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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

Warping the Traditional Author’s Note

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A great ending to writing a piece is crafting a clever author’s note to go along with it. I tend to have my students write these whenever they are going to publish a piece of their writing. Author’s notes can sometimes be rather dull and formulaic, but there are some interesting and fun ways to write author’s notes that students enjoy and that push them to be strategic and artful with their writing. Here are a few ways to write author’s notes.

Idea # 1: Author’s Note as Cento

The Cento is a form of poetry where the writer pulls lines and phrases from other poems and puts them together to create a new poem. Have your students do this with their own writing! Have them go in and pull great lines and surprising phrases and have them think strategically about how they may want to put them together in the form of a wild author’s note. When you do this, you get something like this:

Delight I invoke, Run down, between ocean and gorge to myriads of transcendence in the star-flash of the underbellies of blue cars and other worlds that float off like foam Into the sea.

Or this:

Girl in water

bottle section(better

suited for light

around the edges)

developing a tendency

 to make the

unbearable tedium of

 regular writing. As

specified in Tour

Guide, this is

her second workshop.

An equation for

this exists: 15 + 240 =

this girl(me) at

Cliveden. The figures

change from year to year.

These two Centos were built out of lines and phrases that the students pulled from the stories that they had been writing over the course of a short story unit.

Idea #2: Author’s Note as Remix

Another way to create an interesting author’s note is to dig through the writing and find quirky and funny things that it says about the writer. Remix that material into an author’s note, like this:

Leah is someone with no rhythm. She hates Remax commercials. She has never traveled to Missouri and wishes never to go there…EVER. She likes jet planes, especially when flying to Europe (where, I forgot to mention, she also has never lived). She has heard the “then there was light” story too many times to count, but wonders when there was water. Maybe her next novel will analyze that. Leah did not write “The History of Anonymity.” She has, however, written the defunct book, “Swimming for Dummies.” She is furious that the publishers did not consider it. She currently has “writers not,” a mentality similar to “writers block.” We hope (or do not hope) to see her work again soon.

Or something like this:

Nick feels like croaking on in the morning on the way to school. His mother tries to play the Dixie Chicks and roll down the window. This makes Nick’s eyes go cross.

Good author’s notes can be short and sweet.

Idea #3: Author’s Note as Collaborative Writing

Get students and teachers together in groups of three or so and have them build author’s notes for each other collaboratively. Each writer gets out a piece of paper. Make the constraint three words and pass, meaning that each writer puts down three words and then passes the paper to the next writer. That writer picks up the author’s note from where it left off. Keep passing the papers around, writing three words at a time until you get something like this:

Eli envies the deaf, wears chucks, and hates Axe body spray. Currently he is adrift in a jar, buried under a rock, with the glass painted black. He’d love to talk about his family dynamic, but thinks it might be a bit of a personal subject at this juncture.

Or this:

This long wage of vast palette, which builds its range by adoption of hues in Tijuana of futuristic squirrels. Holy hell’s bells avenge Baltic buffoons. Eyes like saucers let me go! Tattooed tramp! My Mom’s got nothing but leaky boots.

Idea #4: Author’s Note as Identity Theft

Have your students go online and Google themselves. Have them jot down all kinds of interesting things that they learn about people that have their same name. Then have them write an author’s note using all of that information. You’ll get something like this:

Leif Gustavson sometimes lives in Massachusetts. He actively uses his Dropbox to collect electronic music under the artistic name Leify-Greenz. When not in Massachusetts, he returns to Kyle, Saskatchewan. While pursuing his Master’s Thesis in Cognitive Science, he won the Children’s Wish Foundation Home Lottery and secretly wished that his first name was Thor.  He has a propensity to take pictures with his shirt off. Leif often eats lunch at a shelter set up by the Spencer Emergency Management Agency at Knox Trail Junior High School.

The point of all of these forms is to warp the conventional author’s note, to push students to think and act divergently and convergently about the form. I would start this experiment by sharing a traditional author’s note or two with the students. Talk about the craft: what makes them tick? What are the moves that the writer is making in them? Then I would say, “For our author’s note, let’s warp the form a bit” and share these other ways of creating interesting, artful author’s notes. This way, they get the conventions of a traditional author’s note and then can twist it in fun and challenging ways.

All of the examples, with the exception of the identity theft one, are real author’s notes crafted by middle and high school students.