Best Summer Project

Edith Foster

May 1, 2004

It’s getting warmer, and soon your kids will be out of school. The summer is likely to be hot, difficult, and distracting. There will be constant news from the Middle East, and the election steamboat will pick up speed. You will be working hard, as well as negotiating the usual round of camps, sports activities, and family trips that take up the summer. During all of this, don’t forget that you owe yourself, and your kids, some quiet and productive evenings. Before the time slips by, this summer, not next summer, spend time memorizing something worth knowing with your kids

Before you click out, allow me quickly to argue that doing this could bring you both a lot of fun and a lot of profit. Memorization does not deserve its reputation as a killer of creativity. On the contrary, memorization is useful to the whole process of thought creation. It exercises intelligence and quiet concentration, creates a supply of examples to think with and about, and provides models of speech that can be accommodated to suit different themes. Memorization is the basis of versatility, because examples that live in the mind are truly one’s own: they can be molded and recast for any useful purpose.

As for fun, working on these things with your children, especially your somewhat older children, can be one of the most rewarding parts of being a parent. Even short poems supply amazing riches when they are carefully considered. Sharing longer speeches or poems with older children brings even greater rewards. At the same time as getting to think about this material for yourself, you’ll be sharing it with someone who is new to the literature and likely to contribute unexpected opinions, more rarely, at first, but with increasing frequency as time goes on. If you persevere, you’ll have the unexpected experience, once in a while, of finding that your child is a friend. They, in turn, will be very grateful (trust me) that you invested the time.

Finally, let me explain that memorization can be learned, and that while memorization is like any other art — the more you do, the more you’ll get out of it—the beginning steps are not complicated or difficult. I’ve taught both languages and music, and have both memorized, and asked other people to memorize, a fair amount of stuff. Here’s a method of memorization that has worked for my kids and me.

Perhaps you have an idealistic 9 or 10 year old at home, a child now learning the harder words and expanding out into the real world. Let’s say the two of you want start by memorizing Tennyson’s "The Eagle: A Fragment."

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls:

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

To prepare, read through the poem together, and talk about whatever catches your attention.

Then divide the poem into shorter pieces. In this case the job is easy, since the poem falls into three line stanzas. In general, each piece of material you memorize should include a few short lines of a play or poem, or several clauses of a sentence. The material should contain a maximum of 15 to 20 words; for younger children, eight or ten words are enough.

Now start memorizing the poem. Work on the second stanza first. Ask your child to look at that stanza, and while the child is looking at the page, briefly ask a few questions that refer directly to the words of the poem. For example: What does the sea look like to the eagle? How does the sea move? Where is the eagle standing? What is he like when he falls? The child should pick answers right out of the text.

Now hide the stanza from the child for a moment and repeat the last line of the stanza: "And like a thunderbolt he falls." Ask the child if s/he can remember the words. Of course! The child should say them out loud.

Then ask, "Well, how about, "He watches from his mountain walls?" Again, the child should repeat the words out loud.

Now say something like, "So, these are the lines?" and repeat the last two lines of the stanza in order: "He watches from his mountain walls/ And like a thunderbolt he falls." Ask your child if s/he can repeat them. If the child can do it, have him or her say the lines, perhaps twice.

Now add the first line of the stanza. Follow the same procedure as before: review the single line for the child: "The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls" and ask him or her to repeat it back to you. If s/he can, read the three lines of the stanza, and see if the child can repeat the whole thing.

Many kids will now remember the second stanza, and many will remember parts, but not everything. If your child can already remember the second stanza, go on to work on the first stanza of the poem. Use the same technique. The rules are: 1. Ask questions 2. Learn the individual lines in reverse order, starting from the last line of whatever group of lines you are trying to memorize.

Why should you start with the last line first, rather than starting from the beginning? By learning the end first, the last part of the material becomes the most dependable part. This minimizes the feeling of trying to remember the next and the next and the next thing. It’s easier and less stressful to remember the part that fits in front of what you already know. Finally, learning the lines in reverse order isolates each line, so that you concentrate on it individually. This makes it easier to see what, precisely, you have to learn.

But back to "The Eagle." If, after working on it the first time, you or your child don’t remember the second stanza, instantly remind yourselves that you already know one or two lines of a three line stanza, and that you can add the rest tomorrow. There’s nothing wrong, incidentally, with working on the first stanza even though you haven’t quite got the second one perfect yet. Work on them both a little bit, and then put the whole thing away. Ten or fifteen minutes of this kind of activity is plenty; you can always read a story or other poems with the rest of your time.

