The Sonnet Challenge

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

William Shakespeare / engraved by B. Holl from the print by Houbraken [1830-1884]

William Shakespeare / engraved by B. Holl from the print by Houbraken [1830-1884]

By this time of the year, you might have just a few school days left or have weeks until your students leave for the summer or to begin the next stage of their lives. Why not end your year of poetry with a sonnet challenge?

Because of their fixed structure, sonnets can be one of the most difficult, yet satisfying, types of poems to compose. I teach my students about three types of sonnets: Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian. If you have not already worked with sonnets this year you might begin by reading an example of each of these structure types and working as a class or in small groups to examine the rhyme scheme and meter of the poems. A good beginning guide to sonnets is the Poetry Foundation article “Learning the Sonnet.”

EXAMPLES:

  1. Petrarchan: When I Consider How My Light is Spent by John Milton
  2. Spenserian: The Amoretti, a cycle of 89 sonnets by Edmund Spenser
  3. Shakespearean: Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

Once students feel comfortable with the basics of the sonnet structure it is time to write. For those who are ready, ask them to write an original sonnet in any of the forms on a topic of their choice. If they need prompts they might write about their feelings toward the end of the school year or the beginning of a new chapter in their education.

Ideas for students who are ready to follow the structural requirements of the sonnet, but may be at a loss for words:

  • Rework a poem they composed previously into a sonnet.
  • Convert a poem by another author into a sonnet.
  • Turn lyrics from a favorite song into a sonnet.

For students who need more scaffolding to master the sonnet structure, consider providing a sonnet after having removed some of the words, including some that are significant to the rhyme scheme and syllable count. Emphasize that students are not expected to fill in the blanks with the words used by the original poet! They should attempt to fulfill the structural requirements. This is similar to what I suggested in this post about the importance of word choice.

Sometimes the challenge of fitting thoughts and feelings into a strict poetic structure is motivation for students to push themselves to master something new. How do you challenge your students with poetry?

One Comment

  1. C L Couch
    May 29, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    What a wonderful idea! Applying favorite words to (or in or as) a sonnet should make for appreciation of the form and elevate enthusiasm for poetry overall. Thank you! (From an English teacher.)

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