Literature with Play Doh

Play Doh is an easy tool available in middle school classes to show creativity and understanding of higher level concepts.

Play Doh is an easy tool available in middle school classes to show creativity and understanding of higher level concepts.

Playing in a sand box as a young child if often described as some of the best moments for young children. It is an opportunity to imagine and create with the greatest tool available, the human mind. Anything can be created.

The simplicity of playing is one component I always try to keep in mind when developing lessons for my middle school students. Sometimes we get laser focused on standards and quantitative data and forget they are still children with splurging creativity.

Therefore, I stepped back and thought about the cognitive domain of students’ learning styles. I was doing literature talks with a focus on characterization. Often my students say character traits to describe a literature character, but it is only getting them to think at the surface level.

I wanted more for my students. I wanted them to think deeper. I wanted them to think like a scholar.

But…they needed a task to challenge their thinking. Something, authentic. Something, which forces them to go beyond a phrase or a word.

Something, like Play Doh.

Instead of the traditional path of identifying a character trait to support the way a character acts or speaks in a text, I allowed for something different. Modeling with the children’s story Three Little Pigs, I went through and created a symbol to display a trait about the two lazy little pigs who built their house out of straw and sticks.

I created a broken heart. I explained to students when you see a broken heart, most people do not think lazy. Hence, I needed to explain how my creation meant what I was thinking. I indicated my Play Doh broken heart was in two pieces — similar to the two pigs. In a marriage, love takes a lot of hard work between the two people married. Anyone wanting to make a marriage work, must work hard to make sure lasts forever. Comparing it to the two pigs, their house was broken in pieces because they were not willing to work hard to build a strong house like some are not willing to work hard to make a strong marriage. Like their broken house, sometimes it only takes one action (or wolf’s gust of wind) to blow it apart. I concluded, maybe the two pigs were lazy because they were unwilling to put in the effort to make it work; similar, to some people who are married and it (or the pig’s house) falls apart.


My final creation was a Play Doh brick. I explained a brick is physically hard and sturdy, like the house the two little pigs wanted. In addition, it stood for durable and hardworking. Building anything out of brick is timely and shows an individual is willing to show resilience to finish a project.

At the end of the story, I thought the brick best described the two pigs because they learned from their mistake and knew what they now wanted to be like, the brick. Therefore, the went from being lazy (broken heart) to understanding purpose of handwork (brick).

Students’ Turn

Reading “Stray” by Cynthia Rylant — #PocomokeScholars were tracking how Mr. Lacey, the father in the story, changed from the exposition to the resolution. We identified actions and quotes throughout the story and students had a good idea of his change. However, I didn’t give the traditional writing assignment.

Instead, I asked for them to create a symbol or creation which displayed Mr. Lacey’s character in the beginning of the story. Many images were of frowns with spike eyebrows, indicating anger, while other more complex. After giving students three-minutes with the Play Doh, we shared and explained our creations to the class as shown below.


As we reviewed our answers, students started to get the idea. We repeated the process, but this time looking at Mr. Lacey at the end of the story, the resolution. To display loving or affection, students created a Hershey Kiss, an individual with open arms, and hearts. Each anecdotal explanation allowed students to go deeper with their understanding of character traits, which hopefully will transfer into their writing prompts.


My kinesthetic and artistic learners, who are not my best academic students, shined today. They genuinely smiled, loved the high fives I kept passing around the room, and felt a greater sense of worth as other ooed and awed around their creative masterpieces. I have now made a special bond with those students by altering my typical instruction to let them shine.

Plus, it gives me a talking point for a positive phone call home too.

Brian Cook, Ed.D.

Digital Tools for Reading Instruction in Middle School

One of my #PocomokeScholars presenting with her digital partner via Google Hangouts.

One of my #PocomokeScholars presenting with her digital partner via Google Hangouts.

Students are plugged into technology from the moment they wake up until that last Facebook status of the evening wishing the world goodnight. They read online posts that appear in their Facebook feeds, they are linked to posts that interest them on Twitter, and they comment back expressing their own opinions at any moment.

These actions are common in youth today who grew up digital natives. If this is occurring at home, teachers need to spend more energy building opportunities that capitalize on these experiences for the 21st Century Learner.

Educators must take a risk and include technology in their daily practices.

