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Double doses of daily poetry assignments reach from Pico Rivera to White House.

August 13, 1987|BETH UYEHARA | Community Correspondent

The ancient, abstract, highly disciplined form of Japanese poetry known as haiku is the last thing you might think would appeal to hard-rock-loving teen-agers.

The esoteric poetry form requires the writer to convey a single vivid image in one simple sentence of exactly 17 syllables. That is not the only restriction, however; the syllables must be arranged in three unrhymed lines--the first line with five syllables, the second line with seven, and on the third line, five again.

Rock lyrics it's not.

However, assigning the writing of haiku poems has become a popular technique teachers use to introduce students to poetic expression and writing in general.

Rivera Middle School teacher Randolph Nelson Levy uses this format to teach his 7th and 8th grade language arts students to construct simple sentences, and to express themselves. For two weeks last semester he assigned them two haiku projects daily.

What he got was haiku with a twist: the ancient poetry form, which traditionally describes the moods of nature, filtered through the experiences and attitudes of modern urban American teen-agers.

A sample:

The school was peaceless,

rough, tough, dangerous and

nobody on Earth liked it.

--Ernie Peraza

The project was so successful that, at the students' urging, Levy collected some of the poems into a little book and mailed it to the White House.

"I didn't think any more about it," he said. Much to his surprise, he received letters of appreciation and praise both from the President and on behalf of the First Lady. "The students got so excited, they didn't know what to do," he said of the letters. "They were thrilled."

This was a far cry from the students' first response to the assignment.

"They all said, 'I can't think of anything to write about,' " Levy said, as he described how he brought in magazine photos ranging from city scapes to wilderness vistas to inspire them. Even the post office's eagle mascot went up on the wall for a while, he said.

The photos got the students started, and most of the poems the students produced express the traditional reverence for nature in sensitive poetic fashion. However, some students went on to capture things closer to home. While the syllable count sometimes gets a little raggedy, the students seem to have mastered both the idea and the ability to write expressive sentences.

The dog was big, fat and

full of life and black and dug

a hole in the yard.

--George Esparza

The surfer tubed

at the Zuma Beach surf contest

in the afternoon.

--Ernie Peraza

The haiku is only part of Levy's teaching technique. He believes in having his students write every day, both in class and as homework. "You can't learn to write in one month," he said. "And if they can't write a simple sentence, they'll be writing rubbish all their lives."

Levy is one of several teachers using haiku in classes at Rivera, part of the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, which has put a heavy emphasis on writing improvement in the last three or four years.

"All of my (language) teachers use it as practice," Principal Manford Mainar said. "It's a very useful tool."

"Haiku is a beautiful way to say things," Mainar said. "And the kids are at an age when it's easier to write poetry than it will be when they are older," he said. "They're less inhibited in their thoughts."

Mickie Deming, another language arts teacher at Rivera, uses haiku in her classes, as well as more complex Japanese poetic structures, such as tanka, a five-line expanded version of haiku.

"These poems are very simple to use," she said, "and the children can be successful easily."

Deming is a member of an El Rancho Unified School District committee which in the coming year hopes to implement a writing project it created for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The project emphasizes writing in every subject by asking, Deming said.

"The emphasis (of the project) is on the writing process itself," Deming said, "teaching students to get their ideas down on paper in a rough draft, then teaching them to revise later."

As for the response from the White House to the haiku book, Mainar said, "Anytime the kids get any recognition, that's great."

The classroom is as quiet

as the ocean breeze itself

in the late evening.

--Yvonne Gomez

"Most teachers talk 85% to 90% of the time in class. I don't talk that much," Levy said. "I give them handouts with the instructional material, so they can spend their time in class writing."

He said the handouts not only help the students in their studies, but give them permanent reference material to keep after they have returned their textbooks at the end of the semester. "Just in case they want to study over the summer," he said, grinning.

My teachers are people

who teach, dedicating so much

time and all that . . . for what?

--Griselda Horta

Maybe for results like this.

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