Unit Title:

Reading and Writing Haiku Based on Traditional Japanese Criteria


Caroline Smith
Teacher of English
and Advanced Placement Literature and Composition
Grades 7-12
Academy of the Pacific
Honolulu Hawaii


At the end of this lesson students will be able to:

  1. Use close reading skills to read poetry sensitively, analyzing connotations of words and images
  2. Evaluate haiku using traditional criteria of Japanese haiku masters
  3. Write haiku that follow the conventions and criteria of traditional Japanese
  4. Select concrete words, details and imagery that "show" particular moods, sensations and ideas
  5. Expand and hone writing vocabulary, searching for precision, concreteness

Guiding questions:

* What can we learn about reading and writing haiku, in particular traditional Japanese haiku?

* What can we learn about reading literature closely, by focusing on words and images in order to explore their connotations?

* How can writing Haiku serve as a model for distilling, clarifying and communicating one’s experiences?

Standards addressed:

NCTE / IRA Standards for the English Language Arts (http://www.ncte.org/standards)

  1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world... and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  3. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  4. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  5. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  6. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  7. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information

NCSS: Standards for Social Studies (http://www.ncss.org/standards/strands/)

  1. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity. Human beings create, learn, and adapt culture. Culture helps us to understand ourselves as both individuals and members of various groups. Human cultures exhibit both similarities and differences. We all, for example, have systems of beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions. Each system also is unique. In a democratic and multicultural society, students need to understand multiple perspectives that derive from different cultural vantage points. This understanding will allow them to relate to people in our nation and throughout the world.
    Cultures are dynamic and ever-changing. The study of culture prepares students to ask and answer questions such as: What are the common characteristics of different cultures? How do belief systems, such as religion or political ideals of the culture, influence the other parts of the culture? How does the culture change to accommodate different ideas and beliefs? What does language tell us about the culture? In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with geography, history, and anthropology, as well as multicultural topics across the curriculum.

Focus of Unit:

In this unit, students explore the traditions and conventions of Japanese haiku. The lesson has several purposes.

  1. In reading, this unit uses haiku as a means of teaching and practicing close reading whereby students learn to focus on words and images in order to unfold their connotations; thus, it illuminates the goals and means of literature in general. By studying haiku as a mode of seeing and sensing intensely, students gain insight into how all forms of poetry convey meaning. They develop, through modeling and practice, greater sensitivity to the power of words to provoke an imaginative response by stimulating the senses as well as intellect.
  2. In writing, the unit uses haiku as a model for distilling and clarifying one’s experiences, closely observing the scene or situation one wants to communicate, honing one's control of words, eliminating clutter, selecting precise details expressed through concrete nouns and vivid verbs.
  3. In social studies, the unit teaches cultural traditions and aesthetics that developed in Medieval Japan, many of which continue today.

Grade level:

6 through college

Subject areas:

Literature and Language Arts: reading, writing, poetry, world literature

Social Studies: world history, Japanese culture and art

Featured student skills:

Close reading of literature

Literary interpretation

Creative writing

Writing concretely and vividly

Recognition of the conventions of traditional Japanese haiku

Suggested time:

One week or more as time allows

Advance preparation:

  1. Read attached handout: "Haiku Characteristics"
  2. Read and reflect on as many haiku (traditional as well as non-traditional) as time allows.
  3. Gather images (copies of photographs, wood block prints or paintings) that suggest various physical and emotional sensations, settings, seasons, etc. (I began with images from Japan)
  4. Consider outdoor settings, museums, nature preserves, the zoo, etc. where you could take the class for observation and writing sessions.

The following sites contain excellent collections of traditional haiku:

"Haiku by Basho"


This gives an introduction to the 17th century haiku master. Follow the "Class Materials" link for a collection of readings.

"Haiku for People" 


The history of haiku and its development into a world wide form of poetry; includes a broad selection of haiku by many classic Japanese poets.

“The World of Haiku” Edsitement 


Background information:

See attached handout: "Haiku Characteristics" and above web sites for introductions to traditional haiku.


  1. Create several handouts containing an assortment of haiku (5 to 7 each). Make collections of Japanese haiku from "Haiku for People" web site, the "Class Materials" link within the "Haiku by Basho" web site, An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki, or any other book of haiku
  2. Attached handout: "Haiku Characteristics"
  3. Web sites: National Endowment for the Humanities, “The World of Haiku” Edsitement (http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=305) "Haiku by Basho" (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/eacp/asiasite/topics/index.html topic=Haiku+subtopic=Intro) "Haiku for People" (https://people.rit.edu/dpalyka/Haiku.html) "Class Materials" (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/eacp/asiasite/topics/Haiku/Sources/Class.htm)
  4. Copies of various images as explained in #3 of Advance Preparation above.
  5. Overhead projector, smart board or document camera

Plan for Assessment:

  1. Teacher will observe as students read haiku, discussing the words, details and images, exploring their connotations and sensory suggestions.
  2. Teacher will observe as students read and discuss various haiku. As a class at first, then in small groups students will read and reflect, then record their thoughts as to how various haiku meet the characteristics of haiku outlined in the handout "Haiku Characteristics."
  3. Students will write haiku using the criteria for haiku outlined in the handout "Haiku Characteristics" as guide lines.
  4. Students will re-draft their poems, improving their choice of words by selecting for precision and concreteness, choosing details and imagery that "show" the particular mood, sensations and/or ideas.
  5. Teacher will observe as students use a thesaurus and dictionary to hone their words.


Day One: Introduction and Guided Practice

  1. Pass out copies of a set of haiku (5 - 6). As a class, read the poems aloud; ask for student comments.
  2. Write on the board: images / imagery, the five (six) senses, sensory details; ask students what these terms mean.
  3. Ask students to discuss the haiku they have in front of them in these terms.
  4. Using a projector, annotate the haiku with the students' comments.
  5. Arrange students in small groups, pass out additional sets of haiku, instruct students to read, discuss and annotate these poems using the terms from step #2
  6. Each group selects one poem to "teach" with the class, using the projector to share and discuss their annotations.
  7. Debrief: teacher comments on the selected poems, reviewing sensory details and images.

Day Two: Introduction and Guided Practice

1. Pass out the handout "Haiku Characteristics." Read, discuss and highlight terminology and characteristics.

2. Read, discuss and annotate the haiku contained in the handout either as a whole class, in small groups or individually.

3. Pass around assorted images (I start with photographs of nature, buildings or people with nature as the setting, images from Japan that contain elements of nature and season). The teacher should select an image as well.

4. Draw a sensory chart on the board with columns labeled: What I see | hear | feel/ touch | feel/ emotion | taste | smell


5. Project the image you (the teacher) have selected and think aloud as you explore the images and details you find in the image, note these in the appropriate columns, ask students to contribute their thoughts and feelings. Be sure to explain that not every column needs to be filled.


6. Students create their own charts and, following the teacher's model, list the sensory images and details they find in the image they have selected.

Day Three: Guided Practice and Individual Practice

1. Review the characteristics of haiku (handout "Haiku Characteristics") with the students.

2. Teacher and students get out their images and charts from the previous day.


3. Thinking aloud, teacher models process of selecting images and details from the chart, searching for concrete nouns and vivid verbs to compose and refine haiku based on the image; additionally, teacher selects for and comments on compositional elements that reflect the previously discussed characteristics of haiku.


4. Students work on composing their own haiku using their notes based on the images they selected

5. Teacher circulates, observes and comments.

6. Students will enjoy exchanging haiku, helping each other with comments and suggestions.

7. Debrief: Teacher selects a few of the students' haiku and projects them for the class to read, adding comments on what the students have done well. (Be sure to notice closely observed details, word control, simplicity, precision, concrete nouns and vivid verbs

Day Four: Independent Practice:

1 Students hone their haiku by improving word choice, re-drafting for maximum precision and concreteness, choosing details and imagery that "show" the particular mood, sensations and/or ideas they perceive in their subject image. This is the time to use a thesaurus and dictionary to make sure they have just the right words.

