Fill Their Minds With Words, Make Them Their Own: Poetry

“Hope” by Emily Dickinson
“No Man Is an Island” by John Donne
“This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams
“Bed in Summer” by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Dreams” by Langston Hughes
“Captain Hook” by Shel Silverstein
“Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley
“When the Frost is on the Punkin’” by James Whitcomb Riley
“The Caterpillar” by Christina G. Rossetti
“Work” Anonymous
“Hearts Are Like Doors” Anonymous
“The Months” Mother Goose rhyme
“Mr. Nobody” Anonymous
“The Goops” by Gelett Burgess
“The Star” by Jane Taylor

When I read Jessie Wise Bauer’s recommendation (The Well-Trained Mind) for elementary age children to memorize copious amounts of information, I thought the idea absurd.  Painful memories of numerous all-nighters during pharmacy school and medical school haunted me.  Cramming endless facts into my head.  Over and over and over again.  Only to forget most of it.  Why would I subject my child to that?  I want to teach her how to think–not regurgitate!  Creativity!  Write poems–not spit them out!  Foster, not squash.

“Every two or three weeks, the child should also memorize a poem and recite it to you.  Memorization and recitation of poetry is an important part of the reading process; it exercises the child’s memory, stores beautiful language in his mind, and gives him practice in speaking aloud (early preparation for the rhetoric stage).  Aim for memorization of at least four to eight short poems during each school year.  Pick poems that the child has read and enjoyed, either during his ‘assigned’ reading or his ‘free’ reading.  These poems don’t have to be tied to the progression of literature from ancient to  modern; let him memorize anything that he likes,” writes Jessie Wise Bauer in her book.

So we did memorize a few simple poems.  Nothing too fancy…:

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November…”   (Mother Goose Rhyme)
“Caterpillar in a hurry, Take your walk to a shady leaf or stalk…” (Christina G. Rossetti)
“I know a little man as quiet as a mouse…” (Anonymous)

…And only because it was a part of our grammar book written by Jessie Wise Bauer, First Language Lessons, which I liked because we could curl up on the couch with it.  But my oldest moved on from that grammar text to one requiring more “seat-work” worksheets.  And poetry kind of fell to the wayside.  But for some reason, it naggled my brain.  It wouldn’t let go.

Whispers in my ear, “Memorize poems.  Recitation.  Great works of prose.  Don’t deny them.  You’re missing an opportunity.”

Soon, I came across a poetry segment by Mensa for Kids posted on the internet.  It was (is)  a great printable, free guide of selected, recommended poetry for kids to memorize with some fun worksheets.  I looked at it.  It was intimidating!  Even for me–an adult with a love (oh, but a neglected love) for literature!  I printed it off, but I decided the poems were just too tough for my first and third grader (and still agree that some of them will be best saved for later).  Maybe we’ll pull that back out for high school, I thought.  But it made me realize poetry recitation is important, and I wanted to incorporate it as a main part of my curriculum now, at this young age–not later when memorization may seem mundane.  From the Mensa for Kids site:

“Memorizing poetry turns on kids’ language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language—an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease. . . 

It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language’s rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child’s vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language-comprehension skills. ‘The greater and wider the vocabulary,’ says education historian Ravitch, ‘the greater one’s comprehension of increasingly difficult material.’ . . .

[Jessie Wise] Bauer points out that if ‘a student reads a word in a novel, she might or might not remember it for later use. But when she commits it to memory in proper context (as the memorization of lines of poetry requires), she is much more likely to have it at her ‘mental fingertips’ for use in her own speaking and writing.’” from In Defense of Memorization by Michael Knox Beran [click on his name for full essay--very nice to read].

So, the benefits of memorizing poetry are varied and deep. It is free, uncomplicated, and has lasting, powerful benefits.”

OK.  Fine.  I’ll pursue it.  I bought some poetry books to read aloud to them.  We would read them together and leave them on the footstool.  By the way, I love reading aloud.  And I love The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease!

A funny thing happened.  My oldest daughter (at this time in second grade) picked up The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems with the awesome illustrations, and she memorized “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams that we had just read aloud.  First she recited it to my husband.  Then to Grandma and Grandpa.  Then to me.

And we never looked back.  We’ve kept right on trucking.  And we won’t stop until their capacity for it seems slammed shut.  Which I’m hoping will never be since we have started it so young.  But I don’t know.  Time will tell.  They already have more memorized than I ever did.  And it’s virtually effortless.  They don’t mind it a bit.  It’s easier to get them to recite poems than it is to get them to brush their teeth.

Although my oldest has a knack for absorbing words and verbal understanding, my middle child does not.  When we started really memorizing poems about 9 months ago, I thought she’d never be able to keep up.  I would only frustrated her.  I WAS WRONG.  Allow me to repeat, I WAS WRONG.  True, she does not memorize the words or meaning as quickly as her older sister, but she is by no means shabby.  And she’s much more animated in her presentation and recitations of them.  They both do awesome and are making connections I never dreamed possible.  “Look, mom, that’s by Robert Louis Stevenson.  We know him!”  “There’s that word, mom.  ‘Abashed’.  Did you hear it?  That’s in that “Hope” poem!”

