second graders creating a monster out of colored construction paper. They used a method that their teacher had taught them called “drawing with scissors.” Their teacher had taught them about a French artist named Henri Matisse who used this technique in his old age after he became ill.

The second graders had a list of criteria that they had to follow to design their monsters. For example the monsters had to have a height between eight and 12 inches and a width between four and 8 inches. They also had to include an odd number of facial features and an even number of appendages. After designing their monsters, they wrote about them, describing them in as much detail as possible. Their teacher made sure to focus on beginning each sentence with a different word so that the students would learn sentence variety.

Next, we gave the descriptions to my third graders who had to re-create the monsters using the “drawing with scissors” technique. We read about Henri Matisse together before reading the descriptions that the kids had written. They glued information sheets about Henri Matisse into their notebooks and we discussed the text features that were on those pages including captions, titles, and subtitles. I explained to the children that the second graders had had a list of criteria that they had to follow. They were to try to make the creatures based only on the descriptions that the second graders had written.

I passed the descriptions to each child and I gave them a choice whether they wanted to work alone or with a partner. It was very interesting to listen to the conversation that the children had as they were trying to build the monsters based on the descriptions. There was much commentary on which kinds of details were helpful and which kind of details left you more confused. One student said, “This kid wrote that the monster has three eyes, but he didn’t say what color. So what color am I supposed to use?”

After making their versions of the second graders’ monsters, we discussed the details that are most helpful in descriptions. We wrote a list of ideas on chart paper. Then with partners, kids had to go back to their seats and write an idea for a topic sentence that would include the main idea of a paragraph about the most helpful details in descriptions. I gave each set of partners a small pad of paper on which to write their idea for a topic sentence. After several minutes, we met back together to share ideas for topic sentences. We picked one topic sentence and I wrote it on the board in red. Then I told the students that they were going to finish the paragraph by adding four detail sentences to it. They could use the ideas that we had already written on chart paper or they could use their own. They could also choose to work with a partner on their paragraph or they could work by themselves. They had to write the topic sentence in red and then the detail sentences in pencil. As we are just starting to learn about how to write paragraphs we are doing a lot of shared writing and paired writing before I expect the students to do it completely independently. Students who feel ready, however, can work independently if they would like to.

The next day I hung the third graders’ versions of the monsters in the hallway next to the second graders’ versions of the monsters. I also hung up the chart paper with ideas for the most helpful kinds of details that are in descriptions. The second grade class came out and compared their versions with the third grade students’ versions and also talked about the most helpful details that are in descriptions. The teacher later told me that the students were so excited to see what versions of the monsters were created based on their descriptions. One student said, “Oh I see where I could’ve explained that better.” Another student made a comment about how he realized that he didn’t describe something well enough and another one said how she had completely left a body part out altogether.

The next week, I told my students that we were going to do the exact same thing but in reverse. This time we were going to be the ones to create something, write a description about it, and then give it to the second graders to try to make. The kids were very excited! They kept asking me, “What are we going to make? What are we going to make?” Finally, I revealed to them that we were going to make turkeys using the same “drawing with scissors” technique and using criteria just like the second graders had done with their monsters. The height and width requirements were the same as the ones for the second graders. I added that the feathers had to be in a pattern and that the turkey had to have several specific body parts. As before, the students could choose to work separately or with a partner. They excitedly got to work creating their turkeys.

The next day I handed them back their turkeys and gave them paper to write their descriptions for the second graders. We re-read the paragraphs that we had written a week before about the most helpful kinds of details to add into descriptions. I also reminded them of the ease or difficulty that they had had with re-creating the monsters based on a description. I told them to keep this in mind when they were writing their descriptions for the turkeys.

When the descriptions were ready, we traded them with the second graders. The second graders went to work the next day on making turkeys based only on the third graders’ descriptions. The second grade teacher and I were both very happy with the results of this project. We loved that it involved building cross-grade relationships, capturing the enthusiasm of the holidays through art, fostering the four C’s (connectivity, communication, creativity, and critical thinking), adding elements of measurement into art, and making connections between art and literacy through paragraph and descriptive writing. This activity could easily be replicated with nearly any unit or time of year with any grade.