Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Reprint ~ Nan L. McDonald, Haiku: Active Learning with and Through the Arts

Poetry and the various forms of poems are often not identified by students as a favorite genre. There may be many reasons for this, but certainly one possibility is the way in which poetry is traditionally taught. Unfortunately, haiku poetry is one of the poetic forms that is most vulnerable to rote memorization and not active engagement. Many teachers may read aloud various haiku in an expressive way; others ask the same of their students. The syllabic construction of the three lines of Japanese haiku usually winds its way into the discussion. In other classrooms, students may then write their own haiku. Still, even with the best of intentions, we know that our students’ understanding of haiku may be limited and less than memorable, to say the least. The question becomes, “What can we do to make haiku come alive for our students?”

The arts (music, dance, theatre, visual arts) can provide powerful avenues for students to actively learn about haiku (McDonald & Fisher, 2002). When students are asked to expressively read aloud, illustrate, dramatize, and creatively move to poetic text, their learning is enhanced through personal interactions and total body involvement with the text meanings at hand (Cox, 1992, 1998; Jacobs, 1989, 1997; Hancock, 2000; Lapp & Flood, 1992; McDonald & Fisher, 1999, 2002; Rosenblatt, 1978, 1995; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). Simply put, students need to be provided with opportunities to actively “do” and creatively respond to haiku in order to understand its meaning.

The remainder of this article will provide a three-stage curriculum model focused on haiku. Suggested lesson activities are designed for use in fourth through eighth grade classrooms and may be taught within three or more consecutive lessons. Connections to children’s literature about haiku poets and poetry are included. Opportunities for small group/cooperative learning projects and shared performances are offered as well as resources and suggestions for further activities.

Background on Haiku

Japanese haiku offers space for the reader’s own thoughts, interpretations, and designs. Within the traditional form’s three non-rhyming lines of text (and seventeen syllables), one can sense a season or setting—a moment in which delicate outlines of action and reflection are offered to the reader. Typically, the action within a haiku seems to be unending or unresolved, leaving the reader wondering about an outcome.

Episode #1: Setting the Scene: Haiku in Motion

Play a CD recording of traditional music of Japan. Slow-tempo music of the koto (harp-like string instrument) and the shakuhachi (Japanese wooden flute) creates the best musical background for focus, mood, and movement.

Students silently mirror the very smooth and connected model movements of the teacher. Use very slow arm movements (as if moving through thick mud) for the students to mirror. Then ask the students to find a partner and decide who will lead first. Encourage students to mirror the leader exactly, even if the leader takes the movement to floor level or travels across the room. The music continues. Stress that the movement be connected and slow, done silently, as if underwater. During their movements, give your class quiet cues (i.e., “Now move in a low space,” “Move with your partner across the room,” and “Change to the other person as leader now.”)

As the music continues, show pictures of classic Japanese watercolor paintings, watercolors with Japanese writing on them (poetry), traditional flower arrangements, Zen gardens, etc. Discuss the simplicity and beauty of the designs. Explain to your students that Japanese poets were often also artists and musicians.

Keep the music playing. Next, model a selected traditional haiku of a great master poet, Issa, from the book Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs!: The Life and Poems of Issa By Matthew Gollub (Lee & Low, 1998). One poem you could use is:

Asleep on the ocean—
A folding fan
shades me from the moon.


The teacher models a selected haiku by Issa in three distinct ways:

1. Speaking only ~ Use highly expressive/dramatic speech that varies the tempo (speed and dynamics (softs and louds) according to the feeling and meaning of the haiku. Invite students to echo each line in the style you model.

2. Dramatic speech with movement ~ Repeat the haiku, but this time add simple movements to the mood of the expressive speech. For instance, “asleep” might be a nodded head movement rested on its side within opened cupped hands. “A folding fan” may be a fan shape created with both hands in an opening movement above the head and eyes. “Moon” might be a change in movement to a whole body movement creating a large round shape, etc. Invite the students to try the movement sequence (line by line) with you using expressive speech as they do so.

3. Movement only ~ Think the words, actually mouth the words if necessary, while performing the haiku movements without sound. Then, invite the students to try the movement sequence with you.

Now create small (5-7 students) cooperative groups. Each group should be assigned a different Issa poem from the Gollub book to create a 3-part model (see above). Say to the students, “Read your haiku aloud together several times. Then create a haiku scene by using the 3-part model you see on the board. (List this on the board: 1. expressive speech only; 2. expressive speech and movement; 3. movement only (think the words.) Once everyone has memorized your haiku, practice your three ways of performing it.” This task will take most groups about 10-15 minutes.

Invite students to get paper and art supplies from you (oil pastels, crayons, colored markers, chalk pastels, etc.) to draw a large scene or backdrop (on butcher paper) for their haiku performance. (Artwork will take an additional 15-20 minutes. Because of this time demand, you might consider completing artwork on another day)

Finally, gather the class together to let them know they will be performing their haiku for each other. They will need a few minutes to “revisit” their movement/speech sequences. Let them know that each haiku group will unroll their “scenery” and will perform their haiku in 3 ways (point to the list on the board). End the performance with all the haiku groups performing their movement-only sequence all at the same time. Use recorded music throughout the performance (adjusting volume during each group) and fade at the very end. Encourage the students to wait until the end of the performance to applaud.

Episode #2: Biography: The Life and Poems of the Master Haiku Poet Issa

Read aloud Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs!: The Life and Poems of Issa by Matthew Gollub. The text is the poignant story of Issa’s life (1763-1827) interspersed with 33 examples of his haiku. The beautifully illustrated haiku examples therefore become a central part of the storyline of the book. If students prepared their performance (Episode #1) using one of Issa’s haiku found within this book, let them say their particular haiku as it occurs in the story.

