The Hand-Turkey Learning Experiment

Today’s 21st century learning example originally appeared in the curriculum blog Teaching and Learning in HSE. It is reprinted here as a fun example example of what it can mean to up-end a traditional, rote activity – turning it into something creative and personally meaningful for each student. Think: student choice, student VOICE, and student-driven learning and expression. Enjoy!

The Importance of Play
by Angela Fritz, Art Department Chair, Hamilton Southeastern High School

When I was in grade school, the excitement of the holidays seemed to build in a palpable way as an impending vacation grew closer.  In an era that had a different sense of urgency, almost without fail, the day before vacation would be filled with a variety of treats and games.  Word searches and crossword puzzles, of questionable educational value but perhaps mildly attached to either our curriculum or the holiday itself, were the norm.

wyatt-fritz  My bet is you know what I’m talking about: Lay your hand down on the paper and trace around it.  The fingers become some semblance of feathers and your thumb make a neck.  As for the legs, they just had to be added.  Everybody’s hand turkey came out about the same—a lot like the teacher’s example.

As an art teacher, I can appreciate the patience involved in the cutting and staying inside the lines. I even see value in those practiced skills.  There is no question, however, that the traditional assignment lacks personal voice and relevance.  So over time, we stopped making hand turkeys.

Somewhere along the way that we moved beyond the cookie cutter crafts because they have little educational value.  For the most part, it was a time filler and not very personal, not very unique, not very relevant.  As educators, we were likely correct about that incarnation of the hand turkey assignment.

By dropping the craft project, did we also lose some of the fun, some of the excitement? Perhaps.  But what if we reinvented those mundane childhood “arts and crafts” projects and turned them into something fun and exciting but still with educational value?  Can we have it all? Can learning be fun?

My Experiment

As a teacher, I am still filled with excitement as a holiday closes in on us, for obvious reasons: time off with friends and family, time to relax and get rejuvenated.  Maybe it’s just romanticized memory, but I often have that feeling of being a little kid in school, excited about the possibility of “fun and games” the breaks bring to the school setting.

Feeling nostalgic for this pre-vacation excitement, I decided to collaborate with Dan Moosbrugger, a fellow art teacher. We decided to try for it all!  A few days before Thanksgiving, we threw down the gauntlet to our AP Drawing and Three-Dimensional Art students.  We challenged them to show us their skills and tackle the hand turkey.  Their task was to take what is a stereotypical and mundane assignment and produce something unique, something exceptional, something far from ordinary.

Our students were immediately intrigued, and the results were beyond our expectations.  They took the challenge to heart and really outdid themselves.  Their results are not only interesting, they are funny, extravagant, and full of personal voice and artistic expression.

A Rafter of Turkeys

Enjoy this gallery walk through a gobble of turkeys produced by our students.  (How many of you knew that the designation for a group of turkeys is a rafter or gobble of turkeys?)


Student 1 took a literal approach to creating a hand turkey. Student 2 tied her hand turkey to other work she is doing on feminism. Student 3 dabbled with aesthetics. All of these artists are seniors.


Student 4’s “Rubber Glove” turkey took a different approach by adding wax to Rubbermaid cleaning gloves. Student 5 used mixed metals, and Student 6 went for a humorous commentary on the life of a turkey.

You have to admit these are NOT our grade school hand turkeys.

Add Play, but with a Purpose

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play says that, “Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” My students weren’t following a teacher example.  They were seeing how far out of the water they could blow the traditional examples.  They were having fun, but they were making their work personal.  The results reflect the imagination of the students and skills we hope they developed, and they were certainly engaged in the challenge!

My point is that the value of play should not be underestimated.  There can be real value in the lighthearted play we may have long ago dismissed.  Play with a purpose belongs in school!  I have learned a lesson from this assignment.  With a little creativity and imagination, we can have both learning and play.  In fact, with creativity and imagination, the fun is in the learning.

Perhaps we should reconsider and reinvent more than just the “hand turkey.”