Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 2 – How I learnt to stop worrying, and love the poem

If you’ve read Joe Kirby’s blog, you’ll have been impressed by just how many literary quotes and anecdotes he is able to leverage in making his case.  In person, Joe has a similarly remarkable ability to reference quotes from literature or poetry that apply to whatever we are discussing – he is not ‘just Googling it.’  What always resonates with me is how over the centuries men and women have been tackling many of the same issues we still do today; there is a vast repository of human intellectual knowledge and inquiry already available to us.  For many of those who wrote before, their words have stood the test of time because they have been considered to hold enduring value.   How is it then that Joe is so easily able to reference the wise words of those who went before?  Joe was privately educated, and at his school there was an expectation to memorise certain poems and literary passages; not only ‘study’, or ‘understand’ them – to vaguely recall something about the sense of the poem and possibly reference it again at some point if time allowed and will prevailed – but to memorise them as well.  It’s resulted in an enviable command of both the English language and our literary heritage.

  old-books

The wise words of those who went before

 In the previous post I talked about the barriers I’ve personally faced in appreciating poetry, and I expect that those barriers will be familiar both to other adults, and to children in school.  I had grown to appreciate music and art so much more having studied their history; I have a series of similar lectures on poetry, and hoped to finally achieve the same kind of success in what had for me become ‘the final frontier.’  For now, those lectures remain unvisited.

Three months ago a friend showed me an app for iOS published by Penguin, ‘Poems by Heart’.  It uses chunking plus a few other tricks to help us memorise poems.  My friend seemed to be having some success, so I gave it a go.  The first two poems are William Blake’s Eternity and Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee.  Blake’s is very short, yet still troublesome to memorise first time round.  Shakespeare’s was significantly harder, taking at least a couple of hours, and it may well have been longer still.  Going through the process, I found a number of interesting things start to happen.  First, the process of memorisation forced me to slow down!  One of my problems is that I want to read and immediately understand something.  When I don’t, I skim it once or twice again, maybe pick out some vague meaning, call it a success or brusquely declare that it’s all meaningless anyway, and move on.  Now, my goal had shifted.  My goal wasn’t to ‘understand’ Shakespeare’s poem, because really, how on Earth would I measure that?  How on Earth would I know when I had ‘understood’ the poem, and was good to move on?  I couldn’t, no-one could, ‘understanding’ is shifting and ethereal; not something easily measured.  Memorising on the other hand is eminently measurable.  My goal was clear, and I was determined to succeed in it, so I took the time.

goal-setting

A clear goal makes progress transparent, and perseverance possible

 Next, the app is designed so that on the first few goes around it missed only a few choice words, and it gives you options to fill the blanks, often including words that are similar in meaning.  In Shelley’s Ozymandias for example, to fill in the following blanks:

 I ___ a traveller from an ____ land

 Options might include

 Ancient                 Met                        Antique                                Threw                   Old                         Saw

 Although ‘ancient land,’ ‘antique land,’ and ‘old land’ might all fit in terms of meaning, obviously only one is correct.  This leads to some interesting thoughts, which start along the lines of ‘Ah, exactly which one was it again…’ and then on to ‘Ah yes, antique land.  Wait, why antique?  Why didn’t he just say ‘ancient,’ that still would have fit the meter…’  Well precisely, why did Shelley choose that particular word, when so many others would do!  I don’t know, but suddenly the thought occurs to me for the first time, and it’s fun speculating.  So what’s happening now?  Well I’m naturally spending all the more time thinking about the poem, and this not only leads to a stronger memory of it, but it’s going to dovetail nicely into greater understanding.

poems-by-heart-emblem

Thank you Penguin Classics

Next up, I found I began to deliberately search for meaning in the lines.  The process of memorising by rote was a reasonable start, but there were lines I would always struggle with.  They tended to be the lines whose meaning I least understood, so I would now make a point to spend yet more time pondering the meaning of each line.  One example I already gave in the previous post:

And every fair from fair sometime declines

I had no idea what Shakespeare was talking about.  Once I finally puzzled it out it was easier to recall.  A similar example of this would be Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘untrimmed’ in this line that follows:

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed

No idea what he meant.  Eventually it occurred to me that he meant ‘assuming nature’s changing course is untrimmed,’ as in ‘not cut short.’  So now, ‘what does he mean by nature’s changing course?’ and I finally make the connection between the two lines, which essentially read:

And everything that is beautiful will eventually fade from beauty, either due to some unfortunate freak accident, or simply by natural decline, assuming you don’t die first.

Not so poetic, but now I understood the meaning of those two lines, I could better remember them both, and would now recite them together.  Hang on… I started just trying to memorise a poem, but now suddenly I find myself worrying about its meaning…  This was important: through beginning with the simple aim to memorise a poem, I found that I wanted to understand its meaning; perhaps even needed to.  Who wants to have a head filled with meaningless words?  I started with a clear goal to memorise, and that in turn led to a natural desire to understand.  As that desire grew, I found I’d spend days recalling an already memorised poem, thinking about it some more, and divining further and further meaning from it.  I would discuss it with friends who had studied the poems in great detail, and from them I would learn more still.  As I continued through everyday life something would happen that reminded me of a poem, and I drew yet another connection, yet more meaning.  Had I started with the objective ‘to understand Shakespeare’s poem’ I would never have known when I had ‘understood’ it, and if I thought I had, I guess I may have stopped, happy that I had succeeded, and then never bothered to think about it again.  On the other hand, by starting with memorisation, a flame of intellectual curiosity had been ignited, and burned brighter as it was fanned by each new insight.  I would never stop trying to understand the poem, because clearly that process will never end – it feels to me now that it isn’t so much a binary relationship of ‘not understanding vs. understanding’ as it is a spectrum from ‘lesser understanding to greater understanding.’  This might be an obvious statement to more experienced practitioners, but as an aside, I wonder what the implications of this are for both teaching and assessment; should we ever have ‘understanding’ as a primary aim, when it is so slippery?  Should we ever aim for assessment of understanding?  But then of course ‘understanding’ is a desirable trait… so I’m not sure really where that leaves us for now, what the right step is.  Should ‘understanding’ be an implied objective, with understanding to be improved over weeks and months as layer upon layer of related knowledge and meaning are constructed, but never a lesson objective per se?

Slippery Surface.svg.hi

Understanding is a slippery concept

…or possibly ‘Stop!  Hammer time.’

