Snowflakes and Poetry

Snowflakes and Poetry

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We are in the grip of winter here in the UK and my Thursday Thoughts this week are filled with ice and snowflakes. Not snowflakes falling out of the sky, but rather the term used to characterise young adults of the 2010s who, in certain quarters, are viewed as being more prone to taking offence and less resilient than previous generations.

It appears the UK Government is pushing British youth to its limits and forcing them to learn poems by heart for examinations. The trauma such, a petition containing 160,000 names has been collected and asks for the practice to stop, allowing students to take text books containing the poems into examinations. The number of names on the petition means the matter must be raised and debated in Parliament. According to the report in the Daily Mail, the poems causing the most consternation are The Charge Of The Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Follower by Seamus Heaney.

The main crux of the argument centres around a task of learning 15 poems with a minimum of 300 lines of poetry and then being able to analyse them under exam conditions. Petitioners think this is too much. Isn’t one of the joys of poetry in the learning and reciting? There is no better feeling than reciting a poem from memory as it takes you into the heart and soul of the poem.

I remember at the age of 10 being given a school task to choose and memorise a piece of poetry. Being one for a challenge, I selected William Shakespeare’s All The Worlds A Stage, the monologue recited by Jacques in As You Like it. It was a struggle, but I can still capture the feeling of pride standing in front of my parents, teachers and class mates, reciting it word for word; although the lads at the rugby club kept me at arm’s length for a few weeks after.

Recent research by the University of Cambridge has found learning a poem by heart can be good for you and supports my view about getting to the heart of a poem. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Debbie Pullinger, said “Yes, it does seem that there is something special about committing a poem to memory. You’ve invested in it and made it yours. Learning, giving voice and understanding – these all go hand in hand.” The research also found learning a poem by heart had benefits for well-being and “having the potential to enrich lives over many years.”

What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the practice of learning poems verbatim for examinations is outdated and not necessary in this technological age? Maybe you have a story to share about a poem, or poems, you have learned by heart and how they had a positive impact for you.  Whatever your thoughts I would love you to share them.

64 Comments

This is interesting, also considering how easily we all learned song lyrics at that age, as is still the case for that age group.
Often we don’t even understand the wisdom at the time, but when I moved overseas, suddenly the poem “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar became very precious to me. I had only learned the second verse but I am so glad I did. http://www.dorotheamackellar.com.au/archive/mycountry.htm
Also, when people are dying, they might not even have their mental faculties much anymore, but it is incredible the things that (they memorised in childhood) come back to bring comfort etc.

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    That is a beautiful piece of poetry Vanessa and thank you for the link. I have not read it before. When we are young nursery rhymes are used as the syntax makes it easier for language development and I wonder whether that is the same for people approaching the end of their lives. In terms of making it easier to understand language. Thank you for this interesting angle on the conversation Vanessa.

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      You are welcome, I am glad you enjoyed it. I think it is beautiful too… “all tragic to the moon” so moved my young heart when I first read it, it is still one of my favourite poetic phrases, ever. Apart from the whole poem, of course 🙂
      Yes, how interesting about nursery rhymes, one experience my husband had with a dying parishioner who had Alzherimer’s, was she was completely lost when he started reciting things to her she would have been familiar with. But then she started mumbling something and her granddaughter realised she was saying the Lord’s Prayer in German and did not miss a beat. She hadn’t spoken German in years, but was obviously her first language.

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      Wow Vanessa, I still think there is lots about the human mind that we have yet to discover. Things we do at an early age must embed themselves in our brain and stay there. Your husband must experience some extraordinary things in his line of work?

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      Yes, I’m sure there’s more than we could ever imagine.
      (And i’m sure our hearts and intestines are involved… i’ve read there is thinking that our hearts are somewhat of an intelligent organ, as well as the mysterious workings of our gut and probiotics in regards mental health etc.
      I saw a documentary on organ donor recipients who took on personality traits of the donor overnight. Depending on the organ etc, particular food cravings and even dreams that related to the previous person!! Fascinating!)
      And double yes about hubby! he has indeed! 😳

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      That is so interesting about the organ donation Vanessa and it proves there is so much that we have still to learn and maybe some things that will always remain a mystery.

