The Playdough-Poetry Connection

PlaydoughImageThis is a popular post that I am reposting due to requests. Have you ever thought of using Playdough to help you reimagine a writing project? Sometimes when you’re stuck, trying a different creative pathway opens new insights. Let me know if you try it and have fun!

What do you think of when you hear the word revision? For most writers, revision signals that you’ve already completed at least one draft of a piece of writing and now it’s for pruning and polishing the work to get it ready for publication. To many of my college students, it seems to mean a painful process that the teacher recommends to get a better grade. And to the fourth graders I worked  with in a poetry residency, it seems to mean recopying a piece of writing and fixing spelling errors.  But as I’ve grown in my writing skills over the years, revision has come to mean something very different to me. Revision means I’ve already done the hard work of thinking up an idea and committing it to paper.  Getting the first draft is much more likely to scare me then revising what I’ve already written. But I’m a seasoned writer with lots of revision experience tucked into my writer’s backpack.  How could I teach this skill to fourth graders?

I knew my best bet for finding teaching resources was to do a web search, and I found a wonderful, hands-on activity on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing.  As I read through the post entitled “Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!” by April Halprin Wayland , I knew I’d found my lesson.  But even April’s well-structured lesson needed a bit of revision for the group that I had in mind.  Here’s a description of the lesson I did at Swansfield Elementary in Columbia, Maryland, as part of a five week poetry residency in the fourth grade sponsored by the PTA and funded through a grant from the Howard County Arts Council.  While I thought the playdough activity would be fabulous, I realized that the teachers might need a heads-up, so I sent an email the day before telling them what to expect.

When I walked into the room carrying a plastic tub of small Play-Doh cans, the kids were immediately excited. After I assured everyone that they would indeed get to make something with the playdough, I wrote the word “Revision” on the board.  Then I broke it down into the prefix “re” and the root “vision” to explain that  revision is the act of seeing a piece of writing in a new way and making it better.  The students were used to seeing me wear my purple poetry glasses—to help me see the world with different eyes—so it was not a big leap for them to imagine seeing a piece of writing in a new light.  We had constantly revised as we worked on our group poems—changing words, selecting phrases, and deciding what to keep and what to set aside. But what did playdough have to do with writing poetry? Let me recap the lesson and you’ll find out.

Here’s what you need:

  • construction paper for a smooth and clean work surface
  • one can of Play-Doh for each child
  • a writing sample to revise as a demonstration
  • drafts of  student work to revise


  1. Each child places a piece of construction paper on the desk to provide a work surface and to keep the desk clean.
  2. Classroom helpers pass out the cans of playdough. It’s nice if you have enough cans for each child to select two colors, but the students seemed very happy having one can to work with.
  3. Direct the students to make a sculpture of anything they want. Most students made animals, food, or people.
  4. Tell the children that since they are creating a piece of art, it needs to have a title and when they finish the sculpture, they write the title on the artist’s mat. I allowed about 12-15 minutes for this portion of the activity. Most students seemed to need this much time.
  5. Next, the students take a gallery walk around the classroom to observe everyone’s sculptures.  They consider the question, “What inspires me?” as a way to cue themselves to think about revision. I allowed about 5-6 minutes for this portion of the lesson.
  6. Once they complete the gallery walk and sit down, students are directed to make one change to their sculpture, any change that they can imagine (except to squish up the work and begin again). Then there are to make a note about what they changed.
  7. Select several students to present their sculptures to the whole class using the title of the work and then describing the one change they made.
  8. Demonstrate your revision process on a poem that the class drafted together; discuss why you chose to make certain changes.
  9. Allow the students to revise a draft from a previous lesson.


The room buzzed with possibility and excitement as the children tore open the jars of playdough and began squishing it around.  The process was the same in every class—some students got to work immediately and had a definite result in mind while others just held the playdough and said they didn’t know what to do. I advised them to “Just roll, pinch, and squeeze it until an idea comes to you. Let the dough guide your imagination.”  Within a few minutes, everyone was completely absorbed in the activity and quietly lost in the world of possibility.  The gallery walk provided a space for the students to admire everyone’s work before revising their own and  sharing with each other.  Due to the time constraints imposed by a 45 minute session, I had to limit the sharing and moved on to demonstrating the writing component of the playdough-poetry connection.

For my revision process, I selected the previous week’s class-poem on telling a fairy tale in a different voice.  The students had co-written a poem based on the story of Aladdin and told the tale in the voice of the genie. During that lesson, we had worked on the poetic devise of repetition, including sounds, words, and phrases. Additionally, many students wrote their draft poems in a paragraph format, so I showed them how to make the poem look pretty on the page–an idea that my friend Grace Cavalieri shared with me—a much simpler concept than explaining formal linebreaks and very visual—which connected nicely to the playdough session.

While I had to move on to the next class before the students completed their revisions, I felt that the goal of the lesson had been achieved-to show that revision is something all artists do and that it provides an opportunity to make changes to something that is already good.  Happy revising! And if you get stuck for some inspiration, you can always count on playdough.


Resource: See the April Halprin Wayland’s version of the lesson here:

“Revision! A LINGO Poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Dough Exercise!”

on the blog Teaching Authors: Six Teaching Authors Who Also Teach Writing. 

