"Bird" Ritual

(keep the word "bird" secret until the lesson begins)
This is an example of a "beginning of class ritual "
© Marvin Bartel, 2000
Age Levels?
This ritual is probably appropriate for any age beginning from grade three through adults in senior citizen homes. Younger children may have some problems with the modeling method and the blind contour drawing methods used, but other parts of the experience work well with younger children.  First grade children can begin to do some work from observation, but we need to be content with some "uneven" results.

Outcomes? what is learned?

  1. Students learn ways to generate ideas
  2. Fosters imagination
  3. Practices observation drawing
One of each is picked up as students come in the room.
A sheet of white paper (8.5 x 11 inches).
A writing and drawing tool. Ball-point pens are good.
A piece of clay the size of a large hen egg wrapped in plastic or in a sandwich bag.  Do not have it preshaped shaped like an egg.
A six inch square of brown paper (similar to old grocery bags) or anything similar.
A seven inch square "blinder card" or helper card (manila folder or tag board cards with small center holes to place on the ball-point so they can not see the drawing paper as they are drawing)

A wet paper towel to wipe clay off of hands.
A dry paper towel to finish cleaning.

Teacher Instructions

  1. Each student is asked to make a very fast written list of anything that comes to mind after they hear the word for today. The word is "Bird".  The list should have 10 or more words.

  2. Write down the first things they think of as fast as they possibly can. This lasts only about two minutes. Ask those with the most words to identify themselves. Briefly explain the importance of "fluency" in the creative idea generation process.

  3. Ask them to put down a several words that are the opposite of the word "bird". Often the opposite of something helps us understand something and feel more strongly about something.  Highly
  4. creative people are more apt to think of opposites when solving problems.  See this link for research report.  Ask for at least four opposite words.

  5. Students are asked to close eyes and dream of flying, of levitation, of being free of gravity, moving in space, descending, ascending, gliding, diving, swooping, turning, and so on.  Use many descriptive terms that imply motion.

  6. The clay is unwrapped. With their eyes closed (or looking away) they are forming the clay without setting it down. They are forming the essence of a bird. Repeat the descriptive motions words as they work. Parts are pulled from the center out - not assembled from parts. 1
    NOTE: Do not talk about this being used for a drawing. Some may try to keep it simple to avoid having a challenging object to draw.

  7. They are asked to consider making the bird look askance - to turn. "When they do, what happens to the tail?"  What if it is escaping? What if it is capturing?

  8. If you notice any egg shapes, remind them that this ritual is about motion and how birds move.  "Hatch those eggs and give them flight!"

  9. They place the bird (or the image of motion) on a six inch piece of paper on an adjacent desk.  Turn it to find the most elaborate and interesting outline that shows the greatest amount of motion.

  10. top of page

  11. Students draw on the same sheet of paper that has the list of bird words. With seven inch square paper blinders on their ball-points, they are asked to slowly and carefully draw the observed outline of the clay. This is blind contour drawing done by carefully observing the edges of the clay piece as the pen moves without looking at the paper.

    Expect mistakes when the line comes around.  Joke that only peekers get this without any mistakes.  After the first outline is complete, allow another line or two done the same way right on the same drawing to show corrections if desired.  This drawing is PRACTICE for the brain - not intended for the museum wall just yet.

What is learned?
  1. In list-making, they understand the value of cultivating fluency to foster their own creativity.
  2. Their imagination is nurtured by pretending to be in flight.
  3. They learn the value of multi-sensory motivation and inspiration through touch.
  4. They learn about the "analytical" modeling method. This is Viktor Lowenfeld's 1 term for working out from a single piece of clay instead of joining several part to make a whole. That is the "analytic" method. By requiring students to use a certain method, we are "changing habits of work."  According to Laura Chapman 2 and others, changing habits of work is a significant way to insure new learning in art. This the opposite of, "Do it anyway you want to."  When a teachers says, "Do whatever you want to do," the student responds with whatever the student already feels sure of.  Freedom is often license to do the same old thing.
  5. They practice skill and gain confidence by observational perception and drawing.

Historical Connections

Many examples from art history could be used after the above hands-on experience. Here we see a beautiful 54 inch abstract sculptural interpretation of a bird in flight. It is most appropriate to lead a discussion of works such as this after students have experiences such as the above modeling and drawing ritual. The experience of making and drawing increases the likelihood of intuitive knowing, identification with, and understanding. The imperative for abstraction becomes more a obvious and natural solution. Their experience heightens both their need to know and their ability to know.

Conversely, to have shown the historical example first, will limit their ownership in their work. Secondly, they will have seen the object as something to imitate rather than something to know. Thirdly, they will not have learned to create from their own insights and experience of the world. They will be encouraged to be dependent on others and less confident in their own creative facility.

Bird in Space 3 by Constantin Brancusi
c. 1927.
Bronze. 54 inches high.
Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


1 Lowenfeld, Viktor and Brittain W. Lambert. Creative and Mental Growth , 6 th Ed. 1975 Maclmillan, N.Y. pp. 224-225.

"Two methods of working with clay can be observed. One is that of pulling out from the whole and the other is that of putting single parts together. . . . Pulling clay out from the whole means to have a concept of the total, however vague, from which details will be developed: this method is called the analytic method. The other method . . . . putting single representative symbols together into a whole means the child is building up a synthesis of partial impressions: this method is called the synthetic method.

2 Chapman, Laura H. Approaches to Art in Education . 1978 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.Y. p.54

"Changing Habits of Work. . . . The value of learning to 'shift gears' is widely acknowledged."

3 Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 5th ed. revised by de la Croix, Horst and Tansey, Richard G. 1970. Harcourt Brace and World, N.Y. p. 720, figure 17-33.

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Updated 4 February 2004

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