NEH logoThis lesson plan is part of the series "Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community," a project developed by the Academy of American Poets in partnership with EDSITEment, the educational website of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), during the NEH’s 50th anniversary year-long celebration.

Funded by the NEH, “Incredible Bridges” responds to the NEH's initiative The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, which seeks to demonstrate and enhance the role of the humanities in public life.


A young boy walks over a bridge with his grandfather, not knowing it would be the last time.  The memory of that event is the central moment of Edward Hirsch’s poem “Cotton Candy.”  Hirsch uses his sensory memory to bring that moment to life and to remind us all of the special place older people—as bridges to personal and community history—hold in our lives.

The following sequence of activities is designed to help understand Hirsch’s poem by leveling the playing field among diverse learners. It includes multiple ways to enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. Feel free to adjust the activities to meet the particular learning styles and needs of your students.


Common Core State Standards

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Learning Objectives

Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video.

Students will explore a poet’s use of sensory imagery to bring a poem to life.

Students will explore how poetry can serve as a bridge between people of different ages and as a bridge between the past and the present.

Students will distinguish between what a poem is telling us literally and figuratively.

Students will write an original poem using vivid language, metaphor, and/or sound to help them emphasize meaning “beyond the words.”

Curriculum Connections



Edward Hirsch Reads "Cotton Candy"
Before Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem

Before you start these activities, please ask your students to bring in a photograph of a time they spent with a grandparent or older person who is important to them. 

Activity 1: Warm up—Whip Around

Objective: Students will settle into class and begin to focus on the subject of the poem they will read.

Tell your students that you will go around to each member of the class quickly, asking them to share verbally, in no more than one or two sentences, the special moment they have with a grandparent or older person in the photograph. If someone does not have a photograph, they can work from memory—a somewhat different experience.
They also have the option to simply say “pass” and you can go back to them later.

Activity 2: Writing with Descriptive Detail

Objective: Students will write with sensory detail.

Ask your students to write a paragraph about the photograph/memory they just shared with the class, using as much sensory detail as they can. Remind them that this means they should use words to describe what they see and remember about the sights, smells, sounds, and, perhaps, tastes of the time they shared with their special older person.

Activity 3: Peer Share and Editing

Objective: Students will revise their paragraphs based on peer comments.

  • In pairs, ask each student to read her paragraph to her partner. The partner should try to see the moment in her “mind’s eye.”  Based on what they imagine from the paragraph the listener should tell her partner what other information she needs in order to see the special moment more clearly.  Not only should the writer verbally answer specific questions to make the descriptive paragraph more vivid, she should make appropriate changes to her paragraph based on what she learns from the conversation.
  • After this process is complete, the partners should switch roles, so the second student in the pair can receive feedback.

Activity 4: Student Presentation of Work

Objective: Students will synthesize a list of vivid descriptive words.

Ask for student volunteers to read their descriptive paragraphs to the class. After each student presents, ask the class to recount the vivid words and phrases in the paragraph. Record their answers on the front board.


Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem

Activity 1: Reading the Poem

Objective: Students will identify words, images, and phrases that jump out to them in the poem.

  • Project the poem “Cotton Candy.” 
  • Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down the words, images, and phrases that jump out at them. 
  • Ask one student to read the poem aloud to the class, followed by a second reader. Remind them to pay attention to the line breaks in the poem as slight pauses, a little less than what they would do at the end of a sentence. While they are reading, the other students should be listening for new and different things that jump out at them, as they hear the poem read.

Activity 2: Watching Edward Hirsch Read “Cotton Candy”

Objective: Students will notice the difference between reading a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading his poem.

  • Tell your students that when they watch the video, they will record what they notice when Edward Hirsch reads his poem. Ask them to pay close attention to the sounds of the words as the poet reads them. Do they hear repetitions? Do they hear any particular sound more than others? What else do they notice? Make sure they record their new perceptions with their other notes.
  • Show the video of Edward Hirsch reading his poem.

Activity 3: Pair Share

Objective: Students will collaboratively synthesize what they have noticed from reading the poem and watching the video.

Ask your students to work with a partner to share what they have noticed. They should discuss what they think Edward Hirsch did in his poem to make us see the moment “in our mind’s eye.”  They should refer to their perceptions of the written poem and the video as they think about this, as well as their earlier discussion of vivid language (Section I, Activity 3).



Have your students keep a running list on the front board of the words they have read and heard that they do not understand. You can either conduct a separate vocabulary lesson about these words during which students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.


After Viewing and Reading

Activity 1: Small-Group Work

Objective: Students will use their synthesis of details from the poem to create shared meaning based on evidence.

Ask each pair of students from Section II, Activity 3 to find two other pairs with whom to work. Based on their previous work in pairs, ask each group of six to create a shared list of vivid details in the poem. Tell them that one person in each group will report their list to the whole class.

Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion

Objective: Students will glean meaning from poetic structure and content.

Hold a whole-class discussion, starting with what your students have noticed in the poem, and moving from there to what they think the poem is saying.

1. Ask each group representative to report the details their group has noticed. Make sure they talk about the sounds in the poem, as well as its content. Place these details on the board. If the later reporting groups have duplicates of what has been said, simply put a check next to the detail for each repetition. At the end of the reporting session, circle the details with the most checks.

2. What sounds seem to be repeated in the poem?  How does the sound “rrrr” make them feel? See Poetry Glossary for a definition of consonance.

3. Discuss Hirsch’s use of imagery in the poem (see Poetry Glossary for a definition of imagery):

• Describe how cotton candy acts as a metaphor in the poem (see Poetry Glossary for a definition of metaphor). What does Hirsch initially compare it to? How does Hirsch then extended this metaphor of cotton candy further? Why? What does the image of cotton candy tell us about the relationship between Hirsch and his grandfather? 

• Describe how the bridge acts as a metaphor in the poem. What does Hirsch compare to the bridge cables? How does Hirsch then extend this metaphor of the bridge further? What does the image of a bridge tell us about the relationship between people and place/people and time?

4. What this poem is telling us literally through the words of the poem? What is this poem telling us figuratively—that is in the connections we can make beyond the words?



Based on the paragraphs your students wrote about their moment with an older person, ask them to write a poem of their own, using vivid language to describe the moment.  Encourage them to make connections that might turn into metaphors and use line breaks to emphasize important thoughts and images in their poems. Do they want to use sounds to help them emphasize the meaning “beyond the words”?

With your students, develop an evaluation tool for their work using the terms exemplary, proficient, developing, and basic. What, for example do they (and you) think are the characteristics of an exemplary poem that uses vivid language? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? You may want to prompt them to do the same kind of evaluation for their use of metaphors and repetition of sound.


Creating Deeper Meaning
  1. Collect your students’ poems into an anthology, which you can share with a local senior citizen’s center, as well as with the school community. Your students can also volunteer to give a reading of their work at the senior center.
  1. If there are grandparents who came from “old countries” and live nearby, ask two or three to come to your class to share their stories of growing up in their particular communities. Would they like to discuss their reasons for coming to the United States?
  1. Lead a discussion (or have students write an essay) on the role of nostalgia in this poem and in their lives. (You may want to give or read a few examples.) What does nostalgia mean? How is it different from simply remembering? What action and/or sensory details in the poem spur this feeling of nostalgia? How important is sensory detail in nostalgia? Reflect back to the “Before Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem” activity where students brought in a photograph of a time they spent with a grandparent or older person who is important to them. How does this feeling of nostalgia affect the students’ recollections of their grandparents?

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.