2 Students exchange haiku and give each other feedback on their re-drafts.

3 Students select another image and repeat the process: noting ideas in a sensory chart, drafting, sharing and re-drafting haiku.

4 Teacher circulates, observes and comments.

5 Debrief: Again the teacher selects a few of the students' haiku, projects them for the class to read, and comments on what the students have done well, especially improvements in the choice of precise, concrete, vivid words and the reduction of "clutter."

Day Five: Independent Practice and Conclusion:

1 This is a great time to get out of the classroom either on a field trip or in some natural setting around school.

2. Spread students out so they have "space to think." Instruct them to open all their senses to their surroundings, record their notes on a sensory chart; finally, compose their notes into haiku.

3. Students who wish to sketch may create simple illustrations to accompany their haiku (haiga). These poems should be re-drafted later.

4. Debrief: students exchange their new haiku and review the characteristics of traditional Japanese haiku.


1. Students work in small groups to create the rubric for assessing their haiku (direct them to the handout "Haiku Characteristics"). Representatives from each group meet and this group works out the final rubric.

2. Students select their best and favorite haiku for submission to the teacher for formal assessment.

3. Students choose how to publish their poems (school or class newsletters, books, or website; or an outside haiku website or magazine.


  1. Kukai: a haiku competition where the students anonymously submit three of their own haiku, then evaluate and select their favorite three haiku from all that have been submitted. These favorites are discussed, tallied and their author revealed.
  2. Renka: the group writes linked haiku. Each student starts by submitting a hokku: an open ended haiku of fourteen syllables (5-7-5) in three lines; this is passed to the next student who adds a two line link of 5 and 5 syllables. This is passed to the next student who adds a fourteen syllable haiku link, etc. Each linked set of haiku continues around the group until links have been created for each starting hokku. There are specific instructions for including particular types of images in certain links. http://www.ahapoetry.com/RENGA.HTM, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renga
  3. Haibun: combining narrative prose with haiku that reflect some aspect, image or feeling alluded to in the prose.
  4. Haiga: combines simple brush painting and calligraphy with haiku http://www.reedscontemporaryhaiga.com/WhatIsHaiga.htm
  5. "Tea party" or "Carousel" haiku: tape up or spread out an photos around the room; tell students that they will circulate around the room; give students between 30 seconds and a minute to look an image and write notes before moving to another photo. When the students have seen ten (more or less as time allows) they sit down and use their notes to compose and edit haiku. (This idea come from Ben Grafstrom's presentation: “Haiku How-To,” Journey to the Interior Study Tour, Japan, July 2009)
  6. Publication: each student selects their favorite haiku. These are assembled and published in a class newsletter, web page or book (there are numerous ways to make attractive, creative handmade books and pamphlets). Adding simple illustrations to these creates haiga.
  7. Wider publication: there are many haiku in English websites that welcome student submission. There are also contests where students submit their haiku. One site is the Mainichi Daily News. It publishes a monthly selection of English haiku. The paper's English-language website, contains a selection of contemporary haiku, including recent winners of the Mainichi Haiku Contest. Students may submit haiku by email to mdn@mainichi.co.jp.

Cross-Curricular Ideas:

