I am partial to hands-on activities and have quite the collection of various manipulatives. Some (or many) of my manipulatives may, to the untrained eye, seem more like toys, but they are actually valuable educational tools. One of these valuable, though potentially deceiving, educational tools is my set of Mr. Potato Heads with bags of accoutrements. Mr. Potato Head may seem like a toy, but he’s actually the basis for one of the only descriptive writing lessons to be actually declared “fun” by my students.
The best news is that this is about as close to a no-prep lesson plan as you’re going to find. Once you have the Mr. Potato Head sets, all you need are some pencils and pieces of paper. Each student is given a Mr. Potato Head with accessories, a single piece of paper, and a pencil. Students then build Mr. Potato Head in any manner they choose. Some make very traditional looking spuds, others have tongues sticking out of heads and ears where noses should be. As long as they have something other than a basic potato when they are finished, it’s all good in the end. After building their potatoes, students then write a paragraph describing him in as much detail as possible. These two steps generally take the entire class period and so we end the day’s lesson by taking apart our Mr. Potato Heads and turning in our papers.
The next day, as students walk in, they are again given a Mr. Potato Head bag and a piece of paper, but this time the paper has writing on it. I pass out the previous day’s descriptive paragraphs and students have to, using what is written on the paper and nothing else, reproduce their classmates’ Mr. Potato Head creations from the day before. Some are able to do this fairly well, but most
struggle due to lack of descriptive detail. After they’ve made their best attempts we discuss as a class what went well, what didn’t go so well, and why the task was more difficult than initially anticipated. They then get out a new piece of paper and start the entire process over again. Their second attempts are always far more descriptive, and almost everyone is able to perfectly reproduce a classmate’s creation.
A few years ago, when standardized tests were moved fully online, my students’ writing scores took a nose dive. I realized the problem was their typing skills, not their writing abilities. They had spent so little time actually producing writing on a computer that they were unable to do so in the time-pressured environment of a standardized test. I resolved to change that and added a technological component to our Mr. Potato Head project. Now, instead of writing on paper, students build their potato, use a camera (either the one built into the Chromebook or their phone) to take a picture of it, and then insert the picture to a Google Slide and type their descriptive paragraph next to it. I then take all of the slides and create a Mr. Potato Head matching activity by placing all of the pictures, in random order, on the first slide, and the descriptive paragraphs on the following slides. I make a copy for each student, and they cut and paste the photos onto the slides with the corresponding descriptions. To add an extra layer of fun I also send the matching activity to our principal and vice principal. If both administrators are able to correctly pair a student’s photo to its description, the student receives extra credit points on the assignment. The students loved it, and our administrators were quite happy to participate as well.
While toys such as Mr. Potato Head may seem juvenile and beneath older students, they really aren’t. I’ve done this lesson with all ages, from upper elementary to adults, and they all love it. It really is one of the few writing lessons that students will actually ask if they can do again and again. Yes, obtaining all of the Mr. Potato Head sets was a bit of a pain (check Ebay for used sets or try to get a Donor’s Choose project funded). Yes, storing them does take up more room than most of my other materials. But it’s totally worth it and I love teaching this lesson every time I get the chance.
Check out the buttons below to get the five senses descriptions poster I use in my classroom and more descriptive writing activity ideas for free!