To this moment, I’ve memorised the following:

  • William Blake – Eternity
  • Shakespeare – Shall I Compare Thee
  • Shakespeare – My Mistress’ Eyes
  • Percy Shelley – Ozymandias
  • Horace Smith – Ozymandias (comparing these two is fascinating!)
  • Emily Dickinson – My Letter to the World
  • Rudyard Kipling – If
  • Shakespeare – Prologue to Romeo and Juliet
  • Edgar Allen Poe – The Raven
  • William Yeats – The Second Coming

Has it had any benefit?  Lots!

First, it gets easier.  While it took several hours to memorise the first few poems, more recent poems of similar size have taken as little as twenty minutes.  I seem to be finding it easier because I’m growing more accustomed and familiar with the structures and language.  The more I learn, the less thinking I have to do in terms of deciphering the meaning of the poems, and this is all after memorising what remains a relatively short list of poems.  This means I can learn even more, in less time: the so-called Matthew Effect.

matthew25_29

Second, like Joe I’ve already found opportunity to reference these few poets on numerous occasions.  Sometimes it’s been in writing, and it would explain the occasional poetic references in my blog.  Other times they’ve proven relevant to whatever was happening in life; a friend was once frustrated that something she’d written in a blog was being misrepresented in the comments.  My response was ‘if you can bear to hear the words you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools…’  My intention wasn’t to be flippant, nor to be cocky; we were both in the process of memorising that particular poem at the time, and I knew she would recognise the reference, and through Kipling’s long enduring message that we stand stalwart when met with adversity, I was able to say so much more in those few words than I could have done otherwise.  It had the bonus effect of meaning we turned the conversation towards something more pleasant, rather than wallowing in frustration.

Yesterday a few people in the office, where I’m working over the summer, remarked at the size and intimidatingly confident nature of a particularly large seagull that landed on a ledge right outside our windows.  As it strutted along the ledge, deliberate, alert, beak held high, I was reminded of Poe’s raven, and thought of the bird as having ‘mien of Lord or Lady.’

Following all this, it feels as though these poems are not merely ‘things I once read;’ they’re the enduring words of those who went before us, struggling with many of the same challenges we face, and I carry them now within me.  I own them, they are a part of me, and I can exercise the choice to use them as I see fit.

Third, I’ve found it improves my writing, at least in the sense that it gives me access to a wider repertoire from which to draw inspiration.  In the previous post I wrote:

It’s not just the dead white men with their antique language…

My usual mode would have been to write ‘archaic’ or possibly ‘antiquated.’  I was able to choose ‘antique’ on this occasion only because I have Shelley’s poem in mind; I would never have thought to use the word in this way otherwise.  Now, we can argue over which word works best, but what is undeniable is that the memorisation has empowered me with a greater range of vocabulary and stylistic choice that I had before.

Traveller_From_an_Antique_Land_by_camilyarde

A traveller from an antique land

Finally, I went to my first professional poetry reading a few weeks back, by Felix Dennis.  The one thing I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dennis is a brilliant performer, and in their performance I enjoyed his poems.  This is entirely novel for me; I have never before taken much of anything from people reading poetry.  There’s something to be said now for the nature of the poems.  In hearing them only once, and having spent no time thinking about them, I couldn’t possibly speak to the complexity of his poetry, or how it compares to the ‘Dead Greats’ I mentioned previously.  Were his poems easier to understand, like Mali’s spoken-word?  Did I simply enjoy it more because it was a professional, live, performance?  Was there less information density in his poetry?  I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, but either way, I was able to enjoy it, and went in there ready to enjoy it.  For me, this is a very new experience.

These are just the few pragmatic benefits I can think of off the top of my head; improved capacity for further memorisation, carrying the messages within us, and improved literacy.  This is all before we even start thinking about the simple joy and pleasure to be had in recalling these poems, or the technical challenge of comparing form, structure, rhyme, rhythm and so forth, or the showmanship of performance poetry.

Conclusion:  To me, it seems there is something very, very special about actually memorising a poem.  Although my ability to read over and appreciate a new poem may have been enhanced, it still doesn’t compare to what I take from that poem after memorising it.  Memorisation is a clear and distinct goal, one which is naturally aided by seeking out the meaning of the poem.  This isn’t a dry and dolorous assemblage of rote knowledge; it is a rich and active process of building and connecting memories to form meaning.

Next time – but should we force kids to memorise poems?

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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40 Responses to Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 2 – How I learnt to stop worrying, and love the poem

  1. Jill Berry says:

    Great stuff, Kris – really enjoyed both parts of this and look forward to the next.

  2. Thanks for a detailed and thoughtful reflection of your adventure! I particularly resonate with your comment:
    “. . . I’m naturally spending all the more time thinking about the poem, and this not only leads to a stronger memory of it, but it’s going to dovetail nicely into greater understanding.”

    This is exactly why I have encouraged my students to memorise sections of a poem or play, for example: once you are not dependent on a book, your mind can be constantly turning over bits of the text and developing a deeper understanding. Your comment about memorising getting easier with use also rings true with me. Knowing we can remember things increases our confidence. I think the independence that carrying memories around in our heads gives us is a precious – but perhaps increasingly rare – commodity. And as you say, that process can then become lifelong. When I have memorised something, it becomes part of me. And over time it will change me, just as you point out it has changed the way you are using language. Memory gives us access to the legacy of our forbears. It maintains our culture.

    One other thought, if I may be so bold! I’d like to suggest another interpretation, re “nature’s changing course untrimmed.” It sounds like a nautical metaphor: our life is like a ship that is gradually blown off course, the sails “untrimmed”, i.e. not adjusted for the changes in the wind. A poignant picture of the fragility of life.

    Many thanks for this entertaining and illuminating post!

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Couldn’t agree more!

      By all means – looking at multiple possible interpretations is half the fun I’d say! The nautical suggestion isn’t one that resonates with me, but that’s probably because I don’t have any feeling for the meaning of ‘untrimmed’ referring tothe adjusting of sails.

      In terms of interpreting, I found a similar thing started to happen with music, once I was taught the structure and some of the context of the composer. When listening to the first movement of Beetoven’s fifth, I now have a very clear and distinct narrative running through my head involving a gorilla, a net, and hunters. It’s a bit like watching a silent film, much more to it now than before when it was just music, without the imagery. It’s not an image I would necessarily expect to pop into everyone else’s head though! For those people who do have a similar mental story playing out alongside the music, I would be fascinated to hear their interpretation!

