Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 3 – Should we?

In the last post I talked about how memorising poems meant I finally sat down and spent more time thinking about each poem than I had before.  I mentioned how the process motivated me naturally to want to seek out deeper and deeper meaning in the poem, and how I spent time thinking about the poet’s deliberate choice of particular words.  It has expanded my vocabulary, since in wanting to understand, I must first know what each word means, and then since the poem is memorised, the new vocabulary becomes memorised with it.  I talked about the benefits and advantages I felt that memorising the poems had brought me, as well the kindled passion for poetry I now enjoy.  None of this yet speaks directly to the question at hand, though; should kids memorise poems in school?

I say yes.

 yes-man1

I say yes, because it was what worked for me; it’s what got me to love poetry, to understand it, and to appreciate it.  I’m suggesting maybe it could work for kids as well.

Having attended the Research ED conference last weekend, it would be remiss of me to jump in, say ‘this works’ and therefore ‘all must do it.’  What I’m really saying is that we should be open to it, and we should start experimenting to see if it works in classrooms.

Why might there be resistance to this?  Most people on first hearing the idea of memorising… well anything, but especially poems, are met with a jolt of terror: meaningless, pointless memorisation!  Then what about the child who can’t memorise successfully, but might enjoy simply reading; will they be forever turned away from poetry?  Hopefully after parts 1 and 2 no-one is going to think I’m advocating meaningless memorisation, and then move on; that would indeed be pointless.  What about the child who struggles to memorise?  Everyone can memorise things, and there are many strategies to aid in this process.  I doubt there’s seriously a child who cannot memorise relatively short poems (as usual, excepting those with rare and significant cognitive impediments).  Am I therefore suggesting all studied poems be memorised?  No, intelligent limits should be applied.  I don’t know what they are, but why don’t we say start with memorising one or two a year.

Why might it not work?  Well as an adult with decades of education and amassed knowledge, I was able to spontaneously make sense of the poems; where I couldn’t, I then had the knowledge and ability to find what I needed from the Internet.  Children are far less likely to be able to do this.  I challenged some of my Year 8 group to memorise Ozymandias.  One child took up the challenge, and over a week or two at home, a bit at a time, he’s done it, the whole thing memorised perfectly.  Now, his rendition of the poem is very different from mine.  When he recites it, he speaks fairly quickly, and his recitation is lacking any of the cadences I would like to see.  It suggests to me that he’s saying words, lots of them, that he’s spent a long time memorising, but doesn’t really understand their meaning.  I asked him if he had any idea what the poem was about, and what was going on in it.  ‘Nope,’ was the simple answer!  I’m okay with this; I’d expect it.  Can I expect him to know the historical context of Ozymandias, or the dual meaning of the word ‘mocked’, or that it’s contemporary meaning of ‘to make fun of’ was only just coming into use around the time Shelley wrote the poem?  There’s a great deal more knowledge that need be brought to bear in tackling this poem.  The next step was to have some conversations with him about the meaning of the poem.

Before the end of term, I didn’t have the opportunity to go through this process with him in as much detail as I would have liked, but we did have a few short conversations, and I asked him his thoughts.  He said he liked knowing something about the poem’s meaning, and it seemed to make it a little easier to remember.  In his opinion, he would prefer to know about the poem’s meaning before trying to memorise it.  This is different to my personal experience, where my growing to understand its meaning happened parallel to memorising it, and deepened further once it was memorised.  Perhaps here the path I and other adults have since taken needs to be different from that experienced by a child in school.  Memorisation alone, before any exploration of the meaning, might not lead to the same positive experience that I had.  Maybe the solution is ‘memorise a few lines, discuss meaning, next few lines… etc.’  I don’t really know what the perfect formula to make this work in a classroom is, I’m just advocating for memorising to happen.

knowledge

How can we leverage knowledge to make memorisation meaningful?

There’s an interesting post on Edapt’s blog here, by Katie Ashford which attempts this.  Katie asked her Year 10 group to memorise the prologue to Romeo and Juliet as part of their homework.  She explains that not only were the 15 year olds successful in memorising it, but goes on to talk about how she saw them draw links between the words they had internalised, and the narrative of the play as they discussed scenes later on.  In other words, the knowledge wasn’t sitting passively in the recesses of their brains; by memorising it to a point where it could be easily recalled, and having so much time thinking about it in the process, it had now become an active part of their knowledgebase, and they were able to further deepen their appreciation for the foreshadowing prologue as they progressed through the play.