  1. Art is a great subject connection. Researching the development of Asian art history, its styles and principles, and comparing these to the contemporary poetry may elucidate aesthetic ideals.
  2. Japanese history and social studies provide areas for research into the time periods and social, political and economic conditions that surrounded and nurtured the development of haiku from the 16th century on. (http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=305)
  3. Asian Religions: ideas and images associated with Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism and its offshoot Zen are expressed in the haiku off several classical haiku poets including Basho. Have students read and discuss these poets while researching and/or discussing these religions and philosophies.
  4. Japanese art and culture: this idea comes from Edsitement:
  5. "To broaden students' perspective on Japanese culture, have them compare the types of scenes evoked by haiku with the scenes portrayed in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which also became popular during the Tokugawa period. Like haiku, this was an art rooted in everyday experience, as indicated by its name, "ukiyo-e," which means "pictures of the floating world." Ukiyo-e captured the ephemeral aspect of life, finding a timeless beauty in the here and now that has made it the best known style of Japanese art today." (http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=305)
  6. Other research or extension topics include a study of Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese gardens and Zen gardens, ikebana (flower arrangement), calligraphy. All of these practical arts are associated with the principles and practice of Zen. Therefore, they share some of the aesthetic characteristics of haiku, particularly the haiku developed by Basho.

Resources and References:

Britton, Dorothy. A Haiku Journey: Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980

"Haiku By Basho"


"Class Materials"


Harter, Penny. “A Lesson Plan That Works,” The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku.

What Is Haiga, http://www.reedscontemporaryhaiga.com/WhatIsHaiga.htm

Higginson, William J.. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985

Higginson, William J.. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985

In the Moonlight A Worm, "Show Don't Tell," Waning Moon Press, 12/2003

This site contains lessons on writing haiku and poetic language that can be extended to creative writing and writing poetry in general. It also contains a number of ahiku that can be reprinted for use in the classroom.


National Endowment for the Humanities, "Can You Haiku," Edsitement

This site contains a number of lessons including: "Reading Haiku," "The Rules of Haiku," "Writing Haiku"


National Endowment for the Humanities, “The World of Haiku” Edsitement


Toyomasu, Kei Grieg, HAIKU for PEOPLE. https://people.rit.edu/dpalyka/Haiku.html

This is an excellent resource for back ground information as well as a wide variety of haiku.

Attached Handout:

Ms. Smith

The Characteristics and Vocabulary of Haiku

“Poetry in microcosm—a world of ideas in three brief lines of verse” (Britton, pg.7).

Haiku are “thought-provokers.” Haiku poets are not interested in directly describing their own feelings; instead, they let the images and the connections between these images convey their thoughts and feelings. Thus, a haiku seems objective, a mere statement of fact without emotion, yet a good haiku will arouse a deeply subjective response in the reader and spark “a world of thoughts” (Britton, p.17).

I was sad/when I saw the dead cat/in the rain, is not a haiku.

Dead cat…

open mouthed

to the pouring rain

Michael McClintock

This is haiku because it shows us the cat and the rain, and those images make us feel sad (Harter, pg. 172).

1) Haiku are very short, commonly only 17 syllables. They consist of three lines:

1. 5 syllables         kirishigure                 in the misty rain

2. 7 syllables         Fuji wo minu hi zo    Mount Fuji is veiled all day

3. 5 syllables         omoshioki                 how intriguing (2)

These syllable counts are strictly observed in Japanese, but can be more loosely followed in other languages (3). However, remember to follow the short- long- short pattern in order to create the proper rhythm.

2) Haiku convey the sense of “here and now,” the specific, present moment; therefore, they are written in present tense and present a focused image (3).

3) A haiku has two parts: divided after the first or second line. The poem feels as if it contains two separate statements that are somehow related. This break may create the feeling of a sudden turn or shift in perspective.

Japanese haiku contain a “cutting word” (kireji) such as ya (!) or kana (how…! what…!). In English, we use punctuation such as a dash, colon or ellipsis to create this break (3).

4) Haiku often omit some normal requirements of grammar in order to heighten simplicity, immediacy and brevity. They may contain incomplete sentences, or skip articles (a, an, the) and complicated verb tenses. Still, the grammar must seem natural and make sense (Higginson, pg.104).

5) Traditional Japanese haiku poems often used imagery from nature; however, haiku can be about almost anything. The themes (big ideas) are not too complex for people to recognize and understand. Some of the best haiku describe everyday scenes or events “in a way that gives the reader a brand new experience of a well-know situation” (Toyomasu).

