Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To Memorize or Not to Memorize?

Memorization of anything by rote these days gets a bad rap. Teachers are supposed to take students to the upper echelons of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so wasting time on memorized poetry recitations has fallen out of style, a relic of a past age when it seemed that every high school junior memorized The Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury

I confess, however, to seeing value in memorization of quality passages of prose and poetry. I’ve required students to do if for years now, making them stand before the class and present what I call their “Memory Anthology.” I don’t know of any studies that show great cognitive benefits for this practice, but from doing it myself and from watching my students, I know that it makes them take a text, read it, re-read it, write it, and read it aloud several times. Doing this with a passage of great writing, I believe, allows them to immerse themselves in the language in a way that we seldom do anymore. It is close reading, and the best recitations are done by students who have made the passage their own. Careful, close reading reveals the subtleties of a passage’s tone, diction, and imagery. I’ll never forget a recitation of Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus presented by one of my students, a six-foot-one-inch blonde. When she got to the third and fourth lines of the poem, she put in a slight pause that made me see the poem in a new way:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty - - - woman

That one very intentional pause revealed so much about the student’s understanding of the entire poem. She didn’t just know it by rote; she knew it in her bones. She made the poem her own, and by sharing it with us, she reminded us that words still have the power to touch us and to shake us awake.

I recently read an article in the New York Times by Jim Holt, author of the book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. In talking about his hobby of daily memorization of poetry, he used a brilliant metaphor to describe what he gets out of the exercise, once he has committed a poem to memory: “I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.” That’s my hope for my students -- I want them to be property owners. It would by nice if they have a passage from Hamlet to quote in their AP essays, but it would be even better if they owned an acre of verse that they can recite to their children and maybe even their grandchildren. Who doesn’t want a huge estate, lots of acreage, and no property taxes?

Note: Holt was recently interviewed about his poetry memorization on the NPR program On Point.

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