Talking Rocks: a lesson plan by Nancy Ratzloff

Target Age: Third Grade

Medium Used in Production Activity: Clay, underglazes


Students will understand the difference between petroglyphs and
pictographs from Ancient Native American peoples.
Students will discuss how rock art was made for a variety of reasons
and how the preservation of it continues.
Students will understand how artist Ernest Whiteman was inspired by
the rock art of his culture and have the opportunity to communicate directly
with him about his creative processes and symbols.
Students will create symbols that are representative of a story about
their world.
Students will learn techniques for making clay slab and pinch pot work.
Students will have experience using ArtsNetMN curriculum resource
and WebBoard Discussion Conference.

Materials and Resources


pencils and erasers
PRINTABLE HANDOUTS (One for each student):
- Symbol Detective Worksheet #1 -contemporary symbols
- Symbol Detective Worksheet #2 -Native American symbols
- Narrative Story Worksheet - to write story
- Symbol Creation Worksheet - to create symbols
- Assessment Sheet - self assessment
These will take time to download.
- Symbol Detective Worksheet #1 Key
- Symbol Detective Worksheet #2 Key
These will take time to download.
- for practice slab - plasticene, water based or red sculpture clay
- for final project: red, white, or aqua clay - 06 cone is recommended
Clay should be wedged and divided into 3" - 4" cubes; 2-3 cubes for each student.
- wooden paddles
- metal spoons
- marking and scribing tools
- underglazes (optional)
- newspaper or cloth to cover surfaces


Class access to internet site ArtsNetMN (
either with a computer projector or computer teams of 3 students.
Bush, Jane (1993). If rocks could talk, curriculum unit (includes major rock art styles of
the Southwest poster). Book & video edition , Dale Seymour Publications; ISBN: 0866516212
Symbol Detective Worksheet #2 Key
Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association:
Dudzik, Mark J. "Visions in Stone: The Rock Art of Minnesota" In The Minnesota
, James E. Myster, ed. Vol. 54 1995, 99–108 (St. Paul: Minnesota
Archeological Society, 1997).
Dudzik, Mark, The Jeffers Petroglyphs, State Archeological Association
Dudzik, Mark, PaleoIndian, State Archeological Association
Teacher guide from MIA for poster #3, postcards - optional
MIA poster, Untitled, by Ernest Whiteman; teacher's guide, postcards - optional
Norval Morrisseau with several digital images at

Rina Swentzell, Children of Clay: a Family of Pueblo Potters, Lerner Pub, Mpls. (1992)

George Morrison Video: Reflections (1998), 26 minute, VHS Minnesota Historical
Society Press, St. Paul.


Ancient Native American peoples - a term referring to the indigenous people of the
Americas, Native Americans
ArtsNetMN - an internet site from the Walker Art Center, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts,
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and the Minnesota Museum of American Art that is a
curriculum resource.
Burnish - a technique used to smooth and shine the earthen clay surface created by rubbing
leather hard clay with a smooth stone (traditional) or smooth surface (modern method uses
a stainless spoon back).
Fire in the Kiln - the technique used to harden the clay so it becomes like stone. The kiln
serves as the "oven" where the clay is "baked" at extremely high temperatures (4-6 times
hotter than the oven in our homes). The "fire" traditionally is a hot bonfire, but classrooms
often have electric kilns.
Identity - what makes us who we are. How we see ourselves, how others see us.
Leather Hard - drying earthen clay to where it is unable to bend or be manipulated without
breaking. The last stage before completely drying the clay in preparation for the first firing.
Petroglyph - a rock engraving in which the image is scratched, incised or pecked into the rock.
Pictograph - a rock painting or drawing (or a combination of both), an ancient image
found painted/drawn on the rock surface.
Symbol - a simplified image associated with and/or used to represent something else.
Texture - a manipulated surface of a repeating raised pattern.
WebBoard - a discussion group connected to ArtsNetMN

Procedure :

DAY 1 (and/or 2):

Part 1. Who is Ernest Whiteman?

Introduction of Artist Ernest Whiteman and his artwork.

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflection on meeting Ernest Whiteman.


Arrange for students to view Ernest Whiteman's work Untitled by :

- using a computer projector in the classroom
- by going to a computer lab (2-3 students per computer).

Have the students answer the discussion questions in groups.

Read, or have the students read, About the Art and About the Artist and answer the
Discussion/Activities questions. You might want to print the questions and create
worksheets from the discussion link, (
or you might want to use the Teacher Guide, poster and postcards available at the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts ( to create your own discussion questions.

