Playdoh Poetry Connection

My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features lots of poems that detail some of the ways I’ve had to draw on creative ideas to engage my students. I think the story below captures some of the creativity I bring into the classroom and the and the joy with which the children participated in the lesson. I am reposting my Playdoh story due to so many requests and hope that readers will find inspiration for their own work.

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 this idea!

PlaydoughImage

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.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.

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: http://d3gqasl9vmjfd8.cloudfront.net/56b8aa77-0b48-4971-a222-dfddb7266154.png

Poet Pat Valdata Explores the Mysteries of Revision

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”
~Translated from an anonymous Ojibway by Robert Bly and Frances Densmore

Dorothy Parker, bless her soul, was addicted to revision. She could not move forward with a piece of writing until the line she was working on was perfect. Although the end result was usually marvelous, this practice made writing a painfully slow process for her. Although I am not one to put down anyone’s writing process, especially not someone as talented as Parker, I would never recommend that any of us emulate her.

Pat Valdata

Writing is one process, editing quite another. They require different skills, and trying to conflate the two, I think, more often results in writer’s block than good writing. That’s why Anne Lamott famously urged us to give ourselves permission to write a “shitty first draft.” Poet Peter Murphy tells his workshop students to simply “lower your standards.”

Lowering one’s standards can be easier said than done for anyone who, like me, went to Catholic School and contended with formidable English teachers like Sister Jean (8th grade) and Miss Clark (9th grade). But it’s essential to let that internal editor go away (or at least go to sleep) when sitting down at the computer and facing a big white block of empty space on the screen, or when you first open a new notebook and see empty line after empty line of smooth paper waiting for strokes of a pen or pencil.

It can be helpful to remember that no one (except oneself) ever needs to see a first draft. It absolutely does not matter what that draft looks like, if it is punctuated, if it is grammatical, or even if it makes sense. The only thing that matters: putting words on a page. Any words. Nonsense words. Quotations. Words chosen randomly from a dictionary. (A paper dictionary, so I can close my eyes, open the book, and plunk a finger down. I tried it three times today, resulting in graphic, inauspicious, sequel. I can do something with those!)

Once the words are on the page or have been saved on the computer, the thing to do, of course, is let them go utterly out of your consciousness. Write something else, clean a closet, walk the dog. Come back to them tomorrow, next week, next month. Then you can let your inner editor go to town, and figure out which lines, or at worst, which words, are worth holding onto because there’s the germ of a poem in there.

Often, I start out with a shapeless batch of lines in penmanship that has only gotten worse since Sister Jean used to shake her head at it. Then I type it, which helps it take form. Maybe the lines need to be skinny. Maybe they need to be long. If I have a short poem of say, 13-16 lines, then I see if it wants to be a sonnet. Editor me and writer me alternate the work, usually pruning it back, sometimes needing to add. If I have to cut a line I’m crazy about, I’ll copy and paste it into a “hold” file in hopes of maybe using it someday. Other lines are easier to let go.

Sometimes, a poem will seem hopeless, but I still hold onto it. I put it in a file and don’t even look at it until I am so desperate to procrastinate that I actually let a fit of cleaning take hold of me, and then I sort and file and stumble across that draft that didn’t work. Most of the time, it still doesn’t work, but once in a while, I have an aha! moment and see what needs to be pruned or grafted on, and a successful poem emerges with deceptive ease—in some cases, years after I wrote the first draft.

Every writer has times when we sit in front of the computer, or tap our pen against an empty college-ruled pad, pitying ourselves because the poem/story/scene just isn’t there yet. That’s when we have to remind ourselves: let go of that internal editor, and lower our standards at least for a while, so the writer in us can be carried by those great, creative winds. Only then can we let the spirits of Sister Jean and Miss Clark back in the process as we turn that inauspicious sequel into something satisfyingly graphic.

Valdatacoverfront_small

Pat Valdata is poet and novelist. Her new book of persona poems in the voices of women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, received the 2015 Donald Justice Prize and was published in June. Pat recently completed a two-week writing residency at the Dickinson House in Olsene, Belgium.

Ann Bracken, Barbara Morrison, and Pat Valdata will reading and signing   their books on November 14th from 2-4 pm at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble

The Playdough-Poetry Connection

 

 

 

PlaydoughImage

 

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 just finished working 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: http://d3gqasl9vmjfd8.cloudfront.net/56b8aa77-0b48-4971-a222-dfddb7266154.png