Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why We Memorize Poetry

About six months ago (maybe longer), a friend asked me why the children and I memorize poetry and I'm ashamed to admit I did not have a good answer. I've been considering the question ever since. I searched a bit online to find that very few people articulate exactly why children should memorize poetry. One otherwise wonderful book on how to teach a love of poetry neglected memorization entirely. Yet it seems right to me that we not just read poetry, but that we memorize poetry.

I am not expert on poetry memorization or Charlotte Mason's philosophy and methods, but here are the reasons we memorize poetry here on the Range.

It is impressive. One day, my children will be adults (God willing) and may naturally respond with a bit of poetry at just the right moment to impress someone. Or they might make me look like an awesome teacher as they proudly recite for a grandmother or aunt. This is not a good reason to ask your children to memorize poetry. It will happen anyway.

It is fun. Ask any child who has learned Daddy Fell Into the Pond by Alfred Noyes and you will understand. My children love to recite this poem (especially for their father) and continue to do so even when giggling so hard they can barely speak. If he ever does fall into a pond, I only hope they hesitate long enough to pull him out before reciting it. (I found this poem in Favorite Poems Old and New: Selected For Boys and Girls, a wonderful treasure I have requested many times from the library.)

It helps develop better memorization and observational skills. According to Laura M. Berquist in The Harp and Laurel Wreath:
Little children are good at memorization; they pick up jumping-rope rhymes and doggerel verses without effort. Encourage this inclination and ability by having the children memorize fine poetry, among other things. This will strengthen the imagination and memory, as well as prepare the children for the subsequent stages of intellectual development. Since poetry draws attention to specific aspects of experience, regular exposure to poetry will reinforce children's observational powers.
I don't follow Ms. Berquist's instructions in teaching my children poetry or leading them in the memorization of poems, but I think it makes sense that the continual attempt to memorize what we hear must improve our ability to do so (or at the very least, decrease the progression of our inability to do so). I have seen in my own children their tendency to notice things after we have read a poem about them. A book of autumn poetry strategically read calls their attention to the change of seasons outside their own window. (If I were a true Romantic, we'd read such poetry outside, but the wind here on the Range makes outside lessons impractical on a regular basis.)

It is instructive. I haven't read Charlotte Mason's fourth book (Ourselves), but I found these quotes at Ambleside Online, where you can read the full text of her books:
History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons.
and
So nice a critic as Matthew Arnold tells us that poetry is a criticism of life; so it is, both a criticism and an inspiration; and most of us carry in our minds tags of verse which shape our conduct more than we know.
We build a repertoire of rhythm, rhyme, and vocabulary, much of which is otherwise absent from our everyday conversations. With well-chosen lines of poetry nestled in their hearts and heads, children are more likely to remember what words mean. They are able to recognize similar phrases and rhythms when reading unfamiliar poems or other works of literature. Later, when we are ready to study such things as meter and poetic forms, they will have "a working knowledge of poetry." (Maryellen St. Cyr in When Children Love to Learn) I have no evidence for this; but I believe it is true.

A memorized poem becomes an old friend. Many of the poems we have memorized are common, found in various anthologies. When we come across one we know in a book of poetry, the children are delighted. Their faces light up and they will often happily start singing or saying the poem along with me. First Son will also sometimes recognize a poet's name and immediately lines from a memorized poem will spring to mind. Brandy wrote along similar lines on her blog:
After our first term of poetry memorization, I learned to like poetry. Now, after doing this for a couple years, I would almost say that I love it! The only thing I changed was adding memorization. In addition to this, my children initially seemed neutral, but now they claim they "love" poetry. It is hard to love poetry if you haven't learned to love individual poems and poets, and that is the possibility which memorization holds out to us.
The children come to possess something, in a very real way, when it is memorized. This struck me while perusing Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's The Value of Charlotte Mason's Work for Today in When Children Love to Learn. She says:
Memorizing is another way children can possess knowledge and beauty. They respond to the cadences, the words, the thoughts.
Once it has been memorized, the beauty and truth and greatness of a poem belongs to the child. As they consider it over time, it becomes a part of them and one lens they can use to view the world.

Children learn to recite. Reciting poems gives children the opportunity to speak aloud without having to think of what to say. Practicing a poem allows them to learn how to enunciate and embellish and it allows children to incorporate theatrical play. In her first volume, Home Education, Charlotte Mason says:
All children have it in them to recite; it is an imprisoned gift waiting to be delivered, like Ariel from the pine. In this most thoughtful and methodical volume we are possessed of the fit incantations. Use them duly, and out of the woodenness of even the most commonplace child steps forth the child-artist, a delicate sprite, who shall make you laugh and make you weep.
We empower children. Reciting poetry does not require electricity or outside entertainment. It can be calming or comforting in times of stress. With a heart full of much-loved poetry memorized, children can entertain themselves while waiting at a doctor's office, while on a road trip, or while waiting for a turn at the drinking fountain. They can include it in their imaginative play. (Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry is wonderful for imaginative play.) When I was in middle school, I was thrown from a horse and injured my back. I remember being terribly frightened. Singing poetry helped calm me and passed the time while we waited for x-ray results and emergency rooms and doctors to assess the situation. (I wish I'd known more poetry to help pass the six days I spent in a hospital bed awaiting a brace.)

Finally, poetry within our hearts and minds can give us the power to understand and express our feelings when we otherwise might not. When I was in high school, we read John Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and I was forever indebted to Keats. His words, written about a book, so perfectly described the way I had felt so often, I could hardly believe no one had given it to me before (which shows how little others understood me or how few people know Keats as they should, or perhaps both). With this in mind, I often try to choose poetry that I think will speak to my child about his or her own experiences. (I also ask my children to choose their own poetry, if they like.)
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I've read this poem to my children already, though they are still too young to understand it. One day, they will, and they will know their mother better for it.

How We Memorize Poetry

Our poetry Memory Work is very easy. I read the poem aloud and the child listens. Once each day. Every day. After a while, the child starts to speak up and with seemingly little effort (though sometimes a great number of days) will recite the entire piece. We read the new poem of the day, recite one of the two most recently memorized and also recite one from longer ago. Three poems a day. That's it.

As a side note, First Daughter (who is in kindergarten this year), memorized about six poems in the first three weeks of school then promptly decided she was not interested in Memory Work. I let her make that choice. When she asks or when we start first grade, she will begin again.
But, let me again say, every effort of the kind, however unconscious, means wear and tear of brain substance. Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. At the same time, when there is so much noble poetry within a child's compass, the pity of it, that he should be allowed to learn twaddle!  [Home Education by Charlotte Mason]
A Note on Our Poetry Lessons

Our Poetry study is separate from our poetry Memory Work. Once a week, I read from a book of poems. My children love this time. When they see the poetry book in our lesson pile, they cheer. This year, we've been reading from The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry. Some of our other favorite books of poetry can be found here and here. Many picture books are also wonderful books of poetry. I recently found Water Sings Blue which is delightful!

We also read poetry as part of our history studies. For example, this year we read the wonderful Walt Whitman: Words for America in our American history studies. It included excerpts of Whitman's poems within the text and more extended or complete versions at the end. I also read from Hand in Hand: An American History Through Poetry.

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