  3. Interesting post Kris. When I teach tragedy to children I am minded of the T.S. Eliot quote about the ‘fragments we shore against our ruin’ – remembering fragments of poems to steel us in adversity. I think there is great value in memorisation strategies. The approach to memory and literature has been something I have been fascinated by since University and such connections fascinated the likes of Wordsworth too (who understood far deeper than I!). There is learning value in memorisation: it prepares students for exams; it is a strong cognitive drilling that embeds declarative knowledge really deeply. There is some emotional value too, which should not be underestimated.

    I am interested by the Matthew Effect reference. It has made me ponder about where and when such memorisation should occur. It instinctively makes me think about expertise and strategies undertaken by those who already have a great deal of accumulated knowledge of language and literature. I think about my novice students and consider the cognitive load to be too great and that alternative reading strategies would better build their vocabulary and acquisition of declarative and procedural knowledge.

    My instinctive answer would therefore be – no we should not – except in specific circumstances with specific students. Typically those students, like a young Joe Kirby, who were displaying signs of nascent expertise.

    By the way, why are you choosing to work in an office during the summer holidays??

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Alex, working in an office *is* a holiday!

      I wonder here if we’re confusing the role of expertise… Expertise should lead us to transferability, as I understand it; that’s its hallmark. When we’re talking about memorisation, that’s simple knowledge recall, so, I think, *should* be achievable by all – I certainly had some success with a low achieving Y7 group this year, but then not nearly as much as with the high achieving Y8 group! There’s also going to be a bit more on this in part 3.

      Memorisation per se doesn’t necessarily strain working memory – quite the opposite, in the end it’s all about building that long term memory, so as to buttress the limited working memory, no? That said, of course part of the very reason some kids wind up being ‘lower achieving’ is because they have greater difficulty forming memories. I’ve just started reading Work Hard, Be Nice, and read a part where a ‘hero teacher’ talks about using chants and other mnemonics to help her fourth graders memorise verb conjugations and whatnot. Interestingly she uses exactly the same language that I’ve been using all year, referring to the memory devices as ‘crutches,’ to be abandoned when no longer needed.

      I’m not sure i could speak to what strategies are best for weaker pupils in developing literacy, but in maths next year I’ll be teaching at KSA, which has 1:15 lessons, and I hope to make use of that extra time to focus on memory retention. I’m still hashing things out, but two things I hope I could make use of would be the idea of a daily ‘rapid fire challenge’ and a round of ‘call and response.’

      The first would help drill already learnt procedural knowledge, with the aim of building automaticity. It would also serve to constantly revisit previously taught material. 3-4 minutes with lots of simple, straight forward questions of direct application.

      The second would drill factual knowledge. Probably only 1-2 minutes per day. I’m imagining a situation where I would call ‘Angles in a triangle sum to what?’ And the whole class would respond in unison ‘Angles in a triangle sum to 180 degrees.’ There’s some more nuance to it, but that’s the gist. In my first year I wrote out around 70-100 mathematics facts, think, things kids should just know. If you’ve got 2 minutes to cover 20-30 facts per day, there should be loads of revisiting the, and hopefully the facts will stick solid!

      So for me, in maths, I’m starting with the obvious goal of wanting them to memorise factual and procedural knowledge. Later I’m going to have to start thinking about how to have them memorise any ‘whys’ we explore… I other words, memorise explanations, much tougher. I’m still encountering people who think that once you see ‘why’ for the first time, you never forget; if only!

      • I have to admit I am still quite undecided on my view of memorisation, which likely manifests itself in muddy comments!

        I agree with the memory formation issue.

        I think my point about more expert students is that A student would already be working on the word level declarative knowledge; the semantic meaning; generic knowledge etc. in our process of reading when analysing literature and therefore to add in the memorisation strand would strain working memory. For an expert, saving such quotes in the memory bank is useful for them to return to and cogitate over at their will. For my novice students many of the quotes could end up memorised but still be empty of actual understanding if we didn’t take the time to do all the other reading strategies, like close reading etc. With that in mind, memorisation would often simply be pushed out in terms of time and utility.

        I think that chanting and reciting repeatedly is a good drill for grammatical understanding and other logical patterns. It also helps to understand poetic structure, meter and syntax etc. I do think as a literacy develop tool it is very specific in its uses, which was the point I was aiming to make.

        That being said, I am not fixed on my opinion. I will continue to mull this one over. Thank you for the well informed challenge to my thinking. Getting to the heart of how we link learning with memory is a brilliantly complex process. I have many more years of reading and thinking to do before I reckon I will be in any way clear!

  4. @mrnickhart says:

    Agree on the benefits of memorising texts. In my primary school, children learn a text for each unit so that they can retell it by heart. Helps them develop deeper understanding and practise reading comprehension strategies. Also give them a great framework for their own writing. If you’ve not heard of it, look up Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing. Very similar to what you describe.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Sounds interesting. How long is each text?

      Will talk for writing stuff, thanks.

      • @mrnickhart says:

        Depending on age of children, text lengh varies. In year 6, children can internalise a story around 3/4 of a page of A4 in about a week. I agree with your comment on the Matthew effect too. Towards the end if the year, children learne longer, more complex texts quicker.

  5. Carol says:

    Thanks Kris, I enjoyed your post. I’ve just downloaded the penguin app, and have started to memorise Eternity. Will have to see if it’s stuck tomorrow!

    • Kris Boulton says:

      So much fun!

      “He who binds to himself a joy,
      Does the winged life destroy.
      He who kisses the joy as it flies,
      Lives, in eternity’s sunrise.”

      Basically seems to be a poem all about not committing to anything!

      What do you make of it?

      • RedGreen says:

        Mate it’s not about not committing to anything! It’s about not chasing happiness as a goal in itself because then you destroy the happiness you had anyway. Live your life, work hard, be nice. When things are good appreciate them but don’t obsess about it.

        Blake is a boss.

  6. Kris, absolutely with you on the learning and it’s exciting to be able to read along about your journey. The spoken thing is interesting too. We’ve spoken before about this (and your concern that perhaps you like it because it is performance but that it may be less ‘deep’). One of the things that performance does is get you thinking about ‘sound’ which can be quite hard when you are thinking about what words look like and mean, but the sound is pretty integral to lots of poems too. So even if the performance stuff may be less ‘deep’ in one sense it’s definitely got its merits.

