Sunday, January 18, 2015

I Laugh So I Don't Cry

For many years now, I have had my classes memorize poetry a couple of times a year:  "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale, "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, and/or "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrea.

Over the past decade, the assignment has become much more difficult for a larger number of students.   This year, I think I have hit the wall.  They might be able to remember a stanza at a time, and that is about it.  They stumble through the poem stanza by stanza, and frequently still need prompting. (I have to keep track of how many stanzas they have recited.)

The other night at auditions for the All School Production, the director asked students to hop up on stage and recite the Pledge of Allegiance so that they could be heard clearly.  It was horrifying how many students needed prompting.  At least 75% of the students couldn't say it without help.  The other 25% left out words or phrases.  I was stunned.  (And I'm having them memorize "Invictus"?  What the heck am I thinking?  How about the Pledge of Allegiance? Wowsa!  I had no idea!)

A girl in class told me that she can't recite the Lord's Prayer unless she is in church.  She says she just can't remember it.

I'm pretty sure it is a sign of the times, and it really concerns me as to what memory issues our whole society faces in the future. Kids don't need to remember anything, because any information they need is at their finger tips. (That is if they can remember what it is that they need to be looking for!) And what are we losing?  Our collective memories.

Where will it end? I'm not really sure.  Fortunately, I'll probably be too dead to care.  Just don't say I didn't tell you!


  1. Don't give up!

    (So I posted this earlier but it didn't go through – so I'll be a bit brief as I get ready for class.)

    I teach at a privately-funded school for poor students. Given our location, most of those kids are ESL. Their PSAT scores (before their SAT class) are about average nationally, with the lower kids well below the national average. I shied away from Shakespeare my first year as a result. But then, I decided to teach Julius Caesar. All my assumptions were wrong.

    My kids perform 20-30 lines of either Brutus's or Antony's monologues to the mob in 3.2. There's of course a few who fumble the assignment, but generally they knock it out of the park – and a weird thing that keeps happening is THE lowest kid in the class does THE best job on the assignment. Our kids – YOUR kids – can do this!

    Maybe you need to "sell" it differently, or even pick new poems to sell that you can get behind. But don't give up! Our kids can do this, and as I tell them, it is a huge confidence booster to know that you have some lit memorized! My focus is on reading and writing well, but knowing a few lines of Shakespeare will do your spirit well in college when you feel everyone knows more than you. :)

    Don't give up!

    1. My students have memorized Mark Antony's funeral oration over the last 30+ years of teaching, too. I remember Marva Collins talking about inner city, struggling students loving Shakespeare. I have always found that the poorer readers do just as well on Shakespeare as the best readers. Sometimes they are quicker to catch on to the language of the play than the A students, and they are quite proud of their grasp on challenging literature.

      This is actually the first year that the students have struggled so miserably with any kind of memorization. Usually, there are 5-10% who need prompting or to recite a stanza at a time. This year, it was well over 50%. And when they can't remember something they recited every single day of school for the first 6 years of their education, it makes me think that something is at work in our society that we need to be paying attention to now. Some things are hard to overlook.