Category Archives: Writing poetry

How to put the learning to work, part 1: End of Year Ideas for Reflecting on and Reinforcing Learning

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remix (1)

As the school year draws to a close, it is really important to think about how to design a quality ending for both you and your students. What kind of work can you do to end the year in a meaningful and enduring way? The end of the year is a time for taking stock of the work that has been done, thinking critically about it, acknowledging accomplishments, and planning for what needs to happen next. Here are some ideas for how to make all of that happen in the last few weeks of the school year. We’ll start with the Cento.

Idea #1: The Cento

Remember that one of the goals of the end of the year should be to push students back into the work that they have done, remind them of that work, and have them resee it in new ways to reinforce the learning. You want them to think and act in divergent and convergent ways when it comes to the learning that they did earlier in the year as well as remind themselves of what they did and why. This helps the skills and conceptual understanding stick in their brains. The Cento is a creative way to do just that. The Cento is a form of poetry that is completely made up of lines taken from other poems. There is a long and rich history of this kind of work. Here is an interesting example from Simone Muench:simone muench

Wolf Cento

Very quick. Very intense, like a wolf

at a live heart, the sun breaks down.

What is important is to avoid

the time allotted for disavowels

as the livid wound

leaves a trace      leaves an abscess

takes its contraction for those clouds

that dip thunder & vanish

like rose leaves in closed jars.

Age approaches, slowly. But it cannot

crystal bone into thin air.

The small hours open their wounds for me.

This is a woman’s confession:

I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me.

Sources: [Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas, Larry Levis, Ingeborg Bachmann, Octavio Paz, Henri Michaux, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Joyce Mansour, William Burroughs, Meret Oppenheim, Mary Low, Adrienne Rich, Carl Sandburg]

In order to make this poem, Muench rooted around in the writings of the poets above and pulled lines that she liked and that she thought meshed well together. The Cento is a wonderful experiment for close reading and writing, strategic thinking, and play. And that is exactly what you want your students to do with the work that they have done over the course of a quarter, a semester, or even a year.

To set it up, share with your students the idea of a Cento poem. Show them Muenche’s example or create one on your own. Talk a bit together about what you notice, how it works, etc. Then, challenge them to go back into their own work from the quarter, the semester, or the year, and create their own Cento poem out of found lines from their work. You can decide the level of constraint that you want to put on this project. You could limit the work to the creative writing that they have done, or maybe you want them to pull lines from the essays they have written, or maybe you want to open it up to everything (creative writing, essays, notes, etc.). You might want to figure out the constraint with the students. Ask them, “What work should we dig back into to make our own Cento poems? And remember, a Cento poem does not need to be created out of other poems. It can be created out of all kinds of found texts. In fact, the more diverse the texts, the better!

Give them several days to do it. It would be a really good thing to actually do in the classroom. I like the image of students with their work sprawled out on their desks or on the floor, digging through it, finding lines that they like. As they do this process, make sure to tell them to keep track of where the lines are coming from so that they can reference them at the end of the poem – footnoting their own work if you will. This requirement sets up a really nice opportunity to talk about how to cite one’s own work.

I would encourage your students to make the poem a half a page to a page long, depending on the amount of work and the developmental level of the students. You want it to be long enough so that the students have enough space to really play around with the material, but not too long so that it becomes tedious rather than challenging. Urge them to think about the following:

  • Line length – make sure to vary it so the poem looks interesting on the page
  • How can you link the lines together so that the poem reads like a unified idea coming from many different sources?
  • How many different sources can you use?
  • Variety of material – try to pick a phrase from one source, a single word from another, etc.
  • Have fun with mashing found phrases and words together to create new meanings.

When they have completed the poem, make sure that they have a chance to share it either with the whole class, in small groups, or in pairs. You might want to collect them and publish them in an anthology. This could start a ritual in your class where your students always publish their work Centos at the end of the year. Over time, you could have a shelf filled with Cento anthologies that your present students can look through. Another idea is to hang them up around the room, gallery style, and have your students and invited guests walk around and read them.

