I often use tanka, short Japanese poetry, as a warmer in my class. Mostly I do this because my school has a strict policy that teachers must begin each class by taking role call. But not just any kind of role call. We have to say every student’s full name, complete with the honorific Mr. or Ms. and wait until each students responds before moving on. So it takes a bit of time. About 5 minutes in all. Which is just about enough time to read and understand a short poem.
Anyway, I thought I would share some of the poems I’ve used over the past few years in my classroom. All except 1 are translated from the Japanese. Which is actually pretty cool because it allows for some nice L1/L2 comparison action. Before class starts, I jot the poems up on the board and usually, alongside the tanka, I write a few questions or suggested activities students can answer or do to better understand the poem. So here are 9 tanka and questions/activities along with links to the books where I found them:
On the swings
I kick myself up toward the sky
trying to find
enough strength to make
even god afraid of getting hurt
– How old is the person on the swings?
– How is she feeling?
because I thought
it was the girlish thing to do
until my 2nd year of high school
to love strawberries
– Have you ever pretended to like something?
– Do you think there is a way to act like a boy or a girl?
– Why does the poem end with the word strawberry?
at running away
I’m the last one left
in this game of dodge-ball
—-Kei Amano, Tanka No Kibun
– What is a metaphor?
– Is dodgeball a metaphor in this poem?
– If it is a metaphor, what is it a metaphor for?
from the outside
you would never know
could really be burned
just as badly as this
– How many people are in this tanka’s scene?
– Where are they?
– Make a line drawing of these scene.
this tastes great
the sixth of July becomes
our salad anniversary
– Is this a sad or happy poem?
– Can you write a similar poem about a special day you have had?
all the music and books
in the world
knowing I’ve somehow got to
make it through this one night
– When do you like to listen to music?
– What music do you listen to when you are sad?
– Are there books that help you deal with difficult times?
they raise their children
but in the garden
the tomatoes grow red
just as they please
—-Tawara Machi, Salad Anniversary
– Instead of asking a question, I leave the last line blank in this poem and students can fill it in themselves. Most of them actually get pretty close to the intent of the poem. Best answer so far, “even if the gardner is noisy!”
really belong to me
falling into the empty
egg tray of the refrigerator
– Who is the narrator of this poem? (how old? man or woman?)
– Make a line drawing of this scene.
– Change any three words in this poem to make a new poem.
my cat’s tail
wrapped around his body
that only I and
my mother understand
– This poem was written by one my student two months ago. She is a 16 year old, second year high school student. It wasn’t an assignment. It was just something she did because she wanted to. It was nice to think that 5 minutes of what could have just been wasted time at the beginning of class led to this. I haven’t used it in class yet, but she’s given me her permission. Maybe if you have some ideas for questions/activities to go along with this tanka, you would be kind enough to leave them in the comment section. I know Y-chan would be very happy to think that teachers from other schools were reading, thinking about, and maybe even using her tanka.