    The one thing I did wonder is if this is genuinely a private school/not-private-school thing? Of all my friends who went to private school I reckon only a handful could quote you poetry from memory now, even if they did learn it at school. On the other hand, in the Hackney school where I worked we had regular poetry recital contests and an annual cross-borough poetry ‘slam’ which involved memorising and reciting poems. No doubt some of those students will retain those words well into adult hood. Likewise, at my own (non-private) school we had to memorise a few poems (If, the Listeners & Daffodils being still in my memory). When people love words, study them, and teach them, then that stuff becomes embedded and easily drawn upon.. But others who memorise the poems at school probably won’t touch it again and it will fade. For me then Joe’s ability is not so much about being at a private school, and more about the way that information was developed and used since.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Maybe your friends didn’t care to keep it up – we could argue at least they were given the chance?

      It’s true of course that memories not used fade with time (or more precisely, our access to them does). Joe went on to study English lit at university, has an obvious love for the literature and has developed the habit of using his knowledge where he can. Those things no doubt led to greater retention.

      I expect you would have to really enjoy or love the poems you were memorising to keep coming back to them as the years go by. Part of this will be down to the teacher? Part of it will be down to something else. More on that in Part 4.

  7. Leon Cych says:

    For me the joy of poetry is sometimes about those liminal spaces where you cannot always pin something down precisely and where, often, only life experience will reveal the kernel of the poem over time.

    John Berryman may be a prime example but also Philip Larkin. In their different ways these poets tell truths about life that cannot be memorised. Try reading Dream Songs – that may keep you busy for some time. Yet something like

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15206

    is superb and can chime precisely because in the act of reading you suddenly understand the poem.

    I have read poetry every day for over fifty years and continue to write it on a regular basis but memorisation is not something I find useful in the least. As I’ve stated before I can recall fragments of thousands of the poems that I’ve read and considered in great depth. I still do not feel the need for memorisation.

    I also still find “performance” poetry hard to grasp because I think the “pieces” usually have the half-life of a year or two, if that, and then fade into obscurity. There are very very few practitioners who write Slam poetry that will be remembered in a decade – who can remember the ones from 20 years ago when it all started? There are exceptions, of course, Kwesi Johnson’s, although not Slam, is very much performance poetry at its best but it also works beautifully on the page. Sonny’s Lettah works on both levels because it is a beautifully “made” poem about language and culture. It doesn’t bludgeon you with galumphing metre and easily digested opinions in full rhyme. It plays with the language underscoring and reflecting the times in which it was written but also leaping out of time.

    The next stage is to write a poem. That is where the real insight comes – try writing a sonnet or villanelle without it sounding forced, trite or pretentious. Extremely hard. Poets are makers – I’m sure they are flattered by people remembering their stuff but I’m with Elizabeth Bishop on this one – read “One Art” – you’ll see what I mean.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      It’s always great to hear your expert take on this. Poetry’s seems very much ‘your thing’ Leon. I would agree there’s probably no use in memorising each of the hundreds of poems you’re reading! I’m surprised that in all that time there isn’t a single one that you can recite by heart, but regardless here I’m always mindful of a lesson I first learnt from Daisy Christodoulou:

      “We tend to underestimate our knowledge, and overestimate theirs.”

      In other words, while you may not be able to recite a single poem verbatim, you have undoubtedly memorised and internalised vast array of poetic knowledge over the years upon which you draw every day, consciously or not.

      For those of us just starting out on a journey of poetry, certainly for me, it might be that memorising the few great poems we encounter adds substantial value.

      • l4l1 says:

        I don’t think it is an expert view – as I have pointed out before, it was a cultural expectation in my family; the Feis being a living, breathing reality – great feats of memorisation were common especially at those kinds of arts events in the south of Ireland in the 60’s.

        I don’t really have an issue with memorisation just with my ability to memorise things. I do have some all-time favourites that trickle off the tongue, Tar by C.K.Williams is one. Who knows…

  8. suecowley says:

    Have a look at the story making project Kris. The children (3 yrs upwards) learn long stories and retell them orally to an invited groups of parents. Their memorising is aided by analysing and drawing story structures and also by using movements alongside specific phrases. It doesn’t have to be poetry or private schools or remembering the words of old dead white guys to be of value.
    http://www.ilrc.org.uk/media/archive_reports/Innovation%20Unit%20article%20re%20SM.pdf

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks Sue… interesting. Nick Hart mentioned this one earlier; he spoke well of it.

      I think I’d need to know a lot more about it to offer any comment. There’s something that I wonder about in your statement here:

      “It doesn’t have to be poetry or private schools or remembering the words of old dead white guys to be of value.”

      I just wanted to clarify, are you saying that all texts are of equal value, or did you mean something more nuanced?

      • suecowley says:

        If what you’re after is the ability to remember texts, and retell them orally with meaning to other people, then I don’t see why old poetry ‘trumps’ the fairy stories, folk tales or other stories that our young children learn and that have been passed down many many generations. I don’t think we have to line texts up and go ‘this one is better than that one’ do we? We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a wonderful work of rhythmic poetry, as are many many children’s stories. Who’s to say which is ‘best’?

        If what you’re after is the ability to analyse poetry, I’m not completely convinced that memorising them adds to this (analysing them might help with memorising, but I’m not sure it necessarily makes you any better at the analytical bit). I get a bit nervous around too much analysis of poetry as I think it can actually detract from the often almost spiritual pleasure that poetry can give to us as human beings. I’m not quite as awed as you by people who can quote literary texts within a conversation because I don’t get why that it so great and if one of my friends did it we’d all take the p**s out of them. (You may think that is ‘glorying in ignorance’ as someone said to me recently but I’d disagree – we just have a different set of cultural references.)

        As a parent and early years teacher I could retell orally probably upwards of 100 stories and nursery rhymes that are firmly fixed in my memory, including pretty long ones such as The Owl and the Pussycat. I can also do you Shakespeare and ‘literary’ poems too if you really wanted. I don’t rank them in order of ‘value’ because it’s just not relevant to me to do so. Just because something is ‘difficult’ doesn’t always make it ‘better’ to my mind.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Hey Sue. I figured your comments here deserved some serious thought and attention, though it has made my response a little lengthy, maybe even TLDR. Still, was useful for me to puzzle out.

        I was trying for a long time yesterday to find a passage I remember reading not long ago; very frustrating! In it, the author talked about how many people remember being made to memorise things like times tables and poems by rote decades ago. When asked why, the teacher might say something about how the brain was like a muscle, and the practice of memorising things therefore would strengthen our ability to remember in general, making us better learners.