One final reason why I love this idea is because it reinforces for students the idea that the work that we do is malleable and organic. It can transform into other things, other forms. Turning their work into a Cento poem encourages them to always see their work as useful, interesting, and filled with the possibility of becoming something else.

Turning the Olympic Creed into Poetry: Hacking the Olympic Creed, part 2

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If you haven’t had a chance to see my post describing the cut-up experiment we did, click here and check it out. This post highlights some of the great poems that PreK-fourth graders did.

William Burroughs once said, “Cut up Rimbaud, and you are in Rimbaud’s place.” We embarked on this poetry experiment to put us more in the place of the Olympics broadly, and the Olympic Creed specifically. In the process of cutting up the creed and playing around with it word for word, with the goal of making a poem out of those words, really powerful learning happened. Students PreK through fourth grade were  carefully studying words, exploring the different meanings of words, discovering different ways to use words, creating sophisticated poems where the meaning was below the surface, and using the shape of the piece to create that meaning. 

This poem, Norway, is from a kindergarten class. They wrote the poem together. The teacher teacher started the process in true Tristan Tzara style by putting all of the cut up words in a paper bag. The students picked a word our of the bag, laid the word down on a big board on the floor, and then passed the bag to the next students who did the same. The students used the dimensions of the board to determine line-length. Then, once all of the words had been picked, the teacher made a brilliant move by creating a set of constraints for the next phase of the experiment: the students could either move a word, remove a word, or leave the poem the way it was. The game continued with each student scooting out of the circle and deciding what her next move was. They would read the poem aloud to get it in their head before the move and then would read it again when the move had been made. Gasps, oohs and ahs, and laughs filled the room. Some students would express their disagreement with a move. Other moves were met with universal approval. They were all being close readers, thinking creatively and strategically about the next move that they wanted to make. This process went around the circle three times. And is it progressed, more and more words were removed. I was reminded of Niedecker’s “no break from this condensery.” The students paired the poem down to its essentials. What made it even more interesting and funny was the addition of the title, Norway. One could read the poem as a commentary on the country as well as the Olympics. Once the process went around the circle three times, the poem was complete, the group read it aloud again to hear the music in it, and then decided to hang it on their classroom door.

norway The other kindergarten class did it slightly differently, more of a prose approach, keeping all of the words in and shuffling them around on the magnetic white board. After a while, they were stumped, they had a few words that just didn’t seem to work with the poem that they were creating.

cut-up kindergarten

They tried and tried, but adding the words just didn’t sound right. Should they just leave them out? The group worked to answer that question and in the process came up with the idea of using those words as the title for the piece. Hence, the title of the piece:  To Take In The Olympic Games. Below, you’ll see one of the kindergarten students pointing to the words as the group as a whole reads it aloud.

Other students took a narrative approach as well, some to greater affect than others. The trick with the narrative turn is that it encourages the reader to read it like any narrative, and the choppy, broken, style of the text can be a bit off-putting. At other times, this move can be used to create some rather interesting pieces.


cut up third grade 1It’s important to remember that this writing game is a mix of deep literacy learning and artistic creation. Sometimes the works of art turn out more artful than others, but at all times, this experiment plunges the students into language at the word, phrase, and sentence level, encouraging them to think about how they make meaning on the page.

Here is an example of a version that I think works pretty well. It was created by a group of three second graders who truly embodied the spirit of making a poem out of the cut-up words.

cut-up second grade (2)


Not only is it interesting to look at since the young poets chose to roughly use three word lines, but if you read it aloud, you can really hear the possibility in the piece. The rhythms come out in the wonderful use of the repetitions. When read aloud, it sounds as if the speaker is thinking out loud, trying to articulate something profound about life. At times, it captures the cadence of real life. The ending in particular feels a bit like an idiom.




