Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sonnets Aren't So Scary

My sophomores in British Literature class are writing sonnets, and when I mentioned this at the family dinner table the other night, my husband's reaction was not surprising. He hated sonnets and especially that iambic pentameter! We've talked before about his experiences in high school English class and from those conversations I've developed my own primer of what not to do to my students as their English teacher. But, they just HAVE to write sonnets, and I do my best to make the experience as non-traumatic as possible.

First, we have studied poetry throughout the year and they have developed skills, and hopefully, confidence in previous writing assignments, including a character sketch in rhyming couplets and accentual meter ala Geoffrey Chaucer and a poem in the style of the Anglo Saxon poet including caesuras and alliterative verse. Now, the ultimate challenge - the sonnet :)

I introduce the concept in its historical context as a popular form of writing during the English Renaissance. Poets would write sonnets to prove their worth as a writer. It's considered a puzzle to the writer and it's a puzzle to the reader - who doesn't like puzzles?! We also talk about other forms of art that we have made and how satisfying it can be to create something beautiful. I show them a double wedding knot quilt that I spent a year making and we compare the pattern to the pattern of the sonnet.

I guess what I try to emphasize is that if you develop and set the right attitude sonnets, like anything else, can be tackled and conquered. Push yourself, be creative, and you may discover something about yourself - that you didn't know before - You CAN do it! That's what real education should be about.

So, those are my intentions, how about the results? All of my students scored A's and B's on the sonnet quiz (higher grades than on previous assessments). And now, they are writing some pretty strong sonnets of their own. Here's one that not only fits my Shakespearean sonnet assignment but also was entered in a 100 word contest about technology:

It has always been deep in our nature to want

to break the chains in which we were bound by birth.

Each law of physics or nature is like a taunt,

or an obstacle as old as mother Earth.

But no walls ever built will always last,

for we were all born to break them down,

doing what we have done throughout our past;

reinventing ourselves and breaking new ground.

Sure, technology is not always right,

but it’s few failures are easy to forgive.

And anyone who, against it, puts up a fight,

forgets that technology allows them to live.

I hope he wins the contest :)

I've also asked my students to respond to this post with their perspective about studying sonnets to help me improve for next year. I'm watching them write right now. Some are counting syllables on their fingers, some sharing lines with a neighbor and smiling, others thinking hard - looking up at the ceiling, closing their eyes and bending their head, then scribbling another attempt. All working, trying, and experimenting with words. Though challenging, I hope that they remember this one day as a challenge they faced, not a trauma they survived.


Anonymous said...

I really like writing sonnets. It was one of my favorite activities even though it was not one of my strong suits.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, Sonnets aren't really that scary, but I think you said it right when you described them as a challenge. That iambic pentameter can be tricky and it's not easy to mold a poem around it, but it's conquerable and you'll get through it.

Rae said...

I definitely don't look back on writing sonnets in english class as being a scary time! I had a lot of fun, and I actually still use what you have taught me! Just recently, for creative writing class, we were asked in an assignment to choose a new type of poetry and make a poem. I chose to create a terza rima, with iambic pentameter! 
And I still can’t find the mistake on that quilt. It still looks perfect to me! ;)

-Rachel Fried

Meredith J. said...

I didn't like writing sonnets either, only because i had to be sure i had the five syllables in each line and having to go back over my sonnet multiple times, counting off on my fingers to be sure I had it right, got really annoying and tedious. But, I got Bs and a few As whenever I wrote them so I was happy of the overall result. But, if I had to do one now, I'd be very upset.

tsteve said...

I like sonnets as well, Rachel. I'm not a fan of regular poems that don't have a rhyme scheme. I still remember my attempt to copy Chaucer and i thought i did pretty good. I felt pretty successful writing over a page of lines that had a rhyme scheme and the whole thing made sense. I found it fun to write that poem because as i wrote I had to think of words that would fit the rhyme scheme, and that process can end up making you change so many things that by the end of the poem it can sometimes have a different meaning, or the same meaning but a different path to get there.

Rachel you beat me to it, i was going to ask where that mistake was on the quilt. Did the current class ever find it? If i recall it was something with one of the rings.....maybe not.