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflection on her students' meeting Ernie over the internet.

*Read the story below about Ernie's fishing trips with his father, and how his artwork,
Untitled, was inspired by the experience he had with his father viewing the petroglyphs
on the Wind River (he was probably the same age the students are now).

Ernest Whitman's story:

"When I was a boy about 9 or 10, my father took me fishing in a very remote
place on the Wind River where I grew up. He did not tell me that we were going
to see anything particular - just that we would be fishing. We walked a long way
through the woods and suddenly we came upon pictographs painted on rocks.
They were a surprise to me and I was astonished when I heard how old the
carvings were. Although I did not know it at the time, these carvings were to have
a big influence on me and I used them in my art many years later".

Part 2. What is the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs?

A pictograph is a rock painting or drawing (or a combination of both).

Another art work related to pictographs at the Weisman Art Museum:

Mimbres Classic Black-on-White Bowl

A petroglyph is a rock engraving made by pecking the surface with a harder stone. Some
are abraded or rubbed, some are scratched or incised into the rock and some have
cross hatched textures that are chiseled across the surface.

Extensions :

You might want to discuss the issues around preservation of petroglyphs and
pictographs. Why are humans the biggest threat to their preservation? How do
environmental changes effect these works? What natural processes occur that
protect them? ( the rock secretes minerals called rock varnish, the natural sealant
that protects the writings.)

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflection about developing a Symbol Detective Sheet.

Pass out the Symbol Detective Worksheet #1. Beginning with the contemporary
symbols, select meanings for each example and discuss with the class. How do
these symbols reflect their meaning? Why do we use these symbols instead of

Click here for student exemplars of symbol detective sheets.

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflection about using the Symbol Detective Sheets.

Repeat this with the Native American symbols on the symbol detective
worksheet, Symbol Detective Worksheet #2. (See Symbol Detective Worksheet #2 Key
for decoding the Native American symbols.) It will be more difficult for students to
"decode" the Native American symbols because the students do not know the
"language". Bring this to the students' attention. Source for American Indian symbol
meanings: Ernest Whiteman, Cole, Sally. (1990), Dudzik, 1995,1998, 2000, Keyser,
James , (July 2000) Keyser, James, (1992) , Landes, Ruth, Cole, Sally, (1997),
Moore, Sabra, (1999).

DAY 3:

Ask students to write a story on the Narrative Story Worksheet about a significant event
in their life (reflecting on Ernest Whiteman's days fishing with his father and his
memory of the petroglyphs). They could write out the story and/or make a drawing about it.

Important! The story also needs to include a significant number, some kind of special
number or numerical count that can also be included in the talking rock. e.g. Six kids in
the family - six would be the number of clay stones to include in the rock/rattle.

Note: This part can be done in partnership with a classroom teacher as a writing
assignment. All three sites integrated the Talking Rocks unit into a writing unit in
the classroom called "My Favorite Memory".

Then, once they have completed a Narrative Story Worksheet of their special event, pass
out Symbol Creation Worksheets and ask students to identify at least 3 symbols from
their story. Bring their attention to how the symbols were simplified on the worksheet.
Following this model, have students simplify their symbols.

Click here for student exemplars of symbol creation sheets.

DAY 4:

Students will create a rock or slab study out of plasticine, oil clay or red earthware
and practice the symbols from the symbol creation sheet in the clay with clay tools.

Click here for petroglyph and pictograph procedure

Click here for examples of practice slabs.

DAY 5/6:

Can a rock talk? If the petroglyphs and pictographs we have studied could talk, what stories
do you think they would tell? What kinds of sounds can rocks make? Today we will start to
make our own talking rocks from clay using what we have learned so far.

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflections.

Drawings by Carolyn Olson

1. Give each child enough clay (06 red sculpture or 04 white raku) to make 3 solid balls
fitting in the palm of their hand with their fingers closed gently around it.

2. Divide each ball in 2 equal pieces.

3. Take a bit of clay from each half and make small clay beads.
Let them dry while making the pinch pots.

Ask the children to think of people (parents that live far
away, siblings, friends, etc.) important to them and make a
bead to represent each of these specific people in their lives.
For example, if their grandparents are important, they may
want to make 2 or 4 beads. The size of each bead may
represent the person as well. The size and number will affect
the sound as they "rattle" inside the sphere—bigger - more t
hud-like, small - more tinkle-like This may be significant
for the student. When the rattle is shaken, these important
people will be remembered.