        We now know this isn’t quite accurate. While I did talk about how it became faster and easier to memorise new poems, that was because part of what I was internalising was what had initially been unfamiliar language and structures. Once those were learnt, however, we enter into diminished returns – there’s little more about them to learn. Daniel Willingham talks about the effect in his popular ‘Teaching Content is Teaching Reading’ video. So where does this Matthew Effect thing come in then? Well when we learn something new, we try to connect it to things we already understand, building schemata. If we do that, it’s both more easily assimilated, and more easily retained. Therefore the more we know, the more likely we are to easily understand and remember other new knowledge. I tend to think of it a bit like blocks of knowledge being ‘sticky’, then as you gain more and more, you can form a larger and stickier net, ready to easily catch the new knowledge coming in.

        So in your first line, you asked ‘what are we after’ – good question! I’m not sure what you’re describing is really our goal; everyone can already do that anyway with a bit of work, they just didn’t know it at the time. Memorising just any old thing doesn’t necessarily improve memory per se, either, so there’s no gain there (though there’s certainly gain to be had in practising oral presentations to an audience!)

        There’s benefit in oral presentation – check
        There’s benefit in memorising per se – …dubious

        So then why memorise it at all? Perhaps the speaking alone is reason enough, in which case, play on. But if we’re going to do it anyway, can we get more out of it?

        You mentioned poetic analysis – I think you’re right that we be careful here. My word how quickly and easily that could be made dull! On the other hand, I’m at a point where, had I the time, I would love the opportunity now to be taught how to technically analyse some of the poems I had memorised. I think it would help me better understand why I find some poems better than others, such as Shelley’s Ozymandias compared to that of Smith.

        Memorisation would certainly help analysis I think, and there’s more on that in Part 3, but it’s not necessarily the reason I would advocate it.

        I’m very sorry to hear that you’d so chastise a friend of yours if they referenced a literary text. I appreciate some people could try to ‘show off’ with that kind of knowledge, which of course isn’t pleasant on their part, but that’s not what Joe’s doing. The reason I’m awed isn’t just by the fact he’s reeling off some pithy one-liner his public school education afforded him, it’s because what he says is always *so* pertinent! What surrounds those quotes, what we go on to discuss, the ideas of some of the very greatest thinkers of all time, things that would never occur to me in that moment, often lends remarkable insight into what we are discussing – we leapfrog ahead in our discussion, standing on the shoulders of giants, to mix some metaphors. If you would laugh at a friend who would attempt to do the same in conversation, then this might be why you haven’t yet experienced the benefit of it, which would explain our disagreement on this point. I can appreciate how it might just seem pretentious if not experienced first hand.

        You talked about ‘glorying in ignorance’ – it does sound like there’s a kind of reverse-snobbery and anti-elitist sentiment at work here, which is a shame. Elitism in the sense of striving for greatness – as opposed to regular exclusive snobbery – should be something we celebrate, rather than disdain. For those who achieve it, we shouldn’t envy them. Growing up I used to have a love of ‘big words’ – I liked the way they sounded, I liked that they were so rare as to have a kind of extra value to them, I liked that so much more could be said, so much more eloquently, through a single multi-syllabic word, rather than the rough string of simple words trying to approximate its meaning. To internalise and be able to wield those kinds of words in discourse, we must be able to try them out, practice with them, make mistakes with them and try again. When I would, guess what would happen – other kids would take the piss out of me, as you’ve suggested you would. Is that really how we want society to run? A race to the bottom? Cliques and elites and non-elites and envy and disdain and mockery bandied about with gay abandon?

        You mentioned having a different set of cultural references – this sounds like the ‘Shakespeare isn’t for poor kids’ argument, an assumption that either you grow up surrounded by great literature, or you don’t, and if you don’t, then it’s not for you. This to me, is elitist in the negative sense of the word; that the great works of literature are only for the elite, and not the rest of us; that the lessons to be learnt from them are only relevant to the elite, and not the rest of us; that their words are to be enjoyed only by the elite, and not the rest of us. I find this bewildering… These works are considered ‘great’ not because they were written by men who were white, which is either mere coincidence, or not true (St Augustine was not white…) but because they’ve said things of such immeasurable value to the human soul that they’ve survived hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and will likely continue to endure. While we flippantly philosophise from our armchairs, they decades of deep thought into the same topics we still discuss today, and unsurprisingly came out with far greater insight as a consequence.

        To answer your final point about whether we should rank in order of ‘value’, well yes, value can be relative. If you teach primary kids, having memorised many stories is of value. If you’re a mathematician, having memorised Euclid’s early postulates and axioms may be of value. If you’re a historian, memorising names and dates of relatively esoteric characters in history may be of value. Not everything is relative, however. The canon, and other great works that frequently get thrown around in these discussions are typically there because they are considered to have universal value; they are considered to deal with issues that are of importance to us all, and they are works that could unify us in our understanding of them. They’re not of value because, as you said, they are more difficult – that’s both incidental, and often a function of our distance from when they were written; much of what is considered ‘difficult’ today was once easily accessible; I’ve heard Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik be described by one professor as ‘bubblegum’!

        If a person doesn’t want to invest time in learning and understanding these great works, well that’s okay, it’s their choice, and their time. As we shy away from them though, let us not try to console ourselves by pretending we’re not missing out on anything, and let us not envy or deride those who have invested their time in pursuit of greater meaning. While they remain humble and not arrogant, let us instead glory in their accomplishment, and respect their achievement.

        For those precious young minds in our charge, we shouldn’t be thinking about ‘rich kids in the posh schools,’ and what’s right for them, and ‘poor kids in the state schools,’ and what’s more appropriate for them, we must respect, I think, every child’s entitlement to the best of what is all our cultural heritage. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ or ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ – which incidentally is included in the Poems by Heart app – but blindly pretending some works don’t have greater information content, or can’t hold deeper meaning, just seems a bit childish. Harry Potter is an excellent children’s novel. I tore through every book with excited glee, and I was in my mid twenties at the time! Rowling clearly did something right to capture both a child and adult audience so effectively. However, I have yet more respect for Pullman’s Dark Materials, and I think the trilogy is of greater literary value. Rowling is largely simple and formulaic in her writing style, and she characterises good and evil in a two-dimensional fashion. By contrast, Pullmans’ works are fantastically multi-layered. At their simplest, they’re a children’s adventure story, enjoyable at any age. They’re also riddled with profound social, philosophical and metaphysical commentary, if you can spot it, and his narrative structure is thoughtful and complex. Pullman handles ‘good and evil’ in a much more mature, thought provoking manner, where his characters defy simple classification – not in the simplistic ‘is he, isn’t he’ manner of Snape – but where the actions of characters are known and certain, and yet sometimes classifying their actions, and certainly classifying their character, is deeply challenging. They haven’t sold quite as well insofar as I know, but I think they’re a much greater achievement, and I think we can learn more from reading them – I would happily contend they hold enduring value as a consequence. Harry Potter is fun at the time. His Dark Materials stays with you a lifetime. If we teach only the transitory, or the frivolous; things that have no deeper meaning to them or deeper value, things that tell us nothing about the human condition, nothing about who we are, or where we come from, then we are short-changing a generation. You asked who’s to decide what’s best – well by all means let’s have that debate, but at least let’s accept there’s a debate to be had, rather than surrendering to the wasteland of relativism.