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    This is so true. People that don’t even remember their own name can recite back their social security number and other amazing information memorized years ago. The last time I saw my Dad I was playing old hymns on the piano and his severe Alzheimer’s did not prevent him from singing them from memory and on key! There is something to be said for the things we bury in our hearts!
    Chuck

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I agree with you , Davy. Ah ! The feeling of reciting a poem ! I always felt a surge of victory when I learned to memorize a poem. But gone are those days. We cannot force the youth of today ! Poetry is a heartfelt thing.

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I didn’t realise that the Government set the exact poems to be learnt. Maybe one should rethink what feels closest to the hearts of the new generation.
Like so many of you I also learnt a number of poems by heart and some just because I loved them. It is a comfort to have. The young do actually appreciate poetry and write good such. I was mightily impressed on one school show where arts were shown and performed.
Good encouraging teachers are much better than Gvernment decrees.
miriam

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    I totally agree Miriam and thank you for raising some very good points. I think some of the poems are set as part of the curriculum. My daughter just missed all this. She had an excellent teacher who fostered a love of poetry for most of the pupils. The education system in the UK seems to be more concerned with targets rather than quality of learning. Pupils are being taught how to pass exams and good teachers are leaving in droves. Michael Gove wanted everyone to experience a Victorian style schooling on the basis it worked for him.

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Tough one for me Davy, my son is one of those tasked so. While I agree it is something special and brings poetry alive, it is not a pre-requisite for understanding or even appreciating poetry and therefore pointless from an exam point of view. The exam is to grade the level of comprehension not memory. My boy is highly intelligent, has an interest in design and we are told has a remarkably high degree of empathy and social awareness, but poetry just doesn’t float his boat . As a parent and poet I would say it concerns me how much time this will take for no academic benefit. (though I’d love to hear him recite Kipling’s ‘IF’.

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    As a parent who has recently been in a similar position I agree Nigel and appreciate getting your viewpoint. As a result of Gove’s management at the education department we seem to be returning to a Victorian based school system on an evidence base that it worked for him. In my own view, from an exam perspective I feel allowing critical analysis of the poetry as opposed to rote learning would foster a deeper appreciation of them. Outside of the education arena it is good to see the potential health benefits of learning and reciting poetry for those who wish to take it up. Maybe ‘IF’ may be a better prescription for some as opposed to antibiotics. Thank you for your thoughts on this Nigel.

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I think they’re right to expect kids to memorize some poetry – it’s a skill like everything else in school. Back when I was a child (before the earth cooled – when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I memorized several poems on my own and often. As to whether kids are into poetry – many of us were not into math, but we still had to learn it. Education must maintain some standards (so many have been dropped, with negative results) if we expect young people to to be well-equipped for life. (Okay, stepping down from soapbox, ducking those flying tomatoes 🙂 ) Seriously, excellent post, Davy.

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    Thank you for your thoughts and adding to the conversation Jan. I don’t know much about the education system over there in the States but agree education should be about preparing students to deal with life after schooling. Having wrote this and reading the responses I think the issues separate. There are obvious benefits for learning poetry by heart but the next question is does our old style of learning fit in with a modern society? I am playing devil’s advocate here as my view is undecided at this time.

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Oh be still my heart! Davy, you know I loved this post of yours! I have so much to say… Yes, of course I think memorizing poetry is a thing of beauty. But, if you think about it, children are exposed to memorization as early as pre-school. They recite nursery rhymes, songs, nonsense poems for fun and teachers do it as lessons. They are read Doctor Seuss who writes in rhythm and rhymes. So our children ARE reciting poetry from the moment they walk into school. The sing the alphabet song and learn grammar through little “diddies”. All of that is poetry in some fomr or another. And then that style of learning abruptly stops when they get older. What a shame!!!
So what do our children do then??? They put on ear phones and listen to lyrics and memorize every word to a song or rap, and say it or sing aloud. ALL poetry. It seems that youth craves reciting poetry aloud. Especially when they don’t know it is an assignment!

