A marbled black and white composition book that I got at the beginning of third grade is one of my most treasured possessions. It is full of hand-copied poems in the neatest handwriting I could muster. Poetry became special to me in first grade. I attended a small classical school and one of the key events of the year was a poetry competition. Every student (from kindergartners to seniors in high school) would memorize a poem to recite to their class. Finalists would be selected from each classroom for a poetry evening. I still remember the poems I learned in 1st and 2nd grade and how hard I worked on presenting them and how fun it was to wear a costume and have props.
In 3rd grade, when my mom began to homeschool me and my sister, we each received a notebook for poetry. We would practice penmanship while copying, talk about vocabulary, meaning, sometimes historical context, and then memorize the poem. We memorized about one a month. I kept it up through high school, memorizing everything from childhood poems by A.A. Milne, fairy tales by J.R.R. Tolkien, and brief poems by Emily Dickinson, to sonnets by Shakespeare and classics by Longfellow, Poe, and both the Brownings. I would sit down and read A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson from cover to cover. Though I have not done much memorizing since graduation, I keep my composition book out and handy. In college and after, I have added poems to it when I read or hear a new one that strikes a chord with me. Recent additions include Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Human Family by Maya Angelou.
This year, I had the privilege of helping my 1st grade students get ready for the same poetry competition I was in so many years ago. This year’s selection of poems was written before 1840. My students memorized Mother Goose, Eliza Lee Follen, and even John Bunyan. They tackled some challenging words and abstract concepts and, for some, faced their fears by presenting in front of a large crowd of parents and grandparents.
Why should students have to interact with and even memorize poetry? How does it benefit them? Memorization is often discounted today because it is possible to memorize without understanding. It is true that understanding is the goal. However, it is also true that sometimes understanding follows memorization more easily than it follows explanation. This particular form of memory (poetry) has incredible benefits. Poetry uses an economy of words, often expresses emotions vividly, and trains children to listen to the sounds in spoken words (an important skill for reading). Memorizing poetry for presentation further impacts children. It teaches presentation skills, the use of clear diction, and creative expression. Reading and memorizing poems also helps students build up a stock of good examples of literature (from their own memory and those they have heard performed by their classmates) that they can enjoy and apply later on.
I have enjoyed some reading on classical education this month and found this quote by T.S. Eliot. “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest-for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.” Even if poetry is difficult or seems boring to some children, it still has a valuable part in education.
Photo is my own.