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.
Tzara’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.