Click here for a picture of student making beads.

4. Create 2 pinch pots from one divided ball of clay. Try to make the
walls, depth of the bowl, circumference and height as equally as
possible. Relatively thin walls are best because the thinner the walls,
the more sound the talking rock will make.

Creating 2 similar pots will lead to a discussion of balance and cooperation. The 2 are fine on their own but together working together equally, they create a whole balanced sphere.

Also, when making pinch pots, remember to reinforce keeping the
clay in their hands...not on the table, as they work the walls. This
will assure a round bottom and more consistently even thickness
for the walls.

5. Have each child place the clay beads required in one pinch pot.
Score and slip the joint. Place the adjoining pinch pot on top and
carefully smooth the clay pots together, trying not to dent in
the sphere.

If the clay is too damp, the clay beads may stick to the inside walls. Often they can be shaken loose, but not always. A small tissue paper wrapped around the beads will assure their ability to rattle around. But too much paper may create a soot that will seep out of the air hole. Experiment.

6. Paddle the rattle gently with a flat wooden tool. This will cause the
sphere to be reduced in size, creating a rounder shape as it smooths
out any bumps and imperfections.

Click here for examples of smooth rocks.

Technique Tip: Use a wooden spoon to tap, tap tap the ball to smoothness. Click here for a video demonstration.

Be careful: This can also be the end of your hollow sphere as some of the spheres may have had thick walls and we are now reducing that even more by the tapping. This will create a "paperweight" which is susceptible to fire and will require extra attention due to the hidden danger of air pockets. Make sure the pinch pot is thin enough before they join the two halves.

7. Select or create a personal symbol based on the Narrative Story
and Symbol Creation Sheet. Mark with personal symbols, creating
an overall textural pattern. The sphere needs to be in the leather
hard stage for incising. Mark initials.

8. Let dry to a little less than leather dry.

9. Burnish with a spoon.

10. Re-mark symbols. The burnishing will nearly erase the mark, but
will have defined the overall smooth surface area. The symbols that
were etched earlier will need more cleaning up.

11. Let the rattles air dry until the end of the school day. Using a shish-
ka-bob skewer or pointed stick, puncture each sphere to create the
needed air hole for firing. The days' drying has caused the clay to
shrink and forced the rattle to become even more round. You will hear
a "fffith" when the air is released from inside. That's good. Let the rattles
dry in preparation for firing.

12. Repeat steps for each rattle.
(Because the "padding" does not work, it is wise to have each student make
two rocks so they will have at least one talking rock.)

13. Glazing: Glazing can be done, but keep the glaze as thin as possible.
The thicker the walls, the less rattle will be heard.

Click here for student exemplars of talking rocks ready to fire.

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflections.

Glazing Suggestions:
- Underglaze the entire rattle before symbols are marked. Carve
symbols through the glaze. This would emulate creating a
pictograph image.
- Underglaze after symbols are marked. Fill the markings carved
into the surface of the rattle with glaze and then remove the glaze
on the unmarked surface, leaving the color to enhance the petroglyph
images. Optional cover coat is possible.
- Using an underglaze, complete a mixture of the two processes,
allowing the carved petroglyphs to fill with glaze and the smooth
surface be drawn on with the scribe as a petroglyph. Cover coat may
or may not be necessary.


DAY 7:

Students will have study buddies or partners to assess each other's
final fired talking rocks using :
Assessment Sheet
Have the students keep a reflective journal or create an "artist's statement" - What does the
rock say about me?
How is Untitled , by Ernest Whiteman, a personal or cultural symbol about him?

Click here for Nancy's teacher reflections on assessment.

Click here for student exemplars of finished talking rocks.

DAY 8:

Read what the students and teachers said to each other and what Mr. Whiteman said:

Students might generate questions to ask other conference participants (students,
adults, Dr. Bridges, the ArtsNetMN Community and Mr. Whiteman)

Ernest Whiteman answers student questions at the address above.
ArtsNetMN's first permanent artwork,
Ernest Whiteman, Barbara Bridges
Collaborative work
Balance and Harmony, 2000
red clay, natural stain
4 in. round

Extensions and Community Building:

Encourage student/teacher/parent reflections on the project, show and tell with other
classes or plan a community event.

Three Minnesota teachers customized the unit for their specific constituencies. The
unit was piloted in three different ways.

Please click on each Teacher Thread below for individual Teacher Notes, Reflections,
Additional Resources, student exemplars etc.

