Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

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Arts Integration: Not Your Grandma’s Piano Recital

Three years ago, Cathy Rowland, the piano teacher at the high school where I teach, asked me and the art teacher, Jason Sturgill, if we would like to collaborate with her during a piano recital.  Her idea was that her students could learn piano pieces around a theme, and our students, creative writers and visual artists, could be inspired by those arrangements. Her vision was that all the creation could happen at the same time, in the same room, while the pianos played.   Writers writing and reading their work, artists painting, dancers dancing, actors acting in a dynamic, unrehearsed, live integration.

We did it. And have continued to do it for the last three years.   For teachers who are trying to build an arts integration program within their school, here’s the story of our collaboration.

Six weeks before the showcase, my creative writing students met with Rowland’s piano students to listen to the music.  Each student chose one or two songs with which they felt an immediate attraction.

In addition to listening to the musical compositions over and over, the poets researched the history of the songs, the life stories of the composers, and different forms, such as Russian folk ballads, Germanic legends of the supernatural and Chinese poetic traditions.  During the six weeks, their poems started to emerge.

“I typically write just for myself, but this experience forced me to write for an experience that was being communicated through music by the composers and the pianists. I started to look at music as language, emotion, and thought,” said creative writer Hannah Bernard. “I felt like my poems were much more dynamic and complex because of the music.”

As each piano student performed, they were accompanied by either a piece of drama, art, poetry or drama.  Each student artist created a piece of art in his or her discipline, based on the music of Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, to name a few of the featured composers.

“Playing the piano is traditionally a solitary experience,” said Rowland. “Through this collaboration with students in other arts areas, the piano students were given the opportunity to share their interpretations of both their solo and ensemble pieces with the other artists.”

“My students listen to the piano arrangements to get a feel for what they saw in the music,” said art teacher Jason Sturgill. “I feel like I learned, and my students learned too, a valuable lesson about community.” Some art students completed their works before the showcase and displayed them, but other students painted their works as the pianists performed.

“It was like art theatre.  The audience was behind me, and I zoned out and pretended they weren’t there. The music was all around me as I created,” said graphic artist Nia Burney, who created a digital piece with ArtRage studio software.

In addition to become an invaluable learning tool for students, the showcase also provided an exhibition of the wide range of arts disciplines within our school. Parents, faculty, administration and community members were on hand to witness the range of student talent.  “I can think of no better way to demonstrate the value of our arts program than to experience all of the arts on display in the same program,” said drama teacher Paul Thomas.

If your school wants to host an all-arts spotlight, determining a theme is crucial to create cohesiveness among the artistic products and performances.  After determining a theme that provides artistic unity, students interpret the theme through their own original, interpretative directions. Elementary classrooms could create a showcase within a single classroom, while high school arts components could collaborate across arts disciplines or even content areas.

This project proved what is best about the collaborative dynamic –creation and self-reflection that moves outside the individual artist into a community.