My first poetry experience that I recollect was in 7th grade when my English teacher had us memorize “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. We had to recite that poem and then read an original poem of our own making about something in nature. To this day I still remember every word to the poem, “Trees”. And for me that moment changed my life. My teacher heard my poetry aloud and so did my classmates. I had been writing poems and stories privately for years in a journal, but until I stood up in front the room the performer in me never came to life. That English teacher, Mr. Wilson, who I have written about in a few spoken word poems, recognized that I needed to be placed in advanced classes and he changed my educational world forever. (My chattiness and rebelliousness was considered a behavioral issue in the 1950’s growing up when really, I was just an out of the box hyper kind of child.)
I was a bit misunderstood during those structured mid century days.

But….Poetry gave me wings. So standing up and reciting about trees was my first chance to step into a writer’s shoes and be the voice of his words. It was one of my best school experiences ever! The next year my history teacher had my class memorize the Gettysburg address and recite it. And I have to say years later I impressed all my students when out of the blue in February to honor Lincoln, I blurted out “Four Score and 7 year years ago…..” To this day I can still recite his entire address. It is still somewhere in my my brain waiting to be heard. Just as every line Juliet ever said is stored somewhere in my cluttered mind… waiting for the right moment to come out of hiding.
We stopped having children memorize things a while back and the thing is, we underestimated that they do it naturally with music. So isn’t it better that they recall Robert Frost than P Diddy? I think perhaps it is.

I loved having students in groups take a long poem and each group memorize a section and stand up and recite it. Choral reading was fun as well. The children seemed to love it too. And boy did they have fun reciting Edward Lear or reading L C’s The Jabberwocky. So If you don’t over do the memorizing thing, it can be a wonderful educational experience for children.
I rather took it to heart with my own children too. My younger son began speaking very, very early – before he was one. And so I taught him lines from Shakespeare. (I know I’m nutty, but it was cute!) So here was this baby in diapers barely able to walk and If I’d say, “Johnny, tell us some Shakespeare…” He would say “To be or not to be that is the question.” Or “What light from younger window breaks….” I couldn’t help it, he was so clear with his language skills and just so adorable. (It did not endear me to the other mother’s in his playgroup whose children could only day Mama and Dada and he was talking up a storm. But, hey, we need to challenge our children, right?) And yes, that son did do theatre in school, sang in a band, and now is an assistant director in the film business, so he had that talent anyway… and he is an amazing writer…. But gosh it was cute when he memorized soliloquies as a toddler.

Back to your topic…I think anything done in moderation is a great. I don’t know that I would give students 15 poems to memorize. AND I would give them choices since every child has their own learning style and interests. I would open their experiences up to a variety of poets and let the students select their own choices of poetry out a larger list. That way it becomes their own thing rather than the teacher’s assignment. AND I would encourage memorizing their own personal poetry to share in class.
I think blending the old with the new is the best way to keep education current. There are always a few kids who can’t speak in front of the class. Not because they didn’t have the aptitude, but because of fear. I used to have students read each other’s poems and somehow that was less threatening for them sometimes. (The educational system has to be sympathetic to the individual needs of the students.)
But lets face it, kids know ALL the words to songs. Heck, I can still remember the words to every single Beatle and Stones song. It’s all poetry isn’t it? Memorizing can be cool too.

