Sijo: Power in Diversity

By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Today’s Diverse Classrooms

I want the junior and senior students in my creative writing classes to discover the potential in writing and to appreciate diverse voices. Knowing the traditional canon is often too narrow, I incorporate diverse texts; I aim to increase a student’s capacity for empathy, to help them identify with my curriculum and to understand others and themselves.

In sharing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Sandra Cisneros’s Eleven or Lopez Lomong’s Running for My Life, teachers allow students to better know someone else—or at least to consider his or her perspective; diverse texts also help students realize their own voice has value and worth. As Rudine Sims Bishop suggests, diverse texts “help us to understand each other better by changing our attitudes towards difference.”

To diversify my curriculum, I share a Korean form of poetry called sijo. After learning about the sijo form, my students both read and write sijo. Sijo can help students focus on small moments, quiet details—to notice, think, and explore. To slow down. To narrow their focus on something poignant, meaningful, beautiful. Sijo is a poetry form that can live within—and beyond—traditional ELA or writing curriculums.

To introduce sijo, I share exemplars. My students discuss; then, they write and submit poems to writers’ markets including the Sejong Cultural Society’s annual sijo competition (in collaboration with the Korea Institute at Harvard University). This gives students a purpose for their poem, beyond a grade or classroom assignment.

In 2019, two of my students were named honorable mentions in the national sijo competition, winning $50 each. Senior Kaitlyn Laufenberg said, “This competition pushed my creativity. My English teacher, Ms. Jorgensen, was a huge help in digging deep into my creative side that has been hard for me to find. I am so grateful for her help and also to have been part of this competition.”

Junior Erin Vanevenhoven said, “I really enjoyed writing this sijo poem and a few others I wrote in my creative writing class because of the format. The sijo structure gave me freedom to write about what I wanted without worrying about how to write it. While writing my sijo poem, I learned how to think outside the box and that there are many different ways to express what I want to say.”

Korea’s Sijo

When choosing my curriculum, I consider diversity in both author and form. Since students know haiku, limerick, sonnet and acrostic—and Robert Frost, Shel Silverstein and Walt Whitman—I add a new form. This challenges students to see what is possible within writing and to consider diversity in not only voice, but also in shape, sound and style. 

Sijo presents students with a structure for their stories. Korea’s sijo is a poetry form akin to Japan’s haiku. With three lines, divided thematically and structurally by line and syllable count, students are able to take their ideas from thought or experience to composition. Sijo’s brevity (44 to 46 syllables) easily fits into a curriculum, manageable for busy teachers, as well as struggling readers or writers. 

Learning a new form of poetry helps students express new ideas. To write effectively within the sijo form, students 1) narrow their focus, 2) find a point to their story and 3) manipulate word choice to fit the syllabic constraints.

Whether or not students view themselves as poets, they all have stories to tell, emotions to explore and experiences to process. Sijo can be an avenue for students to learn about classmates and for teachers to learn about students; it can also be a vehicle for students to contribute their voice to the classroom and school community—and the larger canon. 

Writing for the Sejong Cultural Society’s competition gives students a purpose and motivation (the $500 top prize working as incentive). The competition also hosts an adult division ($1,000 prize) for adults, which encourages teachers to write alongside students.

Female Voices 

Because sijo are written about human experiences, students are able to make connections and explore the world—through their eyes, their classmates’ eyes, and the perspectives of other authors. Hearing poems from diverse voices helps students develop empathy for lives that aren’t theirs; it allows students to appreciate a variety of perspectives; and it encourages connections for those who feel alone. It also gives students topic ideas. 

Because students have grown accustomed to hearing male voices (like Frost, Silverstein and Whitman), I focus on sharing female voices. In Tap Dancing On the Roof, Linda Sue Park writes sijo that move chronologically through the school year and school day. I share her book with my classes. Students notice relatable occurrences: soccer games, after school snacks, bedtime stories.

Students comment on how Park uses experience and wordplay; they brainstorm topics for their own sijo and use Park as inspiration. In our discussions, students learn anything can be poetic—even hunting for artifacts on the beach. 

In addition to Park, I share poems by Hwang Chin-i, Kisaeng (female performers) and Elizabeth St.Jacques (a Canadian poet). Each of these represent a female voice. 

Self Expression

After reading professional and previous winning student sijo, I encourage students to find a story worth sharing—their own or someone else’s. I ask them to dig deep into their most powerful thoughts, the ones tugging at them, begging to be explored. Brave students embrace their own experiences—challenging, humorous, embarrassing—while others write fiction. 

Students list topic ideas in their writers’ notebooks and discuss options in their writers’ groups. Students think-pair-share and then I lead a classroom discussion. We explore the point of poetry, the tension students might build, the twist a poem may include. I aim to make poetry manageable and enjoyable. 