Script this book as a simple, dramatic reader’s theatre presentation where several student narrators read the text of the story. Incorporate some of the student haiku performances (scenery and 3 part speech/movement sequence) during several points in the dramatized reader’s theatre. Perform for another class at your school.

Episode #3: We are Haiku Poets: Extension Projects for Students

Extensions for this unit could include the following learning activities:

  • Write, illustrate, and perform original student haiku using the three-part model
  • Create scenery and costumes for each haiku
  • Create a photo-essay to an original or traditional haiku
  • Use student-created music compositions coordinated with haiku movements
  • Create a Haiku Art Gallery--Display oil pastel or water-color illustrations of student-created or traditional Japanese haiku
  • Students write in their journals about their haiku experiences


When our students are actively engaged in purposeful and expressive learning contexts which the arts can and do provide, haiku and other poetry comes alive in our classrooms. More importantly, both students and teachers become excited and re-charged about the prospect of learning more poetry through these and other kinds of integrated activities. In my work within the San Diego State University City Heights Educational Collaborative’s three urban schools (K-12), hundreds of students, teachers and future teachers have been engaged in this successful haiku model.

Young students had much to say about what they learned. One student said, “We made the haiku come to life with what we saw in the poem.” Another student seemed immersed in her haiku text and wrote, “In my haiku, I imagined that the water was so high up on my door that frogs were swimming. I made my haiku come to life by showing the frogs swimming. I also showed the rain pouring down. That’s how I made my haiku, but I also used expression.”

The many future teachers participating in the haiku study offered interesting perspectives about the unit. One future teacher reflected, “The words floated through the bodies of others like the haiku’s spell had taken over them. I could see the words moving and taking shape before me.” Another wrote, "Haiku is more than poetic words on a page. It involves something much deeper than simple, profound language. The spirit of the author comes alive when our imaginations take hold. We were able to not only hear the words, but also see the performers' interpretations and reactions. What a wonderful exercise to make poetry come alive."

Veteran classroom teachers also offered feedback. One teacher described her class’ experiences by adding, "I imagine that this was the first opportunity most of my students have had to visualize poetry by using movement, speech, and art. What a powerful lesson! The students learned not only about Japanese culture and haiku, but also how to work in cooperative groups to create something on demand. Students needed to use leadership skills, be willing to try something new, and perform in front of others despite any anxiety. This lesson reached all learners and caused students to synthesize their own poem to create art and vocal effects. They also used their visualization skills to make it come alive on paper and in the performance."

Finally, while providing creative, active learning opportunities for students within their study of haiku, we may be empowering more students to find meaning within poetic texts of all kinds. As Eric Jensen writes in Arts with the Brain in Mind (2001), “What we pay attention to increases our likelihood of remembering it” (p. 40). Let’s continue to make haiku and other poetry memorable for all our students!


Cox, C. (1998). "Children’s stance towards literature: A longitudinal study, K-5." Paper presented at the 1998 American Educational Research Association, San Diego.

Cox, C., & Many, J. E. (1992). "Stance toward a literary work: Applying the transactional theory to children’s responses." Reading Psychology, 13, 37-72.

Demi. (1992). In the Eyes of the Cat. New York: Henry Holt

Demi. (1993). Demi’s Secret Garden. New York: Henry Holt

Gollub, M. (1998). Cool Melons—Turn into Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. New York: Lee & Low.

Hancock, M. (2000). A Celebration of Literature and Response: Children, Books, and Teachers in the K-8 Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Jacobs, H. H. (1989). Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jacobs, H. H. (1997). Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jenson, E. (2001). Arts with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Lapp, D., & Flood, J. (1992). Teaching Reading to Every Child (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.

McDonald, N., & Fisher, D. (1999). "Living Haiku: Scenes of Sound in Motion." In S. Totten, C. Johnson, L. R. Morrow & T. Sills-Briegel (Eds.), Practicing What we Preach: Preparing Middle Level Educators (pp. 273-275), New York: Falmer.

McDonald, N., & Fisher, D. (2002). Developing Arts-loving Leaders: Top 10 Questions Teachers Are asking about Integrated Arts Education. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1995). Literature as Exploration. New York: Modern Language Association.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Mental Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Additional Resources for the Haiku Unit:

Cassedy, S. (1992). Red Dragonfly on my Shoulder. New York: Harper Collins.

Janeczko. P. (Ed.) (2000). Stone Bench in an Empty Park. New York: Orchard.

Hoobler, D. (1994). Images across the Ages: Japanese Portraits. Austin: Raintree Steck-Vaughn.

Livingston, M. (1997). Cricket Never Does: A Collection of Haiku and Tanka. New York: McElderry.

Spivak, D. (1997). Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho. New York: Antheneum.

Source: California Reader Magazine.

Nan McDonald, Ed D, is currently an Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education at San Diego State University's School of Music and Dance. With over 30 years of teaching experience in preschool / K-University Level Music Education, Integrated Arts for Classroom Teachers, Music and Early Literacy Development and Classroom Discipline and Management, she is actively involved in the education of future arts specialists and classroom teachers. She leads ongoing Integrated Arts and English Language Development professional growth for teachers within 3 urban schools within the City Heights/ SDSU Educational Pilot Project (Rosa Parks Elementary School, Monroe Clark Middle School, Hoover High School). She is the author of numerous articles in national and international Arts Education publications, a Program Author for Scott Foresman/ Silver Burdett Music K-8 national text series in music (2002 and 2005 editions of Making Music). Nan recently authored, with Douglas Fisher, another book, Developing Arts Loving Readers: Top 10 Questions Teachers are asking about Integrated Arts Education (Scarecrow, 2002).

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku