Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Can You Haiku?

Created September 17, 2010


The Lesson


Can You Haiku?


Credit: Photograph courtesy of the National Archives

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this --
and it passes by.

--Issa (1762-1826)

Haiku show us the world in a water drop, providing a tiny lens through which to glimpse the miracle and mystery of life. Combining close observation with a moment of reflection, this simple yet highly sophisticated form of poetry can help sharpen students' response to language and enhance their powers of self-expression. In this lesson, students learn the rules and conventions of haiku, study examples by Japanese masters, and create haiku of their own.

Guiding Questions

  • How are haiku poems composed?
  • How do they differ from other forms of poetry?
  • How does a haiku paint a picture or create an image with just a few words?
  • What makes this form of poetry seem so personal, intimate, and appealing?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the traditional rules and conventions of haiku
  • Interpret examples of haiku
  • Characterize the image-evoking power of haiku
  • Develop a vocabulary and ideas for writing haiku
  • Compose a haiku based on a personal experience

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson plan consists of four learning activities that you can use together as a unit or adapt separately to your curricular needs.
  • Review the suggested activities, then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. If desired, you can bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly. (See Selected EDSITEment Links for a guide to locating online materials.)
  • For guidance on talking about and interpreting haiku, explore the "Haiku by Basho" section of the AskAsia website, an interactive introduction to this seventeenth century master who pioneered the haiku tradition, and the Haiku for People website, which takes a more contemporary approach, celebrating haiku's development into a form of poetry practiced around the world.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading Haiku

Provide students with a selection of haiku from those available through the AskAsia website at Haiku by Basho and Haiku for People. Include both classic and contemporary examples in your selection. Have members of the class read each poem aloud and ask students to comment on similarities they notice among them. Through this discussion, help students recognize that haiku are:

  • Very short: just three lines usually fewer than twenty syllables long.
  • Descriptive: most haiku focus sharply on a detail of nature or everyday life.
  • Personal: most haiku express a reaction to or reflection on what is described.
  • Divided into two parts: as they read haiku aloud, students should find that each includes a turning point, often marked by a dash or colon, where the poet shifts from description to reflection, or shifts from close-up to a broader perspective.
Activity 2. The Rules of Haiku

Drawing on the students' observations, provide an outline of the main rules for writing haiku, as explained at Haiku by Basho and Haiku for People:

  • Form: Traditional Japanese haiku have seventeen syllables divided into three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables respectively. These syllable counts are often ignored when haiku are written in other languages, but the basic form of three short lines, with the middle line slightly longer than the other two, is usually observed.
  • Structure: Haiku divide into two parts, with a break coming after the first or second line, so that the poem seems to make two separate statements that are related in some unexpected or indirect way. In Japanese, this break is marked by what haiku poets call a "cutting word." In English and other languages, the break is often marked by punctuation. This two-part structure is important to the poetic effect of a haiku, prompting a sense of discovery as one reads or a feeling of sudden insight.
  • Language: Haiku should include what Japanese poets call a kigo -- a word that gives the reader a clue to the season being described. The kigo can be the name of a season (autumn, winter) or a subtler clue, such as a reference to the harvest or new fallen snow. Through the years, certain signs of the seasons have become conventional in Japanese haiku: cherry blossoms are a kigo for spring, mosquitoes a kigo for summer. Sometimes, too, the kigo will refer to an individual moment in the natural cycle, such as dawn or moonrise, without reference to a particular season. The kigo is also important to the haiku's effect, anchoring the experience it describes in a poetic here and now that helps sharpen the imaginative focus.
  • Subject: Haiku present a snapshot of everyday experience, revealing an unsuspected significance in a detail of nature or human life. Haiku poets find their subject matter in the world around them, not in ancient legends or exotic fantasies. They write for a popular audience and give their audience a new way to look at things they have probably overlooked in the past.
Activity 3. Haiku Warm-Up

As preparation for writing their own haiku, have students brainstorm a glossary of words they might use, based on the rules and conventions of this form of poetry. Begin with the kigo, asking students to suggest words that would give a clue to the season in their haiku (e.g., robin, crocus, Final Four for spring; heatwave, fireworks, grasshopper for summer; jack-o-lantern, harvest, kickoff for autumn; icicle, hibernate, holly for winter). Then, for each season, have students choose an occurrence that might be the subject of a haiku and brainstorm descriptive language that would help a reader visualize that scene. List their suggestions on the chalkboard and use this exercise to help students generate ideas for their haiku, encouraging them to see the range of possibilities beyond a description of nature.

Activity 4. Writing Haiku

Finally, have students write a haiku based on some personal experience, using at least one of the words they have brainstormed in class. Pair students to edit and suggest improvements to one another's work, then hold an in-class haiku festival, having each student read his or her poem aloud. Although haiku do not traditionally have titles, you might invite students to suggest titles for their classmates' work as a way to encourage discussion and a constructive atmosphere of critical response.

Extending The Lesson

Students can create their own haiku anthology on your school website, or display their haiku in a hallway or on a library bulletin board. For art teachers, haiku can provide a springboard for lessons on print-making or for creating works based on nature subjects.

The Basics

Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing