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Traveling with Students on a Lifelong Haiku Journey
“Education begins with poetry.” (Confucius)
You’ve done haiku with your kids? You’re thinking of trying it out? Poetry’s not your thing? So why bother with something you are not really experienced in and risk a little embarrassment? But many teachers try it, some even produce a collection of their kids’ poetry: Why not take a chance and see what happens? Think about the “abbreviated” communication of tweeting, which certainly makes this “condensed” form of self-expression a natural for teaching in the classroom. Not only that, but the haiku world is a natural way for kids to see, feel, create, and describe their worlds. And just to give you a shot of confidence: there are a plethora of haiku anthologies and publications (see my references) that show how-to teach this short buzz of words that runs deep into the present moment, the here-and-now.
When I first started teaching it, the immediate thought was, “Hey, these poems are short and sweet and easy to teach, just ‘5-7-5’ syllables and you got your haiku.” However, this is, at times, a criticism directed at educators, that we have simplified the form with our concept and are probably doing more harm than help by teaching it. Not true, I assure you.
I liked the idea of the structured 3-line format (although it does not have to conform to the 3-line approach) because it gave my students (grades 2 to 6) a template, model, shape, guide, or stencil to work from. And yes, this is a terrific genre for younger children. I have not attempted it with kindergarten or first grade students, but this has been done in an anthology with amazing haikus (ages 3 to 8, see my references). It is the pristine, honest, and genuine vision, the clarity of kids’ observations that make haiku a perfect fit to teach many skills, processes, ideas, behavior, and ways of being. Haiku sets up open-minded thought-and-feeling patterns, and perceptions, if it’s taught as an ongoing project throughout the school year.
My concept and approach to teaching reading to inner-city kids
I wanted my kids to understand and appreciate that reading means working hard—it is not always painless as some of the “massage theories” indicate. Reading is not just a question of mechanics, fluency, phonics, and reading black-off-white. It’s not just the words on the page. I explained to my classes how much effort and energy the writer used to create the piece, how much time, the hours, spent on multiple revisions of a story or poem.
As a reader, it doesn’t make sense that you can fly through a poem by reading the words and digest all that the writer is trying to convey. I’m also looking to motivate children to become lifelong readers and students, not simply test-takers who can pass standardized exams. I want them to comprehend and enjoy what they read on sensory, cognitive, emotional, and experiential levels. That is my approach to develop a response to literature.
It might sound good like all education programs. Yes, everything seems to be right, but there is no driving force to get our students to organically and naturally respond to a work. How do we get into a story? How can you make it multi-dimensional and -sensory? How can a story, poem, or haiku become a hologram, a virtual reality, with the reader in the middle of it as the avatar?I know, this is asking a lot, but it is do-able in my experience as a classroom teacher and writer.
I like to start small and get big, bigger, biggest, and humongous. It’s really in the smaller pieces that you can work yourself out of and into the longer works of fiction/non-fiction. You can put your specimen under the microscope, magnify it, and see it up close—and personal—so you feel that you’re inside it. The writer’s words circulate around your mind and imagination, grabbing your attention, and move you into the writer’s world to see the writing as he/she envisioned it.
You, the reader, have to move, at least half way towards the writer and give him something of yourself. As a reader, you are now becoming more involved in the story—call it being hooked.
The haiku journey in the classroom
In my effort to launch student-readers on a voyage to become child-poets, I used haiku. With this intriguing poetic form I got my students into many prerequisite fundamental skills in visualizing, thinking, feeling, reflecting, creating, and experiencing that inspired them to read, and, at the same time, hopefully, make them lifelong readers.
I began by reading traditional Japanese haiku, dealing with nature or the natural world, and then continued with American or western haiku, which tends to be more psychological, more into human nature. From our reading lessons, we went on to writing haiku. Fifteen minutes of reading haiku—your basic “read aloud”—motivated the writing of haiku, from the second to the sixth grade. It was short, fun, and “easy,” because it showed kids so much about important academic and life-oriented skills.
