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Literature-Based Teaching in Science: Poetry Walks

Content Area Literacy

Literature-Based Teaching in Science: Poetry Walks

Read and discuss poetry with nature imagery with students. Take students on a poetry walk around the school, neighborhood, or community to observe and collect sensory images from direct experience with nature: the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of things outdoors. Students can take a poetry journal with them to write down words as they observe, listen, smell, and touch things outside the classroom.

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The 4th-grade student rubbed a dry leaf between his fingers. He had picked it up off the ground while on a poetry walk with his class in early winter, after the trees had shed their leaves. He stared out the window at a bare tree and wrote a haiku.

Bare trees shiver now
Without their cloak of green leaves
Cold, in the winter


In his landmark book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, based on his research observing students writing in classrooms over several years, Donald Graves (1983) emphasized the importance of helping students write about things they know. He suggested conferencing with students to help students identify something they know, something that is unique to them. It can be an interest, a collection, or an experience. He further recommended that this is what they should begin to write about. He also recommended surrounding children with literature to serve as models for their writing. A teacher can do both of these by reading poetry with nature imagery aloud and providing poetry collections for students to read independently, and by taking students on poetry walks where they can experience nature firsthand as a source of ideas and images to use in writing their own poetry.


Read and discuss poetry with nature imagery with students. Use a graphic organizer with students to classify describing words that draw on the senses, model poetry writing using words and phrases from the graphic organizer for younger students, and model forms of traditional Japanese poetry for older students.

Take students on a poetry walk around the school, neighborhood, or community to observe and collect sensory images from direct experience with nature: the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of things outdoors. Students can take a poetry journal with them to write down words as they observe, listen, smell, and touch things outside the classroom. They can also add drawings to help them remember what they are observing. They can simply list what they observe, the poetry journal can include a page with a category for each of the senses so they can classify them as they collect them, or they can use a combination of the two. They can also collect objects to take back to the classroom such as rocks or pebbles and small branches or leaves on the ground (not living things). They can continue to observe these in the classroom as they develop their vocabulary for poetic imagery.

Guide students to write poetic forms appropriate for each grade level using the nature images they collected on poetry walks.

Grade-level modifications

K–2nd Grade

Read aloud the picture book Frederick by Leo Lionni (1967). Frederick is a mouse who collects images and words about nature in spring and summer while the other mice are gathering and storing food for the winter. When it is cold and the food is gone, Frederick cheers up the other mice with the images he collected and a poem. Lead a discussion using aesthetic reader response questions and prompts: What was your favorite thing Frederick described? What did you picture in your mind? What are some things you could describe?

Take a poetry walk with students on the school grounds or in the neighborhood. Ask students to describe things they are seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching related to the season, such as the weather or trees and plants, and then record what they say on a clipboard with paper (students who can write can record ideas in a notebook they take with them). Back in class, ask students for words to describe the things they saw on the poetry walk and record them under headings for four of the senses:

  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Sound

Complete a class triante with students using sense words to describe nature.

Triante Poem Using Sense Words
Line 1: One word (Title)
Line 2: Two words (Smell)
Line 3: Three words (Touch)
Line 4: Four words (Sight)
Line 5: Five words (Sound)
Fresh, green
Hard scratchy bark
Tall, thin, many branches
Soft rustling in the breeze

Continue reading nature poetry, and students can continue taking poetry walks and drawing or writing nature images in a journal to write more nature poems. Students can continue to write nature poetry throughout the school year, noting the changes in seasons in their journals and poetry.

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3rd Grade–5th Grade

To introduce writing traditional Japanese haiku nature poetry, read aloud Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibsten (2008). This is a beautifully illustrated book with collages by Caldecott award winning artist Ed Young. The book ostensibly tells the story of a cat from Kyoto, Japan who goes in search of the true meaning of her name, Wabi Sabi. The spare text and haiku poetry explain that it means finding real beauty in unexpected places. Traditional Japanese haiku by famous Japanese poets Basho and Shiki are written in Japanese on each page and translated in an addendum. Tell students that Wabi Sabi is both a story and a collection of haiku, or a form of traditional Japanese poetry that focuses on nature and uses a pattern. Students can take turns reading the haiku poem found on each page. Lead a discussion using aesthetic reader response questions and prompts: Which of the haiku was your favorite? If you wrote a haiku, what would you write about? Students can talk to a partner and think-pair-share some words, phrases, or sentences and write down their ideas in a poetry journal.

