Sonnet Challenge

For Valentine’s Day I challenged one of my workshops to write sonnets.

This was my first time teaching a form in any of my workshops. I’ve done haiku scavenger hunts before, but those were more about the experiential nature of haiku than any of the form’s diction and thematic restrictions.

To start this sonnet lesson I explained that some poems have rules, which piqued the attention of a couple poets in the room right away. We’ve been writing together as a group for almost two years now and in that time I’ve pretty much let them free write, the exceptions being group projects like our holiday cookie tags, so this was something new.

I had Sonnet and the numbers one through fourteen listed downward on the board as a visual for everyone to reference. I decided to start with the basic rule, that a sonnet is a poem with fourteen lines. While rhyme and meter play a big role in the Shakespearean Sonnet (which is the form I was basing this introduction on) it didn’t quite feel right to dive into that. I wanted this to be a challenge for the poets, but not overwhelm them. Furthermore, I wanted them to be engaged and intrigued and bogging them down with all the details of form would have dimmed the excitement.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

on a white dry erase school board the word Sonnet is written at the top with a vertical stack of numbers 1-14 underneath it. All the writing is in blue.

Next I talked about the theme, sonnets are about someone or something you really like. I got a lot of “blehs” from this as the thought of writing a love poem, or “love letter” as one of the poets said, was off putting. I told them though that it didn’t have to be addressed to someone, it could simply be fun and addressed to a video game the loved, a show, a book, anything is sonnet worthy.

Once that was established and no one felt like they had to write a love poem, the poets set to work and it was amazing! They tackled the challenge so well! Even the poet who was so opposed to writing “love letters” started with Sonic, but ended with an amazing ode to family, friends, and school.

One note, I started off just letting them free write, but it became quickly apparent that encouraging the poets to number one to fourteen down the side of their paper (like I had up on the board) provided a good frame of reference. Aside from this addition to their papers and occasional encouragement from the teachers and therapists supporting the group not much scaffolding took place.


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Workshopping the Workshop

Today marked the start of a new project with one of the workshops. Rather than building a collaborative poem off of a few lines from each poet, we're writing, revising, and (eventually) publishing full, individual poems.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Image of a poem written in black marker on a school white board. Photo editing has given everything a slight burnt tint. The poem’s title says “Tornado Brain” by Donnie. Parts of the poem are circled in orange, and brown other lines have writing around them in blue and purple ink.

Before summer break, every poet wrote a full piece on the prompt Tornado Brain, myself included. In introducing the idea of editing and revising I wanted to use my work rather than make any one post feel picked out. This not only takes away the anxiousness of having a poem critiqued, but it gives me the chance to model, as facilitator, the way to accept and process feedback. It also allows the poets to tackle this new subject as a group and use the collaborating, social skills they have in place from the group writing projects.

The idea of finding something to change was initially off putting to some of the poets and, admittedly, I don't know what I would have done in school if a teacher gave me a lesson saying, "okay, what would you change about this poem I wrote?" Two strategies I found that worked: asking the poets to identify what they like and have them circle it and asking them to make additions to the text.

Circling was a good entry way into the text because once they showed me what they liked they were more equipped to talk about what they didn't. Whether that's because it helped them identify their preferences or because it's socially easier to give someone a compliment sandwich, I'm not sure.  In either case, it helped lead to productive conversations and, as you can tell in the picture, even the circled favorite of one poet proved an area of critique for another.

In asking for additions instead of changes, a couple poets were able to interact with the text and give it a personal sense of completion.  Once the additions were made, it was easier to talk about the full text, including their suggested additions. The explanations for why their additions made sense often highlighted elements of the piece they did or didn't like and served as nice opportunities for myself, other facilitators, and peer poets in the room to interject or agree.

Another technique that seemed to work for this lesson was having  every student use their own color marker at the start. While some overlap eventually happened (best laid plans...) this was nice while it lasted! It not only let me see the work of each individual poet, but it made it easy for them to see what each other thought and, in turn, to respond to each other's comment. Next time I'll try and keep the colors a little more carefully coordinated!

After the success of this, I was hoping the poets would be ready to edit their own pieces, but that was definitely a rushed thought. The poets hesitated and rightfully so. Not only is this something new, but it's something a lot scarier than any reading and/or writing exercise we've done. I think workshops are scary! I just know that the end result is a much better, tighter draft and these poets need to see that pay off before they put themselves out there.

I was focused on having this be a summer project, ending with a summer school publication, but I need to step back and enjoy the process. Next session I'm planning to bring my revisions so that they can see how I've accepted their changes and maybe I'll have them go at it again to get some more practice in and, hopefully, see that it can be a good thing to have other poets read and interact with your work.

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