Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
September-October 2004, vol. 2, no. 5

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FEATURE: David E. LeCount, Teaching Haiku to Children.

I have conflicting doubts about “teaching” creative writing in any form, especially in haiku. They seem to hover around the idea of whether or not creativity in any form can be taught. Robert Frost suggested something to the effect that poetry could be caught but not taught. This observation itself suggests by metaphor a certain sports factor of both happenstance and skill. As a thesis that is difficult for me to maintain and espouse, I believe that it both can and cannot be taught.

What can be taught, and is most often taught, is the form and structure. “Seventeen syllables,” three lines, no full rhyme, etc., easily come to mind. In working with third-graders, however, I have made no attempt to deal with syllable count. If given four or five season words, and three lines of juicy images from nature, they can take the form and run away with it. In general, students in K-8 are better at learning by imitation and inspiration than are high school kids. For example:

Winter waterfall—
A lone deer drinks
From an icicle

Younger students can see the season word, the present tense, the moment, and the lack of a narrative line. They can also learn to avoid implicit repetition such as would be the case if the deer were called “cold” rather than “lone.” Many of the younger kids recognize and prefer the spirit of haiku to the form that would be required by the abstract thought process.

In the older kids (9-12th grades), it is often the reverse. Older kids want (and use) abstractions, rhyme, self-related words, thoughts of importance, judgments, etc. Their desire to create stories in three lines is very strong. Furthermore, they live in a culture that rarely delves into the spirit of nature.

These same older students need to be reminded that their mind has its origin in childhood, and, in earliest childhood they had a sense of oneness. (The stage before “separation anxiety” became a part of their life.) To return them to this state of mind, I often give them a “no thinking” requirement by hurrying them up so that they can’t make conventional sense. Even after some gibberish is written, students can learn best from their own haiku. Afterwards, the editing can be done. They can learn specifics (pine vs. tree), concrete nouns and active verbs; they can use or learn not to use sentence fragments, as well as parts of speech.

For these older students, I sometimes write three lines on the board as a recipe, like the example below:
(season word) (specific place in nature)
(present participle) (preposition) (article) (concrete noun)
(article) (adjective) (concrete noun)

Such a haiku might read: autumn pond/ sunning on the stone/ the frog’s shadow. Any and all of the requirements listed can be changed to help prevent the recipe from becoming too procrustean. Even with these few tools, I am left wondering where the real magic of haiku comes from, and where its seductive spirit begins.

David LeCount is a teacher of English and language arts by day, and by night a haiku writer.

He has published many haiku and several books on creative writing with Heinemann.

In 1993, he was an invited speaker to the World Haiku Festival in Leeuvarden, Holland.

He served as a consultant for the Center for Educational Research at Stanford University.

At the right, he is shown standing next to Ken Kesey's Magic Bus.

Some of his haiku are featured in this issue of Simply Haiku.