Excerpts from The Nature of Haiku

by Peter Rillero, JoAnne V. Cleland and Karen Conzelman.

Science and Children. October, 1999

Would you like your students to learn about nature and improve their observational abilities? Incorporating haiku into your curriculum can help to meet these science goals and give children a positive writing experience as they learn about the world around them.

Haiku is a succinct form of writing that originated in Japan in the seventeenth century. It focuses on nature and requires keen observational skills. Many U.S. elementary teachers know about haiku and may even have their students write haiku. In our opinion, however, many teachers have seized upon one feature of the haiku, the 5-7-5 syllable pattern of three lines, as the only significant characteristic. This singular focus may obscure the power of describing nature with an economy of words.

There are two reasons for why this formula should not be followed in haiku writing. First, substance matters more than form. In haiku, the succinct description of nature is far more important than the numbers of syllables used. Second, Japanese and English have a different language structure. The use of the syllable pattern in English produces a wordy haiku that diminishes the intensity one can get through conciseness. Haiku are best described as concisely written observations of nature.

Scientifically, we believe that observation is the most critical science process skill because other process skills are dependent on it. Haiku writing helps children develop this skill. Children learn to differentiate observation and inference in some classrooms; however, with haiku, not only is there a reason to learn the difference but there is an immediate application which reinforces it.

There are seven steps to follow to help children write haiku.

1. Stay with Observations: People gain information about an object, a scene, or an event through their senses. These are observations. Inferences seek to explain what they sense. Haiku,however, stays with observations. By staying with just the senses, it allows the reader to make their own inferences.

2. Setting in Nature: Interesting haiku comes from interesting observations. Taking children out of their urban environments to a natural setting allows children to make fascinating observations.

3. Observation Lists: Children can make lists of what they observe based on the senses. Have the students write in sentence fragments. This helps them write observations faster and these sentence fragments are easier to incorporate into a haiku form.

4. Interesting Observations: Communicating with other people helps the writer pick out what might be the most interesting observations; however, the ultimate choice is the writer’s.

5. Three Lines: The third line should contain the most interesting observation; it should amaze, startle or make the reader think. This will insure that the poem ends with a powerful, observation-based ending. Then, the kids need to go back to their observation listed and find two observations that build towards the end line.

6. Conciseness: Here they take their sentence fragments and then strip out words. Articles or extraneous transition words are taken out. For instance, it flutters on to a long thin branch gets trimmed down to flutters on a thin branch.

7. Rewrite: The final step is to rewrite the poem. Often here, punctuation is included to indicate pauses or delineations of key ideas.

By following these key steps, children learn to actively note what is going on around them in an interesting and highly observational way.