You can also take students on “mindful walks”: Go to my BAM Radio Network post, “Mindful Walk Activities Take Kids ‘Places,’” in the reference section. This exercise will trigger the motivation and creativity needed for haiku about nature, and urban, inner city, suburban, and rural environments. Other techniques from BAM (www.bamradionetwork.com) that would stimulate creative thinking for writing are my “Contemplation Writing” posts. The “Counting Technique” and the “Music Technique” will help children conjure up mind-pictures, thoughts, feelings, and experiences they can use in the creative writing process. These methods would combine real world experiences with imagination to produce haikus (see references for specific BAM posts).
In this article, I would like to demonstrate what I consider the important aspects of the reading process that enabled children to respond to literature in a natural concentrated and contemplative manner. Without going into excessive detail about my program (described in previous posts on BAM Street Journal), I will say that reading became imagining, feeling, sensing, experiencing, thinking, remembering, reflecting, perceiving, and creating.
Children visualized the mind-pictures the writer conveyed, the feelings connected to each image, the thoughts/ideas associated with the total mental image picture, and then, put it all together in the form of a main idea, message, theme, and meaning—a complete gestalt for the given experience of the haiku. This part of the reading process was called “charting.” It is synonymous with responding to literature.
We were mentally tracing the poem in the mind, finding all the parts of the puzzle, trying to restore them, this “chaos,” to some kind of order and sense in the final gestalt or picture. You might even think of charting or responding to literature as a blueprint, or discovering one, for a particular haiku. The charting process lays out the plans of the poem the writer started with, and mentally traces back the poem to its origins, the source of creativity. This is the lifeline that connects the reader to the writer.
Mentally tracing back student haikus to their source
I would like to demonstrate how I traced back several haikus to their “source”: the pictures,feelings, thoughts, and experiences to find out how and the reader meets the writer. Where is the connection and communication, between two human beings? My students’ poetry will be the examples to model the “reader-writer union.”
A spring day—
trees dance with
- Mind-pictures: I see a row of trees and the wind stirs the leaves as they swirl in space. The leaves reflect the light, bouncing it through space in a constantly changing light show. The tree trunks seem even more motionless as the wind pushes the leaves around their branches. A blue sky with drifting clouds, and a strong sun, complete my image.
- Feelings: Gleeful, speedy, excited, hyper, anxious, light-hearted, calm, meditative, flightiness, spacey.
- Thoughts/Ideas: The trees look like they’re dancing with the moving leaves and the branches that extend skyward. The trees look like they’ve become dance partners in a waltz. The pictures keep changing as the wind hits the trees’ leaves and branches. The images make me forget myself. Nature makes you feel more alive. Sometimes I feel like I’m flying along with the trees: Eeeeeee! This gets crazy—these goofy trees. Everything changes in this breezin’ world above me…
- Experiences: Yes, I have experienced the trees swaying in the wind in all seasons, and I recall it sending me off into thoughts and feelings as my mind starts to wander from the real-life event. I can understand how the student-poet used the line, “trees dancing with the wind,” and can visualize the trees’ invisible dance partner, the wind, how lovely the imagination is…
Is it true: What you see is what you get in haiku? Is that the story of haiku? Imagine: three “dinky” lines saying so much. You can pass this scene off quickly with the “trees blowing in the wind,” until you digest the word “dance,” which causes you to stop, visualize and reflect on it. That’s how haiku affects you. And that’s the whole point—of view, that is, by staying with the poem, getting into it, by experiencing it as the writer first did (or might have), you are re-creating the precise moment captured by the writer. Getting into the poem means the reader keeps digging until the union with the writer has been “achieved.” You probably won’t reinvent the exact scene/image the writer experienced, described, saw, and imagined, but you will arrive at a comparable universe that will give you insight into the piece.
The marching band
plays a happy tune
I see myself alone
I saw the whole picture: There was a parade and all the people were lined up on the curb cheering and screaming, and having a great time. The music blasted as excitement built. Hands were flying in the air while drummers beat the big drums and trumpeters blew their horns. Music, laughter, gaiety, shouts, cries, and joy filled the air as the band marched down the street until you found the writer, amidst everyone else, and trying to join in with the hoopla. But all the togetherness, the thrill of the spectacle, this happening, only magnified the writer’s lonely plight at this moment in time, or, more sadly, her personal journey in life.
