This semester, I'm trying something a little different in my Shakespeare class. I generally start the semester one of two ways. Either I use a few sonnets to get students working with Shakespeare and verse right away, or I have students do a short acting project a former roommate of mine gave me. Both usually work pretty well.
The problem is that when I teach sonnets in the beginning, students don't seem to get so much out of them. There's a huge advantage to being able to read 14 lines of poetry on the first day and at least get them feeling the verse in their mouths, hearing the words, thinking about the imagery. I have them all read the words aloud, and then I start asking them how their mouth feels, and what they hear. At this point, I don't worry about whether they know what alliteration is, or why it matters if a line starts with a spondee or a trochee. What I want is for them to really think about how their mouth works when they say the words, and how that feels, or, as I like to say, tastes. (For me, good poetry is tasty and chewy; it affects my mouth.) If you can get them a little relaxed about it, and start noticing things with them, they do really well at noticing a lot of the things I want them to notice. A lot of it is repetition: rhyme, alliteration, word usage, and so forth.
Then I move to imagery, and often try to get them to draw out the imagery. (This is GREAT for thinking about imagery. And drawing helps people remember imagery.) Shakespeare's sonnets are pretty darned good. It's easy to spend an hour on one in a class. Do that for a couple days, and, when I'm lucky, my class starts to get a stronger sense of how to read and experience verse. But then we move on to plays, and students seem to forget the sonnets pretty much.
So, this semester I decided to come back to talk about a couple sonnets midway through the semester, and today was that day. They had their EEBO assignment (discussed in http://bardiac.blogspot.com/2005/10/head-meet-wall.html) and we started there, talking about the differences they saw between the early modern versions and their modern texts. Happily, two students had used versions from The Passionate Pilgrim, so we had tons to talk about as far as sonnet titles, collections, and so forth, in addition to typographical conventions and issues (long s, u/v, i/j, spelling, capitalization).
Then we read one of the sonnets aloud, and I asked them pretty much what I'd asked the first day we'd read a sonnet aloud, "what do you notice?" And WOW, did they have LOTS to talk about. I was especially impressed when one of the students noticed how hard it was to say a couple of the words in a line, and how much he really paid attention to those words because of that. I think maybe they've learned something this semester!
At any rate, it was a real treat to work on a sonnet now that they're a bit more experienced at working through and thinking aloud about verse. I'm definitely going to find a way to get a day or two on sonnets into the middle of every semester.