Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.
Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakspeare's Sisters" seminar.
This lesson allows for students to work together to write an original sonnet.
This lesson will take 1 x forty-five minute class period.
What's On for Today and Why
Composing a sonnet as a class or a group can be an effective way of reinforcing understanding of the sonnet’s pattern and of paving the way for writing individual sonnets. Starting with a rhyme scheme and working “backwards,” adjusting the lines to make sense often yields surprisingly coherent results. This is a good exercise in collaborative learning—and is also noisy and fun.
What You Need
Chalkboard or sheets of poster paper/post-it sheets (large) on an easel.
Chalk or Markers.
Tolerance for the noise that often accompanies creativity.
What To Do
1. Ask a student to write the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet on the board, vertically: abab cdcd efef gg. Number the lines.
2. Explain the process by which the students will create a sonnet. First, come up with two pairs of rhyming one-syllable words for the first quatrain (day/dark pray/spark, for example) and place them at the ends of the first 4 lines.
3. Work with the students to compose iambic pentameter lines to precede each of the end rhymes. One person is the scribe who writes the lines on the board. The lines may be nonsense at first, but the group can work to tweak them into making sense (In the process, the end rhymes may be altered).
4. The same process is applied to the second quatrain, the third, and the couplet.
5. Once there are 14 lines on the board, ask students to collectively edit the result.
6. Read the group sonnet chorally.
7. Have students start writing individual sonnets of their own, drawing on their journal writing of the previous classes/lessons for subject matter or theme. These can be the basis for the “suggested homework” at the end of Lesson 10.
How Did It Go?
Did the class cooperate in the exercise?
Did students demonstrate an understanding of iambic pentameter and of the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet?
Do they understand the internal structure of a sonnet, and that sonnets can be written about a wide range of topics?
Were they able to compose a poem that hangs together and which uses natural sounding, unforced language?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.