        Not all great works are necessarily from the West, or white people, or men – a lot of may end up that way because, sadly, our society was not always particularly equal! I think we’re just going to have to accept that at some point, get over the guilt and move on. Also, we live in the West, therefore we will always perceive things to some extent through a Western lens; it makes learning about the perspective of other cultures all the more exciting when we have the chance.

        I’ve obviously spent some time pondering the implications of your words! This has perhaps become largely polemic on my part, and so if I’ve misrepresented your views along the way, please feel free to adjust my words.

        There’s one last (yet more length…) thing I need to add. Sorkin used The West Wing to make a point along these lines some years ago. It resonated with me then, and it’s stayed with me to this day. I wish I could find a clip to it on YouTube, but I can’t, so script it will have to be. In it, Josh Lyman makes the point of how one self-help guru tries to reduce the words of great philosophers into fast-food bite-sized chunks, how so much meaning and value is lost in that process, and how sometimes that’s not okay. (Ritchie is the Republican presidential candidate.)

        *****

        JOSH
        Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?

        DONNA
        I’m going bike riding, as a matter of fact, and then I’m meeting some friends for lunch, and then
        I’m having my nails done.

        JOSH
        Guy, that sounds great. If only you were actually doing all those things.

        DONNA
        Yeah, yeah. What?

        JOSH
        Teddy Tomba.

        DONNA
        What about him?

        JOSH
        Well, he has millions of followers worldwide, has a $20-billion empire of self-help seminars…

        DONNA
        I know who Teddy Tomba is.

        JOSH
        …workbooks, board games…

        DONNA
        Seminars?

        JOSH
        Capitol Sheraton, tomorrow morning 10:00 AM. Your registration’s been prepaid.

        DONNA
        Why?

        JOSH
        We’re efficient.

        DONNA
        Why I am going?

        JOSH
        He’s consulted for Ritchie in the last few weeks, and I would like for that to be embarrassing
        for Ritchie.

        DONNA
        Really?

        JOSH
        Yes.

        DONNA
        That lacks a certain nobility of purpose, doesn’t it?

        JOSH
        I don’t believe it does. Write down any key slogans, or philosophies, or slogans.

        DONNA
        They’ll probably be on a t-shirt, won’t they?

        JOSH
        Proabably. You know what I’m looking for.

        DONNA
        Should I go in disguise?

        JOSH
        As what?

        DONNA
        Somebody who’d go to one of these things.

        JOSH
        Meet me here at the office when you’re done.

        Donna walks off from Josh.

        ****

        FADE IN: INT. JOSH’S BULLPEN AREA – DAY
        Donna is sitting at her desk reading a book, when Josh walks up to her.

        JOSH
        Hey.

        DONNA
        Huh? Hello.

        JOSH
        How was it?

        DONNA
        I’m sorry?

        JOSH
        How was it?

        DONNA
        [bewildered] It was…I don’t know. It was… I don’t… I don’t think… maybe I’m not ready
        to talk about it yet.

        JOSH
        What was…?

        DONNA
        It was a transforming… no, that’s the wrong word. We are not “transformed,” we “locate the
        light switch.” I own myself, Josh. You don’t mind if I say that out loud at frequent intervals
        with no provocation for a little while, do you?

        JOSH
        Why?

        DONNA
        Because I live my life out loud.

        JOSH
        You’re reading the book?

        DONNA
        The owner’s manual.

        JOSH
        Are you serious?

        DONNA
        No, you idiot! I need a shower!

        JOSH
        All right.

        DONNA
        I’ve got, like, radioactive stuff all over me.

        JOSH
        Man, and you call me a snob.

        DONNA
        Oh, please. It was like a meeting for the There But For the Grace of God Society.

        JOSH
        Anybody ask you out?

        DONNA
        Shut up.

        JOSH
        So, report to me– what did he say?

        DONNA
        Why is this important?

        They walk into JOSH’S OFFICE.

        JOSH
        What did he say?

        DONNA
        This is cheap.

        JOSH
        I’ll say.

        DONNA
        I’m talking about this. So the guy’s consulted for Ritchie. He’s a buffoon, but he’s harmless.
        Why should it be part of the campaign?

        JOSH
        Because it’s not harmless in an American President.

        DONNA
        Nothing he said was wrong or objectionable. As opposed to the man who was sitting next to me
        whose name was Fern.

        JOSH
        Open this book to any page.

        Josh hands the book to Donna who opens the book and hands it back to Josh.

        JOSH
        Okay, well. This is an order form to buy “Owning Yourself,” follow-up to the bestseller…

        DONNA
        “Leasing Yourself.”

        JOSH
        “It’s good to be trapped in a corner. That’s when you act.”

        DONNA
        That happens to be true.

        JOSH
        It is. In my case, it’s the only time that I do.

        DONNA
        So?

        JOSH
        It’s Immanuel Kant! “Duty! Sublime and mighty name, that embraces nothing charming or insinuating
        but requires submission.” Every year a million freshman philosophy students read that sentence.

        DONNA
        And change their major?

        JOSH
        You’ve just got a mouth full of wiseass today, don’t you?

        DONNA
        I located the lightswitch.

        JOSH
        Could you locate it again?

        DONNA
        So he cripped Kant. Isn’t that what you’re suppose to do?

        JOSH
        It comes from a 193-page book called “A Critique of Practical Reason.” It’s about metaphysica and
        epistemology. Tomba’s impressively boiled it down to two-thirds of one page. Give me another one.

        DONNA
        “Look outside the cave.”

        JOSH
        Right. That’s from an old paperback called “The Republic” by Plato. Lucky Tomba’s been able to
        fit on fortune cookie so it suits the attention span of the Republican nominee. Here he quotes
        Robert Frost. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Did he talk about that?

        DONNA
        Yeah.

        JOSH
        What did he say?

        DONNA
        Basically, that if you stay within your personal space, you’ll end up getting along with everyone.

        JOSH
        You had to study modern poetry.

        DONNA
        Yes.

        JOSH
        Is that what Frost meant?

