Sunday, April 10, 2011

Memorization is Good for the Brain

When I was young, I was a terrible student. I never completed homework, and I devised a myriad of shenanigans to distract myself from learning at school. I think, prior to the 10th grade, I never achieved anything above a C.

Two things pulled me out of the pit of ignorance I had dug for myself. One was Star Wars. I was addicted to Star Wars before the era of DVDs and video rentals. The only way to satiate my ravenous desire for Star Wars between movies were Star Wars novels. My love for Star Wars overcame my disdain for reading.

The second was bible quizzing. Having become a Christian at the age of 14, I joined a bible quizzing program at my school to help me stay in "The Word" regularly. My motivation was that this would help save my soul; but, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was saving my educational ass.

Over the next 7 years I committed to memory the New Testament books of John, Acts, Romans, James, Hebrews, Peter 1 & 2, and major chunks of Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians. The skills I developed memorizing this material, along with the intellectual elements of the bible quizzing competition, turned a dull-witted boorish boy into an armchair scholar.

It occurred to me during an education seminar I attended recently, that my students are completely bereft of the opportunity to memorize. So like myself at that age, they are woefully ignorant, with little motivation to make any change. In addition, our educational system tends to disdain memorization. Aspiring teachers are taught that making your students do anything by route and repetition will kill their love of learning; such methods are labeled "drill and kill". The most immediate and noticeable result of this ethos is that less than 10% of my 6th grade students know their multiplication facts. Knowing the positive effect memorizing had on me, I returned from that seminar motivated to get my students memorizing.

We started with the preamble to the Constitution. They groaned and moaned through the whole process. However, I did notice that they liked being able to quote it at the end. I believe being able to rattle off the material gave them a sense of accomplishment. Over the past two weeks we have been working on the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. Again, lots of groans and moans... but parallel to that is a confidence that comes with having material like that at one's disposal. I nearly fell out my chair when one of the girls in my class made an astute connection between the material she had memorized and a story we were reading!

My plan is to develop a progressive list of material for my students to memorize next year. I know I have an eclectic, and well read, group of people who read this blog; so I would be interested in any text suggestions you might have. I am assuming I would start out the beginning of the year with a short piece, one paragraph, and work towards larger pieces over the school year. I am personally weak in the area of good poetry, so those suggestions would be particularly helpful.

I am also considering the use of religious texts. I agree with Stephen Prothero that our lack of religious knowledge is detrimental to our interactions with one another. I know helpful sections from the bible, but I am in need of short, useful sections from the Quran, Bhagavad Gītā, the Tao Te Ching, etc... I think it might be interesting if I could find a common theme of goodness that each religious text addresses.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and suggestions.


curmudgeon said...

I liked the Highwayman (Alfred Noyes) . We used to use the first stanza as a warm up for theatrical breathing exercises. It is possible to break it down into manageable pieces by stanza. I also like Shakespeare. Hamlets soliloquy, Juliet's Soliloquy, Puck has a couple in Midsummer that are fun.

I am curious... what are the rules for using a religious text as literature in the classroom?

Andrew said...

I suppose the answer would vary a bit depending on who is expounding on the rules. I had a very good prof in my Masters program who was superintendent of a local district. His time spent on religion in schools, laced with his personal experience as head honcho, were some of the funniest classes I have attended. It was through his examples that I came to realize that it was not atheists who drove "god" from the public schools, it was conservative Christians. Conservative Christians create such a headache for administrators that it is easier for schools to just dump the whole topic altogether.

My prof's point was not that religion cannot be discussed, it is that a teacher can in no way promote it, or give more credence to any one in particular. A fine line to be sure. Nor should a teacher allow students to proselytize or "sell" their religion in the classroom. However, in a humanities/ sociology/historical sense, a teacher should not avoid the topic. To do so would be a significant censoring of human history and development.

So, that would be the umbrella under which I would introduce these texts. These writings effected the histories of various cultures and are still influential today.

Still, do I want the potential headache? I may avoid it altogether. I'll have to see once I get a good amount of potential materials together.

What is your take on that?

curmudgeon said...

I agree that to ignore religion's influence on history leaves a great big hole in the story of humanity. The risk is perceived spin. As soon as you say something that sounds like pro Koran you will be barbecued. Utah is not really more than a half of a degree in difference from the Evangelical Belt.

I fully agree we should be able to have the conversation in schools. The trick is to not advocate. I struggle with this concept than acknowledgement is advocation. It comes up frequently in my Human Sexuality course. Providing knowledge and encouraging critical thinking is not advocacy. However it is perceived that way. Many Parents see information (even good and accurate information) to be subversive to their world view.

Andrew said...

You hit the nail on the head Kevin. Many folks cannot separate good information from advocacy. I know of a few instances where various districts in Michigan tried to get some kind of "World Religions" courses into Jr. High & High school, but the religious right killed it. They saw the articulation of any worldview but their own as a threat.

curmudgeon said...

I have been known, as an atheist, to get rankled when the topic of religion is lead from the front of the classroom. I am much more relaxed about it if it is discussed from a social/humanities/cultural aspect where there is room for the student to assert their belief or non belief and to be respected in the discussion.

I think if you are going to go down path it may be best to spell it out for the parents. However you may have other parents opt out.

Opting out is another area that causes me some grief. I think that when education is just that.... education having your child opt out should result in "no credit" and it should adversely affect their grade. The idea that you can react to education by putting your fingers in your ears and saying 'nenernenernener' is absurd.

Don said...

The 29th verse of the Tao Te Ching and the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes are wonderful comparisons....Of the Tao is older!

Jon said...

Can't remember how old your students are. I remember loving parts of Macbeth and it was great to remember - "Life's but a walking shadow". Also some of Shakespear's sonets are memorable - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day". AE Housemena is both simple and profound and obsessed with death which they might love at a certain age. "To and athlete dying young". Or else a bit of Tennyson. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" featured in "The Blid Side" so sme of them might recognise it. I'm sorry, we were shielded from American poetry in my youth so I can't help you there, but for some Aussie flavour you could introduce them to some of the bush ballads of AB "Banjo" Paterson. "The Geebung Polo Club" was my favourite as a kid.

Bob said...

Sonnets are good to memorize and they're short, of course. Even shorter, and more fun, are limericks.

I so agree with your point about memorization. The younger you are, the better your memory. I remember when I learned the multiplication tables and, of course, have never forgotten them. How could anyone think that's not a good thing? You might just start something here! Good luck!

Related Posts with Thumbnails