I saw one huge surrounding event with a tiny inset of the student/writer cut off from the carnival of life. I felt tremendous highs and a very low, low, the aloneness, this loneliness, of the solitary figure (almost a stick figure) in the crowd, the solitude, and depressiveness. My thought was that life’s a big parade with marching bands and everybody cheering along, singing a song—oh happy day—and it all seemed like we were kind of together as one in a group, that we were not alone, yet we are individuals, separate entities, apart from each other.
I kept pushing the limits of mind and imagination, allowing children to explore the inner space of a poem by riding around its universe and touching everything that is there—and, why not? I wanted to push boundary lines to show kids what they were mentally, emotionally, and psychologically capable of attempting and achieving.
The writer completed her voyage in order to express the experience, so you, the reader, could replicate that event and meet the writer, concluding the cycle of communication. In contrast to the first haiku, here you are dealing with human nature as opposed to “nature.” A more western or psychological work gave me the opportunity to discuss, in a natural way, emotional intelligence, social-and-emotional learning, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills.
Working from a “little” and expanding it to “a lot” allowed me to demonstrate how one could extract miles of meaning and understanding, and real life, from a “simple” suggestion such as a haiku. The entire process worked to build motivation, knowledge, and inner-sight.
A blue door
changes to rust—
no one home
The short length of a haiku left it open to interpretation. I visualized the poem and saw an abandoned house somewhere in the woods. No, it didn’t have to be in the woods, it could have been in any residential neighborhood, too. The “blue door” was now “rusted,” which told me that it was deserted for possibly “sad” reasons, whatever they were.
The door, a sign of human presence, now decayed, caught my eye through the lonely feelings evoked by its vacancy, or, in a way, its imaginary “no vacancy” sign, that blurted out: “no one home, no one home.” It reminded me of pictures I had seen of the remains of animal skeletons,and, in fact, a recent image came to mind of a small forest animal’s bones I found on a trail.
This was once a house occupied by human beings and now was uninhabited. I wondered whomight have lived there, why they left, where they went, and what happened to them? I thought about the life that once went on in the house. How many people lived there? Did they have a peaceful, happy life?
Maybe this haiku was about aging and death, that we all get old, bodies deteriorate physically, and soon there’s no home, the body an empty, decayed shell. There was this “blueness” to the haiku that caused me to stop and behold the remnant. It was a reminder of the transience of things and objects, and then it stared directly at me, alerting me to my own mortality. Now that I hesitated, taken a pause in my life for a single instant, I began to feel scared, vulnerable, and human. And I started to hear the “long o” of “home” echo inside my mind and imagination: oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh…
Get out of there
You can’t hide
Come out of that mirror
There was an urgency and immediacy to the poet’s demand. She can’t wait for that self to fly out of the glass and into her, into the real world, to her body, so it could become her. It was something the poet wanted and needed right at the moment, to come into her self and change her. She could be shy and sought a change from the mirror to create a new persona and resurrect her self. She knew it was there and the time was right for its materialization.
I visualized the poet walking up to the mirror, reaching “inside,” and pulling it out into reality. “Okay, now you’re me.” There was an impatience conveyed, an anxiousness that was bursting, forcing the poet’s demands, and desiring things, changes, to happen, without a moment of hesitation. I felt her excitement because she knew the metamorphosis was imminent.
A friend once told me that he stood in front of the mirror to practice different ways to act, different ways he would like to be, different ways he would like to come off to other people. I never thought of doing that, but I guess many actors and people did. There is nothing wrong with pretending as long as you remember who you are pretending to be (Kurt Vonnegut).
It is a make-believe world out there, a surface reality, and “what you see is what you get.”Making changes in ourselves is, to say the least, difficult, but maybe my friend had the right idea in practicing this way of reinventing his self…
Disappointment and frustration certainly entered the picture when I tried to change my self. After awhile I just wanted to “yank it right out of there.” I said to myself, “Come on already. What’s the story? I can’t wait any longer.” The poet had to keep looking and searching for that ultimate image and a look that would transform her reality forever—and, hopefully, for the better.