In the beginning, we did something really fun.  For us girls.  Not for my husband, the “dumb” orthopedic surgeon (his words, not mine).  We all sat on the couch and we had on-the-spot poetry recitation contests.  We started with “Dreams” by Langston Hughes because it was beautiful and somewhat short.  Whoever got the most words right, won.  We ALL had to participate:  mom, dad, Mary (a new 8 year-old), Maggie (a 6 year-old), and Marcie (a young 3) got in on the action.  It was learning on the spot.  The next poem we did this with was “Bed In Summer” by Robert Lewis Stevenson.  Then my husband couldn’t take it anymore.  LOL!  His daughters absolutely killed him in the competition!  And to watch them gloat over it!  I will say, they were able to memorize the poems much more easily and quickly than either myself or my husband.

And what about my three year old?  Yep.  You betcha’.  She’s in on it, too.  My jaw just dropped.  If you think you’ve seen cute or motivating, you haven’t until you’ve seen and heard your three year old say…

“When duh fwost is on duh punkin’ and duh odder’s in duh shawck,
And you hee-yuh da kyouck and gobble of da stwuttin’ toowkey-cawck…
O, it sets my hawt a-clickin’ like duh tickin’ of a clawck,
When duh fwost is on duh punkin’ and duh fodder’s in duh shawck!–pause–what’s an odder?”

(When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!—-James Whitcomb Riley, an Indiana poet who vividly captures Hossier farm-life in words and dialect)

I’ve pulled the Mensa PDF file I printed off back out.  We didn’t go in order.  We started with “Hope” by Emily Dickenson.  Because she looked pretty to my daughters.  My kids LOVE to sing it to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, as recommended by those Mensas!  We’ve done “No Man Is an Island” by John Donne.  We tried the Teddy Roosevelt speech.  We’ve taken a break from it for Halloween (Lil Orphant Annie) and Thanksgiving (When The Frost Is On The Punkin).  But, we will go back to it after Christmas.

There have been a few we gave up on without complete mastery, but they tried:  The Teddy Roosevelt speech The Man in the Arena, “The Star” (the complete verses of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), “Monday’s Child”, and “In 1492″.  There are pieces of poems they don’t understand.  There are words they don’t say quite right.  But over the months, they grasp more.  Incorrect words become correct.  Meanings become clear.  They hear as a child and understand as the years go by.

Our list of mastered and currently recitable-in-completion poems is at the beginning of the post.

My thoughts on how to incorporate poetry into a curriculum:
1.  Have a few beautifully illustrated anthologies that sit around the house within easy reach for the kids.  Lay them on the coffee table.  Lay them on the kitchen table.  Lay them on their bedside table.  Move them around to wherever they will be.
2.  Read aloud from the nicely illustrated anthologies while snuggling up on the couch.
3.  Pick a couple or a few very short, easy poems to memorize.  A practical one is nice, like “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November…”  They can use it to do grammar and math worksheets and they like that a lot!!!!
4.  See if the whole family will get involved in recitation in the evening.  Pick a new poem to read aloud a few times.  Then, have someone volunteer to go first to see how much they can say.  If there’s no volunteer, have an adult go first.  Take turns.  Repeat a few times to see who has the best memory!  It usually isn’t an adult, and the kids love that!  They love to correct mom and dad on incorrect words!
5.  Choose strongly rhymed poems at first.  They’re easier.
6.  Choose poems with strong imagery if they’re a bit more complex, and then point out images you see that go with the poem you’re reading.  (There’s a ‘fodder-shock’or there’s a bird ‘perching’).
7.  After they’ve heard a complex poem a few times, paraphrase it the best you can trying to keep the poem rhythm the same.  Then they can hear it in understandable language but with most words still in the correct “position” in the scheme of the poem.
8.  Set it to music if that works out and you can think of a song to match.
9.  After they’ve practiced the poem and have some of it down, play clips from You-Tube of people reciting the same poem.  My kids love this.  It’s even more fun if you can find footage on the internet of the poem being read by a person/people in a poetry recitation contest!  My kids became very excited to think about competing!  They had no idea that was possible!  And if you can find a couple of people reciting the same poem in different ways, the kids like that, too.
10.  Choose poems that relate to you and your family and things you may all love.  Poems maybe even you have loved.  I’ve always loved James Whitcomb Riley since I’m from Indiana.  Many of his poems are about the farm and written with a dialect that I am familiar with.  My children have easily memorized two of his poems, despite their length and dialect.  “Little Orphant Annie” they heard clips of from their Grandma and “When The Frost Is On the Punkin” reminds us all of our trips home to Granny and Papa Bear’s farm each October.  Pull from your heritage.  Pass it on.
11.  Keep them in a binder with the headings:  Mastered Poems and Poems to Learn.  Review the mastered poems as needed to keep them mastered.  Print off poems you or they want to learn and keep them there at your fingertips.
12.  Present a wide variety of poems, and don’t underestimate their abilities.  Sure give them some simple, fun ones–but also give them some rich, deep ones, too!

Poems for Children

Poems to Memorize, Recite, and Learn by Heart

You may be interested in another post I’ve written regarding two more poems we have learned:  Part 4 of Our Third Grade Curriculum:  Poetry.