The Collaborative Sentence Game

October 1, 2009

The Collaborative Sentence Game

OR

Stop Making Sense!

INTRODUCTION

This is an exercise for students of any age who say they can’t (or don’t, or won’t) write poetry. It would work well, too, for more advanced writers. I presented it to my class of blind and visually impaired high school students—bright, funny kids who can be deeply reluctant writers—as a grammar game. They groaned but were willing to play. By the time they had finished their first strange and beautiful sentence, they were so tickled by what they had done I was able to tell them “You guys are writing the language of poetry,” and they were having so much fun they didn’t care. They just wanted to keep making sentences.

HOW TO PLAY

1. Make long lists of good, colorful nouns and verbs, with plenty of prepositions and articles and modifiers: steal lamp I penny startle orange breathe when for tree is you the have to tiger if because sleep Lucinda nervous mountain with want and a sweater, etc. Steal from a novel or newspaper or dictionary if you like. Try to use words that appeal to the senses. Steer clear of abstract, jargony words like goal and inspire. Keep all verbs in the same tense. Use some small words twice, so there is more than one the and that and and and is and with and to and so.

2. Turn these lists into flashcards (index cards are a good size), one word to a card. (For teachers of the visually impaired, it’s nice to have large print and Braille on each card.) You want a big deck, dozens and dozens of cards.

3. Tell the students they are playing a card game. The teacher is the dealer. Students sit around a table. Deal everyone a hand of seven cards. Then turn over a card from the deck in the middle of the table. Student to the left of the dealer has to play a card that would help the first card build toward a grammatical sentence. (If a student can’t play a card, she has to draw another from the deck.) Emphasize to the students that they need not worry about “making sense.” Emphasize that a sentence can be grammatically correct without making sense.

Thus, if the starting word is When, the student could play a card that says you, leading the next student to try to play a card like sleep. When you sleep… what happens? The next student might play cheeseburgers, and the next fall, and the next in, and the next my, and the next heart.

When you sleep, cheeseburgers fall in my heart is an odd thing to say. It gives us a feeling, an idea, that we haven’t had before. It might even be part of a poem.

4. Read each growing sentence aloud as they build it. “When you sleepWhen you sleep… What happens when you sleep?” Help them try to imagine what might come next; give doubtful kids possible words to play. “Prepositions would work well here. You could play the word in if you’ve got it. Or what about on? When you sleep on what? A bridge? When you sleep on a bridge, what happens? Do the wombats cry? Does Megan’s tooth tremble?”

5. The apparent object of the game is to be the first to play every card in your hand and “win.” The real object of the game, of course, has nothing to do with winning. Adjust or make up any rules to keep them playing long enough that they start to have fun.

6. Let students know that each word can be modified as needed. If the sentence says Lunch is, and the student wants to play drill, of course the sentence can be read as Lunch is drilling…. If the sentence begins with I and the student wants to play is, of course the sentence can be read as I am…. And let them know they can decide together what punctuation they need.

7. Declare the sentence finished when they have written an interesting sentence. It will probably be long and have great subordinate clauses. Write it on the board. Read it aloud in all its weird majesty. Listen to the kids giggle.

8. (Optional) Break up the group. Let the students vote on their favorite sentence. Have them write it out in prose. Then give them a few minutes to break it into lines. Let everyone read her version aloud, pausing noticeably at each line break. Discuss the difference between, for example,

When you
sleep, cheese-
burgers fall in my
heart.

and

When you sleep,
cheeseburgers fall
in my heart.

BACKGROUND

The exercise is loosely derived from linguist Noam Chomsky. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, Chomsky says, is a nonsensical sentence that nevertheless makes grammatical sense. (As opposed to Furiously sleep ideas green colorless, which does not work at either the level of sense or grammar.) I told my students about this sentence one day, and they were intrigued by it. I tried to take advantage of their interest by giving them the chance to imitate it.

The game works for several reasons. One, it frees kids from the burden of needing an idea. No one has to have “something to say.” Two, it frees them from being judged. With no single author responsible, they are able to simply read, and revel in, what has been written. Three, having a finite number of cards to play (some of which—e.g., When you sleep—sound immediately better than others—e.g., When you the) allows them to work quickly, intuitively, and without anxiety. The stakes are low, the pleasure is high. Their question is What’s going to happen next? rather than What am I going to do?

A NOTE ON SENSE

Among the many meanings of “sense” in my dictionary are these: the ability to think or reason soundly; normal intelligence and judgment, often as reflected in behavior, and soundness of judgment or reasoning; evidence of normal intelligence or understanding, and something wise, sound, or reasonable. Note the emphasis on normalcy, soundness (i.e. not-weakness), and reason.

What kid was ever normal? What kid isn’t in some way weak? What do such weird, wounded, lovely people—powerless, as they are, to prevent the difficult things that happen to them and their families—know about being reasonable?

In my classroom I ask my students to sit up straight and speak in a loud, clear voice. I ask them to take words seriously, to take their own lives seriously. I ask them to take good notes and refrain from poking each other with pencils. It is desperately important for me to teach them that these things are not incompatible with their own singular, strange selves. Poetry is, among other things, a way of uncovering that singularity and strangeness. Poems are places where sense can be abandoned in favor of weakness and silliness and a funky, piebald beauty. Where language can be detached from the everyday, rational, communicative, useful purposes to which we put it, and it can simply be, shiny and alive, without rhyme or reason, just like kids themselves.

* * *

About the author: Nico Alvarado is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He teaches English and Social Studies to visually impaired teenagers in Colorado.

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