Make your Next Summarization Activity Interactive, Artistic, Kinesthetic
Summarization is one of the most effective teaching strategies, but if it isn’t part of your classroom instruction, you’re not alone. If you’re underusing summarization techniques—maybe because your experience with them has been, well, underwhelming—keep reading.
In the ASCD book Summarization in Any Subject: 50 Techniques to Improve Student Learning, National Board Certified Teacher Rick Wormeli presents written, spoken, artistic, and kinesthetic techniques. They’re intended for grades 3-12 and suitable for assignments and activities across the content areas. Excerpted below you’ll find a summarization technique that’s interactive, artistic, and kinesthetic.
In the body sculpture technique, also known as the statues technique, groups of students determine the essential attributes of a concept, idea, process, fact, sequence, or skill, and then design a frozen tableau using all the group members’ bodies in a way that best represents those essentials. Although they have a lot of fun molding their classmates’ bodies into an assembly of “statues” to represent what everyone has learned about a topic, there’s more than fun going on here. The analytical discussions students have while creating the sculpture and the discussions that their classmates have about the finished tableaus help the information move into long-term memory.
Let’s eavesdrop on a group of students using this technique.
“If you put your arms over your head like a roof, we’ll have shelter,” Mario suggested.
“Yeah, but what if I want to be something else instead?” Lakiesha replied.
“Fine. What else is there?”
Lakiesha scanned the textbook page a moment before pointing to the paragraph at the bottom right corner.
“Look here. It says that the second component of a habitat is food.”
“How are you going to show it?” Dylan asked.
“I could just freeze mid-motion while I rub my stomach,” Lakiesha replied.
Mario nodded. “OK. Now, how can we show decomposers?” he asked.
“Wait a minute,” Terry interjected. “That’s not a part of a habitat.”
“Yes, it is,” Mario said. “You can’t have a habitat without decomposers.”
“Well, yes, uh, no, I mean, I dunno,” Terry stammered. “What I mean is that we’re supposed to sculpt the five basic elements of a habitat. Decomposers is on the next page under ‘Energy Cycle,’ not under ‘Elements of a Habitat.’ From what I read, I think the elements are food, water, shelter, space, and arrangement of those things. Decomposers are not a basic element of an animal’s habitat.”
“Yeah,” Arnold added. “The book said decomposers enter the picture only after something is dead. Animals don’t have a death habitat, only a life habitat.”
“OK, I get it,” Mario said, nodding. “So Lakiesha represents food, and I’ll be the shelter. What do the rest of you want to be?”
“I’ll be water,” Anna offered, “but first, I want to know something: Are there habitats that don’t have decomposers?”
“I don’t know,” Terry said. “I suppose there could be.”
Anna continued. “I was thinking of little creatures in the frozen tundra that stay alive in the frozen soil and break down a dead animal’s remains, releasing energy back into the system. How can they do that when it’s so cold?”
“And what about animals that die in the middle of the ocean and their remains sink more than a mile to the bottom of the ocean?”
Jason added. “What decomposers live in places that have several tons of pressure on every square inch of their bodies?”
“OK, OK,” Mario cut in. “We can look at the next chapter of the textbook when we’re done. Let’s get back to basic habitat elements. Terry, can you read them off again?”
After your students have encountered some information—read a textbook chapter, listened to a lecture, watched a movie, done sample problems, watched a demonstration—and after you have discussed the material briefly as a large group, divide the students into small groups of four to six. Then ask them to “sculpt” a representation of one of the topics studied—a particular concept, idea, process, fact, sequence, or skill—using every group member’s body. You might have all groups use the same topic, or you may wish to assign a different topic to each group.
Give your students time to discuss what the topic’s essential attributes are and how best to represent them using every group member’s body in a purposeful manner. I recommend limiting discussions to 5 to 10 minutes at the elementary level and 10 to 15 minutes at the middle and high school levels. This might be one of the quietest movement activities a class can do because we teachers secretly share each group’s concept, telling members of each group to talk quietly so they don’t reveal the concept or suggested representations to other groups. The need to keep things secret will keep the noise level down.