In her post, Katie says ‘…they had all learnt it beautifully.’  For my part I can’t speak to the accuracy of that assessment, that 100% all learnt it, but if that’s true, how remarkable!  It responds in part to the question: would children be motivated to memorise poems?

Sometimes the feeling I have is of a begrudging sense of disdain for the idea of memorisation from an older generation; from people who were forced to memorise poems.  I deliberately chose the word ‘forced’ for the title because that is the word I hear bandied around often in education, by those who don’t like an idea – kids shouldn’t be forced to memorise poems, or shouldn’t be forced to do homework outside of school hours, shouldn’t be forced to do… well anything it seems.  Force and compulsory universal education surely make for an interesting social discussion, for another time.  For now, I accept there must be a good reason that many who memorised poems once upon a time now resent it.  Perhaps it was all memorisation and no discussion, no striving for meaning or appreciation, perhaps it really used to be the boring pointless bland dry dull drudgery of purely rote memorisation.  If so, are we not rather throwing the baby out with the bath water if we’re now going to say that, therefore, memorisation holds no value?  In my limited experience, I’ve seen children impressed, astounded even, by a person’s ability to recite poems by heart, and some have relished the challenge of trying to memorise something by heart themselves – they want to be able to do the same.  I can imagine there may be some for whom memorisation would be a real struggle, and they might not be so keen.  As with everything, I would suggest all pedagogy be applied intelligently.  Forcing as in ‘bullying’ a child to memorise something they deeply struggle with would be pointless, and yet to sympathetically allow them to forgo the act when their peers were all succeeding would necessarily leave them behind.  I’d prefer to find clever ways of making memorisation easier.

 

 stress

Does memorisation have to be difficult and meaningless?

 

In conclusion why memorise?

  • Clear, simple, measurable goal for pupils
  • Enhances understanding and appreciation of the poem
  • The poems are a gift; they become a part of us
  • Enhances our vocabulary and knowledge-base
  • Can lead into performing arts

Importantly, I don’t see much risk here.  We have lots of people disengaged with poetry for whom this could make a difference.  For those who love poetry and never had to memorise anything, well they would still be having all of the same discussions and exploration of meaning that currently exist; this isn’t ‘either/or.’

I for one would love to hear from any English teachers who’ve tried this, or from other people who were expected to memorise poems at school, and what their experience of it was.

 

There will eventually be one final post in this series – following a few shorter posts on other topics – tentatively venturing to discuss the question of what poems should be memorised.

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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6 Responses to Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 3 – Should we?

  1. Chris Hall says:

    I think this is an interesting idea and one I probably find intuitively quite sensible (I’m not from the generation who were forced to memorise things). I guess what concerns me is whether it addresses the fundamental problem of why so many people (not just kids!) are unable to relate to poetry. In many cases I think the barrier is in being able to understand the context and use other knowledge to help decipher meaning. This is exactly the problem you hit on when you give the example of your student who learnt Ozymandias. Unlike you he had limited reserves of ‘other’ knowledge which he could use to help interpret the poem. Memorising it does not change that. As you point out this does not show that memorisation is not valuable, it just shows that it is not sufficient on its own.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      You’re right of course. I think usually it’s this idea that forces people into their polarised thinking of ‘memorise or understand.’ I guess what I’m suggesting here, is that by memorising the words of the poem *as well as* exploring its meaning, we are more likely to meet with success. This would be because the words of the poem, being committed to long-term memory, could be recalled and considered in working memory even more easily than when reading from a page. In addition, the time it takes to memorise a poem means the words would be again and again, and during that time the mind will not be completely passive – it will try to make sense of what is being said, especially if the process takes place over more than just one lesson.

  2. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, Kris.

    You talk of “a begrudging sense of disdain for the idea of memorisation from an older generation; from people who were forced to memorise poems” but in actual fact most of the people I know who are in this position are quite nostalgic about the process of memorising poems, proud of what they can remember and positive about the value of the exercise.

    I’ve been trying to find a poem I heard once about someone visiting a home for adults with mental health problems, and suddenly a huge (Welsh?) man stands up and starts to recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils. I thought it was perhaps by Kit Wright but I can’t track it down. Do you know it? Or is there anyone else reading this who can identify it?

  3. Jill Berry says:

    Tracked it down – Miracle on St David’s Day by Gillian Clarke. See what you think:
    http://www.amielandmelburn.org.uk/collections/soundings/11_188.pdf

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

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