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    Thank you as always for your reply Lesley which always leave me asking myself more questions. I like your thought of having a blend of the old with the new as there are things to be learned on both sides. I think there is also a part of this where you as a teacher understood the differing learning styles and personalities of the students and your teaching methods would have captured almost all. The issue with the current UK education system is it teaches pupils to pass exams as schools are funded and assessed on pass rates. Rote learning has its role to play, as you say we use it to develop language at an early age learning rhymes and songs. I too was brought us on the poetry of Dr. Seuss. I think this also has to do with early influences. It seems you used poetry to help develop your children as I did mine. Thank you again for your thoughts Lesley and I shall be pondering your response for most of the weekend.

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      Thanks for your kind words. But, please don’t ponder my typos. 😉 Testing is huge in the US too. But I still made time to veer away from it. I remember vividly being a bored little girl who got into trouble if I wasn’t excited about learning, so I tried my best to make sure my students felt some excitement by the end of every day. There is nothing quite as lovely as the proud look of accomplishment on a child’s face when they share an original poem or story. And their smiles when others clap at their success. Ah! The most encouraging moments of my career were seeing those looks and smiles and knowing another writer was now entering the world. However they find their inspiration- be it memorizing a poem or hearing a song, it’s a thing of beauty!

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      What typos Lesley? 🙂 Your comment makes me think of the saying, ” when the student is ready the teacher will appear.) Your words highlight what the learning experience should be like and there must be some inspired students who have gone out into the world and passed on your love for the arts.

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    Wow, Lesley! So well said and wise! Song lyrics are a type of poetry. The music makes it easier to memorize but still they memorize the words! Loved your comment! So full of wisdom and practicality! I was hooked on poetry in High School with a project to write 3 love poems and illustrate the work of an American poet. I chose Robert Frost and did his “The Road Not Taken” and like you I can still recite it 50 years later. I recently had the honor and privilege to recite a poem I had written for the memorial of a friend’s wife (my “A Flickering Soul). It was the first time I had every recited/performed anything I’ve written in public. After all these years, this is the one thing that has confirmed to me – I am a poet!

    Time spent memorizing is an investment in ourselves. It’s a gift we can give to our own heart. I also, agree that things in moderation are best and think overdoing it may cause a unwanted backlash. We can let kids spend tons of hours on stupid video games but memorizing is too harsh? The research is clear. Memorization helps the intellect. They have shown that those who take piano lessons do better in school. A function of the right and left brain working together multi-tasking and memorizing!

    Thanks for taking the time to write out your eloquent comment!
    Chuck

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      Beautifully expressed Chuck. Your comment actually reads with poetic flair. How lovely you were able to help your friend represent his wife by reciting a poem at her memorial. Often times nothing is better than Poetry to share our emotions. My son and I spoke at my late husband’s funeral. I actually quoted the words to the song Camelot. (My husband was a History teacher and often lectured on the Kennedy assignation. So that song seemed appropriate). Plus, we saw Richard Burton in Camelot on our Second date. I read Shakespeare at my mom’s funeral and quoted Jane Austen at my Dad’s. So, memorizing is as natural to me as breathing. Every life experience brings to mind a quote or a song.
      And, thank you for YOUR eloquent comment!

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    Lesley, so sorry about your losses!!! I don’t like being so close to the pinnacle of the pyramid in my family. You are so romantic to recite Camelot lyrics for your late husbands service! So nice to have the sweet to temper the bitter in life!
    Blessings,
    Chuck
    xo

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The few poems I learned as a child or teenager have stayed with me for life, a particular favourite being ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley. It took several years to fully appreciate its nuances, but I still quite often repeat it to myself and it’s a very grounding poem – we all turn to dust in the end, whether you are a grand king or not! At the time (I was around 15) I was fascinated by the Jean Jacques Burnel (bass player in The Stranglers) version of this poem which helped me to learn it, and is one of the weirdest pieces of music I have heard even to this day (it’s on YouTube). Many of my most loved ‘poems’ are actually song lyrics which I have always found much easier to learn, and I think we have some truly talented lyricists who are also poets – Guy Garvey of Elbow and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy are just two current examples. So in a sense, I find a great deal of comfort from poetry, and also poems in the guise of song lyrics – all committed to memory. You get a real sense of achievement from being able to recite poetry, and it’s a great way of keeping your brain active!