At the middle school level, technology is allowing students to shatter the walls of the unknown and unlock the secrets of literature using a new mode of transportation. Technology is the mode of transportation being used to find deeper levels of reading when done correctly. Students’ ability and willingness to converse online (i.e., chats, online posts, commenting, video chat) has opened door of opportunity for educators and students.

Power of Voice

The ability to create or be a maker is like never before. Students are displaying the power of voice on topics of high interest to them. Yes, students may not always display the most tact in their messages and expose a student’s simple comprehension. Hence, there is a great need for educators to implement a plan to teach students to be responsible digital creators. This skill set will be used well beyond their schooling years.

Surface Readers to Deep Readers

Student readers go through stages as they grow older. Starting as surface readers, students get the basic gist of short texts and rely a lot on memorization. However, the quality of teacher instruction regulates the trajectory a student takes in the classroom, becoming a surface reader or a deep reader. A deep reader is one who can self-regulate and collaborate with others on the delicacies of their reading.

Students must experience a deeper acquisition of literacy learning by challenging themselves to make greater meaning of their reading. Conversing about ideas and concepts that students are uncomfortable with in conversation allows for greater growth in critical thinking, investigating claims, and using reasoning and logic to examine difficult topics.

Instruct deep readers with technology

Technology tools are meant to enhance student learning, not replace it with a program or application. Technology tools and activities enhance the traditional discussion and offers time for critical thinking to occur. However, it cannot occur on a whim. Instead, technology integration must be thoughtful and meaningful to student learning. Here are three thoughtful technology integration activities which give students the opportunity to transition into deep readers:

  1. Digital Partners: Catlin Tucker stated in her book, “Creatively teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology,” students should discuss a variety of different texts with a range of partners by asking questions, building on others ideas, and expressing their own opinions in a professional manner. One way to do this is offering digital partners from other classrooms in other districts using Google Hangouts when reading and discussing similar readings or working with similar standards. In this environment, the instructor moves to more of a facilitator role while students display their work with digital shared documents (i.e., Google Documents or Office 365), while learning to self-regulate and monitor their own discussions. Getting a ‘new’ partner with a different background challenges students to be more explicit in their conversations and display greater maturity in crafting writing artifacts with their partner.
  1. Global Read Aloud: This is an annual project where teachers and students read a selected novel aloud and connect digitally to discuss it. Many classrooms teachers and students connect with multiple other classes throughout the course of their reading. Connections occur over Twitter, Skype, Edmodo, and Wikis. Each learning opportunity is never the same as each partner brings their unique set of skills and experience to enhance meaning of the text. Students’ participation in the project leads to a robust set of learning artifacts, which supports the learning of specific standards being addressed in one’s classroom.
  1. Cultural Box Exchange: The Common Core Standards has altered the traditional lens of literacy from reading words on a pager to encompassing non-traditional texts (i.e., photographs and artwork). It begins with discussing the unique qualities (i.e., historic landmarks, national monuments, professional sports teams, wildlife, etc.) of your own community and creating artifacts which represent the area. After collecting 10 artifacts (i.e., handmade models, photographs, art work, student made videos or podcasts),– literal or abstract – students create written explanations for each partner. Every artifact is packaged and shipped to your partner classroom. The excitement and exploration comes in receiving the cultural exchange box from the partner school. At this time, students share in the discoveries of the partner schools’ home community and experience learning from their new global connection. Integrating the new artifacts from the partner school as part of the classroom instruction – art integration lessons, drawing inferences about the community, or cultural awareness to name a few– is a common practice to expand upon numerous literacy standards as well as writing standards.

Passionately Curious

The trajectory of student learning has been redefined because of educators who have modeled how to become a passionately curious reader within the realm of students’ everyday technological life. The path students go down depends on the instructional pedagogy offered by their teacher on a daily basis. Individuals who harness the power of authentic digital learning experiences allow a greater chance on hooking a 21st Century Learner and developing deep readers and learners. Individuals who depend on the status quo and ignore technology opportunities to enhance learning will continue to develop surface readers and learners.

The student of today is immersed in a world of technology. They wake up in the morning with it and continue to be plugged in until they go to bed at night. For many students, walking into a classroom that banishes technology is like walking into a virtual desert. We are beyond the tipping point and that immersion into a virtual world grows stronger each day. As educators it is our duty to meet students where they are at, and encourage them to come along as we learn together. The job is easier when we can connect with them using the same communication tools that they are mastering, while teaching them to be responsible content creators that go beyond a Facebook post about a new pair of sneakers.


Brian Cook, Ed.D.