Totem poles are tall wooden poles, most common among Native American tribes, with pictures of animals or people carved into them. Each animal or person represents a historic story about the tribe or family line. No two poles are alike, just as no two stories or families are ever the same. Incorporating totem poles in classroom teaching helps students to better understand the Native American culture. Creating models or replicas can be a fun project, as well.
Depicting Family Members
Start teaching younger children about totem poles by focusing on the family. Have the student draw pictures of family members' faces on plain paper. Once the drawings are done, laminate them and staple them to a block of wood or a wooden dowel. Thick cardboard or paper towel rolls make good alternatives. Have the child arrange the faces intentionally, in order of oldest to youngest, boys and girls, or otherwise.
Telling Stories With Pictures
Combine Native American history and personal narrative by encouraging children to draw a "family story" totem pole on a large sheet of butcher paper. After the children have picked a family story or history to share, help them draw that story with animals. For example, a big, strong father who built a family tree house can be represented by a bear on the bottom of the totem pole holding the rest of the family in its arms. Provide examples of how human characteristics are reflected in the animal kingdom to help students make appropriate choices. Hang the totem pole pictures around the classroom.
Toilet Paper Rolls
Toilet paper rolls are a perfect size for young children to make totem poles. The toilet paper rolls are brown like wood, which helps children to imagine they are making real totem poles. Children can easily create their own miniature totems by painting the rolls with bright colors, then gluing them atop each other. Cut up another paper roll to make wings, antlers, or a tail for some of the animals represented on the totem pole.
Using branches or felled trees around the neighborhood or in nearby woods, older children can carve totem poles with chisels, knives or an ax. Remove the bark of the tree or branch with the chisel. The wood can be smoothed with sandpaper, if so desired. It is best to draw the totem pole's design on the wood before carving to keep from making mistakes. A drill, saw and wood glue are good for adding appendages or wings to the totem pole design.
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