Historically, sonnets are poems of 14 lines, usually written in iambic pentameter (five pairs of syllables in each line with an equal number of stressed and unstressed sounds). The Shakespearean sonnet, which is most popular in contemporary, English-speaking classrooms, has a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg and a rhetorical or narrative structure that points to a problem the speaker is facing, one or two complications within that problem, and a final declaration or solution to that problem (usually capped with a heroic or rhyming couplet). As the sonnet has become more and more contemporized, much of its rigidity regarding rhyme and meter has fallen away. Still, teaching students about the form's history helps them to understand how today's sonnets came to be, and how their own sonnets can carry on the traditions of poets past.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Projector (if desired)
- Examples of sonnets
- Student notebooks
- Pens and pencils
Read two or three formal sonnets aloud to the class, asking students to follow along with their own printed copies of the poems.
Ask your students what each poem has in common; consider subject matter, number of lines, rhyme schemes, etc. Encourage your students to think creatively on this matter.
Ask your students what each poem caused them to feel. How do they believe the poets achieved these effects? What words or rhetorical devices did they use to sway the reader?
Display or distribute a chart or diagram laying out the features and/or history of the sonnet. Discuss variations in rhyme scheme and meter, rhetorical structure (what the poem is about), as well as the evolution of the form.
Compare one or two of the example sonnets with your handout. Ask students to point to how these poems meet or challenge the general "rules" of a sonnet. If a poet bent those rules within his or her work, ask your students what was achieved in doing so.
Use class time to have students apply what they've learnt by writing their own sonnets. (This may also be assigned as homework.) Ask them to adhere to at least two or three of the formal sonnet guidelines. For example, a student might write a 14-line poem with the rhetorical structure of a sonnet while, at the same time, choosing not to incorporate rhyme.
Ask your students to turn in their assignments and provide appropriate comments and encouragement to help further direct each student's work.
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