Working together on our haiku unit in the spring is one of my favorite writer’s circle activities. By the time students are in third grade, they are at least familiar with, if not adept, at counting the number of syllables present in words. Accuracy in counting syllabic parts of words is an essential part of writing a traditional Japanese Haiku Poem. The pattern of syllables that should be represented by the words in a haiku is five-seven-five. This means, five syllables on the first line, seven syllables on the second line, and five syllables on the last line. Most students can write using this pattern without difficulty.
However, problems arise when every word needs to count, as in the case with haiku. Connecting words like a, the, that, and the like, are not needed and really should not be used. It is difficult for some students to get rid of them. Likewise, some students have trouble letting go of the need for the syllabic lines in haiku to form complete sentences. To me this reluctance to write without conventions is understandable when we start insisting that everything needs to be a written using complete sentences as early as first grade. But, sentences have no place in haiku.
An issue compounding the ability to write haiku with the correct pattern is that we have become lazy in our speech. Many words are not correctly or clearly enunciated. This makes it extremely difficult to determine the number of syllables in a word and whether it fits the desired line placement in the haiku the student is writing. An example I use regularly is the word Niagara. I ask the students how many syllables they think this word has in it. Invariably, they say three. Actually, there are four. We work through this together, until we all can hear the four parts. I tell them what parts have been “slurred” together by our lazy speech patterns. I show them the dictionary phonetic break down for Niagara. Four syllables. Sometimes, it is the first time students are shown how to use a dictionary for this purpose.
I do not do this to make the students miserable or to be a stickler about the number of syllables or to have a perfect 5-7-5 haiku. I do it to make several points in a mini lesson that fits perfectly in our brief thirty minute writer’s circle block.
- We all get sloppy. I thought Niagara had three syllables, too. It came from years of slurring the word while growing up in Western New York. This was the case until I wanted to use it in a haiku I was writing for an example and looked it up. Four!
- You can always look up the syllable count of a word in the dictionary. This mini-lesson on Niagara gives us a good chance to do that. This encourages the students to look up the words they cannot sound out or clap out to hear the number of syllables. Knowing what reference to use, and when to use it, is a huge part of being a skilled writer.
- I think this activity helps the students pick strong adjectives and add to their vocabulary, as well as make a more descriptive haiku.
- The lesson shows that we all write from our own experience. Niagara Falls is a place I have been to many, many times in my life. It made for a good example of a haiku.
The third and last essential piece I ask of my writer’s when we work on haiku is to create a picture in the reader’s mind by carefully choosing each of the words in the haiku. Each word needs to be there for a reason, to contribute to the mental image for the reader. When the students imaginations are unleashed, and they are unencumbered by conventions or restrictive guidelines, I find they can come up with some wonderful haiku. More importantly, in this supportive but minimally restrictive writing group, the students can further their love of writing by experiencing both fun and joy while crafting their haiku.
I do not have a classroom but I did have 37 students write haiku with me last spring. Almost all of those haiku were published last month in a national poetry compilation. We wrote about bees, the seasons, and other amazing things found in our natural world.