Emmett Till: A Classroom Sonnet

A poetry lesson weaves together the past, present and future of Emmett Till's tragic story.
Grade Level

  • Students will empathize with the story of Emmett Till and memorialize him
  • Students will learn the elements of a sonnet by writing one
  • Students will practice summarizing through the writing of the sonnet
  • Teachers might do a model of their own sonnet as a "think aloud" to make the lesson concrete for students
  • Students will need poster paper and markers for small group work
  • You will need copies of the following story on Emmett Till for each small group: For a full text of Emmett Till's story, visit the online Civil Rights Memorial.

Step One

After introducing the story of Emmett Till, students will break into small groups and be given one of the three Emmett Till stories (past, present or future). In small groups, students will read their particular story.


Step Two

Explain the elements of a sonnet. Marilyn Nelson describes the sonnet this way in her book memorializing Emmett Till:

  • A sonnet is a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter.
  • Iambic pentameter is a common meter in poetry consisting of an unrhymed line with five accents, each foot containing an unaccented syllable and an accented syllable. Example: "Emmett Till's name still catches in the throat." (You also can let students know that iambic pentameter is the most common meter used in Shakespeare's work.)
  • A crown of sonnets is a sequence of sonnets that are interlinked. The last line of one becomes the first line of the next.


Step Three

After reading in their small groups, students will use poster paper to retell their reading in the form of a sonnet. Each line must be written in iambic pentameter. Each sonnet must contain 14 lines.

To create a crown of sonnets, the last line of the first sonnet must be the same as the first line of the second sonnet; and the last line of the second sonnet must be the same as the first line of the third sonnet.

This means the groups will have to come together during the process to determine these shared lines. Or you may simply create logical sonnet lines, in iambic pentameter form, and hand them out as part of the lesson.

These might be:

  • Last line of first sonnet, first line of second sonnet:

    And the river rolls on, justice undone

  • Last line of second sonnet, first line of third sonnet:

    The memory remains. What happens next?

Note that it helps make writing a sonnet easier for students if you teach beginning, middle and end. Have them draw words or phrases from the beginning, middle and end of their stories to create the entire sonnet.


Step Four

Students read the crown of sonnets aloud to the whole class. Students can read as a group or select one student to read their sonnet.

This lesson was inspired by Marilyn Nelson's book, A Wreath For Emmett Till. Look for the book in your local or school's library or online.