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How We Haiku — Teaching Stories 18

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 Anne Elise Burgevin offers a host of tips of how to teach our favorite genre to a variety of age groups.

Cloudy with a Chance of . . . Teaching Haiku

Teaching haiku is risky business. There is a chance my students will not be interested or grasp the fundamentals. There is also the challenge of encouraging them to build on their first attempt at writing haiku, and (gulp) revise. Regardless of the setting or the age, my biggest challenge is helping students to discover the connection between their experiences and their poems. “Discover” is the operative word. Because lecturing about haiku will only take one so far, my haiku classes are active and interactive, striking a balance between introspective experiences and time to share. Students have a lot to teach one another, as well. I have witnessed many ways in which students inspire one another with their ideas and questions. I, therefore, like to make room for this informal peer teaching to happen. Let me walk you through a two-day workshop.

Day 1: Writing haiku is personal. My first goal is to connect with my students. I ask them to share something they enjoy doing, preferably in the outdoors since haiku is poetry that expresses an awareness of the natural world (the outer landscape) and our experiences (the inner landscape). Because the power of haiku lives in the details, I reassure my students that it is fine to share something as seemingly insignificant as the way a robin’s feathers ruffle on a windy morning in March.

I then hand everyone an age appropriate haiku journal like Modern Haiku or a book, such as Cool Melons Turn to Frogs. Since one of the best ways to learn about haiku is to read haiku, I ask them to read to themselves for 5–10 minutes and to choose a haiku that interests them. Afterwards, everyone reads a haiku out loud to the class. As each of my students shares his or her selection, we flesh out characteristics that make haiku unique, such as a three-line structure, a word count of ten or fewer, a seasonal reference, two parts that create juxtaposition, and space for the reader to imagine and wonder. It is impressive to listen to my students as they begin to capably decipher haiku and grasp subtle references without having had much exposure to this genre. I want them to discover what haiku is and is not. Thus, as we talk, I make a list on a chalkboard about what defines haiku. For high school students who often choose senryu to discuss, we normally have a great opportunity to compare senryu with haiku.

Once my students become sensitized to the uniqueness of haiku, I take them on a ginko walk, small notebooks and pens in hand. My ginko walk is pre-planned and more orchestrated than ginko walks for adults. Prior to the walk, I go on the walk by myself to notice trees, rocks, flowers, bird calls, etc. At home that evening I then choose specific haiku to read the next day on the ginko walk. Recently, during a ginko walk with elementary and middle school students, I read a haiku by Ruth Yarrow — “before the sled moves / the little girls / already squealing” — while my students and I stood at the top of a hill. Some of them smiled. Maybe they imagined themselves sledding down the hill, I mused. On the ginko walk I ask my students to listen closely to the haiku I read, quietly observe the natural world, note their thoughts and feelings, engage all of their senses, and collect “data”.

If you cannot take a ginko walk with your students have them find a place in front of a window and take notes about what they see. This approach has worked well for my younger students. Another alternative is to present a slide show of outdoor scenes and use these images as inspiration. Back in the classroom, and after gently suggesting that our first haiku often sound awkward, my students are now ready to write a haiku. They spend 10–15 minutes writing. I quietly walk around the classroom to answer questions that arise, or I sit and write. At the end of Day 1, I ask everyone to work that evening on the haiku they wrote, and to write one or two more to share the next day.

Day 2 begins with a story. I tell an interesting backstory to one of my haiku by describing the hum of bees, the pink of cherry blossoms, the fragrance, before sharing the haiku itself. It is informative for my students to see where my haiku originated and how I wrote and revised it. Showing my students how one of my haiku evolved from rough draft to the finished version is intriguing to them. They notice the vast differences between the two drafts. In order to reinforce the fact that our haiku come from our experiences, I remind them that they will have their own backstories to tell.

This leads nicely to a short lecture/explanation about the cultural and historical story of how the genre of haiku began. With the help of my “Haiku Masters” poster illustrating the masters and one of their signature haiku, my students begin to understand haiku is a long-standing tradition from Japanese culture that has spread to other cultures and languages. We then we read a prepared handout of five haiku by English-language poets and five by Japanese poets. We discuss them and then do a short writing exercise whereby my students finish one of Kobayashi Issa’s haiku: “distant mountains / reflected in the eyes / ______________”. Some of my students compose more than one ending. It is always fun to reveal the actual third line: “of a dragonfly”.

To keep things lively, I introduce a matching game exercise, devised by LeRoy Gorman. The exercise appears in an article Gorman wrote for Terry Carter’s book Lighting the Global Lantern. Each small group of students receives a set of fifteen haiku that have been cut apart. Their task is to match the first two lines with the third line for all fifteen haiku. This exercise helps students think carefully about the poet’s intention, and, ultimately, their own intention when writing haiku. It also draws attention to juxtaposition and the fragment/phrase structure of haiku. Typically, I overhear friendly debate about which third line goes with which first two lines. I mingle, encourage, ask questions, and, then hand out the keys. This exercise is always time well spent.

