Friday, April 27, 2012

The Memorization List

Julia memorized and recited poetry this year for homeschooling. I've used poetry memorization in my teaching for 16 years. Here's her list for this past year:
The Bard, Shakespeare
"Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare (98)
"October" by Robert Frost (100)
"Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne (99)
"When I Consider How My Light Is Spent" by John Milton (98)
"A Poison Tree" by William Blake (99)
William Blake, the visionary
"The Tyger" by William Blake (98)
"Jerusalem" by William Blake (100)
"Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth (97)
Christina Rossetti, devout in spite of her friends
"Uphill" by Christina Rossetti (100)
"In Memoriam #27" by Tennyson (99)
"The Declaration of Independence" [first 2 sections] (98)
Elizabeth Browning, the beloved
"Sonnet 1" by Elizabeth Browning (98)
I require poetry memorization for these reasons: 1) It places excellent literature into the student's head, often for a lifetime. 2) It requires maximum work from the student, and minimal work from the teacher. This is best for the student. The one working is the one learning. 3) It is beautiful and pleasant. 4) If one requires public recitation, it teaches public presentation skills. 5) Memorization skills are useful in many other subjects.

The goal of teaching is for the student to master the material. I usually allowed Julia a week to finish memorizing. I often did pre-recitations, to get a feel of how the first quatrain or few lines were progressing, and to build her confidence. I told her about the author's life, and discussed the meaning of the poem, to increase her interest.

I used to require my high school students to recite one poem each Friday. This was rather rigorous, and later, as my students became less able to master it, I reduced the requirement to one poem every other Friday. I try to choose poems that are about the length of a sonnet, and then I count off one point (on a 100 point scale) for each word that they miss. I allow them to begin again, or go back and correct themselves, but I never give hints, clues, or correct their mistakes. I will tell them if they omit an entire line. One must be reasonable.The numbers in parentheses above indicate Julia's grades this year, for each poem.

When one homeschools, flexibility is possible. I can increase the difficulty, take a break for a month from memorization, choose poets or subjects that appeal to Julia, and otherwise fine-tune the task to her. In homeschooling, it's important to design the curriculum to appeal to the student's strengths, but never to compensate for their weaknesses. I know some may disagree with this. But our goal as educators is to eliminate the weaknesses as much as possible by weeding them out, not ignoring them, and to build the strengths through challenging work. Both of these will give the student confidence and courage. Kids know when they're being hood-winked with easy work. They won't complain, but they won't admire the teacher, themselves, or the material.

Julia's poetry memorization will become more difficult each year. She did 12 pieces in 30 weeks. She also did poems that I usually give to high school students. I look forward to the challenges she'll master in high school!


  1. I was recently listening to a This American Life episode from last October about middle schoolers, and apparently around the age 11/12, your body gives a heave of a growth spurt paralleled only to that of infants. Your brain starts going on all cyclinders, and only the "cylinders" that get used and exercised survive. You brain basically determines what its adult self is going to be.
    This is stunning to me. We always think of the neuroplasticity of 0-3 yo, but there's another window around 12 yo. Fascinating.
    And wonderful to think that poems going into kids' heads will stick longer....

  2. That's fascinating, J! I'd never heard that before. There's definitely a shift as they enter puberty and launch into that "logic" stage. Makes me feel as if we should be thoughtful and careful about what we put in their brains at that stage!


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