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How We Haiku — Teaching Stories 4

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 week’s column, “Teaching Haiku in Schools and Colleges”, is Charles Trumbull’s assessment of the hurdles teachers face in teaching haiku as poetry rather than a form.

Teaching Haiku in Schools and Colleges

Haiku has long attracted schoolteachers. The very brevity and the necessity to have each word count make the haiku an appealing pedagogical tool, and its main topic—nature—makes it particularly appropriate for children. The Web is full of pedagogical suggestions and lesson plans for a unit on haiku in grade school or junior high. Here is an example, one of the better ones, by Glori Chaika, a teacher of gifted middle-school students in New Orleans:

As a teacher, first explain the haiku’s rigid structural format of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Read several to the class. There are some wonderful Japanese haiku available.… Establish a mood. To do so, use visual imagery and/or music or pictures of pastoral scenes, and when the students seem to have some glorious scene in their mind’s eye, challenge them to record it—in seventeen syllables. Do not break the mood until poetry is produced.1

So 5–7–5 is the cardinal rule. This is haiku as it is almost universally taught in American schools—a poem about nature written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. It has become a cliché or joke in the haiku community. It is an invidious joke, however, because it serves to perpetuate a mistaken impression of what a haiku is and has been and totally misses what it might offer to young minds. Rather than learning to use their fingers and thumbs, pupils could learn what an image is and how putting two images together can create an interesting resonance.

Hoping that schoolteachers will abandon their dedication to 5–7–5, however, is a lost cause. I’m sure that 95 percent of primary and secondary school teachers simply accept the syllabus of the school board or whatever authority dictates the curriculum and lesson plans that define writing haiku in terms of counting syllables. Some of these children’s haiku are assuredly of good quality, but perhaps not the best, shackled as they are to the 5–7–5 form. No surprise, nearly all scholastic haiku contests—as well as popular contests on the Web for children and adults alike—ask for submissions in 5–7–5—with the exception of the Nick Virgilio Haiku Contest for high school students. None of the twelve prizewinning haiku in that contest in 2012 and 2013 were 5–7–52 and almost all were written by students of English teachers and advisers who were haiku poets themselves. So we see a situation in which the schools are adding to the 99 percent of mediocre 5–7–5 haiku, while the other one percent, under the guidance of knowledgeable haikuists, are writing solid, innovative, and prizewinning haiku.

The extent to which haiku are included in standard college poetry textbooks and anthologies—and the sections in which haiku are studied—provide another measure of the status of haiku. A 1973 textbook, Modern Poems: an Introduction to Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair, included only a nine-haiku sequence by Etheridge Knight, all 5–7–5. Another popular introductory literature textbook, Western Wind, edited by John Frederick Nims and David Mason (4th edition, 2000), uses only two haiku, both by Bashō, and discusses haiku in the “Form” section. The very popular Norton anthologies of poetry also all but ignore haiku as a serious literary form. Their textbook, The Norton Introduction to Poetry (7th edition, 1998), however, includes a significant section on haiku in the chapter titled “Literary Tradition as Context.” This compendium includes four haiku by Bashō, plus comparative translations of his “old pond” haiku; two haiku by Buson, four by Issa, two by Chiyo-ni; and four others by classic Japanese poets; and finally one each by American authors J. W. Hackett, Etheridge Knight, Allen Ginsberg, and Richard Wright — all 5–7–5ers but the Ginsberg, which is also 17 syllables.

An Introduction to Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy, contained a respectable selection of haiku as early as its seventh edition (1990) and perhaps earlier. It had the distinction among college course books of approaching haiku as a serious genre per se, including sensible commentary and—most remarkably — treating the haiku in the chapter on images rather than the one on form. Thus liberated, the haiku in this textbook are not all 5–7–5. Poets included in the seventh edition were Buson, Bashō, and Issa, as well as John Ridland (“The Lazy Man’s Haiku”), Richard Brautigan (“Haiku Ambulance,” his parody of a haiku), Paul Goodman, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Nicholas A. Virgilio, Raymond Roseliep, Penny Harter, and Virgil Hutton. The ninth edition of this textbook in 1998, now under the general editorship of Dana Gioia, added works by Moritake, Michael B. Stillman, Jennifer Brutschy, Hayden Carruth, and Etheridge Knight (while dropping those by Goodman, Rexroth, Virgilio, Roseliep, Harter, and Hutton — probably a net loss in terms of quality of haiku).

So if weaning schoolteachers off 5–7–5 seems impossible, there is some hope in the teaching of haiku at the college level, where other aspects seem to be gaining ground. In this regard we need to mention college haiku classes taught by prominent haiku poets such as Steven D. Carter, Randy M. Brooks, and Bill Pauly.

— Charles Trumbull

Excerpted from “Magic–Mystery–Music: The Persistence of 5–7–5 in Haiku,” published in Frogpond 37:1 (2014).

  1. EducationWorld, retrieved Oct. 13, 2013, from
  2. Contest results are reported in Frogpond 35:2 (spring-summer 2011), 132 ff., and Frogpond 36:2 (spring/summer 2013), 163 ff.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dear Charlie, Thank you for your work. I am not a scholar in haiku, though the elementary lesson plans I wrote for THF with Jim Kacian are based on my knowledge of the effective instruction literature (dissertation in education at NIU in 1987). Because Montage, edited by Allan Burns, is the textbook, students, teachers, parents, and others are naturally reading a wide variety of haiku by many poets. There are lessons for awareness/listening, and reading, before writing plans. They are meant to be a supplement to the required curriculum. I am retired now and have not attempted to collect any empirical data to support my work here – which was only a way to help begin the education resources feature in 2013. Grateful also to Brad Bennett and Jeannie Martin for their new work at THF as the education co-chairs. Tom Painting’s work – many poets and teachers and scholars.

    With my blogs, I decided not to teach; though have shared about the work in education here (and other haiku sites). I guess I learn best by reading. For example, I also read many poet pages in the Haiku Registry, edited by Billie Wilson, to learn more about contemporary haiku, as I wrote lesson plans again (took me well over a year, with Jim’s support as editor).


    My work here was service. Also want to mention that while Dave Russo linked from the plans to other areas of THF site, the plans also can be printed out for teachers to use in settings where there are no computers. I saw a wide variety of programs when I worked with practice teachers in Chicago and Northern Illinois years ago, and how resources can vary. Brad Bennett extended the work, and many others, as I’ve said.


    All the best,


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