Again, this was yet another poem about human nature, which gave me a chance to discussidentity, character formation, and values clarification with the class. We got into a great conversation about the strengths and weaknesses in ourselves, and if we had the courage to change the negatives while increasing the positives. There was also a discussion about shyness and how to deal with and overcome it, according to the kids’ views and vantage points. The benefits of haiku were many, but when I could use it as a trigger to open talks with the kids, it took on a deeper level, meaning, and significance in the children’s lives.
in the night
a cricket’s sound—
darkness in my head
I didn’t know where the poet exactly was in this piece. Was he at home in his bedroom when he heard the cricket’s sound, or was he outside, maybe in the forest, or at a campsite in the woods? The night was vast, black, and ominous, and as a result, amplified all the sounds, and simultaneously, intensified and heightened fear.
With the tiny, minute sounds of the cricket, all of the “lights” in the poet’s head went out, and the night penetrated his mind, leaving an inner darkness. With the cricket noise, the boundary line separating the outside and inside worlds was erased, resulting in complete disharmony for the writer. The darkness in his head left him in an utter state of fearfulness.
I thought about the saying, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” When fear has escalated to such a heightened level, your mind shuts down, almost automatically, because it can’t handle, or refuses to process what the threatening event or object might be. It’s too much, and then boom, the lights go out, and you’re in the abyss, all alone, and worse yet, no one’s home. Scary…
In a split second the feeling of fear can devastate you. Fear out of control can swallow a person and cause them to be afraid to live, to be afraid of the world, and to die a little each day. Fear can paralyze people with all sorts of phobias if it gets out of hand. Both the darkness of night and inner space are endless, and they have the capacity to confuse us—badly…
Through nature, the natural world of crickets making noise in the night, we connected human nature and discussed the feeling of fear, dealing with it, and getting it under control in a variety of situations: test taking, playing sports, making friends, and learning new things or subjects. When we could link nature with human nature through haiku, there were increased benefits for students as individuals and persons. The haiku became a natural lead-in to serious and engaging talks about how the children handled their inner and outer lives.
Sample haikus from the student anthology: DANCING IN THE SPRING RAIN
And I am shouting—
Wake up clearly
The something is
The question why
My lonely self—
careless in the rain
The seagull flies
I can hear
the wind of a
big rotating earth
in the grass—
on a tall ladder
everything blanks out
yet here I am—
moon by the window
over the pond
In the darkness
Results of Teaching Reading and Writing Haiku with Inner-City Children
Through reading and writing haiku and short poetry, students learned to:
- Think and think critically and creatively
- Activate their minds and imaginations and leave passivity behind
- Welcome the new and not be afraid of it
- Become more open-minded
- Expand their imagination, awareness, perception, and knowledge
- Develop sensitivity to the natural world around and inside themselves
I used a collection of English language haiku called The Haiku Anthology (Simon & Schuster, 1986) edited by Cor van den Heuvel, to motivate the poetry genre. A western approach uses the creative imagination for writing haiku and is not always connected to nature. The Japanese write from direct experience with nature.
By examining contemporary western haiku and short poetry, the children:
- Realized that there was more than one answer to things
- Evaluated their motivations and reflected on their behavior, actions, and decisions
- Were encouraged to appreciate their individuality and discover themselves
- Prepared for future academic life and the real world by learning to look, see, and feel
- Learned to be honest, analytical, creative, and to improve their lives
In addition, teaching haiku advanced educational standards because it:
- Triggered interest in the genre of poetry
- Improved concentration, mindfulness, and comprehension
- Developed the reading-writing and writing-reading connections
- Combined academics with students’ real-life experiences
- Helped kids respond to literature
In writing, haiku fostered educational standards because students learned to:
- Shape, compress, and experiment with language for better communication
- Revise their own writing
- Develop their own main ideas
- Work from experience using facts, details, description, imagination, and observation
- Respond to literature by analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and reflecting
- Create “narratives” by describing settings, situations, conflicts, and sensory details
For education standards in speaking, listening, and discussion, teaching haiku helped kids explore and communicate experiences. In teacher-student conferences, small or large groups, haikus and ideas were shared, appreciated, critically analyzed, and cross-fertilized. Group meetings involved commentary, responding, clarification, illustration, expansion, and problem solving associated with the interpretation of haikus.