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    Thank you for adding your thoughts to the conversation Debbie and it is appreciated. I listened to the JJB version of Ozymandias and although it is weird I would have loved to have learned the poem listening to this (although being a Stranglers nut, I may be slightly biased.) You have hit on a good point here Debbie, maybe the issue is not about the learning and reciting, it may be more to do with how the learning is presented. I am sure many students would love to learn poetry this way. Thank you for the brain jig, have just got JJB up on Spotify and listening to the Euroman Cometh. Haven’t heard it in ages.

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As a mom and teacher, I love having kids memorize poems! It’s good for their brains, hearts and souls! 🙂 I encourage them to write poetry, too! 🙂

Of course, keeping them age appropriate…I wouldn’t have a six year old memorizing a l-o-n-g sonnet. 😛 And studying the poem and helping them to find meaning, something to relate to, and application to life, in the poem might help them want to memorize.

We memorize best when we are young. The older we get the harder it is to memorize anything. So kids should be encouraged to memorize.

They say an elderly person might not be able to tell you what they had for breakfast, but they can quote poems, sayings, songs, scriptures (etc) that they memorized when they were children.

And those songs and poems, etc., can bring us peace, smiles, joy, etc., when we say them aloud or in our minds, for the rest of our lives. 🙂

I could talk even more verbosely on this subject…about poems I memorized, poets I love, poets who encouraged me to try my hand at writing, etc., but I’ll hush now. 🙂

HUGS!!! 🙂

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I studied in an era where we memorised everything! Then regurgitated it all! I believe it trains the mind to absorb then filter and sort. Many new age parents feel a duty to protect their children and support mediocrity over hard work. My elder son Joshua had led a Choral Speaking team all through high school and I was so impressed at the poems they chose to recite. Students memorised famous poems and gave spoken word performances with actions to emphasise the words from the poem, poems by Shakespeare, Frost and Poe. It developed a better grasp of language and empowered the kids to speak publicly. Having words to pick up from memory gives someone access to a virtual library. Too much relying on devices to look things up deadens the brain as knowing we have an artificial resource to fall back on. Why not use our brain? An extremely timely post Davy, the old ways are still the best ways.

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    Thank you Gina for your valuable thoughts and bringing another angle to the conversation. I read a book last year about how social media and modern technology is changing the structure and way the human brain operates. The brain is using memory in a different way and skills like reading long passages of information are reducing. The younger generations brain now works in a different way to other generations, but I suppose that has always been the case. I remember my Grandmother calling my calculator the work of the Devil. Maybe one day when the internet is switched off we will have to go back to the old ways.

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      I agree about the change that seems so foreign to the previous generation, but technology will drive the future , we can’t stop it, we need to find the right balance, and educators, people of influence and scholars must take bold steps to create that balance. Some old ways are still best and methods with proven success,. the calculator rivaled the abacus and good old memory beans and we created a generation of students who can’t even remember multiplication tables. We, the ones who have lived through the changes see the value of both worlds meeting for a better outcome. Know what I can’t even remember my own home telephone number as its keyed into the mobile phone and SIRI can help me phone home! Your grandmother sounds like my mum when she sees her grand kids playing football on the computer! Enjoy the dialogue very much Davy, I am pouring a Malbec early to get my head around all this. Cheers!

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      Thank you for your thoughts Gina and hoped you enjoyed the Malbec (my favourite wine). I think you have got the right word here Gina, balance. We should never forget that the old creates the path for the new and in reality there is nothing new. The internet is just an advanced form of communication and I don’t know if it develops our skills as a species. There are some interesting thoughts in this conversation and some I will be returning to later in the year.

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      looking forward to more interesting discussions as these in the future Davy, yes the Malbec was a good one, from a Marks & Spencer’s here, only place I can get a good label. Oh how lovely its your favourite too, I am quite hooked on it. lovely week ahead to you Davy.