        DONNA
        No, he meant that boundries are what alienate us from each other.

        JOSH
        Why did he say “Good fences make good neighbors?”

        DONNA
        He was being ironic, but I still don’t see…

        JOSH
        What does this remind you of? “I believe in hope, not fear.” “I’m a leader, not a politician.”
        “It’s time for an American leader.” “America’s earned a change.” “I before ‘E’ except after ‘C’!”
        It’s the fortune-cookie candidacy! These are important thinkers, and understanding them can be
        very useful and it’s not ever going to happen at a four-hour seminar. When the President’s got
        an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the
        fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don’t know if he’s thinking
        about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty
        that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets. Is it possible we
        would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The low road? I don’t
        think it is.

  9. Very interesting. I come from a time when many facts and texts were required to be memorised for exams. No books allowed, and, although I think some mathematical formulae were provided in maths/physics/chemistry exams, there were still lots that we needed to have remembered. For English literature this meant learning large amounts of texts/poems because we were expected to write essays in exams including references from memory to illustrate our points (including comparison analysis between different poems). Consequently, we were required to memorise chunks of poems and plays from an early stage (and recite them in front of the class).

    Now, though, I retain only snippets. Professionally, I am unlikely to rely on memory alone, as memory isn’t always reliable and any mistakes carry significant adverse risks. Instead, I need to know where I can find the formulae (and other things) I need. Memorising was an essential skill, but I can’t say I derived any extraordinary pleasure from being able to do it. It was required; I did it.
    I am unable to say if memorising helped understanding; I simply can’t remember.

    I will simply end with this: “the mirror cracked from side to side”.

  10. Kris Boulton says:

    Of course we do a great deal of referencing in our professional lives, made all the easier in the days of Google – it’s not for naught that we have a prevalent philosophy stating ‘Kids in the 21st century don’t need to memorise facts anymore, since they have powerful computers in their pockets which can Google what they need in seconds!’

    This idea has already been debunked many times though – it’s simply not true. Not only that, but the more we can remember of that which we’ve learnt, the more intelligent we are – we can literally process information faster as a result. Does that make it worth the time investment required to memorise something? Well that’s a trade off we as adults have to make – sometimes I find it is. I recall an anecdote about Euler, or Gauss… some great mathematician, but alas can’t recall the source – anyway, he opted to memorise the first hundred cube numbers or powers of two or something, because he recognised how often he was having to look them up in tables to crunch through the mathematics he was working on, and he felt it was worth memorising them to make his future life easier (had I memorised the details of that anecdote properly, it probably would have sounded an awful lot more authoritative!) On the other hand, would you memorise verbatim an entire play, assuming you’re not performing in it…

    • However, snippets are also very useful, especially if your workplace is very collaborative (as mine is). I might remember a snippet of something useful, which someone else will remember a further snippet, and then someone else might be able to source the definitive information based on the snippets. This approach works very well where the area we are working in is not very standard, but requires lateral thinking and application of knowledge into new areas. Different people remember different things. Another interesting element to this is the shared cultural connections (or not). I will often reference something (film, TV, book) which is a short hand way of describing emotions or ideas, but not all my colleagues will have that reference (age, nationality, interest differences). Sorry, this has diverged from your point, I think. You are right, that as adults we need to make decisions about how we use our time.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Not at all, I think this is still very much on topic. I mean the question is whether or not we should worry about getting kids to actively memorise the things we teach them. Even if the answer were ‘yes’, surely we would have to agree some limits somewhere? Where lie those limits is a very interesting question in itself – where lies the balance between time invested in memorising vs. the relative gain. So understanding the benefits of memorisation is also important, and so forth. We as humans will never perfectly memorise *everything*, but does that mean we shouldn’t actively try to memorise some things?

        I suppose it is moving a little away from the question of what we should be doing at school, which will always be a different game from ‘real life’. The ‘gains’ from memorisation in school are harder to predict and measure, since there’s no obvious direct application of most of what we teach. We aim to ‘grow’, ‘develop’ or ‘better’ our pupils, rather than train them to fulfil one precise job roll. On the other hand if kids aren’t remembering anything we teach them (not altogether uncommon…) then why do we bother?

        In the end I guess my point here was just to note the enormous benefit I felt in actively investing time memorising some great poems. It’s something that a surprising number of other people have taken up since the post as well, and are also enjoying! Ultimately I would always say that anything we apply in schools be done so ‘intelligently.’

  11. Jill Berry says:

    Just one thing occurs to me, picking up the private/state school comments above. Having taught (English) in both sectors, one of the things I noticed from my experience was how in the independent schools I taught in there was greater emphasis on the value of public speaking. All pupils took part in House public speaking competitions each year – sometimes writing their own speeches and delivering them with brief notes (they were not allowed to ‘read’ the speeches) and sometimes memorising poems, reciting them and talking about the poem’s appeal. In both independent schools all pupils at Key Stage 3 did this every year. One or two from each class was then chosen to go forward to the year competition. The whole year (sometimes the whole Key Stage) provided the audience and a panel of (usually external) judges awarded prizes.

    There were similar events for pupils in Years 10 and 11 too, though sometimes these involved debates in groups of three. In addition, there were debating and public speaking competition events/clubs which the keenest could be involved in as an extra-curricular activity.

    In the four state schools I taught in there were still debating clubs/public speaking competitions for those who wanted to try this, but it was only in the independent schools that it was part of the English curriculum and all pupils did it. This is quite a nerve-wracking thing to do (many adults would find it hard!) but they were a supportive and interested audience for one another and as they did this every year for several years it became less of a big thing. It was one of the reasons, I thought, that when these pupils got to the sixth form, things like university interviews (including for Oxbridge) were something they seemed to take in their stride.

    Not sure if my experience chimes with others’, but thought it was worth sharing.

  12. Jill Berry says:

    Depends on the school, Laura. The two independent schools I taught in were both large schools (1100 and 800+) and class sizes weren’t that small – though probably mid/high twenties (rather than thirty) at KS3. Often it’s the smallest independents that have the tiny classes. We did try to keep Junior School classes a bit lower, though, and sixth form groups were no more than 14.

  13. Kris, I read this with interest from the perspective of a physics teacher wanting to improve A Level students’ understanding of physics formulae and concepts. As such I am going to ask them to memorise the formulae or concepts as part of their “homework” exercises. They are given formulae sheets to work with in the course and during their exams, however I want them to be able to access the concepts and formulae more immediately so they can use them.
    However memorisation is not enough. Understanding and application is my end goal, rather than the ability to recall the equation.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Alex. Thanks for the comment.

