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.

 

 

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.

 

The Body Project

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love.  Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul.  The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.

For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies.  They came up with the typical list:  heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.

Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with:  morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.

My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry.  A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine.  A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.

Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.

Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.

Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing.  The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.

My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:

 

The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.

 

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Wonder how many poems you can stuff in a mailbox?

I am not a poet, but I love the room of opportunites that poem doors open up for writing teachers.  Leave it to a fabulous poem to start many, many conversations about language, choice, authorial intention, image, or persona. Or a hundred billion other things.

The Practice of Poetry is one of those books I’ve used exhaustively over the last ten years to get those discussions started.   The exercises are unique and delivered in such a way that even the most reluctuant student poets can produce something artful.

Because the writing exercises in The Practice of Poetry are written by poets who are also teachers, each exercise comes with an explanation of how the poet developed the exercise and the purpose for which she created it.  In class  Friday, we embarked on Jim Simmerman’s great exercise “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.”  Simmerman states, “This exercise is great for producing free-for-all wackiness, inventive word play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.”   Because I have a mixed bag of writers in my classroom, I felt like this exercise would be great for those who felt stymied by the pressure to sound “poetic” (whatever that means) or any kid out there dealing with writer’s block, or as Simmerman states in the explanation, any one “stuck in a single style.”

The key to doing this exercise is to write all the “projects,” then revise for unity and coherence, looking for the  opportunities for repetition and parallelism, capitalizing on the experimental nature of the activity to have fun and take risks with language and image.  The twenty projects are:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use of example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand.)
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The students had a lot of fun doing this activity.  Even though the exercise is a formula of sorts, my students made the poems personal through the use of voice, style,  or mood.   Here are a few selections for your enjoyment.

#1 David, Grade 10 

#2 Marin, Grade 10

#3 John, Grade 10

#4 Katrin, Grade 10

#5 Taleah, Grade 10

 

Lesson Plan: Mirror, Mirror

In the essay “On Becoming a Poet,” Mark Strands says, “A poem may be the residue of an inner urgency, one through which the self wishes to register itself, write itself into being, and finally, to charm another self, the reader, into belief.”

Today in my Literary Arts 1.2 class, my learning target was to register ourselves, to write ourselves into being, and, of course, to use the kind of language and details that would charm a reader into belief.

First, I led the class in a poetry transcription of Charles Simic’s fabulous poem “Mirrors at 4 a.m.”  and afterward, we discussed images: “rooms webbed in shadows,” “the empty bed,” “the blank wall,” and of course, the surreptitious (authentic vocab moment) wiping of the “hanky” over the brow.   We talked about mortality, existence, time and eternity, but my objective was not analysis. The poem was just a spring board for self examination and self rendering.

I passed out small mirrors.  I’ve used these hand-held numbers before to assist students in writing about their hands, but this was the first time we have ventured to the face.  After everyone had a mirror, there was much giggling and groaning and bang fluffing and chin jutting. Then we got down to business.

Employing top to bottom description, we wrote for five minutes on each element of the face, starting with the 1) hair, 2) forehead, 3) eyes, 4) nose, 5) mouth, 6) chin and jaw, and finally, 7) the whole face.   The whole activity took about 40 minutes, and it produced about two pages of description of some element of the face. I urged them to reject the easy description, the cliched, the hackneyed, and take up residence in the unique pores, moles, freckles, and follicles of their face.

Using this fodder as a zero draft, students then created a poem (any length, any form) that addressed, defined, described, or gave voice to one of the abstract words on the board:  self, existence, mortality, personality, identity, purpose, destiny, character.   

Or they could write anything they want.  That’s always an option.   Here are a few of the results:

#1  Leila, Grade 10

#2 Ruby, Grade 10

#3 McKenna, Grade 9

#4 Autumn, Grade 9

#5 Sarah, Grade 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3.D

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Lesson Plan: Using transference in fiction

Manuel Gonzalez, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and The Regional Office Is Under Attack! recently visited my classroom to talk about craft and lead us in a few writing exercises. During the craft talk, he had good advice like “Get your butt in a chair and write 500-1000 words every day,” but the writing exercises were especially good, so I thought I would pass them along to you.

According to Psychology Today, a classic example of transference occurs when someone unconsciously redirects or transfers feelings from one person to another or from one experience to another.  In the world at large, transference might occur when you develop an unwarranted attachment to a coworker who reminds you of an old flame.  But in the writing world, transference can be used to migrate authentic feelings from an author’s real life experience into the world of fiction to bring specificity and humanity to a character.  Gonzalez, quoting fiction writer Tayri Jones, said, “If you’ve been stuck in an elevator for more than five minutes, you know what it’s like to be stuck in a space station.” In other words, you take what you know and transfer it onto fictional characters and fictional places to make them seem real.

At the outset of the exercise, Gonzalez told a story about an Orthodox Jewish Broadway actor who was playing a character contemplating suicide. The last scene required him, without any dialogue, to have the gun in his hand, but then convince the audience he had decided not to kill himself. The reviews for his performance were wild with praise for his showcase of pain and struggle with the decision.  But as an Orthodox Jew, he wouldn’t have ever even considered suicide. At a press junket, a journalist asked him:   How did you inhabit your character?  He said that he lived in a four-story walkup flat with an old water heater in the basement. When he took a shower, it took forever to get the hot water going, so many mornings he had to take a cold shower if he wanted to take a shower at all. “I would stand there and look at that cold water, but some days I just couldn’t bring myself to get into the bathtub. I took that feeling and transferred it to a character who was contemplating suicide, but ultimately can’t do it,” said the actor.  Gonzalez then led us in three transference exercises to bring specificity and humanity to a small scene by channeling personal experience into scene.

  • Think of an ordinary or typical moment in your life. Write that moment, but choose to do something you would never do in real life, adding complications and tension.
  • Write a short scene about something that really happened to you, but change the one thing that pivots the story, so the outcome is radically different from what really happened.
  • Take yourself as a character and drop yourself into a wildly unfamiliar environment. React as you would normally react in an environment like this.  Write that scene.

 

The kids loved these activities, and many of the scenes we wrote during this visit ended up in polished pieces at the end of the unit. Boom! Lesson plan.

World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