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Box Totem Pole

Created for Saturday Art with University of Cincinnati (Ages 9-10)
I think for the most part the students learned to work together better with each project and this week was the most productive collaboration. I think if I were to try some of these projects again I would divide the class into smaller subgroups that join together before the end of the project.
Once I set the students to work after the motivation, they were mostly very interested in working on their project. The week we did the telephone painting they even asked to have more time to work on completing that project the next week. I think I did a good job setting them up to be excited to work on a project and engage in collaborative art practices.
I think the overall flow worked well. The biggest challenge I encountered was with students who acted out to gain attention, pulling me away from giving feedback to the rest of the class. This was made more challenging by not having all the students on the first day to have them participate in the creation and discussion of the expectations for behavior. I think if I encounter a situation like that again I will spend more time on the other days going over expectations.
This experience helped me to understand the timing for my projects and how to incorporate clean up time better. It also helped me to increased my skills in classroom management.

Thoughts from the teacher:

Lesson Summary:
In this project students will create a totem pole with their group. Each student will create a single segment and work together to assemble the final product. They will examine how the significance of their segment can relate back to the history explained about totem poles.

Specific Objectives:

Students will:

  • Create a part of a totem pole utilizing provided materials.

  • Collaborate with their partners to assemble totem pole.

  • Relate the representations in their own totem poles to the representations in traditional totem poles.

Materials List: Boxes of similar sizes, Colorful construction paper, Glue Sticks, Scissors, Hot glue and glue gun

Instructional Aides:

A brief history of totem poles:

  • Alaskan Native communities heavily rely on animals for sustenance and inspiration, especially in regards to the bases of their social structure. The tradition of stories being passed through families and communities spans generations, leading to much of the various clans’ unique identities. Each animal holds its own story and spiritual meaning. These meanings have translated into the identities for several Alaskan Native clans in the Southeast region. The spiritual representation of an animal is often embodied and eternalized through a totem pole. The word “totem” is actually a misnomer that stems from totemism, which “was thought to be the primordial religion” of the communities which create totem poles. While this name provides an appealing mystery to the carvings, it is entirely inaccurate. These totem poles are symbols of a community's history, values, and traditions, but not the base of a religion. Each aspect of a totem pole is as important and individualized as the animal it is based on. The four clans that have a particularly rich history involving the totem pole are the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

  • Examples of both the end result of the project and real life totem poles.

Vocabulary: Totem Pole, Cultural Traditions


Pre-class Preparation:

  • Read over brief history of totem poles linked.

  • Have paper sorted by color and available for students to get as needed while working.

  • Have scissors in one bin and glue sticks in another, one of each per student in lesson.

  • Heat hot glue gun and keep in a place where only you will have access.

  • Have boxes set aside for students to see the varying shapes and sizes.  


  • Have students come in and sit on ground as a group.

  • Introduce what a totem pole is and go over the brief history provided.

  • Show examples during explanation.

  • Have students find a partner and discuss for 5-7 minutes:

  • What might different animals represent?

  • What animals do you like? Which ones do you relate to?

  • What might be different about seeing a real animal versus a mythological creature on a totem pole?

Art Activity:

  • Once discussions are done divide class into two equal size groups.

  • Explain that the students will be creating box sculptures with the materials provided to depict an animal or creature of their choosing and that they will be collaborating with their group to create their own totem pole that represents their group.

  • Each group should decide what animal or creature each artist is going to create and begin work.

  • They should consider what each animal or creature might convey separately but also how that might change when they are displayed as one cohesive piece.

  • Students will be allowed to get up and get new paper as needed while working but should spend most of their time at their workstation.

  • If they need a larger or heavier piece of paper glued together or onto their box the students should raise their hand and request to have help with the hot glue gun.

  • Once all students in the group are done they should let the teacher know so they can get help with the hot glue gun to assemble the totem pole.

  • Only stack the boxes together so it may be taken apart later for students to take home their portion of the work.

Clean up:

  • With 10 minutes left announce it is time to clean up, spend about 5 minutes of class time cleaning up.

  • Students should return any paper big enough to still be used and return glue and scissors to the bins.

  • Students should look for paper scraps or anything else that fell to the floor.

  • Can make a competition out of how many paper scraps each student picks up.

  • Give students wipes to clean up any glue that may have gotten on the table.


  • Bring both totem poles to the front of the classroom. Have students swap poles with the other group.

  • Students should spend about 2-3 minutes discussing what is done well, what could be done better, and what the totem pole might say about the students who created it.

  • Once students have finished discussing they should share what they think with the other group.


Pembroke, Hannah. (05/21/2021). The History and Significance of Totem Poles. Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

Sykora, Chris. (02/06/2023). Paper Totems. Deerfield High School.

Students in Action:
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