Although I write alongside my students, sharing the messy process of brainstorming, drafting and editing, I also share my published sijo (Gyroscope Review, Issue 19-3 Summer 2019).

In my sijo, students learn about my life and struggles; they also hear another female voice. When I am vulnerable—when I share an innermost struggle—students follow suit, taking risks and opening up with their own stories, rich in reflection, pain, humor or empathy. Reading each other’s sijo develops relationships, as students make connections and appreciate talents.

Empathy Through Poetic Fiction 

Students need not limit their sijo topic to personal experience; a fictionalized perspective can also work. The 2019 second place poem in the Sejong Cultural Society’s sijo competition considered the point of view of a female outcast, required to entertain the upper class. In composing this poem, Hye In Lee imagined a different experience, during a different time, for a different person. Her sijo encouraged readers to empathize and grow an understanding of a woman born into a predetermined fate.

Lee said, “I’ve sought to incorporate Korean culture into my poetry and wanted to write from the perspective of a woman in Korean history. I came across the stories of the kisaeng, who often dealt with the sijo style, and thought it would be interesting to write a sijo from a kisaeng’s perspective.”

Dante Kirkman, an eighth grade student from Palo Alto, California, received an honorable mention in 2016. He explored aging, religion and poverty in his poem.

Kirkman said, “My inspiration for the sijo poem was my grandfather, who grew up in segregated New Orleans during the Great Depression with nothing but his faith in God and a resolve to make a better life. After serving in WWII in the Philippines, he settled in San Francisco and made a life for his young family in Menlo Park, California, on the red-lined Black side, east of the freeway. He worked as a mailman and raised five children, and now I am honoring his legacy as his grandson, and my older brother is the first to go to college.”

To weave sijo into your curriculum, students could write about their own or someone else’s perspective. Students in a parenting class could write from the point of view of a child, childcare worker, grandparent or sibling. In social studies, students could narrate a poem as a dictator, a prince or the bourgeoisie. In art, students could explore the perspective of the painting or a famous artist—or write a sijo instead of a traditional artist statement.

Sharing & Challenging

Integrating diversity into a curriculum advances a teacher’s practice and prepares students for the world. Writing and submitting poems to writers’ markets allows students to contribute to the canon. This also helps students realize the purpose of writing: to connect, entertain, inform, process, persuade, explain. To enjoy.

Beyond submitting to the Sejong Cultural Society’s annual poetry competition, students can submit sijo to the school’s literary magazine, or to state, regional or national teen publications. Students and teachers can use Submittable to find writers’ markets.

Although all students struggle as they learn and grow and write, teachers should not shy from trying a different form. By introducing sijo to students, they will expand not only what they know about language, but also what they know about themselves, their classroom, their community, and their world.

Additional Resources

A Basic Guide to Writing Sijo (Sejong Cultural Society)

Teaching Sijo to High School Students

Teaching Sijo to Elementary School Students

Korean Poetry Competition Provides Opportunity for American Creative Writing Students.” Wisconsin English Journal, November 19, 2016.

“Inquiry, Questioning and the Art of Korean Poetry.” Ohio Journal of English Language Arts. Volume 59, No. 1. Summer/Fall 2019. Pages 43-46.

 

Elizabeth Jorgensen is a writer and teacher. Her memoir, co-written with Nancy Jorgensen, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold, is available from Meyer & Meyer Sport.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

4 thoughts on “Sijo: Power in Diversity

  1. Hi,
    I really loved reading your take on the Korean sijo. I am a creative writer myself and had never heard of this structure but find it to be exciting, freeing, and challenging. The assignments you did with your creative writing students is truly an authentic assignment– they had a purpose and an audience they were writing for. I’m sure that gave them a lot of incentive to dig a little deeper into their creative side. In addition, allowing your students to see your brainstorming and writing process probably eased a lot of their anxieties and made them feel more confident as a writer. I also love how you brought in women’s voices and culture into this assignment as well. I think that’s really important to show students the diversity within writing. Thank you for including examples of the sijo because now I have a better understanding of it as well.

  2. Hi,
    I never heard of sijo until I read your post–so, thanks! The assignments you gave your students was creative; the content was accessible and interesting; but, what I think makes this such an interesting unit is the attitude that is implicit within your teaching of sijo. You provide a medium (sijo) that most students I can assume will be unfamiliar with (which provides some nice excitement and curiosity); you ask students to compose their poems for a real audience; you even show the students your own work! Your class seems more like a writers workshop than an English classroom, which is awesome. Your unit conveys an attitude of authenticity, openness, passion, and curiosity–all of which are great features for a teacher to have.

  3. Pingback: The Right to Write – Alicia’s Blog

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