Posted in Teaching on February 16, 2012
Brian writes: Our family is living in a small town in Normandy where our kids are currently attending a French private school. Last year we lived in Paris where the kids went to public school. To date our kids have attended elementary schools in four different school systems: the French public and private schools; an American public school in Charleston, South Carolina; and, before that, “mama school” (homeschooling).
The kids’ having been students at these different schools has granted us an opportunity to notice differences between the different methods of teaching employed in the various school systems. My wife especially, as an experienced teacher, has noticed quite a few differences between the styles of teaching and curriculum used in each place. One of the most interesting differences that I myself have perceived is that, here in France, teachers place a special emphasis on having their students memorize poems and songs.
So far this year our kids, who are in the French equivalents of first and third grade, have memorized four or five different poems – each! Normally, memorizing a section of a poem is assigned to students as homework for the evening – they’re given two to four lines to memorize for Tuesday, two or four lines for Thursday, and so on. Over time the students manage to memorize the entire poem, which they are then tasked with reciting in front of the class.
Such homework may seem strange to teachers in the United States and Canada, but such tasks do have benefits for the students. Here are five of them:
1. Learning proper language skills
Through learning a poem, children are learning language – and not only that, they’re learning poetic language. Poetry can be very powerful, using words to provoke mental images or strong feelings. Students learning poetry are learning by example; by reading some of the works of art by the world’s great poets, they’re also learning how they themselves might use words and sentences to their advantage.
Our students are native English speakers, but the poems that they are memorizing in school are French. In this manner our kids are learning how words and phrases fit together and how certain French words are pronounced. As they practice their French poetry, they’re also enhancing their French language skills.
2. Gaining an understanding of art and culture
Poetry is more than just words – poetry helps to define the culture of a people. By studying poetry, students are learning to appreciate the history and culture behind the words. Our kids, for example, are learning about some of the great French poets and their steps through history.
3. Training the brain to memorize
Memorizing lines of poetry makes for great mental calisthenics. It is often said that the brain is a muscle that must be exercised. By training the mind to retain and regurgitate poetry, we’re giving it the strength to learn and remember other information as well.
While cramming for an exam is a well known and effective brute force technique (and one that I’ve used myself on numerous occasions during my college days), memorization over time is a much more powerful means to remember information. Studying something for half an hour every day for a week is much a much more effective way to remember it than by studying it for four hours during a single sitting. By teaching kids to memorize poems over time, we’re teaching them a useful learning technique.
4. Learning presentation skills
Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking; it is one of the most common phobias in the United States. If your kids learn to speak in public today, they can train themselves to speak properly in public and to conquer the fears of presenting in front of others for the future. I firmly believe that learning public speaking at a young age is of great benefit – in fact, both of our kids currently take an extracurricular theater class in town to help them to speak and perform in front of others. Their future careers may depend on these skills.
5. Earning a sense of accomplishment
When a child learns to do something difficult, they earn a great sense of accomplishment. This is especially true where plays or presentations are concerned – children often receive praise or even applause after they recite a poem or act in a play, which increases their self-confidence and feelings of self-worth. Students do not often receive such positive feedback for the work that they do – graded tests are normally flopped atop a child’s desk in the same manner whether the result is an A or a D, and once they’re put there they’re usually filed away and forgotten about afterward. It can’t hurt for a child to receive applause for a job well done every now and then!
So considering the benefits I’ve mentioned, why not find a poem for your children or students to memorize, giving them a few lines to practice every night? Just for fun, here’s our own daughter reciting a poem that she was assigned in school. She gets a few words wrong, and her accent isn’t perfect… but that’s not the point. She’s exercising her mind, and she’s obviously proud of what she’s accomplished.