Hack the Olympic Creed with your Students: The Art of the Cut-Up

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ski jump

If you are like me, you’re always looking for a way to bring the here and now into your class in as creative and interesting a way as possible. So what to do with the Olympics? Here’s a great writing (and reading) experiment that will have your students looking at the Olympics and the meaning behind the Olympics in a whole new way.

Take the Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Paste it into a document and blow the creed up to 24 or so point so that you can really see it. Something like this:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Make enough copies of the creed so that a group of four or so in your class can use it: e.g. 24 in a class, make six copies. Cut out each word so that it is independent. Put the individually cut up words for one creed into each envelop.

The next day, get your students into the requisite number of groups, and hand out the envelope to each group. Tell them that the challenge is to use these words, and only these words, to create a poem. The only other constraint is that they must use all of the words. The way that they construct the poem is completely up to them. They may add punctuation.

IMPORTANT: when describing the challenge, do not show them the original Olympic Creed! If you do that, it will suck all of the creativity out of this experiment. Another important point: the goal is not for the groups to try to recreate the creed in the exact original wording. Instead, the students are using the words like material, like paint, to create a whole new work of art, a la Gertrude Stein.Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30

Depending on the age of your students, give them 15, maybe twenty minutes, to mess around with the words and to create the poem. When I tried this, I took a good half an hour, so this could be a good use of an entire period. The amount of time that you dedicate to it will determine the kinds of poems that are produced. Less time: probably more abstract. More time: probably more narrative in form. Any time spent is well worth it. This experiment encourages your students to think and act strategically, carefully reading the words and critically thinking about the meaning that they want to create by connecting the words to each other. They will also come to appreciate how many different ways they can use the same word, particularly prepositions, articles, and conjunctions. Not only that, they are also honing their skills of interpretation and persuasiveness by working as a group to make their poem happen. While your students are creating their poems out of the found material, sit back and enjoy listening to and watching the divergent and convergent thinking that goes on.

Once the students feel that they have their poems constructed, have them write them down on pieces of paper, exactly the way that they look on the tables. While they are doing that, you might want to go around and take pictures of each poem in its cut-up form. There is something aesthetically interesting in the way in which the cut out words look pieced together on the table. Give them a chance to read it one more time out loud to their group so that they have it in their head.

Then, reveal the original creed on your smart board or written on the blackboard or handed out on a different sheet of paper to each group. Tell them that this is the original Olympic Creed. You can even use the moment to share the story with them about how the Olympic Creed came to be:

coubertinPierre de Coubertin got the idea for the phrase adopted as the Olympic Creed from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.

Not much of a story, but it is always good to know where something comes from.

The comparing of the original Olympic Creed and the cut-up versions that the students do should create a very interesting conversation. What is the difference between the original and the new versions? What do we notice about the way the original creed is written? What new meanings are created in the new versions? What do we see differently in the original creed because of our cut-ups? Which do we like better? You get the idea.

For the coup de grace, Have the students type up their cut-up versions with a title and the names of all who contributed to it, and then create a gallery in your room or in the hallway outside of your room where you display the original Olympic Creed and then all of your students’ versions to invite folks to see the Olympics in a new and refreshing way.

This writing and reading experiment is beautifully simple and wonderfully deep in terms of the literacy skill development and learning that happens. As noted above, through this writing game, similar to Burrough’s cut-ups or Tristan Tzara’s Tzara’s Hat, your students will scrutinize individual words, interpret word pairings for below surface meanings, read what they put together many many times, work to convince others that their construction is the best, surprise themselves with what happens when seemingly disparate words are connected, and be ruthless in their editing. When they see the original creed, they will then be encouraged to do some pretty sophisticated comparing and contrasting. They will revisit their own piece and evaluate it for its effectiveness, its uniqueness. They will also come to appreciate how words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how you use them.burroughs&Typewriter(1)

If you give this a shot with your students, please leave a comment and let me know how it goes. Better yet, leave me a comment and share one of the poems created. I’d love to see it. Here is a version I came up with:

But well-conquered Olympic struggle?

