Freedom through constraint: exploring sonnets with primary children

From out in the corridor, it must have looked as though a strange affliction had rooted itself in Year 5. In each class, children were seen disengaging from each other, focusing on their fingers and counting optimistically to ten. Or sometimes, annoyingly to 11 or 9. Snippets of ideas lilt out from the hubbub: I love my brother though he is so lame … Into his eyes I find that I am gazing … I organised our first date in Lidl

Break time came and the same children who would occasionally interrupt me to remind me that it is playtime now just interrupted me as I sought to dismiss them, telling me they want to skip break to continue working.

Sonnets.

This week we have been learning about sonnets. How are they formed, what is their structure, what are some great examples of the form, what kind of subject matter lends itself well to sonnet form and how could we write some that are meaningful and interesting.

Put a sonnet on it

The initial teaching was framed around a sonnet I wrote specifically for the purpose, with content and vocabulary that was accessible enough not to be a hurdle. This meant we could focus on the structure and form.

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Whilst I amused myself with sonn’t and upon’t, it did serve a purpose in introducing to children the importance of maintaining form. Whilst creative freedom was encouraged in content, there was no discussion about whether a sneaky syllable could be gained or lost here or there. The joy was in seeking freedom and expression within the confines of three quatrains and a couple, 140 syllables arranged into lines of 10 and an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme pattern.

The brilliant Rachel Rooney – author of the CLiPPA-nominated ‘A Kid in My Class’ poetry collection, illustrated by Chris Riddell – suggested that I might find some benefit in introducing the children to one of her sonnets. She was so right. ‘The Crush’ was absolutely perfect, and led us to a theme for our own sonnet-writing: we would be writing sonnets from our own family and/or school experience. The content would be drawn from a pool of experience that each of us has – anecdote.

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‘The Crush’ really captured their attention – and triggered some blushes and darting eye-contact between gossipers – and at this early point, it was made clear that they would be able to write similarly whimsical and personal poetry, should they wish to do so.

But first, to Shakespeare.

We talked of Shakespeare’s collections of sonnets, and about the themes found in them. It was tricky to select a sonnet which was challenging enough without being too challenging. Without undermining their emotional life, the 9 and 10 year old are yet to feel the aches of a yanked romantic heartstring and so the affective power of the poems was often as obtuse as the vocabulary.

Not all of them, though.

I shared this video of Ane Brun’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, from the BBC Shakespeare Lives site, and it was one of my ideal sonnets to cover, though I did lose the children to giggles at the be-titted statues so ended up focusing my energies elsewhere.

So in the end we studied Sonnet 27 – Weary with toil I haste me to my bed. This was only partially because it was the last week of half term.

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Crafting our own sonnets

Conscious of the challenge of writing within constrained form, we needed to have subject matter that was accessible and rich enough that children wouldn’t be stumped by the process of generating ideas. We had recently been talking about Reflecting Realities research, and about how few of our lives are found in the pages of published fiction and poetry. On the morning of the first day of our Sonnets bonanza, we had a big discussion about names, after it transpired a pupil had been having her name mispronounced for seemingly forever – ‘you have a right to be known by your actual name’ was the message. As such, we tried to bring some of these discussions into our sonnets, and ensure that they felt as though their lives had a rightful place within our creative space.

Themes were, quite simply, single ideas that stemmed from our school or family life. Perhaps a starting point was ‘things that our family do that are strange’ or ‘secret feelings or ideas we have in school’ or ‘a phrase a family member often says’. The sonnet we would write would be the petals and the leaves, and our lived experiences would be the stem and the roots.

The structure we followed was a simple one, and one that I would use again.

a) Identify a range of possible themes. Share with a friend what you would want to say for each one, and then choose your best.

b) Come up with a list of 8 to 10 ‘key words’ around that theme.

c) Create a non-specific rhyming list of any words that rhyme with the key words.

d) Underline those rhyming words which either relate, or could creatively be made to relate, to the key words.

e) Create 10-syllable lines in an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme pattern, which use the rhyming words and key words at the end.

