Elementary students create monsters no one has ever seen before. After students draw their monsters, they write descriptive paragraphs about their creations. The descriptive paragraphs are swapped with a partner class through e-mail, and cyber pals try to duplicate the monsters, basing their interpretations on the written descriptions. Resulting illustrations are scanned and swapped, and kids get to see how powerful language can be. Along the way, students learn descriptive writing skills and find common ground in the universal appeal of ugly monsters.
View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Monster Swap Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.
Prior to Instruction
Locate a class to partner up with at ePALS* or post this project at the Global Schoolhouse Project Registry*. Arrange to have buddies (either parents or upper-grade students) scan drawings.
Looking at How Words Can Paint a Picture
Read The Judge by Harvey Zemach. Before reaching the last page, have students draw a picture of "the horrible creature coming this way." Post the illustrations around the room and compare them. Pose the following Unit and Content Questions:
Discuss the word choices the author made to help the reader see a picture of the creature in the reader’s mind. Ask students to consider why the class had so many different interpretations of the horrible creature.
Before teaching about descriptive writing, tell students you have drawn a monster and will show it to them after you describe it. Read from strips of paper that have both helpful descriptive phrases and more narrative phrases. Ask students which phrases help them to “see” your monster in their mind's eye (for example, "My monster likes to read books." versus "My monster has three orange eyes shaped like cat's eyes."). Sort the phrases, then post the descriptive ones and let kids try to draw your monster. Make sure the description is very simple so students are successful. Have an art show, and discuss how interpretations differ.
Working With Adjectives
Introduce the term and definition of the word adjective. Then show pictures of Max's friends in Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are. Ask students to come up with as many adjectives as possible to describe the monsters in Sendak’s illustrations. Record student responses. Afterwards, post the list of adjectives and encourage students to continue to add new words as the unit progresses.
Read descriptive excerpts from William Steig's book Shrek to further answer the Unit Question, How can words be used to paint a picture? Substitute the character's name until the end of the activity, and ask students to imagine the creature they hear about.
Finally, reveal the character's name and talk about how it was interpreted differently in the movie and in their minds. Identify vibrant words (words that evoke strong visual imagery, and words that are accurate and precise) in the book and list them on a poster board. Discuss how comparison can help describe (such as, "Its single foot is like an elephant's.").
Creating Original Monsters
Challenge students to draw their own monster, one no one has ever seen before. Encourage them to make their drawings fill the pages, with most detail going into the monsters, not the surroundings. Give a lot of time for pencil sketching and discussion, and then have students trace their final pencil drawings in black felt pen and color it with crayons or felt markers.
Using Words to Paint a Picture
Tell students that they will be writing a descriptive paragraph of their own to send to their cyber pals. Students use words to paint pictures of their monsters in the minds of their readers. Encourage precise word choice. Review what a descriptive paragraph should include. Circulate through the room as students work, asking questions and taking anecdotal notes. Include additional lessons if students need more help in using descriptive words effectively. Schedule conferences to assess student progress and provide additional help as needed.
After students complete their first drafts, ask them to exchange their writing with a partner. Have each pair review each others’ paragraph and circle the words that help them “see” the monster. Ask the partners in each pair to provide feedback to each other about using more or different vibrant words, or using comparisons more effectively. Give students time to edit for final draft and then publish their final copies. Have students exchange their final copies with their cyber pals.
Interpreting the Words of Others
When students receive their ePALS partners' descriptive essays, have students draw the monsters from the descriptions. Photocopy a set of these pictures to keep, and then send your students’ drawings to the partner class. The partner class should do the same.
Each student should end up with three products—their own drawing, their piece of descriptive writing, and their cyber pal's drawing based on the writing. Revisit the following Unit Questions:
Hold a class debriefing session to summarize learning and draw final conclusions about the power of language, and answer the Essential Question, How can I communicate so others will understand?
For older students, pass out the student rubric and ask them to use it as a guide when they create a multimedia slideshow. For younger students, consider scanning the pairs of monster pictures for use in a class multimedia slideshow. Students could read their descriptions into an audio track to accompany the drawings. Present the slideshow at a community gathering or in conjunction with a monster celebration.
English Language Learner
A teacher participated in the Intel® Teach Program, which resulted in this idea for a classroom project. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here. This classroom project was featured in An Innovation Odyssey, a collection of stories of technology in the classroom, Story 119: Monster Swap.
Grade Level: 1-3
Subject (s): Language Arts and Social Studies
Topics: Descriptive Writing
Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Elaboration, Analysis
Key Learnings: Writing for a Purpose, Imagery Through Writing, Cultural and Geographic Awareness
Time Needed: 3 weeks, 2-3 periods weekly
Background: Odyssey Story from Vermont, United States