Learning haiku enabled students to:
- Improve spelling
- Proofread their writing
- Use dictionary and thesauri to expand their vocabulary
- Revise by adding and subtracting details, descriptions, and facts
- Improve the structure, organization, and focus of their work
- Critique their writing as well as the work of others
Through haiku, students responded to literature using interpretive, critical, and evaluative processes by:
- Identifying themes, main ideas, and authors’ word-choices
- Determining literary merit
- Making inferences, drawing conclusions, and making judgments
- Comparing and contrasting poems, as well as speculating about point of view
The study of haiku would inspire and benefit students throughout the United States in urban, inner city, suburban, and rural areas. They would feel more connected to words, ideas, thoughts, emotions, senses, experience, nature, and most importantly, to themselves and other people. The children would learn about, and also, become more aware of their inner and outer worlds as a result of studying, reading, writing, and having some serious fun with haiku.
References and Additional Resources for the Reading and Writing of Haiku
Check out a fantastic article by Joyce Jamerson titled, “Reading, Writing, Haiku Hiking! A Class Book of Picaresque Poems,” at http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/reading-writing-haiku-hiking-1072.html, for a detailed view of the subject that adds technology to the mix (updating and improving on my work done from the 70s through the 90s).
Go to the author’s website, www.JeffreyPflaum.com, for more samples from his students’ haiku anthology, Dancing in the Spring Rain. There are also examples of the children’s published poetry in college literary journals, secondary gifted magazines, writers’ journals, newspapers, and trade/academic books. You will find samples of the kids’ contemplations (prose), the result of “The Contemplation Music Writing Project,” a precursor to poetry reading and writing.
Refer to my blog posts at the BAM Radio Network, The Bam Street Journal (www.bamradionetwork.com), that are related to this haiku post:
- “Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs, Part 1” (2/21/12)*
- “Contemplation Writing: An Alternative to Journal Writing and Mindfulness Programs, Part 2, The Music Technique” (3/1/12)*
- “Mindful Walk Activities Take Students ‘Places’” (10/13/13)*
- *Please note: The above articles are all methods to develop contemplation,concentration, creative, thinking, social-and-emotional, reflection, visualization, and experiential skills necessary for reading and writing of prose, as well as the reading and writing of haiku, short poetry, and free-verse.
Go to www.Edutopia.org to find the following posts that develop writing skills (prose), and also, prepare students for the reading and writing of all kinds of poetry:
- “Using ‘Music Writing’ to Trigger Creativity, Awareness and Motivation” (4/2/12). The link is: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/music-writing-trigger-creativity-jeffrey-pflaum.
- “Build Reading and Writing Skills with Music” (6/6/12). The link is:
Internet Articles on Haiku Basics
- Reflections and Suggestions for creating haiku poetry by James W. Hackett
- Global Haikus and the Work of Jim Kacian by Richard Gilbert
Books on Reading and Writing Haiku
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide by Lee Gurga (Modern Haiku Press, 2003)
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa edited by Robert Haas (The Ecco Press, 1994)
Haiku in English by Harold G. Henderson (Charles E. Tuttle, 1977, 17th printing)
The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel (Simon & Schuster, 1986)
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, McGraw-Hill, 1985)
Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson (Kodansha International, 1996)
Breathmarks: Haiku to Read in the Dark by Gary Hutham (Canon Press, 1999)
Day Into Night: A Haiku Journey by Gunther Klinge (Charles E. Tuttle, 1980)
Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide by Jane Reichhold (Kodansha International, 2002)
Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku by Bruce Ross (Charles E. Tuttle, 1995)
Take a Deep Breath: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace by Sylvia Forges-Ryan and Edward Ryan (Kodansha International, 2002)
Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand (Hyperion, 1997)
Haiku Poetry: A Children’s Collection edited by Marilyn E. Wilhelm (Bantam, 1975) (Probably hard to find anthology of entertaining haiku by children ages 3 to 8.)
Haiku: This Other World by Richard Wright (Arcade, 1998) (Great read aloud book for motivating haiku writing in upper elementary to high school students.)