      I’m wondering, did you read my earliest blog post on memory? In it I talk about using a narrative mnemonic to help kids memorise the quadratic formula:

      https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/why-is-it-that-students-always-seem-to-understand-but-then-never-remember/

      You mentioned wanting A Level students to be better able to understand physics concepts and formulae. In another post I wrote about the power of simplicity, and how one Year 10 pupil declared that, in the past he never ‘understood’ area, but now suddenly he felt he did:

      https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/what-does-simplicity-look-like/

      I also mentioned that of course he didn’t – what he had was clarity as to what he had to do for certain question types; I hadn’t done much in that lesson to expand his ability to conceptualise area, so whether we can say he really ‘understood’ area is up for debate!

      I think you’re right to talk about memorisation as not enough, but I also think you’re right to see it as a first step. The more we have in long-term memory, the more working memory is free to process new concepts. Referring to a formula sheet for formulae like these, which aren’t *that* complex in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t be necessary, and I suspect might be detrimental to people’s learning.

      Have you seen the following TED talk? To reach your goal post memorisation, maybe his ideas will help? He loses some technical accuracy (which I would maintain need to be reintroduced eventually), but in the initial stages the manner in which he simplifies the scientific concepts he’s communicating, and the narrative structure he employs as well, would seem to have potential…

  14. suecowley says:

    Hey again Kris, The ‘reply’ button’s gone so this is a very brief reply to your long one above. We don’t ‘chastise’ friends or family for being clever, but if they sounded pompous we certainly would (we take the p**s out of each other for all sorts of things). We don’t sit around having the highly intellectual conversations that you obviously do – perhaps it’s an age thing though, as much as a schooling or a class one. (It gets harder to find time for that kind of stuff when you’re a parent – I’m not sure if you are?)

    To me, the value in memorisation actually comes from the act of oral storytelling of fairy stories and folk tales and nursery rhymes, etc, that is passed down through the generations, because it connects us with the people who came before. Memorising a difficult poem is fun (for some of us), and some people might be impressed when you quote it back to them, but it strikes me as a ‘show pony’ kind of thing rather than anything more.

    Interestingly, as Tim Taylor (imagineinquiry) has explained, ED Hirsch highlights the vital role of stories in helping knowledge to ‘stick’. The layers of metaphor and subtext within creative forms of writing can act as a way of teaching children how to think on different levels. I’m not sure any of that answers your post above but hey ho and well done you for being so keen to think everything through in such detail.

    p.s. You shouldn’t really quote from a script at that length without getting copyright permission to do so from the author.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Sue. Not sure why the reply button’s doing that – I had the same problem; could only reply from the dashboard.

      Thanks for the response. I always appreciate your contributions to the discussion.

      I think I’m with you on the story telling, and I love the idea of stories being passed down orally between generations; there’s something deeply familial about it. With respect to the poems, I’m was wondering which Shakespeare you said you could recite? I think you’re right to some extent with the ‘show pony’ analogy, in that there is a performance aspect to poetry recital – and there’s surely nothing bad about that! We all enjoy a good performance from time to time. I don’t think that’s the limit though. With ‘Shall I compare thee…’ it’s hardly the case that I spend each day reciting it to unwilling friends, but I might choose to recite it to myself at some point as the months go by, during a quiet moment, or when walking between places. Sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud if I’m alone, and it’s personal, and enjoyable, to roll around again the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing, his message, and how he communicates it.

      I asked which Shakespeare sonnet because, for my part, I’ve only recently been a fan. A few months back I was probably a bit more ‘…don’t get it,’ while now, I get it. Having memorised some yourself, I’m surprised to hear you say there’s nothing more to it than performance. It’s taken a long time for me to get it, but once I did, I kept seeing more and more brilliance in what that one sonnet alone. Completely remarkable. Then some other poems, like Ozymandias and If, have a clear and valuable message, one that we can benefit from having in mind, and a message all the more powerful, I think, for being delivered in the manner in which they are.

      Completely with you on narrative as a link to memory. Willingham talks about it as well. It’s something of a focus for me, how to replace more exposition with narrative, and precisely what structure that narrative should take – since, alas, the stories have not yet all been written for us to use. I’ve experimented a little with different groups, and found that some of the least focussed will suddenly sit and listen for 20-30 minutes to talk about maths, if its delivered as a story (30 minutes might incur some time wastage, but these are early experiments!) Also just bought this exorbitantly expensive book in an effort to better understand narrative construction:

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Teaching-Mathematics-Storytelling-Rina-Zazkis/dp/9087907338/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376048771&sr=8-1&keywords=Teaching+Mathematics+as+Storytelling

      Best be worth it! I’m sure I’ll blog on my exploits in this domain at some point.

  15. suecowley says:

    Thanks for the reply, Kris. I’ve forgotten the Shakespeare sonnets I learned although I’d guess I could get them back very quickly. It’s the plays that stick with me, especially where I’ve done something in performance. I can remember chunks of lots of different ones that I’ve taught – the usual suspects. When you do dance and drama you learn how to remember movements or words very easily. (I should blog about the techniques we use in the arts for memory …)

    Just a thought – would you write some poetry of your own? For me getting involved in a creative act is more fulfilling than reading someone else’s, other people’s stuff is good for inspiration and understanding technique, but in the end why not do it yourself? It’s scary, creating poetry that you actually share with others, but you don’t have to memorise your own poems. You just know them.

    I came across a poetry pamphlet that I published the other day, it was from years back, of children’s poetry at the secondary where I was working. They wrote some great stuff, I’m really glad I got it in print for the kids and their parents. Thanks for getting me thinking about poetry again.

  16. Jill Berry says:

    Absolutely agree with Sue about writing poetry better to appreciate poetry. Whenever I’ve taught sonnets I’ve always got the students to write sonnets of their own – it’s the best way of helping them understand how the sonnet’s structure works with the content to create effect (eg the ‘twist’ you often get in the final couplet).

    And Sue’s comment also reminded me that a couple of times in my career I’ve got older pupils (eg Year 9) to study, discuss and then write poems for younger children, which they took to our local primary school to try out with Reception classes. They really enjoyed the element of writing for a ‘real’ audience and some of the stuff they produced was extremely good. We didn’t get it printed, like Sue, but they did produce their own illustrated anthologies.

  17. Pingback: What I learned from learning the periodic table and other thoughts on memory and retention of historical knowledge and understanding | Improving Teaching

  18. Pingback: I ♥ rote learning | David Didau: The Learning Spy

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