The climax came on Thursday with the Unsung Heroes celebration in our school library. A packed room, our heroes all there, each of them introduced by the students, who were keyed up and jittery, naturally nervous to speak in public. Sheet cakes, flowers, and picture boards decorated the room. Reporters stood at attention and interviewed the students after the program; cameras followed their every move. An audience of parents and grandparents, friends, school administrators, and at least 50 other students (most of whom had completed the Unsung Hero project themselves, last year and the year before) congratulated them. Lots of attention. Lots of emotion.
It would be natural for Friday to be falling action, for the students to feel the let-down that comes when something they’ve worked on for so long has come to an end. For me, too, Friday was likely to be falling action. But I have learned that the best way to handle emotional turbulence is to hold steady—in this case, to stay focused on a goal.
Of course we debriefed for a few minutes when the 9th graders came to class, but it wasn’t long before their comments became repetitive. I brought them back to Romeo and Juliet, which we had been reading before we took time out to plan for the party. Specifically, we came back to the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My purpose statement—the learning objective—was on the whiteboard: Identify these terms (rhyme scheme, quatrain, heroic couplet, turn, meter, scan, iambic pentameter) and explain the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet.
The students turned their attention from chatter to task.
So let’s review first, I said. What’s a sonnet?
The predictable, imprecise answer: A 14-line poem about love.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
I gave pairs of students 14 strips of paper—Sonnet 18, cut apart and jumbled up. Their task was to reconstruct the sonnet according to the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Of course, they already knew what quatrains and couplets are, and by discovering the sonnets embedded in Romeo and Juliet, they’d already learned Shakespeare’s typical rhyme scheme. So finding the rhymes was easy. But then they were stuck. The three quatrains were out of order. At that point, I intervened.
There’s an internal structure, too, I said, a specific logic to the sonnet. A sonnet doesn’t sprawl, loose to the page. It’s very precisely organized. Shakespeare’s sonnets work like this: Condition stated (the first quatrain); Condition Expanded (the second); Reversal, signaled by the Turn (the third); Summation. Find the turn, I directed—the word that signals a shift in thought. Ah: But. Now paraphrase the lines, summarize the quatrains. Then you’ll be able to put them in order.
You are more beautiful—and your loveliness more permanent—than a summer day, and summer itself does not last long.
As the beauty of a summer day can be diminished by heat or clouds, so the beauty in everything eventually fades.
But, not you. Your beauty will not be lost nor will you die because my poetry will capture you for eternity.
As long as life persists and people read this poem, you will be immortal.
You’ve got it! But that’s not all. There are 14 lines—now count the syllables in each line. Ten. Yes, ten in every line–arranged in iambic pentameter.
The ENO board—the interactive whiteboard—made it easy to mark the syllables, to show them what meter is, what scansion means: unaccented, accented; unaccented accented: 5 times per line. Now read it aloud, exaggerating the accented syllables. (I modeled—imagine that!—and they joined in.)
Yes! Same rhythm, but now read it the way that Shakespeare would. Draw out some syllables, elevate the pitch on others, emphasize some words, minimize others: Sheer poetry.
So what’s a Shakespearean sonnet? A 14-line poem about love, written in iambic pentameter with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, composed of three quatrains and a couplet, arranged to reveal a progression of thought in which the poet states a condition, expands upon it, turns (or reverses) the thought in line 9, and sums up the idea in a concluding heroic couplet.
And then, as if on cue, the bell rang.
We’ll have falling action all next week, too, as we do what normally happens in the denouement. We’ll tie up loose ends and review for final exams. Students will wangle for points, and some will panic, a bit too late to do much good. But this was the last instructional day, my last day to introduce new material and structure a lesson to learn it. That the topic today was the sonnet is an irony that hasn’t escaped me—for teaching has been what I have loved to do since I was a child playing school. I, as much as the kids, could have been overwhelmed by emotion today, but holding steady, keeping myself focused on the objective—keeping the kids focused on a purpose—produced in the end what I wanted—what I needed—for an ending: a lesson that was a love poem all by itself.