Notes on Teaching Haiku

The following are some suggestions for teaching haiku written in response to a request from Dejah Legér. These notes match my “Sample Haiku Lesson Plan.” In the following text I’ve made a few minor edits and have updated web links where necessary. Previously unpublished.


From: Dejah Legér
To: Michael Dylan Welch
Sent: Sat, Feb 16, 2008 5:06:55 pm
Subject: Teaching Haiku

A friend of mine is beginning the poetry segment of his high school English class and asked if I would do a guest lecture on haiku. I’ll happen to be in town and told him I’d be honored. It’s been a long time since I’ve put together a lesson plan, and I don’t know how to captivate a high-school audience for the half-an-hour to one hour that I’m being given. . . . Any ideas or input? Much appreciated. Thanks!

Love,
Dejah


From: Michael Dylan Welch
To: Dejah Legér
Sent: Sun, Feb 17, 2008 12:16:39 am
Subject: Re: Teaching Haiku

What I’ve found most effective in haiku classes, and I think would apply to high school as well as most other ages, is to start by reading a set of examples (also available in a handout), then ask the class to discuss their common characteristics. I use poems from Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. They’ll say things like nature, brief, and so on. Sharp ones might say seasonal, two parts, etc. Eventually, someone will ask why they aren’t 5-7-5. As the questions come up, you can talk about kigo, kireji, and form, plus why 17 sounds in Japanese is not the same as 17 syllables in English. You know the drill. Actually, I usually start by asking which poems the students like the most or the least. When they name a poem, I ask them what they like about it, or what they dislike. As students comment on what they like, I listen for characteristics (if they don’t specifically identify them), and I write them on the board—objectivity, easy to see, nature, everydayness, three lines, etc. Everything written on the board adds up to a sort of “definition” of haiku, which I say to them. If a couple of key characteristics don’t appear, I usually bring them up as among the most important: seasonal reference (haiku is not strictly a nature poem, but a seasonal poem), juxtaposition (the two-part structure, and why it’s effective to imply things in the leap between the two parts), objective imagery, and the five senses (as opposed to being subjective or conceptual).

For a longer class, I sometimes talk briefly about the origin of haiku in Japan, reading a few examples (I’ve memorized a few in Japanese, but also in English). I mention how haiku grew out of hokku, the starting verse of renga, or linked verse (which I explain briefly). I think this stuff can get boring quickly, but a minute or two of it should help add substance to the class. I end such a summary by saying that in the last 50+ years, haiku has taken off internationally, and that there are serious haiku writers and organizations in many countries around the world (I usually mention the Haiku Society of America at this point).

After this, I sometimes have younger kids “fill in the blank” by presenting them a few poems (again, this could be in a handout) with one of the lines removed (first, second, and third lines, for variety). It’s easy to “try out” a single line, and less intimidating than writing a whole poem (it’s fun to share what the original poet wrote, too). I skip the preceding if there isn’t time, however, or if the class is clearly confident or unintimidated (such as an honours English class or an elective creative writing class). Then I have an assignment to have students write about their five senses—to pick something that happened in the last day or two and to describe what they saw or smelled or tasted or whatever. And I do say “describe what happened” rather than “write a haiku about it.” Then I go around the class after a few minutes and look at what students have written and say privately to them how this or that could be made into a haiku (look for their nouns and verbs!). They could write about just one sense, or up to five if they have time. Again, a handout for this is helpful. Then it’s worth sharing and discussing the poems, either one from each student who wants to participate, or a random selection if time is limited. It can help if all poems are submitted anonymously, so comments (elicited from the class first, then yours) are directed more at the poem than the student.

I usually end with another handout on where to get more information. I guess most high school students wouldn’t care, but a few good website links might just be of interest to one or two students. The handout I give out at this point also includes a week-long “assignment” if they want to explore haiku more, plus an encouragement to make haiku a habit—to carry a notebook, polish one’s haiku, and perhaps send them out for publication (I mention the names of a few haiku journals, and for a high school class I’d probably dwell on the online rather than print journals). And shucks, if the classroom has a digital projector and you’ve got a laptop with wi-fi access, you could show them a few good haiku sites online!

I’d also include a time for questions. Sometimes, as a transition between each part of the lesson, I ask if there are any questions at that point—and I try to wait, even in silence, and even till it becomes uncomfortable, because students won’t always pop their hands up immediately.

If you’ve got only half an hour, you’d have to pick just a few of these ideas, obviously. What you focus on would depend on whether the class has time to try writing haiku or not. If not, the discussion of haiku characteristics can effectively fill the class. If you need a writing component, then the characteristics discussion would need to be compressed. It’s still effective to include, though, because it’s interactive.

Please also see the content on teaching haiku (which I helped Edward Zuk write) at the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Web site. It’s at
http://www.vcbf.ca/community-event/haiku-invitational/teaching-haiku (this site also includes links to lesson plans; the appendix at the end of Higginson’s Haiku Handbook also has an excellent lesson plan written by Penny Harter). Also see http://www.vcbf.ca/community-event/haiku-invitational/about-haiku. If you search for “haiku lesson plan” online, you’ll find some good examples, but also some woefully incorrect and misguided ones.
 
I also like to tell students about my “Becoming a Haiku Poet” essay, online at
http://www.graceguts.com/essays/becoming-a-haiku-poet. And because form is so widely misunderstood, and because everyone clings so stubbornly (for reasons I’ve never fathomed) to the 5-7-5 myth, I also tell people about Keiko Imaoka’s essay “Forms in English Haiku,” online at http://www.graceguts.com/further-reading/forms-in-english-haiku (and elsewhere).

One other thought. I have sometimes discovered that teachers, in anticipation of my visit, give their students some information about haiku in the class before I teach. Every time when they’ve done this, they’ve pitched haiku as 5-7-5, and then I come in and contradict them (even if I’m not aware of doing so). This does not make the teacher look good. So I try to prime the teacher beforehand about the gospel I’ll be preaching, and they usually put two and two together.

Don’t forget to include a few of your own haiku—students in grade school and even high school like that. You might ask the teacher to ask you to read a handful of your own poems at the end. It won’t be a big deal to most high school students that you’re “published,” but it’s exciting to younger kids to have a “real poet” visit their classroom.

Good luck, Dejah!

Michael