(Below, pinch pot turtle pot in air dry Mexican Pottery clay.)
First, the clay. I am NOT a fan of creepy Model Magic, though I know some of you love it, and use it in interesting ways. For me, it does not mimic the texture and feel of clay, and lacks the solidity of a genuine clay piece. I have experimented with several types of air dry clay, and pretty much settled in with Amaco's Marblex (a very paintable pale gray color) and Mexican Pottery Clay (a nice red-brown color). The photos in this post are of clay pieces made with these two air dry clays. I tried less expensive "store brands" and found they did not hold together well at all. I tried more expensive brands and liked them, but they weren't affordable for what I wanted to do. I'm struggling to recall the name of one excellent quality clay that dried rock hard and bright white. Very durable, in comparison, but also very pricey.... Also, several years ago I received a sample of some dark reddish brown air dry clay with a lot of grog in it, that dried rock hard, and after sampling it, I really loved the texture and consistency and quality. But I was never able to find it in a catalog, so I've long forgotten the brand name. (Below, pinch and pull gator, Marblex; and unpainted dragon, unknown brand hard white air dry clay)
In order to get a clay project complete in one art class, a good idea is to use the prior art class for "clay play", to familiarize the students with the materials and the techniques, and also to demonstrate what they will be doing in their next art class. That way, in the next class, all you need is a quick review and away you go! I always had blocks of clay measured out and ready for the kids, so they could get right to work. The "posy pockets" pictured below are an example of an air dry project that was successful. I often did this with my 2nd graders.
The fish below were a ridiculously easy slab project. Again, a slab was rolled out. I demonstrated how to cut the slab to make tail and fins and mouth, and again extra clay could be used for embellishment. The fish body was curved to stand up.
And we sometimes made cave paintings on random shaped clay slabs.
Late edits to this post - four points to make:
First - There is NO REASON to wedge air dry clay, since you won't be firing it and don't have to worry about it bursting. Actually, it is counterproductive, as it dries it out.
And second, try to finish everything in ONE SESSION. Keeping air dry clay properly moist and to a workable consistency once it's been out in the air is very difficult. Just get it done, and move on... You'll have trouble trying to continue working successfully on an air-dry piece after one sitting.
And the tools - you can use inexpensive plastic modeling tools, for scoring and texturing, as well as little pointed wooden sticks, and also, of course, slip made from the clay.
And finally, getting them home safely - I would ask students to bring in cube-style tissue boxes, which were great for bringing home coil pots, for example. We padded them in newspaper or other stuffing material before gently putting in the box for safe travels. I always warned kids against putting clay projects in the bottom of their backpacks, where they'd throw lunchboxes and sneakers on top. For the little pinch pots and other small delicate pieces, if I had nothing to pack them in safely, I told the kids to carry them in their hands like they were baby birds, who hadn't yet leaned to fly. If they fell out of the 'nest', they probably would be injured. I loved seeing them walk to the school buses, cradling their 'baby birds' in their hands!