After this “light and lively” exercise, we share our haiku. Having already shared my own haiku, I have demonstrated that I am willing to be vulnerable. I give encouraging feedback and suggest classmates do the same. This is a tender time. (Giving written feedback is very effective, and I always put a lot into it.) Afterwards, I extend a surprise offering: fresh mint leaves to chew, or crush and smell, some dried lavender to sniff and pass, slices of lemon to lick. This offering gives me a way to explain what motivates me to write haiku: the daily surprises, the details, the beauty in everyday life, and a reverence and sense of stewardship for the natural world.

Recently I ended a two-day workshop in a high school creative writing class with a “finish this haiku” exercise. While perusing an edition of The Heron’s Nest I found a haiku ripe with possibilities written by Robert Epstein: “today’s forecast: / cloudy with a chance / of jalapenos”. I asked my students to think of alternative third lines after I shared a few of my own: “of breakfast in bed”, “she’ll say yes”. They began to realize that writing haiku is a playful process as well as a more serious one; our fun grew exponentially!

As teachers it is likely you may adapt my ideas to fit your students’ interests and needs. I have provided a list of additional ideas and tools that may be useful. Chances are good you will craft techniques or lessons of your own that will help you inspire young people to write haiku.

Other teaching tools and ideas:

  • Choose a painting by a Japanese sumi-e artist that illustrates the concept of juxtaposition.
  • With older students, use Michael D. Welch’s “Haiku Checklist” article from his graceguts website.
  • Collaborate in pairs to write rengay poems. See graceguts for an informative how-to.
  • Assign older students to read haiku from The Heron’s Nest, an easily accessible and high quality haiku online journal, between day 1 and day 2.

In Lighting the Global Lantern Terry Carter outlines “Haiku Techniques” which can be used to assist newcomers to haiku. The techniques include: comparison, contrast, association, mystery (yugen), the sketch, and focus on the senses.

Read the children’s book Wabi Sabi, by Mark Reibstein, to learn more about this interesting element used in some haiku, or read other children’s books about haiku. Check out “Children’s Haiku Books: An Annotated Bibliography” by Brad Bennett in Modern Haiku 46.3.

Over a holiday or vacation ask your students to collect “data” which can be used to write haiku. Have each student make five columns in a journal or notebook, one for each of the senses, and instruct them to observe and record things using their five senses.

Participate in the United Nations International School (UNIS) contest held every March by submitting your student’s haiku and your haiku as well.

Submit your students’ haiku to hedgerow. The editor is planning an upcoming youth page for aspiring haiku poets.

And don’t forget haiku teaching resources at The Haiku Foundation Feature “Education Resources” and the “Educational Resources” on the Haiku Society of America’s website.

— Anne Elise Burgevin

If you would like to share your nature photos with Jeannie for her work, please send them here. Please limit your file size to no more than 1mb per photo. And thanks!

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. What lucky students to have you for their teacher. I’m predicting some of their names will be turning up in haiku journals very soon.

    1. Actually, a bunch of Anne’s students won awards in the 2017 Student Haiku Contest sponsored by the United Nations International School. John Stevenson judged. So her students are already garnering recognition!

      Kudos to Anne and her students!

    2. Billie and Brad, thank you for your thoughtful and supportive words. I sincerely appreciate them. Teaching children how to understand and write haiku is a true joy in my life, and I hope some of the ways I approach teaching creative writing will resonate with other teachers and parents.

  2. Excellent resource!
    I’ll add this title for the younger set: Jugo Meets a Poet by Edward J. Riley Copyright 2015. It’s a wonderful story to read aloud and show the illustrations page by page. When I was teaching, I used In a Spring Garden Edited by Richard Lewis, illustrations by Ezra Jack Keats – don’t know if it’s still in print.

    1. Pat, thanks so much. I’ll be sure to take a look at the two books you mentioned. Did you teach haiku to children?

      1. Anne – I learned about haiku from my own children! I did not teach until they were grown up, when I could finish my college education. I taught Social Studies in a middle school. When I taught the “Unit” on Japan, I posted many examples of classic and modern haiku on the bulletin board and read some to them from In a Spring Garden. I always used a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching SS. The Language Arts teachers were the “official teachers” of haiku! Congratulations on your successes with students.

        1. Hi Pat – Thank you for sharing about your teaching career. It was enjoyable to read about the way you integrated language arts in your social studies classroom. These two subject areas lend themselves to this approach. I’m sure your students’ lives were enriched by reading and listening to classic and modern haiku. It’s interesting that your knowledge of haiku originally came from your own children! They have so much to teach us. I appreciate your kind words.

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