Villanelle is a poetic form that came to England from France at the end of the 18th century. It has a reputation for being difficult and confusing, but when mastered can be very expressive and shows a great deal of structural skill. This type of poem will encourage your class to expand their rhyming vocabulary, and think about key lines in their poems. The refrain is one of the most important parts of a villanelle, and must not be weak; therefore your class will need to come up with something good enough to repeat throughout.
The basic form of a villanelle is five stanzas of three lines each - triplets - and one of four, a quatrain, at the end. Altogether, nineteen lines, and the rhyme pattern is also very clearly defined.
The scheme itself is 'aba aba aba aba aba abaa', which is not too complicated. However, in a true villanelle certain lines are repeated. The first and third lines of the first verse become refrains. The first line is repeated at the end of the second verse and the end of the fourth verse. The third line is repeated at the end of the third verse, and the end of the fifth verse. The poem ends with a rhyming couplet of the first and third line. This is easier understood when shown visually, like in the example.
As in my example, the line repeated can be altered very slightly to keep the intended semantic meaning - the emphasis should be on making these lines tie into the poem and appear natural and continuous, rather than forced by the form. As another example, you could show the class 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' by Dylan Thomas. Ask the class to read the poem, underlining the refrains and rhymes, so they can begin to see how it has been tailored to the form.
A useful exercise is to have them pick out any constructions; i.e., ways that the refrains have been weaved into the poem, that they think are particularly effective. Chair a short discussion on the poem and its interpretation of the form; does the fact it is a villanelle enhance the poem, or does anyone think it is restrictive to the emotion? Next, give your class a theme (or if necessary, suggest a title as the first refrain), as villanelles are often hard to think of without an original idea. Explain that there is no specific meter or line length they have to keep to - the most important things to concentrate on are the rhymes and refrains. Some ideas you could use are:
As winter blossomed into spring ...
A tall, dark and handsome man ...
Villanelles are hard to write ...
Or of course, some of your own invention. If you want to try something a little different, cut some headlines out of a newspaper and distribute them at random around the class. They can either research the story it relates to at home, or create one around it from their own imagination; but the headline must be the first line of the poem, and what they write must relate to it. This will force them to direct their expression around a set theme, making the exercise perhaps a little more difficult; but more rewarding when they develop their own skills.
If the class find it hard to write serious villanelles at this stage - thinking in such a way on your feet can often be hard - remind them that repetition is often a key element of comedy. In groups, they can produce a kind of 'running joke' villanelle, and illustrate it for a poster.
However you or your class wish to use the form, it can be a great asset in developing a respect for and knowledge of poetic 'rules' within the class - and an excellent springboard for learning how you can improve upon, and break them!