The blog originally ran on September 9, 2011.

Play-Doh image courtesy of:







Every Poet Needs a Great Tool Kit



A couple of weeks ago I posted a link to an Tweetspeak article discussing a toolkit to help poets when they are stuck. The article explored five online tools –rhyming dictionary, reverse dictionary, thesaurus, dictionary, and Google—and discussed the merits of each. This week I want to talk about my favorite tool for charging up my writing and it’s about as low-tech as you can imagine. Yes, I still use a paper dictionary, paper thesaurus, and paper rhyming dictionary. For me, there’s something comforting in the heft of the book and the chance to find words next to words that might lead to a new place…like sorting through old buttons and finding unexpected treasures.

This tool is simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, and my friend Grace Cavalieri shared it with me as one of her go-to tips. She calls it “points in space” and I just call it the ten word game. Collect ten words from anywhere-a newspaper article, a novel, a label, a poem. Use them to write a brand new poem or to help you revise a poem that isn’t working. I actually wrote one of the poems in my new book using the ten word technique to shift me into the right space.

There’s something about the limit of the ten words and the idea of forced association, a creativity tool widely used in problem solving that really helps to get me moving. I usually write the ten words on slips of paper or notecards and actually move them around until some kind of an association forms. Other times, if I’m blocked and just don’t feel like anything is working, I set a timer and write whatever comes to me with the ten words.

Here’s one I wrote last summer using the words habit, banal, sliver, outhouse, weep, crazed, plead, insanity, fading. I managed to use seven from this bunch.

You’re a Habit
impossible to break, no matter how I plead
insanity or dance crazed as a dervish in a hurricane.
Lock me in the outhouse
put the bell out of reach
hide the Precious –I’ll fight my way
back to you like an Iron Girl in a triathalon
water, roads, rusty bicycles
just to see the silver of your fading smile.
No more banal weeping
over what might have been.

Try using the same ten words above or select ten of your own at random. Give the technique a try and see if it helps you with either rewriting a poem or coming up with a fresh idea. I’d love to hear about your experiences

Sometimes You Just Need the Right Container

modern-vasesI have a lovely collection of vases., some are tall and wide at the top, perfect to hold large bouquets of blue hydrangeas, a flower that always reminds me of my grandmother. Some are shorter and fluted, to hold cradle a few select roses. I even have a flat Japanese vase where I can arrange the last few blooms that survive a special arrangement. So many women I admired in my childhood taught me this lesson as they arranged flowers moving them to different vases until they found the perfect fit—sometimes you just need to find the right container.

It’s the same way with poetry. I usually write narrative poems in free verse, like my poem “Adultery.” But when I consider a poem about a difficult topic, I often freeze. I avoid writing because the memories are painful and to write about them, I have to revisit them. Is there laundry to do? Bills to pay? A lawn to rake? I’ll wander around doing anything but writing that difficult poem. So when it came time to describe what it was like deciding to get Electroconvulsive therapy treatments (ECT), the best way for me to process my feelings and get the job done required me to find the right “container.” I wrote “The Shock Machine” using a pantoum poetry format.

To write a pantoum, you repeat certain lines from one stanza to the next, changing the order in which they appear. The second and fourth lines from one stanza repeat in the next stanza as lines one and three and so on throughout the poem from stanza to stanza.)

Why does choosing a form poem, or container poem, as it is sometimes called, help one to write about difficult feelings? For one thing, as a poet, you have to observe the rules of the form, similar to the way you have to follow a recipe for a cake to turn out successfully. You can’t just dump everything in the bowl and swirl it around if you want chocolate cake. First you cream the butter and the sugar, then you beat in the eggs one by one. And so it is with difficult feelings. If you dump everything on the page, it’s messy to deal with. You also need to consider the reader. If your feelings overwhelm you, they may surely swamp your readers. Form poems provide that space of safety. They’re a way of being a trusty guide into dark places.

How does the form help the reader and writer to deal with difficult feelings?

As a writer, I know the experience I want to convey and I know the details. Writing in a specified form not only provides me with safety, it forces me to pay attention to something other than my feelings. Structure matters. So in a way, my attention is split. I still talk about the feelings, but only in such a way as is appropriate for the form.

As a reader, if a poet wants you to experience something difficult, the poet offers you some kind of lifelinein the form of repetition of lines from stanza to stanza in a pantoum, which guides you step by step into unfamiliar territory. You know what to expect as you venture deeper and deeper into the experience. All the while, familiar repetition breaks the tension every so often allowing you catch your breath. You’re willing to keep reading.

Here’s the beginning of my poem, “The Shock Machine” found in my recently released book, The Altar of Innocence.

First they take away your shoes
when you come seeking life.
Like a child you cling to your red quilt
inside a heavy fog of fear.

When you come seeking life
the doctors don’t know the self you were.
Inside a heavy fog of fear
you whisper pleas of hope.

The first pantoum I ever read was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. In the poem, Bishop takes the reader on a journey into the land of losing things, from your keys to names to cities and beyond. One of my favorite poems. I hope you enjoy it.

“One Art”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.