Writing poetry with secondary school students: using cut ups #writerinschool

As I mentioned before, I liked the collage feel of both Anthony Wilson’s notebook posts and Julie Mellor’s post about Cubomania, in which Julie cut up blocks of text and placed them together in a random way to create new poems.  With this in mind, I started a new term at St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath, where I work as Writer in Residence one day a week, by asking students to think of and write down their favourite words or phrases, then cut them up, then try to make new poems from the assembled collection of texts.

I wanted the students to begin the session by thinking about words they liked and I wanted the exercise to be led by them, to a large extent, rather than being dictated by me (not that I’m that kind of person, at least I hope not!).  I was reminded of a Michael Laskey writing workshop I attended in 2010, in Bridport.  Michael began the workshop by asking everyone to think of words they liked and to write them down.  He talked about liking the sound a word made and not understanding why we liked a word but just liking it.  Once we’d written down these words, and shared some of them with the group, we began to write poems using them.

I shared some of my favourite words with the students, telling them I liked the word ‘hydrangea’ and I also told them that my brother Mike has a habit of ending conversations with “Well, there you go!” or “such is life!”

Students then wrote down and shared their favourite words.  ” ‘ave it! ” was one phrase which they liked, and “Hello Governor – or Guv’nor – ”  Also “If you know what I mean.”  Lots of other words emerged.  We talked about how we should write and spell these words and agreed there were different ways.

Once they’d cut up their words, students moved the pieces of paper around to make some kind of poem.  We talked about whether or not poems needed to make sense and how some poems can make their own sense, and have their own time.  We talked about who could be speaking in the poems and how that person might be feeling.

Sometimes students wanted to add words to the pile – so that it will make more sense .  I didn’t allow that, but students could write anything they wanted in their own notebooks.  In this way, they wrote other poems, using some of the new language and ideas that the cut ups had inspired.

This was a great exercise for thinking about syntax and word order – although we didn’t talk about what we were doing in those terms – and also for considering the way that poetry breaks rules.  I was really pleased that it seemed to make students want to write more, almost as if taking away their freedom to write (by restricting them to use single words or small phrases, then cutting them up and manipulating the text) made them want to use it more.  I liked the way that manipulating language in this way made us think about spelling, order, sense, emotion, meaning.  There were some really good discussions!

After this exercise, I gave the students some cut ups of other poems.  I first used this simple and lovely Cinquain by Cheryl Moskowitz which she shared (I think via Twitter) on National Poetry Day last year.

I didn’t show the students the poem at first but gave them the words of the poem cut up so they could make their own poems.



During this exercise students needed to work together and either take it in turns to arrange the words in the way they wanted or discuss and negotiate the way to arrange them.  It was fascinating to watch them work together.  I noticed that if a student couldn’t get the others to agree on a particular word order, they quietly wrote the words in the order they wanted in their own notebook.  Students shared their own versions with the group, as well.

Once the students had made their own poems, we talked about what a Cinquain was, and some students wanted to try to write their own.

There was still time at the end of a one hour session to look at one more poem.  I chose In That Year by Kim Moore.  As with the previous poems, I gave students the first four lines of the poem cut up and students started off working with these words and making poems from them.  Afterwards, students talked about what Kim’s poem was about and about how she’d used repetition very effectively.

What was very exciting about this session, which I ran with three different small groups of students, was the amount of work it produced in their notebooks – not necessarily finished poems, but ideas for new poems.  All in all, it was a good way to start a new term and to ease everyone back into the idea of reading and writing new work.

As always, please share your own ideas in the comments section, particularly if you’ve used cut ups in creative writing classes.


8 thoughts on “Writing poetry with secondary school students: using cut ups #writerinschool”

  1. Sounds excellent. I’ve used other people’s poems, my poems, newspaper and magazine articles, leaflets etc for cut-outs, redaction/erasure activities. I usually ask people to cut and paste- using images too if they want with an option to write up too, changing it if they want. I like the idea of using the notebooks for ‘extras’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Josephine, and very interesting to hear how you used this – thanks for sharing. I particularly like your observation of how the restriction of using the cut ups led to a sort of overflow of ideas into their notebooks! I’ve used a variation on cutouts in my recent workshops due to the restrictions of time and being online where we grab a non-fiction text, flick through and stick a finger in five(ish) times to pick out random words or phrases, then used those as the basis of what we write. So far I’ve always allowed addition of our own words though – I might turn the screw next time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for adding details of your experience, Angela. Yes, I loved that even reluctant writers actually wrote a lot during these sessions. Huge respect to you – and all teachers – for all you’re doing during the pandemic.


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