[This is a guest post by Yulia Shpilman. It is not about math, and therefore a bit unusual for this blog. However, I feel that many of the reasons and advice that she gives for learning poetry apply to learning math as well.]
We are often asked the question of why we at the Golden Key Russian School ask our students to memorize Russian poetry by heart. Whether you’re a poetry lover or not, the consensus is that it’s something that’s “good for you,” like eating spinach or practicing your multiplication tables. At the same time, it’s challenging and sometimes downright painful for the kids, so is it really worth it?
I believe the answer is a resounding yes, for many reasons (which I believe apply to poetry in English just as well):
Huge sense of pride at accomplishing something difficult
You may be surprised to learn that, with few exceptions, our students are excited to go in front of the classroom and recite their poems. It actually makes perfect sense – they have worked very hard on something and now have a chance to show it off.
Exposure to vocabulary that they wouldn’t otherwise see or ever say out loud
Chances are, you aren’t using words like чахлая (feeble), лазурный (azure) or праздный (indolent) in everyday conversations with your elementary school age children because you assume they don’t know what it means. That is probably true, but when that word appears in a poem that your child is learning by heart, you suddenly have a reason to explain its meaning. Moreover, after repeating that word fifteen times, your child just might have a better chance of remembering and using it as part of his active vocabulary.
Deeper understanding than you get from just cursory reading of a poem once
The first time a child read a difficult poem with many unfamiliar words, its meaning is likely to go her head. As she begins reading (or hearing) it over and over again to commit it to memory, she starts internalizing it, making connections and coming up with interpretations that would not be possible if she had read the poem once and moved on.
Development of good taste and appreciation for beauty and cleverness of the written word
This isn’t something a child born with – good taste in literature, in music, in art needs to be cultivated and developed through gradual, age-appropriate exposure. Learning poetry by heart helps children better understand and appreciate its beauty, the nuances of the poet’s word choices and its overall meaning, helping them become better and stronger readers and “consumers of literature.”
I don’t subscribe to the argument that one needs to memorize poetry to train her memory. If that was the only objective, there are many other ways to accomplish it and all kinds of things to be memorized, from the multiplication table to historical dates, and I am not sure that poetry is superior to them with regard to memory training.
As for making the experience as enjoyable as possible, here are some suggestions.
- Allow the child to choose the poem that she’d like to learn – give her several options and let her pick what speaks the most to her (and reject those that aren’t appealing).
- Work on short bits at a time, so both you and your child can feel like you’re making progress
- Don’t leave the task to the last minute – memorizing a poem is much harder under the pressure of a time constraint. Instead, make it a part of your daily routine – your drive to and from school or activities is a great time to work on memorizing a poem.
- Give them background and context on the poem, but let them offer their own interpretation, which may change and evolve over time.
When a child learns a poem by heart, it becomes a part of her treasure, her arsenal against ignorance, her answer to a difficult challenge. We at GKRS are grateful for the opportunity to give this gift to our students.