Finally, have the groups form their frozen tableaus one at a time for the rest of the class so that their classmates can analyze the body sculptures and evaluate their accuracy. As the teacher, you facilitate the discussions with questions like these:
- What concept does this body sculpture represent? (This obviously works best when each group has illustrated a different concept.)
- How does this group’s body sculpture express that concept?
- Let’s see if the sculpture’s portrayal is accurate and comprehensive enough. Where in the text (or learning experience) were these attributes described?
- Is there a way to improve this sculpture so it clarifies or widens our understanding of the concept?
- If we were to ask one member of the sculpture group to become a moving part, what would it be and why? How does that movement further the accurate portrayal of the concept?
Here’s an example, using the writing term “transition,” which refers to words and phrases that move readers smoothly from one sentence to the next. I asked my 7th grade students to list all synonyms for “transition” and to look for one that suggests a physical symbol of it. They settled on the word “bridge,” as in “a writer makes a bridge between one idea and another.”
They discussed different attributes that were analogous, playing with the term and its meanings. When they were ready, they formed their bodies into a bridge, with one student suspended by two students holding his legs and two students holding his shoulders (a total of five students). The four students on either side of the suspended student completed the picture by striking various poses that represent thinking: one pointed a finger to her temple, one held his fingers in mid-snap as he solved a puzzle, another held a light bulb above her head for an idea, and another pointed her finger to make a point. The suspended student was the bridge between the ideas on either side. The analogy clearly was that a transition word symbolized a bridge that moved the reader from one sentence to another or one idea to another.
One of my student groups created such a sculpture, and the rest of the class accurately identified it as “transition.” But one holdout disagreed, saying that the tableau looked the same from either side, whether you looked at it forwards or backwards. For this reason, he thought it might be illustrating another of our vocabulary terms, “palindrome”—a word or number like “radar,” “noon,” or “45,154” that reads the same when it’s reversed. A second student countered that “palindromes don’t have ideas on either side of them, so it has to be transition.” The first student saw the logic and retracted his statement. That subtlety and degree of thinking would never have taken place if I had approached this vocabulary instruction is a conventional way—say, assigning definitions and telling the kids to use each word in a sentence.
Variations and Extended Applications
A great follow-up activity to body sculpture summarization is to ask students to write about their understanding of the topic in a learning log and to mention how the body sculpting experience enhanced or changed that understanding. To help them internalize the information, you may ask them to draw each body sculpture (stick figures are fine) and to explain how each represents the concepts. It can also be powerful to take a picture of the body sculptures and to post them with descriptions somewhere in the room for continued reference throughout the unit.
Some teachers may be skeptical of body sculpture’s ability to summarize more abstract ideas such as democracy, inference, nuance in poetry, the quadratic formula, or integrals. Our students are smarter than we are, especially when working in groups. They will come up with clever representations that we never imagined. It is rare to find a concept that is not “sculptable.” Even when students are given topics that seem subtle or esoteric, such as the difference between simile and metaphor, assonance and consonance, indirect democracy versus a republic, principles of economy, a protagonist’s change of heart, compound versus simple interest on a loan, and political ideology, to name a few, they will rise to the challenge and sculpt well. Better yet, they’ll learn and retain the information, and we teachers will learn as well.
I’ll give one final illustration. I once challenged a student group to sculpt the idea of “metamorphosis,” using terms like “growth,” “change,” and “sequence” to clarify the concept. Here’s how the group responded: One student curled into a tight ball on the floor while another sat next to him with a straight back, looking up. Another student put herself next to that seated student, but she was up on her knees and was taller than the sitting student and the balled-up classmate. Then a fourth student stood next to the kneeling student with his knees bent and his body lowered slightly. A fifth student stood tall and straight, and by doing so she was taller than any of the other four students. A person looking at this group would see a steadily increasing height—something moving from a curled up ball to a fully formed human child. It accurately represented “metamorphosis,” “growth,” “change,” or “sequence.” This particular activity carried even more meaning and usefulness because the endpoint of tallness was represented by one of the shortest students in the room. For once, the shorter child was a symbol of tallness, something she had not often felt.