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    Single dust, I love the choral spoken word team! That’s a fab idea.
    What I find interesting is that the poets I work with now in retirement, are spoken word writers. 98% of them write on their smart phones. They have cells with them all the time and pull them out to jot down ideas. In school I always had students use composition notebooks but apparently phones work well too. And while they are supposed to memorize their poems when they compete at slams, now and then a student will read from his/her phone. So devices CAN be used in positive ways, which is exciting! I set up a microphone in our school cafeteria and after the children eat they go up and share original poems during lunch. It really inspires kids to jot down ideas, even on napkins, and get up and share their thoughts. Any way we can inspire them is the right (write lol) way. But yes, having a mind filled with wonderful literature is always the goal of an educator, so students are able to draw from a background of references.

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      hi Leslie! I am so so pleased to read that educators like yourself are using technology and older methods to inspire children. I felt the strength of your conviction in your words and all that you have been doing with these young minds. All it really takes is a simple idea and the kids will return with creativity that surprises even the most jaded person. Thank you for making a difference! kids never forger the teachers that believed in them and made them stretch a little more. i have attended some youth poetry slams and while they have unorthodox methods writing the poems example on mobile phones and tablets the quality of the poetry cannot be denied, these are thinking youth, absorbing life’s challenges and creating art with their words. introducing them to literature enriches their lives. I appreciate that last sentence you wrote – draw from a background of references – I am always impressed when a young person can quote from a book, gives such credit to their thought process. Thank you for your very inspiring comment!

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I think memorizing poetry is beneficial because it is a tipping of the hat to the literary world, however, I believe there should be a healthy selection of poems to choose from and not just a few. If one selects a poem they enjoy there is more success the meaning will stay with them. The same applies to lyrics of a song that one enjoys.

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Well, Davy, My Friend! It seems you have stirred the pot again! LOL! Love it! So, memorization is hard and evil? As pointed out in comments above kids know all the lyrics to the songs by their favorite groups?

Please keep us posted about the uproar over this in the U.K. Memorization is the exercise and development of a part of our brain that we are fast losing in modern society. The ability to remember facts and dates, rules and laws! Don’t let the kids in the U.K. become like our “Dear Leader” here in the U.S. who cannot remember anything! Poetry Police?? Honestly, parents are crazy these days. So, let me ask you! Do you think all the players on a school’s football team know every single play in the team’s playbook?? You bet they do! Sad times, My Friend! I agree with Gina, the old ways are often the best ways!!!
Chuck

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I think it depends on what meaning and purpose you ascribe to the rote learning. You might make the poem yours, but does it have special meaning for you? I remember poems I learnt as a child 48 years ago, but they don’t hold any particular memories other than a primary school class and a hand drawn illustration in my poetry book.

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    An interesting thought and thank you for sharing it. I suppose we can assign different thoughts and meanings to a poem at different times of our lives. At school I hated Shakespeare, but forty years on I am just beginning to understand the genius behind it.

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      YesI agree! Things are revealed to us slowly through the course of our lives. Different stages means words will affect us differently. And thinking if Shakespeare, I don’t like it when they change old words of poetry or prose to suit modern day ethics, such as Baa baa ‘rainbow’ sheep instead of ‘black’ sheep. Firstly it is ridiculous and secondly can you imagine changing Shakespeare’s words? Their historical context needs to be considered in poetry and prose. It may be wrong but that is what life was like in that day.

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      Of course, poetry and words should be read in the style and language of the time they were written. If they are changed it is a bit like re-writing history.

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      I can see you understand what I mean 🙂

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I’m up for learning poetry by heart. Wether it’s the best way to test or promote students appreciation of poetry is another thing all together.

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    It is one to ponder Andrew and thank you for your thoughts. Personally I think an understanding of the emotion and background to the poem and poet are more important.

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