Flower number 20: motivation, memory, and poetry

S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, adapted for screen.

In the movies, the characters are always reciting lines of poetry to each other. Take The Outsiders. Here, Ponyboy recites Robert Frost's Nothing Gold Can Stay. And he's a teenager! OK, OK, it does take place in the sixties, and there are plenty of baby boomers out there who may have had to memorize poetry by rote while in school. Here, our character says he memorized it because he never understood what Robert Frost meant. I doubt I'd be able to memorize anything I couldn't understand.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

More current, is the setting for the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which takes its title from  Alexander Pope's poem, Eloisa to Abelard . The theme of the film is based upon this poem, and here, Kirsten Dunst's character recites a couple of lines of it in order to show off a little bit-- inappropriately charming her boss.

Does reciting poetry still happen in real life? Did it ever? And for what purpose? Not counting song lyrics or limericks, I've never been anyplace, outside of a college course, where someone volunteered a few verses of prose.

Showing off, or not, being able to recite a poem in its completion, in public --is impressive. But I bring this up because unless I start now, I will probably never live either of these scenes in real life (well, at least for Kirsten Dunst's, let's hope not). I was never made to memorize poetry in school, and although I enjoyed reading, and was fairly studious, I never took it upon myself to do this. It's a little sad in a way, but then again, why would I? 

This brings me to the point of my post: I've always wanted to require poetry reciting or memorization, of my fourth graders, to improve their speaking skills and encourage my squeamish kiddos to peek out of their shell (in the most gentle, non confrontational way, mind you). In fact, the education secretary of Britain, Michael Gove has this idea too. Back in June, the UK Guardian reported that Gove is requiring grammar school children to memorize and recite poetry in order to increase the rigor of the curriculum. 
From Year 1, at the age of five, children will be read poems by their teacher as well as starting to learn simple poems by heart and practise recitals. 
The programme of study for Year 2 will state that pupils should continue "to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart and recite some of these, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear". [1]
Here in my state, we don't have fourth grade standards dictating the memorization of poems, however, at the very least, I am considering adding this practice to my language arts block. Here's why it makes good sense to me:

  • It may encourage the confident use of the English language (or whatever language the poem is in).
  • It offers students an experience to a wide range of culture (and quite possibly, history) outside of their neighborhoods, television, and ipods.
  • It seems that memorization might be a workout for the brain. 
  • Offering students the opportunity to memorize a poem may also offer them a mantra to turn to within themselves-- to feel centered.
  • There is an awesome sense of accomplishment in memorizing a poem in its completion.
  • Public speaking is a very important skill that everyone needs
  • The rhythm and rhyme; the assonance, repetition, alliteration; intonation and expression may inspire or improve writing skills
  • The feelings expressed in poetry may encourage a compassionate connection to other humans [2] [3]

I'm not saying rote is the way. There should be a study; a discussion of the vocabulary, the word choice, the figures of speech involved, and even the history that surrounds the poem. And joy-- there should definitely be joy presented in poetry study.

A love of literature is going to make a comeback if I have anything to say about it-- in my class, at least.
Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorisation “builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax.” The student “who memorises poetry will internalise” the “rhythmic, beautiful patterns” of the English language. These patterns then become “part of the student’s ‘language store,’ those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking.” Without memorisation, the student’s “language store,” Bauer says, will be limited: memorisation stocks “the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.” [4]
So in order to motivate students to follow my lead when it comes to loving poetry, I am going to use a poem that is about, ahem, motivation. How. . . meta? It was introduced to me through another teacher friend of mine, and I'd like to spread the word. Those of you who have read Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul will recognize Jillian K. Hunt's inspirational words:

Believe in Yourself
Jillian K. Hunt 
Set your standards high
You deserve the best.
Try for what you want
And never settle for less.
Believe in yourself
No matter what you choose.
Keep a winning attitude
and you can never lose.
Think about your destination
But don't worry if you stray
Because the most important thing
Is what you've learned along the way.
Take all that you've become
To be all that you can be.
Soar above the clouds
And let your dreams set you free.
In introducing the poem, I plan to show the students all of the stanzas, as it is presented here. Then, I plan to quickly introduce point of view and pronouns in order to replace the you/your with I/my so that the children internalize the words and feel a sense of ownership of this comforting message. Setting it to music would be an extension that I'd love to do by bringing in my guitar or uke, but I may be getting carried away.

Starting the poem study during the first week of school in order to start building community should prove to be beneficial as they will be more comfortable with poetry by the time they get to the actual poetry unit. Verse by verse, or stanza by stanza, we'll work socially in partnerships or groups to learn this. By the time our state exam comes around, perhaps they'll be able to ground themselves by hearing their internal voice whispering the words, "believe in yourself...believe in yourself".

Maybe one day that will be one of my grown-up fourth graders looking at a sunset, while remembering a Robert Frost poem they once learned. I can only hope.

[1] The Guardian UK: Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry 
[2] Jim Murdoch, The Truth About Lies: Learning Poetry by Heart 
[3] [4] Jeff Cobb, Mission to Learn: 7 Reasons to Memorize Some Poetry

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