The children produced some wonderful whimsical sonnets. Some stand out. One boy wrote a love poem to a boy in the class who he refers to as ‘his cute little elf’ – he likes to gaze into his sea blue eyes and is charmed by his smile. It is gorgeous. It is very romantic. It is revealed in the final line that he is staring into a mirror and his crush is on himself. Joyous, and I credit Rachel Rooney for setting him off down that route with her own poem.

One child wrote about his feelings as he undertakes his first fast for Ramadan, and how it feels different now he is doing as the adults do; it is a rite of passage poem. One child wrote an amusing litany against the horrors of the Jubilee Line. Another child wrote about how much they love football. This is -as all teachers know – the worst subgenre of poem, usually. Except in this case, the child was in literal love with the literal ball, and his poem was about taking it on a date to Lidl. Another wrote with passion, poignancy and real heart about why he prefers pancakes to donuts.

What was learnt from the experience

Watching the children grafting away was quite remarkable. Though some children needed help and relied on discussion with me to get their initial ideas down, in general, most children were content to sit frowning at their desks, getting frustrated with their fingertips.

Children came up with amusing and ingenious ways to make the lines into 10 syllables. Artful techniques mirrored those of Shakespeare – some sly abbreviations and apostrophisation. Some inserted a so or two. Some slotted an And at the beginning of their lines.

As is to be expected – I feel this experience is one that would be familiar to any primary teacher who has taught poetry to pupils –  nonsense seeps in where a desperation for rhyming resides. A few pupils could not shake off the propensity of couplets, and wrote in an AABBCCDDEEFFGG form, which they then had to try to edit, and it ended up scanning weirdly.

Some pupils’ reliance on instantly-retrieved rhymes meant that there was no clear message to their poem – or else that it felt like some experimental dialogue sequence in a David Lynch film. I wear a yellow hat upon my head – I sit and play with cousins in the garden – My favourite food is so so yummy bread – but not in the lovely kindergarten.

We shared, edited and crafted for about as long as we wrote. There was a constant need to reiterate that all lines must relate to the main idea being conveyed.

What worked well with this is that children felt supported by the tight structure, and that it was this sense of ‘controlledness’ that enabled them to express themselves well. Complete freedom from direction could instinctively seem like a positive thing, but it can more often be disempowering and alienating for pupils, who lose a sense of whether what they are doing is working.

I think that if I had tightly prescribed the content of their poems, however, they would have experienced this as a modelling overload. Not only would they have had no say about their rhyme pattern, rhythm, verse structure, length and metre, they would have had no say in the subject matter – it would have been too burdensome a load.

What surprised me was how much they loved it. Partly, I feel that this was the exciting novelty of encountering a new poetic form  that we tracked back to Shakespeare, and for them to be able to write within its rule structure. For the same reason that children, in my experience, go wild for algebra, there is triumph in doing well at something that has a reputation for being difficult or mature.

Beyond that, though, I think what they relished was the opportunity to write from their own experiences and to be able to share them on the page. Some sonnets were very confessional and open about family relationships – we love a parent though they frustrate us sometimes, we don’t like being treated as babies by our aunties, we pine for iftar but don’t want to let our older cousins know we are struggling with the fast. Humour helped to oil the creative wheels, and once again, the introduction of ‘write factually, but feel free to add a bit of fiction or fantasy’ seemed like a simple way to unlock some inhibitions; a child could say something poignant and risky, and if they are pulled up on it by a friend, they have the option of styling it out as fiction.

There was actual joy when they realised that they had achieved the feat of getting 140 syllables worth of idea tamed into a pattern. You’d think they were looking at winning scratch cards rather than their own writing, the way they were whooping when it all fitted together.

What I secretly liked most about it, by the end of the week, is how disgustingly, brilliantly messy the work was, in general. There were scribbling, omissions, underlinings, huge arrows of reorganisation, scrapped and rewritten stanzas and little fragments of ideas etched into the margin for later. These are the scribblings of authenticity.

Whilst they want to publish them when we get back – and we will – the story of their foray into sonnets is told through the frenetic appearance of their drafts and crafts.

When we get back, I’ll ask their permission to share some of their work too, and I know many of them would love an audience for it. 

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