Saturday, January 21, 2017

Teaching Sonnets in Sixth Grade

Last week I wasn't sure about teaching sonnets with sixth graders, but now I can tell you: sonnets are awesome!

Okay, our discussion of "Ozymandias" was highly influenced by this video:

I don't know if I've every seen such a brilliant combination of text and image. I used it to introduce the lesson, and students were hooked. (Note: Kids didn't know where the original recording was from, and I wasn't about to tell them.)

Shelley's sonnet doesn't quite follow all of the typical conventions of a sonnet, so I supplemented with "Still will I harvest beauty where it grows" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. After a review of rhyme scheme, we analyzed this poem. I talked it up to kids as an amazing game that poets are playing. Can they find a way to express an idea within these incredible constraints?

After they were amazed by the rhyme scheme, I asked students to count the syllables on the lines. "Pick a random line and count," I said. Students started clapping and reciting the poem to themselves. Around the room they started calling out: "Ten!" "10!" "Ten!"

All of this structural analysis actually happened before we looked at meaning.

And this is a shift from my usual style. I like to go for meaning, meaning, meaning before we look at structure. In a sonnet, though, the meaning is hidden in the structure. Understanding and appreciating the structure first gives students that charge to dig deeply for meaning.

When it came time to look for meaning, some students were able to quickly find the theme of "Still will I harvest...", especially because it's stated in the first line. With the help of a stuffed moose as poetry translator, I guided students through the images in the poem. Then we connected the theme of the poem to the images within it.

"The ideas go across the lines," one student commented. "One of the things being described starts on one line, and ends on another. Is that because it's a sonnet?"

What a great question to consider! Students were able to take what we had learned with "Still will I harvest beauty..." and go back to "Ozymandias." With the help of the visuals from the animation, they could paraphrase the theme.

So wow. Later on in the day I overheard two boys talking to each other while they were supposed to be doing quiet writing; I found out they were trying to recite "Ozymandias" to each other. I felt like I won teaching.

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