Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Praise of Rote Learning

Apparently learning poetry by heart is the new 'in' thing in educational theory.  They've even got a new government initiative in the UK driving the memorisation of poetry involving a nationwide competition for school students - see here: Poetry By Heart.

Anyone lucky (!) enough to have had me as a teacher over the past number of years will know that I have long extolled the benefits of poetry memorisation and since 2004 I have cajoled enormous numbers of students to successfully commit poetry to memory.  I always enjoy the look of astonished pride on the face of a reluctant poetry student as they complete the stanza or poem successfully in front of the class.

Poetry Ireland and the National Library have also been running the Poetry Aloud competition, a competition aiming to celebrate the spoken recitation of poetry, here in Ireland for a number of years now. Poems must be spoken from memory for Poetry Aloud so the while memorisation is not the focus of the competition it is necessary to compete.  By all accounts it's a terrific competition and if any Calasanctius students would like to compete next autumn do come to myself or one of the other English teachers to discuss it.

Memorising poetry isn't easy, as Stephen Moss of the Guardian demonstrates with his somewhat failed attempt to memorise William Blake's Auguries of Innocence -->

But the benefits of it for your brain are immense.  Rote learning gets a bashing in the media these days but I actually think we don't do enough of it in schools.  Memorisation improves focus, challenges and exercises your brain and has been proven to improve cognitive ability into old age.  There's a detailed run down of these benefits on here: In Praise of Memorization.

In an era when we are generally externalising most of our knowledge (does anyone remember how we found answers to questions before Google?) and memory (do you actually know your best friend's phone number?) to devices and the internet we face a general 'dumbing down' of society unless we consciously fight to learn things by heart.

So what makes a particular poem good to memorise? I think a regular rhyming scheme and steady rhythm really help. The Poetry By Heart website has a very wide mix of stuff from Chaucer in 1380 right up to present day poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Patience Agbabi.  Some of it is very challenging (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?!) but most of it is accessible to all readers and a few of the Leaving Cert  poets including Yeats, Boland, Longley, Mahon, Rich, Heaney and Larkin feature.

Since I started teaching I've compiled my own list of the best poems to gently encourage (read: force) students to memorise.  Here's a shortlist:

WB Yeats
  • The Lake Isle of Innisfree
  • The Stolen Child
  • He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven

William Wordsworth
  • The Daffodils
  • To My Sister

Adrienne Rich
  • Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

Robert Frost
  • Nature's First Green is Gold
  • The Road Not Taken
  • Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Emily Dickinson
  • 'Hope' is the Thing with Feathers

Austin Clarke
  • The Planter's Daughter

Dylan Thomas
  • Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Now go learn one off by heart!

Ms E. Dobbyn

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