Take a poetry walk and have students write and draw nature images they might use for writing haiku. Back in the class, model how to write haiku, a short, traditional Japanese poem, usually about the seasons or nature, which is approximated in English by writing a first line of five syllables, a second line of seven syllables, and a third line of five syllables. Make a poster or overhead projector transparency with the pattern.

Haiku is a short, traditional japanese poem, usually about the seasons or nature. In English, it uses a pattern of 17 syllables in three lines:

  • Line 1: 5 syllables
  • Line 2: 7 syllables
  • Line 3: 5 syllables

Students can write a haiku using the nature images they wrote and drew in a poetry journal on the poetry walk. Introduce students to other patterns of traditional Japanese poetry writing as well.

Senryu uses the same pattern as haiku, but can be written on topics other than the seasons or nature.

Tanka is a short, traditional japanese poem, usually about the seasons or nature. In English, Tanka uses a pattern of 31 syllables in five lines:

  • Line 1: 7 syllables
  • Line 2: 5 syllables
  • Line 3: 7 syllables
  • Line 4: 5 syllables
  • Line 5: 7 syllables

Haiga is haiku with a drawing.

Introduce haiku by reading Wabi Sabi (Reibsten, 2008), take students on a poetry walk, and have students write haiku as described previously for Grades 3 through S. The book Wabi Sabi also includes information on the development of haiku in Japan and 14 poems by the haiku masters Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) in the Addendum, in Japanese characters and in English. Basho wrote perhaps the most famous Japanese haiku:

An ancient pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water.

Students can read and learn more about Basho, write about him, or dramatize episodes from his life and travels writing haiku and reading his poems for other students. Students who have read and written haiku or other traditional forms of Japanese poetry can work individually or in pairs to create their own original poetry form. After writing samples, they can make a poster modeling the new form, demonstrate it to other students, and add it to the repertoire of poetry in a writing center.

Renga is a form of traditional Japanese poetry writing. It is created with linked haiku or other patterns you can write with friends. Traditional renga begins with the haiku pattern of 5-7-5 syllables in three lines, and another person responds with a pattern of 7-7 syllables in two lines. Write renga on an online discussion board with other students.

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Differentiated Instruction

English language learners

Important English language development strategies for ELs are using realia-or real objects-and the senses in teaching vocabulary, reading, and writing. Bring nature items into the class; take students on poetry walks so that ELs can observe, smell, and touch them; and introduce describing words that can be recorded on the chart. To write a triante, provide each child with a blank copy of the graphic organizer to classify words describing nature by one of the senses and a frame for the triante. Do the same for haiku or for any of the other forms of traditional Japanese poetry about nature.

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Struggling students

Use nature photos and objects from poetry walks in the classroom. By uploading images to the computer and printing them out, struggling students can label the pictures with words from the graphic organizer in a blend of free verse and concrete poetry. Conference with small groups of students and use the graphic organizer to develop describing words and model writing a triante or haiku with these words. Each child can record words on their own blank copy of the chart and write a triante or a haiku on a blank frame of this poetry pattern.

Using a haiku syllable word bank — a graphic organizer with columns for words of one, two, three, or more syllables — students can place words in the correct column to use when writing haiku. One member of the group, you, or an aide can write down words and images for the whole group, and these can be recorded on a poster that can be copied by each student on their own copy of the word bank and used to write a haiku on the haiku pattern frame. The use of frames and templates introduced through mini-lessons and displayed on a poster, along with an individual student handout, can provide scaffolding for students to write the pattern, drawing words from the word bank they have created in small groups.

Words can also be written on sticky notes that can be first placed on a poster and then added to an individual students’ word bank to use as a model for writing the word in the haiku pattern frame.


Students can use a form of traditional Japanese poetry writing called haibun, which combines haiku or other poetry patterns with a story. For each poem written, students write a short prose passage to set up each poem. This form was often used to record a journey. Students could write haibun throughout the journey of the school year and discuss them with the teacher periodically in writing conferences. Introduce baibun with a mini-lesson.

Haibun is a type of traditional Japanese poetry that combines a poem and a story. Write a poem (haiku, senryu, tanka, or haiga) with a drawing. Write a paragraph to set up your poem. Continue to do this and to tell a story with your poetry.


Cox, C. (2012). Literature Based Teaching in the Content Areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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