Click here for Nancy's closing reflections.

Mora/Broekemeier Thread
Little Falls/ Ratzloff Thread
Cotton/Olson Thread


This project was funded by The Perpich Center for Arts Education.

Bemidji State University provided graduate credit for the teachers participating in the
Whiteman Curriculum Project:

The ArtsNetMN website is a joint project of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota Museum of
American Art
, Walker Art Center, and The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum.


Campbell, David, (1993) Native american art and folklore (A Cultural Celebration)
Crescent Books, NY

Ceramic Curriculum Online:

Cole, Sally. (1990) Legacy on stone rock art of the Colorado plateau and four corners region,
Johnson Books,1880 S. 57th Ct., Boulder, CO 80301

Dudzik, Mark, (1995), Visions in Stone, The Minnesota Archeologist, Vo. 54
Call 612-725-2411 for resources.

Dudzik, Mark, (1999), The Jeffers Petroglyphs, State Archeological Association.
Call 612-725-2411 for resources.

Dudzik, Mark, (2000), PaleoIndian, State Archeological Association . Call 612-725-2411
for resources.

Keyser, James , (July 2000) The five crows ledger: biographic warrior art of the flathead,
Univ. of Utah Pr (Txt); ISBN: 0874806593

Keyser, James, (1992) Indian rock art of the columbia plateau, J - Univ. of Washington
Press, PO Box 50096, Seattle, WA 98145-5096

Landes, Ruth, Cole, Sally, (1997), The ojibway woman, Univ of Nebraska Pr; ISBN: 0803279698

Mimbres Pottery

Moore, Sabra, (1999) Petroglyphs: ancient language/sacred art, Clear Light Pub;
ISBN: 1574160117

Patterson, Alex. (1992) Field guide to rock art symbols of the Greater SW - Johnson
Books, ISBN: 1555660916

Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges

Stokes, Michael (1993), Images in Stone, Starstone Press, Salt Lake City, Utah

Museum Resources

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Slide Set: People And Their Environments

Size: 8 slides, 73 pg. text with classroom activities. Grades: K-6

Price: $5.00 per two-week rental

This set examines the relationship of people to their natural and manufactured

Landscapes, cityscapes, sculpture, and a period room encourage students to
consider where and who people live, and whether they live in harmony or
conflict with their surroundings. Relates to Minnesota's Profiles of Learning:

Learning Area 1: Read, View, Listen

Learning Area 3: Arts

Learning Area 5: Inquiry

Learning Area 6: Scientific Applications

Learning Area 7: People and Cultures

Call (612) 870-3134 to reserve slide sets and video.

Teacher Guide for Poster #3, postcards for Whiteman's Untitled
(Somewhat limited supply)

Click here for larger version of the Teacher Guide.

Weisman Art Museum

Slide Set: Listening with the Heart: the Work of Frank Big Bear, George Morrison
and Norval Morrisseau

Includes 9 slides and biographies of these
contemporary Ojibwe artists with discussion questions and student
activities connected to themes found through their work. Intermediate,
middle and high.

Slide Set: To Touch the Past: Painted Pottery of the Mimbres People.
A packet of 11 slides of pottery from the Weisman's permanent collection
and discussion questions. This stellar collection of 1000 year old pottery
with enigmatic imagery was originally found in southern New Mexico.

Perpich Center for Arts Education Learning Resource Center

The following Resources related to this project are available at the
Perpich Center for Arts Education Learning Resource Center, 6125 Olson
Memorial Highway, Golden Valley, Minnesota. Online, you may access
a catalog of resources at:

Canyon de Chelly, its people and rock art. Grant Campbell, 1978

American women artists: from early Indian times to the present. Rubinstein, Charlotte, 1982

The ancestors: native artisans of the Americas Museum of the American Indian, 1979

The Arts of the North American Indian: native traditions in evolution Philbrook Art Center, 1986

The legacy of generations pottery by American, (video cassette tape) WETA-TV
(Washington, D.C.), 1998

Lost and found traditions: native American art 1965-1985, Coe, Ralph T., 1986

North American Indian arts, Whiteford, Andrew Hu, 1995

Patrick DesJarlait and the Ojibwe tradition, Minnesota Museum of American Art, 1970

Respecting Native American art as world art, Touchette, Charleen, 1995

Seth Eastman: a portfolio of North American Indians, Boehme, Sarah, 1995

The spirit of native America: beauty and mysticism in American Indian art, Walters, Anna Lee, 1989

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