Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
Two class periods
Author: Maryan Infield, Middle School Teacher
St. Rose Catholic Grammar School, Paso Robles, CA

For the Classroom

Curriculum Home
Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

Referring to a Roman gravestone for inspiration, students use a foam carving medium and carving tools to create a bas-relief (low-relief) gravestone for a beloved pet. Students then write an epitaph for the pet using a standard form of poetry that is appropriate for the setting, such as an elegy, ode, or couplet.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• refer to an artwork at the Getty Villa as inspiration for their own artwork.
• learn new vocabulary associated with the sculpture medium.
• create a bas-relief sculpture.
• use a form of poetry to write an appropriate epitaph.


• Reproduction of Gravestone of Helena by an unknown Roman artist
• Pencils
• Paper (8 1/2" x 11")
• Newspaper
• Stainless steel carving tools
• Foam carving material (Blick® Carv-Foam or AMACO® Balsa-Foam) (one 7 1/2" x 10" piece and assorted small pieces per student)
• Student Handout: "Sculpture Vocabulary"
• Student Handout: "Poetry Vocabulary"
• Poster board
• Flat stone or marble scrap (optional)

Lesson Steps

1. Explain to students that they will be studying a work of art on display at the Getty Villa as inspiration for their own project—a hand-carved, bas-relief sculpture of a gravestone. Tell students that they will create an image on the gravestone and write an epitaph, which is an inscription memorializing one who has passed away.

2. Show students the reproduction of the Gravestone of Helena by an unknown Roman artist. Lead a group discussion or have students pair-share about the gravestone. Prompt students with the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the gravestone?
  • Who or what is featured on it?
  • Is the carving simple or elaborate?
  • What details are included on the gravestone?
  • What is left out?

3. Share with students that the inscription on the gravestone is written in Latin and translates as: "To Helena, foster daughter, incomparable and praiseworthy soul." Based upon the inscription and their own visual analysis of the gravestone, ask students if they think the artwork was intended as a gravestone for a dog named "Helena" or for someone else?

4. To get students started on their project, give them pencils and paper, and have them sketch the dog pictured on the gravestone using the contour-line method. Tell them to keep the drawing the same size or a bit smaller than the piece of foam material that they will be carving. Encourage students to keep the design simple, like the original sculpture. Have them draw the toes, eyes, contour of the face, inside shape of the ear, as well as the border around the animal—but disregard the epitaph (lettering) below.

5. Once students have finished drawing, tell them to draft and create a drawing of a pet dog or other animal that they have had (or imagined). This animal will become the image that they represent on their gravestone. (Tell them to keep the drawing the same size or a bit smaller than the piece of foam material that they will be carving.)

6. Pass out the "Sculpture Vocabulary" student handout. This is a good time to discuss with students the definition of the subtractive process, as well as the other sculpture terms and definitions.

7. Cover tables or desks with newspaper. Pass out the steel carving tools and foam carving material (e.g., Blick® Carv-Foam or AMACO® Balsa-Foam).

8. To get students used to working with the foam medium, have them practice carving the small pieces first. Remind students that anything they carve away cannot be replaced, so it is important to work slowly and notice how each sculpture tool affects the foam material.

9. Now direct students to use a pencil or another pointed sculpture tool to trace and lightly etch their pet animal design onto the full-sized piece of foam carving material.

10. Instruct students to use the tools to carve away the areas of foam that are not needed until their finished sculpture emerges. Remind them to carve and cut away slowly.

11. After the students' sculptures are finished, pass out the "Poetry Vocabulary" student handout and discuss the terms and definitions, as well as the examples of types of poetry, with the students.

12. Tell students that they will compose an epitaph for their pet using one of the forms of poetry that they have studied and deem appropriate, including a couplet, an elegy, or an ode. Pass out more paper if needed.

13. Have students write or print their epitaph on a piece of paper, and then place it just underneath the gravestone. (More advanced students may carve their epitaph directly into the foam material in a space that has been reserved at the base of the sculpture).

14. Tell students to mount their finished poem and gravestone on poster board (or flat stone or marble scrap, if preferred). Then help students set up a mock "graveyard" in class that displays all the gravestones and epitaphs.

15. Have a "gallery walk" around the classroom so students can see everyone's gravestones and read the epitaphs. Have each student present his or her work individually.

Gravestone of Helena / unknown Roman
Gravestone of Helena, unknown Roman, about A.D. 150–200


Students will be assessed on their:
• reference to the artwork at the Getty Villa as inspiration for their own artwork.
• use of new vocabulary associated with the sculpture medium.
• design and creation of a bas-relief sculpture (the gravestone).
• use of a form of poetry to write an appropriate epitaph.


Lead a class discussion about the students' projects. Some ideas for discussion may focus on:
• the subtractive process of sculpture and the difficulty or ease of working in this manner.
• the style of poetry that students select for their epitaphs.
• whether certain visual or literary themes recur in students' work.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–8

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 8
1.0 Artistic Perception
1.1 Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of works of art.

2.0 Creative Expression
2.6 Design and create both additive and subtractive sculptures.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.3 Construct an interpretation of a work of art based on the form and content of the work.

English–Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 8
3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
3.1 Determine and articulate the relationship between the purposes and characteristics of different forms of poetry (e.g., ballad, lyric, couplet, epic, elegy, ode, sonnet).
3.4 Analyze the relevance of setting (e.g., place, time, customs) to the mood, tone, and meaning of the text.

2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.1 Write biographies, autobiographies, short stories, or narratives:
b. Reveal the significance of, or the writer’s attitude about, the subject.
c. Employ narrative and descriptive strategies (e.g., relevant dialogue, specific action, physical description, background description, comparison or contrast of characters).