Images that appeal to the senses make strong haiku. The five senses are

_________, ________,__________, ____________, and ______________. Haiku can also show a sense of movement.

Japanese terms and concepts important to haiku:

  • Kigo: season words; place the poem at a specific moment in time; examples include cherry blossoms indicating spring, mosquitoes indicating summer
  • Wabi: sense of rusticity and simplicity, beauty of things modest and humble
  • Sabi: loneliness, austerity (but not necessarily sadness)
  • Karumi: lightness, light heartedness, “deal with trifling matters in a eloquent way” (Addiss quoting “Bashō’s Journey”); use everyday images, topics
  • Mujô: sensitivity to the impermanence of all things, yet there is continuity through time (Barnhill, “Bashō’s Journey”).
  • Utamakura: references in poetry to places that are famous from the past, historically significant people, cultural traditions with specific associations known to most readers, sometimes Chinese place names. A poet may even use a line from other haiku or poems.
  • Haibun: haikai prose, sometimes act as head notes that accompany haiku
  • Haiga: haiku accompanied by a drawing that expresses the feeling of the haiku
  • Calligraphy is the third element that expresses the aesthetic experience of the haiku

Is this haiku?

Haiku are short

They are sometimes confusing


Compare to

Summer rains                  

All that remain                   mojô- √

Of warrior’s dreams           utamakura- √

                                           Wabi (simplicity of images)- √

                                           Sabi- √

(Grafstrom, Ben. July 2 2009)

Haiku Masters and their poems

Basho, Matsuo. (1644-1694).

The name Basho (banana tree) is a pen name he adopted around 1681 after moving into a hut with a banana tree alongside. He felt there was an affinity between being a poet and the wabi-sabi of the wind torn leaves.

Basho's father was a low-ranking samurai. Basho served the lord Todo Yoshitada. Since Yoshitada wrote haikai, Basho began writing poetry too (Toyomasu).

Basho made many pilgrimages through Japan to visit famous historical and cultural sites. These journeys provided the inspiration for many of his most beloved poems (Toyomasu).

An old pond! 

A frog jumps in- 

The sound of water.

The first soft snow! 

Enough to bend the leaves 

of the jonquil low.

In the cicada's cry 

No sign can foretell 

how soon it must die.

No one travels 

along this way but I,

this autumn evening.

The years first day 

thoughts and loneliness; 

the autumn dusk is here.

Clouds appear 

and bring to men a chance to rest 

from looking at the moon.

Harvest moon: 

around the pond I wander 

and the night is gone.

Poverty's child - 

he starts to grind the rice, 

and gazes at the moon.

Temple bells die out. 

The fragrant blossoms remain. 

A perfect evening!

Issa. (1762-1826).

In my old home 

which I forsook, the cherries 

are in bloom.

A giant firefly: 

that way, this way, that way, this - 

and it passes by.

Right at my feet - 

and when did you get here, 


Natsume, Soseki. (1867-1916)

The crow has flown away: 

swaying in the evening sun, 

a leafless tree.

Ryusui. (1691-1758).

In all this cool 

is the moon also sleeping? 

There, in the pool?

[Translations from Toyomasu ]

Works Cited

Britton, Dorothy. A Haiku Journey: Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980

Grafstrom, Ben. Presentation: “Haiku How-To,” Journey to the Interior study tour, Japan, July 2 2009

Harter, Penny. “A Lesson Plan That Works,” The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Higginson, William J. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985

Higginson, William J.. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985

(1) National Endowment for the Humanities, “The World of Haiku” Edsitement 14 September 2009 (From Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary [Stanford University Press, 1991] p. 102.), 14 September 2009 http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=305

(2) National Endowment for the Humanities, “The World of Haiku” Edsitement 14 September 2009


Toyomasu, Kei Grieg, HAIKU for PEOPLE. Last updated: Jan 10th. 2001. 14 September 2009, https://people.rit.edu/dpalyka/Haiku.html