If, on the other hand, you memorized the whole poem at one sitting, don’t be surprised if you have forgotten large parts of it the next day. You’ll probably have to review for at least two more days to inscribe the poem solidly in your memory. When you review, you can repeat the method suggested above, or if your memory is solid, you can just fix up missing words or lines through simple coaching and repetition. Once you know some poems, review them once a week. Soon you will find them in your memory whenever you want them. And don’t forget to keep raising questions that occur to you. Right now we’re talking about how to get things memorized. But the meaning of the poems is the most important thing, and to understand that you have to keep asking questions.

This is all much too idealistic, you’re saying to yourself (presuming you’ve read this far). What about my media soaked 12 year-old? Or how about my 14 year-old going on 40? How could I ever do this with him?

Studies done on early teens show that, as far as language goes, they are capable of the highest achievements. Thirteen year-olds, for instance, are frequently capable of reading hard authors in foreign languages. The trouble is that they will usually require a few more years before they understand the meaning of what they’re reading.

This disparity between the skills and the wisdom of the early teenage years is responsible for a lot of grief. Especially, this age group is frequently unhappy in school, and you’re thinking that you’ll never motivate one of them to sit down and talk about a play or poem, much less memorize one. Don’t give up. They need you now more than ever.

I have two suggestions that might be helpful. First, choose a hard project that you’ll both get something out of. Kids this age are often hungry to use their intelligence, and to work on adult stuff. Second, don’t ask them to do anything you aren’t willing to do. Be willing to memorize the material yourself, in front of them, just as you are asking them to memorize in front of you. (They’re going to be better at memorizing than you are, probably, so this will involve taming your ego.)

Is the relevant child 13 or 14? You could buy some paperback Folger Library Editions and read Shakespeare. Try Macbeth or Henry V, for example. If you like comedy, try Twelfth Night. Read the play together, talk about it a lot, and memorize some speeches.

Or read Spenser, in old English. Memorize this stanza from the first book of Edmund Spenser’s "The Fairy Queen" with your 12 year-old rebel. The Red Cross Knight has just slain "Error", who is a monster, and to whom he is still clinging.

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw

A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,

Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,

Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke

His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:

Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,

With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,

And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:

Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.

This stanza will hopefully seem impressively weird and gross to your kid (and maybe to you). But you’ll be able to explain to him that his generation did not invent the weird, or the gross. Furthermore, the gross here is to the point: the stanza is in fact a rather difficult allegory: Error vomits black poison, but also books and papers, as well as blind frogs and toads that get away, and go creeping through the grass. Error here stands not so much for mistakes, as for some kind of corruption. What will you and your child make of it? Figuring out some explanation is most of the fun, and much of the profit, of reading this kind of poem.

If you don’t have an annotated edition (but if you’re going to learn this, you should get one) you’ll have to look up some words. After you know what all the words mean, you can start by dividing the stanza. If I were learning this stanza, I might put the last four lines together in a group, then group the four lines before that, and then maybe add the first line at the end of memorizing. (But you could also follow the rhyme scheme; it’s all up to you.)

After dividing up the stanza, ask your questions about the last four lines. Why do you think "Error" has books and papers in her vomit? (Can you think of some books or papers that might qualify for Error’s digestive tract?) What else is in her vomit? What’s wrong with them? Where are they off to, creeping through the grass? What has defiled the whole place?

Then memorize the last four lines, starting with the last one and adding lines in front of it. (Like this: first learn the last line by itself, and then the second last line by itself. Then recite the last two lines in order. Next learn the third last line by itself. Then recite the last three lines in order. Finally, learn the fourth last line, and recite the last four lines in order.) Once you’re done the last four lines, repeat the process with the four lines before that, and put it all together.

The Fairy Queen is a great poem to read and talk over with kids. It’s full of heroism and hard issues, as well as fantasy and strange inventions such as in the stanza you just read. Furthermore, kids like the strange language. You could memorize whatever parts of it you liked best.

Memorization is a discipline. It’s not totally easy. But it makes ideas permanently accessible to the mind. Whether you choose to memorize a poem, something from the Bible, part of a speech, or part of a play, whatever you memorize will become a possession of your family. Remember: this summer, not next summer.

P.S. If you’re looking for a book of poems from which to choose a few for the summer, you could try Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Selected by James Berry), Kingfisher Press, New York (1995).

Edith Foster holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Chicago and writes curricula for the National Endowment for the Humanities.