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How We Haiku — Teaching Stories 13

Teaching and Learning Haiku in Community and Classroom: Stories, Challenges, Adventures

Do you teach haiku? In a classroom? An arts foundation? Community education? We want to hear about it. Want some new ideas? A place to vet an old idea before you try it “live”? Community support? How We Haiku — Teaching Stories is a monthly feature wherein we will share the many diverse and interesting ways your bring our favorite genre to your audience. Each month Brad Bennett and Jeannie Martin, co-chairs of The Haiku Foundation Education Committee, will host your stories of how you make haiku come alive for your students, and create an environment where educators can discuss the many challenges faced in bringing a fuller sense of haiku to a culture that knows little more than the stereotypes. Contact us to share your teaching stories, to ask your questions, and to find fellowship with your peers and the rest of the haiku community.

“We cannot teach a person directly, we can only facilitate his or her learning.”
— Carl Rogers

We welcome your comments (scroll down to the bottom of the page). And don’t forget about all the other fine education resources the Foundation has to offer.


This month Susan Antolin, editor of Acorn: a Journal of Contemporary Haiku, reminds us of a central concept of haiku.

Nouns in Student Haiku

Everyone comes to poetry with certain preconceived ideas about what belongs in a poem. Not surprisingly, many new poets expect to pour their emotions into poems. Even young children I have had in haiku workshops, or whose work I have read as a judge of a local poetry contest, tend to almost reflexively write about their emotions (“I love my dog”) or include self-affirming statements (“I can do anything”) rather than focusing on concrete images. Great haiku almost never originate with an idea. The best starting point is with observations of real, tangible things. Ideas and emotions are so much more powerful when hinted at rather than stated, and haiku that include fresh, specific images can make us think and feel without telling us the precise idea or feeling the poet wants to convey.

For a few years I taught workshops on haiku to teachers in Richmond, CA as a way to help build enthusiasm for a city-wide poetry contest. While it seemed to me each time that the teachers “got” haiku during the workshops, I was disappointed to see that many of the poems submitted to the contest consisted of statements of self-affirmation or overt emotion. As a judge, I found myself passing over poem after poem with lines such as “I am strong and beautiful,” or “I never give up.” Everything I had tried to convey about the importance of images and of showing not telling, seemed to have been lost. So, on the few occasions I have been invited to teach haiku directly to children, I have been determined to get the kids to write poems with concrete images. But how to steer them in the right direction?

In my experience, kids (and probably most adults as well) respond well to having something concrete to hold and use as a starting point for writing haiku. I have written words on small stones, popsicle sticks, wooden blocks, and small cards, and handed them out to students to use in their poems. Nouns, particularly ones that indicate a season, are an excellent way to keep haiku from veering off into the realm of abstract emotion. Another tool I have found useful and fun is to bring Japanese kanji printed on cards for the students to incorporate in their haiku. Very simple kanji, such as those for mountain, river, rain, snow, sun, etc. work well since the shape of the character relates so closely to the meaning. Kids tend to enjoy seeing their haiku with the kanji inserted in place of the word in English. It is not necessary to teach the Japanese word to go with the kanji. Instead, just say “mountain” when you come to the kanji for mountain in the haiku. Of course, all of the above is just one part of a more complete lesson plan, but it is the part that seems to help set students on the path to focusing on nouns rather than emotions and seems to help generate interesting haiku.

I have found that kids come up with some spectacular haiku when you least expect it. Just when it seems everyone in the classroom is coming up with similar, somewhat humdrum stuff, one kid (the quiet one in the back of the room) writes something with a certain freshness and authenticity that reminds you why you love haiku in the first place.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for sharing this. very true and useful. I also use some word games as similar tools and it works.

    BTW, further more we will have the “Iron Haiku Chef Competition” at the 2017 West Chester Poetry Conference for one open poetry reading event.

    It should be fun.


  2. .

    Truly impressive and inspiring.
    I regularly teach haiku and associated genres, and have been in schools many times. If I am lucky and there are dedicated teachers and teaching assistants, we go to the moon and back. :-)
    When a child makes a breakthrough, and supported by teachers, most often, it is pure magic, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. :-)
    warm regards, and deep appreciation for your report,

  3. Well said, Sue! I’m so grateful to those among us who find the time to teach about haiku — and for ideas like this for the rest of us who might have that opportunity someday. I will be pointing newcomers to this resource often. Thank you! –Billie

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