Poetry, Play-Doh, & Purposeful Play

It seems like some of my best lessons and most successful classroom activties strike at times when I’m less concerned about a perfect and tidy plan and more focused on student needs and engagement. It seems simple and obvious enough, but adjusting my “work barometer” is something I’m always trying to finetune.

Last week my AP Literature students worked hard at reading, interpreting, and analyzing poetry. It was the kind of week that felt like a great workout — challenging and a little uncomfortable, but valuable and motivating because you’re getting leaner and stronger.

Each day, we took on a new poem. To kick of the new year, we studied a beautiful poem called “At the New Year” by Kennth Patchen. We then went “down the vista of [our own] years” with D.H. Lawrence’s “The Piano.” And after several student requests for “animal poems” (they’re cool kids, what can I say?) we took a look at the wonderful and Zen “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty and the fiercely self-aware hawk of “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes.

By the end of the week, students’ increasing confidence in poetry analysis was palpable. So on a welcome 2-hour delay Friday morning, I thought it best we hit the brakes and play for a day.

Here’s what we did. 

I asked students to create a structure or sculpture that extended, supported, or highlighted an INSIGHT they had about ONE of the poems they studied during the week. 

The goal was for students to revisit, re-read, and deepen their understanding of one of the poems from class and to use manipulaitves and play as “a way in” to their insights, interpretations, and analysis.

After that, we broke out the hand sanitizer and a big bucket of toys and got to work.

Here are some highlights of student work:


After time was up and all students had completed the task, I asked students to complete a Quickwrite Journal explaining and unpacking their thinking and choices in creating their structures or sculptures. Some questions I asked:

  • How does your structure or scuplture extend and support an insight you had about one of this week’s poems?
  • What line of lines from the poem lead you to this idea?
  • How does your structure or scuplture comment on the theme or braoder perspective of the poem?

Besides the excited and bubbling “This is so fun!” from students, the best part of this purposeful play: Students were invested in learning and discovering more about the texts — I heard thoughtful conversations and read thoughtful commentary about the poetry we studied. So…

WVCTE is wondering…

What does purposeful play look like in your classrooms? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook

Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy Honors English 10 and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She’s a contributing writer on www.movingwriters.org and a teaching fellow with Collaborative for Student Success. When Karla isn’t teaching, you can find her hanging with her husband and two little girls.

Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE. See what’s happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.

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