Not important

But is the most essential triumph fought to win?

Not important

Take the life games

as not just to have

the most in the thing

But have

the thing in part is

the is

Wearing Tzara’s Hat: Collaborative Writing With Young Kids

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One of the things I love to do more than almost anything is write with kids. It is especially fun to write with young kids. I want them to see how language can surprise them, how they can manipulate words, how there can be multiple meanings, how writing is play, more specifically, serious fun. One of the ways that I show them this is through collaborative writing games, and one of the more popular ones with kindergartners and first graders is Tzara’s Hat.

tristanTzara’s Hat is a collaborative writing game created by Tristin Tzara a French poet and essayist of the early 20th Century. The story goes that at a Dada rally back in 1920, Tristin created a poem on the spot by picking words and phrases out of a hat. The crowd was stunned. Years later, William S. Burroughs, another experimental, avant garde writer, was famous for saying that Tzara’s Hat, and other cut-up forms like it, were a way to see into the future. He wrote, ““Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines, the future leaks out.”

The way that I do it with young kids is I first find a text that we have read before or that they are familiar with. I type up all of it or a section of it in large font so that only three or four words fit a page. That is the only prep needed.

The next day, I head into the class with my typed up story, a bunch of scissors, and a large hat or basket of some sort. I sit down with the students and I may first read the story or I may not. Next, I tell the kids that I want to make a poem out of the story that we just read or that we read a while ago. I pass out the piece of paper with three or four words on them. Already, the kids are looking carefully at these words, either reading them outright, or sounding them out, trying to figure out how they are connected. I ask that one of the students carefully pass out the scissors, and then I ask them to cut out the words and to put them in a neat pile in front of them. Scissors are brandished. Tongues are moving to the left and right. Words continue to be read. Some cuts are ragged. Some cuts are laser straight. It doesn’t matter. Once the kids have placed the individually cut-out words in a neat pile. I ask them to place their words in the basket or the hat. By this point, they are getting a  bit antsy, wondering what is going to happen next and how this could ever become a poem. With all of the words in the basket, the real fun can begin, but I don’t want to discount the serious literacy work that was happening even before we built the new piece. The cutting out of the individual words are key, demonstrating to the kids that words are material that you can manipulate and play around with. Not to mention all of the reading that goes on at this time.

Back to the real fun. We shake up the hat or the basket a few times so that all of the words mix and mingle, and then I tell them that we are going to build this poem one word at a time and each line of the poem is going to be one word. I hand the basket to the student next to me and ask him or her to pick a word out of the hat and begin our poem. This continues around the circle, each student picking out a word and making the next line of the poem. When the basket has made it all the way around the circle and back into my hands. We pause for a minute and look at what we have created. The poem is in a straight line, bisecting our circle. Students are on their haunches, leaning towards the piece, reading it under their breath or out loud. I let them bask in this mystery for a bit, and then I ask them if they would like me to read it aloud.  They always say yes. I read it carefully and intentionally, paying attention to the inner-logic, the surprising story that is underneath what looks to be randomness on the surface. I pick up on the rhythm of the piece, the unexpected rhymes and repetitions that may occur. It is a performance to say the least, and the kids love it. It is guaranteed to bring laughter, and it is also guaranteed to bring out the literary critic in a five year old. It is not unusual for many in the group immediately after the reading to begin to comment on certain lines, whether they worked or not. They are also keen to discuss what parts of the piece really sounded like a poem. There is something about this experiment that gets their writer antennas up.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. You see, there are more words left in the hat! At a certain point, once the discussion of the poem has died down a bit, I’ll shake the hat or the basket and let them know that there are still words left. What should we do with the rest of these words? Sometimes students will say, “Make another one!” which isn’t a bad idea. What is even a better idea is to add these words to the poem that we have already made. There is usually a student who will bring this idea up too. I grasp onto that idea and encourage them to give that a try. The basket gets passed around the circle again, and this is where the really interesting work happens.

