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Performing Sonnets

Teachers' Rating:
  4 ratings

Shakespeare. The Songs and Sonnets of William Shakespeare. London, 1915

October 2007

Simon Rodberg, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, Washington, DC.

Caleen Sinnette Jennings, American University, Washington, DC.


Plays/Scenes Covered
A sonnet of the teacher's choice: Shakespeare's sonnets 18, 29, 116, and 140 work well.
What's On for Today and Why

Poetry can seem difficult on the page, but it comes alive in performance—think of the popularity of slams, freestyles, and "dis" sessions. By working on a Shakespearean sonnet in pairs by performing just one or two lines, and working with the class to build up an understanding of the entire poem, students can avoid being intimidated by the entire text.


This lesson will take one class period.

What You Need

A sonnet

A board or transparency

Room to move

Dictionaries for students (if available)

What To Do

1. As a warm-up, ask students to write about the following questions: Why would someone write a poem? Who might someone write a poem for? What might a person do with the poem once he or she has written it? Ask students to share their responses.


2. Explain that today's project will be to perform a sonnet by Shakespeare. Tell students that Shakespeare wrote both plays and poems, and that today, a poem will be treated as a script to be acted out. Each pair of students will have one or two lines to perform, and will teach their performance to the group so that the whole group will ultimately act out the entire sonnet.


3. Model, or as a whole group go over, the process that each pair of students will do to perform their poem: for every word in the line, ask students to create a motion to accompany each word. Thus, for Sonnet 19, which begins with the words "Devouring time," students might make the motion of an animal eating its prey for "devouring", and then for "time" create an imaginary hourglass or point to their watches. Perform the first line or two together as a class. Get students up and moving!


4. Split students into pairs, each with one or two lines from the poem, so that the entire poem is covered but no two pairs have the same lines. Direct students to create motions, which they will teach the class, for every word in their line or lines. Move around the classroom helping students with unfamiliar words.


5. When the students are done, have the pairs teach the rest of the class their lines and motions, in the order they appear in the poem. Write the poem on the board or a transparency, line by line, as each line is taught. If more than one pair has the same word and uses different motions, note the difference but do not change the motions at this point. Again, everyone should be on their feet and moving.


6. As a class, discuss the intended audience of the poem: for whom was it written? Use the motions to try to decipher this. As a class, discuss its purpose: why the poet wrote the poem. (Note that the discussion is not "what does the poem mean"—that question is dealt with through more concrete, accessible questions.


7. Based on the discussion, discuss whether to change any of the motions, and which motion to use for any duplicated words.


8. As a class, do a "perfect" final performance of the poem.


9. Discuss, or have students write about, any ways the motions helped them understand the poem. How might they use the principles of today's activity—language as a representation of physical reality, the presence of a speaker and an audience, and poetry's goal orientation—to understand other poems?

How Did It Go?
Did the students participate actively in their pairs and in the full group? If so, they had a good experience with poetry: priceless! Did their choices of motions make sense? Were they able to identify an intended audience and purpose for the poem? If so, then they were able to use performance to understand poetry. Did they identify metacognitive principles for reading poetry? If so, they are now better equipped to understand more poems.

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.

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