Monday, September 28, 2015

Haiku Deathmatch (No students were harmed in the process of learning)

When students see the name of this activity on the board, they always seem a bit intimidated, yet intrigued. It definitely sparks interest and authentic engagement! I have played with other names, too, but this one seems to create the most buy-in. To be honest, I did not come up with the name on my own, as I had heard a colleague use “poetry deathmatch” before. As teachers do best, I adapted the activity to suit my needs, and I am happy to share my lesson in hopes that other teachers will do the same.

First, I introduced (or reintroduced) students to the haiku format. We discussed the origin of this structure and the fact that, in America, haiku are usually written in 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. We talked about the fact that the plural of haiku is: haiku (this prevents my annoyance upon hearing “haikus”). We looked at several examples of haiku – both traditional Japanese haiku and more modern examples.

Because we were already talking about the power of words in the context of my current curriculum, I had students list their favorite words and words they loathe in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. I listed mine with them, and we all shared. Here are some words that tend to show up across classes in multiple writers’ notebooks:

Words students love:
Words students detest:

Students listed their favorite words for about 5 minutes; then we shared our words. As we heard words that we either liked or disliked, we added them to our own list.  If you find that students are having a difficult time with this part of the activity, you can look to the following sources for inspiration:
Once everyone has shared, I ask students to write at least 2 haiku: one with a favorite word and one with a word that they don’t like. I assure them that it is natural to count syllables on fingers, and that they will see me counting on mine, too. I also teach them the trick to determine the number of syllables in a word by placing their hand under their chin and counting the downward chin movements. Here is a picture of my notebook from the last haiku brainstorming session:

After about 10 minutes, I ask for volunteers to share. There is usually a lot of nodding and agreement with the haiku containing words students like and dislike. You can almost certainly expect an anti-homework haiku or two.

Now that students are comfortable with the haiku format and realize they’re having fun in class, I challenge them to work in small teams to write haiku for the previous text studied in class. I generally choose one work on which to focus; however, this time, I asked students to review their summer reading via haiku. Thus, my students were asked to choose from either Beowulf, Brave New World, or a combination of both. I have previously taught this lesson while reviewing books such as The Kite Runner, Frankenstein, and a variety of shorter texts. It has worked well in all cases. Each member writes the haiku, but there is one official recorder who writes legibly. The team’s goal is to generate as many quality haiku as possible in the time allotted.

Each team selects a spokesperson/performer to represent their team. Two teams are called to begin the “deathmatch.” I devise a system for determining who reads first – sometimes they choose a number, or play rock-paper-scissors, etc. Each person selects a haiku to read. There is strategy involved because they want to select one that is good enough to beat their opponent’s, but they also need to leave strong haiku in case they advance in the competition. Based on experience, each person will need to read his or her team’s haiku twice. I generally have them alternate so the audience can hear the poems side by side two times. Then we vote. The team with the most votes remains to battle the next opponent, and this process continues until only on team remains. In the event of a tie, each team can select an alternate poem to read. Sometimes, I allow the first team eliminated to battle the winning team. This eases the pain of being knocked out of the competition on the first round.

Teachers can decide whether or not to have any type of prizes, but the real reward is the sneaky book review taking place, the decisions about word choice (the best words that will fit in the limited structural space), and the collaboration occurring while students discuss texts and language.

Some variations on this lesson:
  •       Haiku for a character (to study characterization)
  •       Haiku in the style of an author
  •       Haiku featuring a specific literary device (simile, alliteration, etc.)
  •       Students tweet their haiku using a specific hashtag
  •       Students write a back-and-forth dialogue through haiku
  •       Students combine haiku to form one longer poem on the given topic (They love this one!)
Please comment with any variations on this lesson or new ideas. I think there is a wide range of possibilities for this activity!

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