I teach eighth grade, and much of what I do feels like a panicked rush to make sure the students are ready for high school
. That phrase, said in an ominous tone, replete with hazy images of terrifying upperclassmen the size of titans and teachers more like harpies than humans, is an unveiled threat. Soon our darling cherubs are going to leave the cozy womb of nurturing middle school and be dumped into the arctic waters of high school; if they aren’t ready, they’ll drown! So, we inundate them with note-taking strategies and five paragraph essays and citation formatting and primary source documents and all the other heavy hitting stuff
that will make them READY.
If I sound bitter, well … maybe I am. I remember back in the day when I spent months reading every word of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM with my kids, staging episodes of Jerry Springer in which Hermia confronted her domineering dad, Helena revealed Demetrius to be her baby daddy, and the most coveted role for the boys to play was that of the on-screen bouncer.
Man, we had fun
then—booing Egeus and cheering Lysander and encouraging the lovers to fight. I don’t feel like I have the time for such fun anymore. My focus has switched from providing students with experiences to providing them with practice. Practice writing essays, practice reading poetry, practice with the classics.
As any reflective teacher does, I find myself questioning—am I doing the best I can for these kids? Is practice important? Of course it is, but is it any more important than laughing our way through a unit, instilling a love of literature along the way? Heck, no.
So, I thought I’d share one of my go-to end-of-year assignments—and maybe inspire some of you to add a little fun back into the serious work of learning. Haiku Master
Easily accomplished in two class periods, this lesson pairs poetry with something my students can’t get enough of: competition.
Start by turning your classroom into “Haiku Stadium.” The physical set up is important. Try to arrange your desks so there is an outer ring and an inner ring, with two desks facing off in the middle.
You’ll need to give your students a quick review of the basic 5-7-5 haiku. As a class, we practice writing lines with the correct number of syllables. In my class, we begin writing about pretty much anything: video games, football teams, boyfriends. However, since true haiku is about nature, not emotions, we do eventually return to the rules once the class is comfortable with the form.
Here comes the part the kids like: I bring them outside and tell them to collect inspiration. If we’re gonna write about nature, we need NATURE! Rocks, twigs, moss, flowers, leaves—dead and living, everything is fair game. Once I even let kids bring in bugs (but I didn’t make that mistake again).
Then each student sits with their inspiration on their desk and waxes poetic. After a few tries, I begin timing them. I may give the kids five minutes to write and gradually shorten it to three. Then I collect all the haiku and read them aloud without any names attached. If the haiku has the correct number of syllables, is about nature, and makes the reader feel emotion, it goes in the “contender” pile. Students then vote on their favorite haiku. You can select as many semi-finalists as you like.
When semi-finalists are selected, they move to the center ring and are assigned one new piece of nature each. They are given a finite amount of time, and the results are collected and read as before. This time, two finalists are selected. They move to the two desks facing off at the center of Haiku Stadium, and they are given three minutes and the same piece of nature about which to write. The winner at the end is crowned Haiku Master!
As I said, my kids love competition. They buy in almost immediately. You can go all out with ribbons and prizes and certificates and face-offs between class champions. Or it can be a quick little enrichment activity. For as simple and silly as this assignment is, it never fails to produce multiple touching pieces.
Don’t let the laughter and cheering fool you; these kids are
learning. With exercises such as these, your students can have a little fun and still be ready for high school in the fall. Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.
© 2012 Mary Cotillo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.