Students start thinking strategically about where they want to put their next word. Should they put it before or after the word already there? They may try it one way, read it, and then try it the other, read it, and make a final decision. Other students will start to wonder if they can put a word upside down or vertical rather than horizontal. Discussion will ensue as to how we should read that when the poem is completed. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, what often happens is that there will be a student or two who will notice that they can slide part of the second word under the first and make an entirely new word! What a discovery! The group oohs and aaahs and searches for other ways that they can make that happen. Eventually the words are exhausted and we have the final poem. Again, I ask them if they would like me to read it aloud. A resounding chorus of ‘Yes!’ happens. I read it. More laughter. More serious literary discussion. I then read it again in a different way. At the end, I ask them to compare the two readings. What did they notice? Which did they like better? Why? I emphasize their choice by reading it in the preferred way again. Often, we will read it together.

Before the poem gets trampled on the way out to recess or art or lunch, I take a quick picture of it or write it down. That night, I go home, write it up on a big piece of paper and bring it in the next day to hang it up in the room, a luminous example of how words are material to be manipulated and played around with, how writing is serious fun.Tzaras Hat

Writing Night Poems with First Graders

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boston night


Heading into another first grade class tomorrow, and we are going to write poems about night. They have been exploring everything having to do with night, so the teacher and I thought writing poems about night would be a good way for them to get down in a creative form the different things that they have been learning. Here’s how we decided to set it up:

Writing Night Poems

First Grade

Objective: For the students to articulate their vision of night in the form of a picture and in the form of a poem.

Skills: translating image in head to paper; using specific and concrete language; using five senses in writing; interpreting a peers picture into poetrynight drawings16 copy

  1. Start by looking at a drawing or two of Night. I found some cool ones online.
  2. Talk about what we see and as the students talk, write what they say on the board, creating a spontaneous poem. (Teacher will do this)
  3. Have the students draw what they think night looks like. We draw with them!
  4. Students pass their drawings to someone else in class,
  5. Read a poem about night (see below)
  6. Talk about the moves that the poem makes in the poem. Come up with some great night words. Write on board
  7. Students then write what they see in their friend’s drawing, creating another, self-written night poem that is inspired by their friend’s drawing.Teachers write too!
  8. Share

This will probably take more than one period, but I think we can get the project up and running and then the teacher can take over and lead it to its conclusion.

Materials needed:
Working smart board to project pictures
Big white board to make the collaborative poem about night
Big sheets of paper and pencils, pens, and crayons for the kid’s drawings of night
Paper to write their own poems about the pictures

ashcan night

Poem to read Thanks to Larry Fagin!

in the night I sleep like a pig.

in the night I dream the pig goes to heaven.

in the night I see stars twinkling in the window.

in the night the moon is spinning like a crystal ball.

in the night my pajamas glow in the dark.

in the night the darkness glows like the inside of a cave.

in the night the breeze blows hard on my silent pajamas.

in the night the ghost of the living dead smiles at my baby doll.

in the night all my dolls wave at the ghosts.

in the night I dream of living crickets who crawl inside my pajamas.

in the night my shy little baby sleeps his head off.

in the night owls hoot to the glaring sky.

in the night pickles whisper to 7-Up.

in the night my heart beats slowly and quietly like the only muscle I have.

in the night soft jazz plays into the windy darkness.

in the night fog clouds up the land.

in the night the river sleeps and dreams about the magic flounder.

in the night the kingfisher grounds me for nothing.

in the night the little mermaid shakes her tail and finds her prince.

in the night the clothes in the hamper are exhausted.

in the night time does not sleep.

in the night the closet silently opens.

in the night I lie awake thinking about Fred.

in the night my butler wakes me for a joke.

in the night the janitor gently sweeps the school.

in the night Mrs. Dixon heats up the milk for the baby.