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Dancing jaguar

Anthropomorphic Jaguar Figure, Mexico Chiapas, Tuxtla Chico, 600–300 BC. Basalt, 39 3/4 x 18 1/8 x 15 3/4 inches. Museo Regional de Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez (10-40941)

Description: The Olmec civilization created art that used animal forms and symbols to communicate its values. Students will create a self-portrait using animal images to represent themselves. 

Objectives: Choose an animal to represent you and create an animal self-portrait. Write a descriptive paragraph describing the significance of the animal selected and how it relates to the student’s identity.

Part 1: Painting Animal Portraits


  • Animal images (photographs, illustrations, or images from Web)
  • Photocopy of each student’s photograph on 8.5 x 11 in. paper (school photo enlarged to this size is OK or take frontal photos of students and enlarge to 8.5 x 11 in. paper)
  • Tag board or heavy paper
  • Glue or glue sticks
  • Art materials (colored pencils, crayons, etc.)

Vocabulary: represent, symbolize, characteristics (traits), symmetry

Language Frame (for ELLs): The __animal___ represents me because ___reason___.
The __animal___ _ symbolizes me because ___reason___.


1. Introduction

Teacher explains: “The Olmecs created representations of were-jaguars (jaguar-men) known for their trapezoid mouths. The jaguar was an important animal for the Olmecs. What do you think the jaguar might represent?” Discuss. Solicit ideas. Power. Strength. Bravery. Velocity.

Teacher explains: “Many cultures use animals to represent human characteristics (traits that people have or aspire to have). Which animal represents you and why?” Discuss. If possible, show various images of animals to spark ideas.* Students discuss and share (e.g., a dog can symbolize faithfulness, loyalty, or playfulness). Use language frame above if helpful: The cat represents me because I am clever and curious.
*e.g., tiger, dog, wolf, dove, monkey, dolphin, wolf, etc.

NOTE: Teacher should be aware that some animals often have negative personal or cultural associations (e.g. pig, snakes, vultures, rats, etc.). Teacher can decide how to proceed. A teacher can create a classroom environment for tolerance of diverse opinions if there is a child who would like to use a negatively associated animal.

2. Demonstration

Teacher explains that students will create an animal self-portrait using a photocopy of a photograph of themselves with animals that represents them.
a. Cut out the photocopy of student photograph so the head is separated from the background.
b. Cut it in half (down the line of symmetry).
c. Choose the best half to paste down on heavy paper or tag board leaving space to draw the other half.
d. Use a pencil to draw the other half of the face using an animal image. One way of proceeding is to use one half to draw the other half along the line of symmetry, Students can start with the eyes, the eyebrows, the nose the mouth the head, the ears. Then they may add animal features (hair, feathers, leather nose, etc.). Teacher may have images of animal faces for the students to use as references. Students may use their imagination.

Alternative A: Students may simply draw the animal on the other side of the line of symmetry without worrying about matching the face. This is would be helpful for images whose frontal face view would be difficult to draw and recognize (e.g. parrot, dolphin, seahorse, etc.)
Alternative B: Students may cut out the entire face. Paste onto tag board and draw the animal body around it.
Alternative C. For more artistically adept students, they may want to combine two or more animals in their animal self-portrait.

e. Decorate the image and background.
f. Students may wish to use symbols to decorate work, e.g., a heart = love.
g. At the end of the art session, have students do a gallery walk: Bring their images to a central location (place at center of rug with students in a circle or tape on white board) or leave them at the desks. Students view art and discuss what they observe.
I notice _______. I wonder about _______.


Part 2: Writing About Portraits


  • Animal self-portraits
  • Example of an animal self-portrait and writing
  • List of characteristics
  • Graphic Organizer for Animal-Self Portrait
  • Writing paper

Vocabulary: characteristics, evidence, example, introductory sentence, concluding sentence.

Language Frame (for ELLs): I am __animal___ because ___evidence or example___.
When I __evidence or example___, I am a ___animal___.


1. Review what students did in previous lesson.

2. Teacher explains that students will write an expository paragraph about their animal self-portrait.

3. Examine characteristics list. Explain that one way of demonstrating characteristics about a person is to provide evidence or an example, e.g., I am brave when I am the first to try something that is dangerous. Use the Language Frame (above) if necessary.

4. Teacher directs class to teacher’s own self-portrait and explains what the animal symbolizes. Teacher uses Graphic Organizer for Animal Self-portraits to list three (or more) characteristics of that animal and gives examples or evidence.

Example: Tiger—beautiful, brave, independent. I am a tiger because tigers are beautiful. Beautiful is not only what you look like but also what you do. I try to create beautiful things and do beautiful things for other people. Bravery is something I try to have when I stick up for people who are being bullied. Sometimes this is hard and uncomfortable, so being courageous is important. I am independent. When use my alone time to think, I show my independence. I don’t have to do what others do to be happy. I am a tiger—beautiful, brave, and independent. Grrr.

5. Select a student’s animal self-portrait to do together. Have students look at the animal the student chose and the background and symbols used to decorate the portrait. Students may ask questions of the student.

6. Students think of characteristics (from list if necessary) for the selected student. Students pair-share a characteristic and evidence/example with each other. Have students indicate (such as thumbs up) when they are ready to share. Have students share ideas. Negotiate with students the best characteristic to use in the Graphic Organizer. (Note that there are two levels of scaffolding in the Graphic Organizer. Use the one best suited for your students)

Optional: Demonstrate how to use the Graphic Organizer to complete the paragraph, using an introductory and concluding sentence.

7. Students complete Graphic Organizer to write their paragraph on their animal self-portrait.

Variation: Students go about the room soliciting from their peers the characteristic each sees in them. The students write a list and from the list choose three (or more) for which they can provide evidence.

8. Students share their writing in Author’s Chair as they display their work. Have class ask questions and make comments.


Grade 3
ELA Standards Writing Strategies
1.1 Organization and Focus: create a single paragraph that
1) develops a topic sentence
2) includes simple supporting facts and details

Visual Arts Standards
2.0 Creative Expression
Creating, Performing and Participating in the Visual Arts:
• Students apply artistic processes and skills, using a variety of media to communicate meaning and intent in original works of art.

Grade 4
ELA Standards Writing Strategies
1.1 Select a focus, an organizational structure, and a point of view based upon purpose, audience, length, and format requirements.

1.3 Use traditional structures for conveying information (e.g., chronological order, cause and effect, similarity and difference, posing and answering a question).

Visual Arts Standards
2.2 Use the conventions of facial and figure proportions in a figure study.

Grade 5 

ELA Standards Writing Strategies
1.2 Create multiple-paragraph expository compositions:
a. Establish a topic, important ideas, or events in sequence or chronological order.
b. Provide details and transitional expressions that link one paragraph to another in a clear line of thought.
c. Offer a concluding paragraph that summarizes important ideas and details.

Visual Arts Standards
2.2 Create gesture and contour observational drawings.