A Holiday Themed Shakesperean Sonnet

Shakespeare clause

Although I love exposing students to Shakespeare’s plays, his sonnets have a special place in my heart. This collection of rather personal poetry is intriguing, since it was not intended for public reading like his plays were.

What really fascinates me about Shakespearean Sonnets is their incredibly structured rules. Students are amazed that he not only followed such strict rules, but that he invented the rules. This reinforces the idea that “structure leads to creativity.”

The Rules

A Shakespearean Sonnet has fourteen lines organized into four groups:

  • Three sets of four lines, or quatrains
  • A final two lines known as a couplet

Each quatrain follows an alternating rhyme scheme and the couplet rhymes with itself. Here’s the complete pattern:

  1. ABAB
  2. CDCD
  3. EFEF
  4. GG

On top of this, each line follows its own rules:

  • Ten syllables each
  • Syllables follow an unstressed/stressed pattern (daDUM) beginning with an unstressed syllable.

Here’s the opening line from Sonnet 18, with stresses emphasized:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day ?

Here’s the rest of Sonnet 18 as well as a powerpoint for teaching the structure of Shakespearean sonnets.

This pattern is known as iambic pentameter. Pentameter means five groups and iambic refers to the pattern of unstressed/stressed. If your students remixed a Christmas poem to fit Thanksgiving, they should be somewhat familiar with these concepts.

Poetry With A Perspective

Now we’re going to create our own holiday-themed Shakespearean Sonnet.To add complexity (and help our students get started!), we’ll write from the point of view of a specific holiday decoration, tradition, or character.

But a Shakespearean Sonnet is difficult! There is a lot for students to keep in their minds. Let’s set them up for success.

Scaffold

Kids think that creative works just happen. Lennon and McCartney just sat down and wrote Sgt. Pepper over a weekend, Da Vinci went from blank canvas to Mona Lisa in one attempt, and Spielberg creates films in the same two hours it takes to watch them.

In reality, creators slowly build their work up through a process of constant revision. We’ll begin with big ideas and slowly work towards the perfect details.

Step Zero: Model

You should go through these steps first in front of your students. They need to see the process and see you struggle. Think aloud. Take their suggestions. Clear up confusion early.

1. Pick An Emotional State

Students won’t just write from an object’s perspective, but will consider its emotional state and how it changes over time. For my subject, I’m picking a gift, but what is its emotional perspective? Excitement and anticipation? Dread at being disliked? Annoyance at being stuck under a sappy tree? Even more importantly, how will that emotional state change by the end?

  • Subject: A gift
  • Emotional Change: Annoyance to joy

2. Outline

Now students will create a brief outline. The Shakespearean Sonnet has four distinct sections, so we’ll write a one sentence summary for each:

  • Quatrain 1: The gift is placed under the tree and dislikes the sap
  • Quatrain 2: More toys arrive, pushing the gift further under the tree
  • Quatrain 3: A party at the house intrigues the gift. Lights go out for Christmas Eve
  • Couplet: The gift is pulled out and opened

Note that we’re not counting syllables on our fingers or asking “what rhymes with this?” That will all come later after we’ve built the foundation.

3. Begin With the end

The couplet is the simplest of the four groups and represents a “big idea” of the poem, so let’s start there.

As students write, remind them that we’re not following the rules yet. No one can write the poem and nail the rhymes and get the syllables correct all at once. So let’s focus on just telling the story. Here’s my couplet:

  • Is it my turn? Am I really next? I’m up in the air.
  • My wrapping is off and I’m pulled in tight for a holiday hug.

4. Start The Story

On the next day, we write the first draft, ignoring syllables, rhymes and line length. Notice that my couplet changed as I fit it into the rest of the poem.

  • What a rough ride in the back of this car!
  • Jostled around and bounced in the dark.
  • When will we stop? Will we ever arrive?
  • We’ve finally stopped and the trunk opens up.
  • Yuck I’ve been jammed under some bush.
  • It’s leaking a sticky liquid onto me.
  • More boxes arrive, and I’m jammed in the back.
  • All the toys chatter, but what’s this about?
  • Many people are here in the house tonight.
  • Talk of opening gifts, and what do you want?
  • A child will be pulling me out in the morning?
  • Is tomorrow the day, when everything changes?
  • Morning is here! Is it my turn? I’m up in the air.
  • My wrapping is off and I hear a gasp of joy!

What’s important here is just the story and the most basic of structure: our quatrains and couplet.

5. Adjust For Rhyme

The next day, go through and work on the rhymes only, remembering that the final syllable should be stressed.

  • What a rough ride in the back of this car!
  • Jostled around and bounced in the dark.
  • When will we stop? I wonder how far?
  • The trunk opens up as I realized we parked.
  • Yuck I’ve been jammed under some tree.
  • More boxes arrive, and I wish I were gone.
  • This bush leaks a sticky liquid on me.
  • All the toys chatter, but what’s going on?
  • Many people are here, what do they say?.
  • Talk of opening gifts, stories. So strange.
  • A child will be pulling me out the next day?
  • Is tomorrow the day, when I will have a change?
  • Morning is here! I’ve been grabbed by a boy.
  • My wrapping is off and I hear a gasp of joy!

Rhyming existing lines was much easier than writing them and rhyming them simultaneously.

6. Final Pass

Now it’s time to tackle the real challenge, hitting the syllable and stress marks. I’d give students a couple days to get this right. Here’s my final product:

  • A rough and lengthy ride inside some car.
  • I’m jostled. Scared. Afraid. The trunk is dark.
  • When will this driving stop? It seems so far!
  • What’s this? The sounds have stopped. I think we parked.
  • Oh no! I’m jammed under some awful tree.
  • I’m pushed against the trunk. This all feels wrong.
  • This bush is leaking liquid onto me.
  • The toys all chatter. What is going on?
  • So many people here. What do they say?
  • They talk of opened gifts, and stories strange.
  • A child will pick me? Take my paper off?
  • Tomorrow morning? Everything will change?
  • The morning’s here. I’m picked up by a boy!
  • My wrapping’s gone. My bow is off. Oh joy!

And that’s it! Although getting the syllables and stresses right was difficult, the process was so much easier by tackling little bits at a time.

Scaffold Some Syllables

Often, I found myself getting stuck with eight syllables, or needing some help with an opening, unstressed syllable. Develop a word bank of “iambs” for your students that they can pick and choose from when they’re stuck:

  • Oh no!
  • When will…
  • I’m not

Products

Once students have written their poems, what do you do with them?

  • Do a poetry reading (complete with hot cocoa)
  • Have them develop skits to act out during a reading
  • Compile their poems into a printed book.
  • Create a website filled with their poetry
  • Record their readings using Garageband or Audacity and burn CDs.

You’ve probably got an even better idea. If so, please send it my way: ian@byrdseed.com or @ByrdseedGifted!



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