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    What Poetry Looks Like

    September 1, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Today, we’ll continue on our What Ambleside Looks Like journey. So far, we’ve discussed picture study, composer study, hymns, geography, and even education-as-atmosphere. Today? Poetry.

    Charlotte and Poetry
    In 1901, Mrs. J. G. Simpson wrote an article for the Parents’ Review concerning poetry instruction which began thus:

    There are, no doubt, people whose poetic taste is so true and deep, that no amount of neglect in early life has been able to prevent its being the ruling passion of their lives, but it is nevertheless true, that in the majority of cases, the real love of poetry may be traced to tastes implanted in childhood.

    We see here, then, that once again we are talking about exposure cultivating the affections.

    It is probably good to acknowledge from the outset that good poetry is good for the soul. In fact, another Parent’s Review article concludes that:

    [T]he purpose of poetry is to communicate or extend the joy of life by quickening our emotions. How it does so, by what magic of art or nature, we should require to be poets to know. But this is what it does: it teaches us how to feel, by expressing for us, in the most perfect way, right human emotions, which we recognise as right, and come ourselves to share. It is good for all of us to be taught how to feel; to be taught how to feel in the presence of Nature; how to feel to one’s country, to one’s lover, or wife, or child; to be taught to feel the mystery of life, the glory of it, the pathos of it; good for us to be shaken out of our lethargic absorption in ourselves, and to have our eyes anointed with salve, that we may look round us and rejoice, and lift up our hearts.

    If education involves training the child’s affections {and I would argue that it does}, that the student might love what is good, true, and beautiful when he is grown, then learning to love good poetry–and be taught by good poetry–is imperative. And early exposure is key.

    Charlotte believed that education was the forging of relationships between the child and the world. She wrote in her third volume:

    Children should have relations with earth and water, should run and leap, ride and swim, should establish the relation of maker to material in as many kinds as may be; should have dear and intimate relations with persons, through present intercourse, through tale or poem, picture or statue; through flint arrow-head or modern motor-car: beast and bird, herb and tree, they must have familiar acquaintance with. {emphasis mine}

    Here we see that she viewed a poem as a means of building a relationship with a person in the past. {I might note here that this is why it matters who are the poets our children study. Are their thoughts worth thinking after them? Children will grow up and meditate on the poems of their youth throughout their lives, so we must choose them with utmost care.}

    There seem to be two things going on in the PNEU schools when it comes to poetry: memorization, and regular reading {we also know that Miss Mason used simple, sweet poems as part of her reading instruction and copywork, but we won’t discuss that here}. Children as young as 6 were reciting hymns, poems, and Bible verses as part of Form I. If some of these Bible verses were Psalms, then I would say that all three of these are {potentially} forms of poetry memorization.

    We will talk about how the students went about memorizing their poems in a moment. For now, let us just acknowledge that they did.

    As early as Class IIb, we know that Charlotte’s students were reading their own poetry, so we also deduce that poetry was a regular part of the curriculum. {We also know that the children read about poets from time to time–whether as biographies, or as inclusions in their history readings, I do not know. Just something to think about.}

    Today we’ll talk about these two parts: memorization and regular reading.

    How to Memorize a Poem
    First, let’s talk about how to choose the poem to memorize. Ambleside Online does not assign poems for memorization, but I am sure selecting something from the assigned list is a good place to start. For our family, I have always done the choosing, and those usually based upon the suggestions of others I know and trust. If you are tempted to skip poetry memorization, I would like to recommend it to you. I originally assumed that I would gain a taste for poetry simply through daily reading. No such luck. Two years of daily reading, and I was no closer to cultivating my own affections, and the easiest affections to teach are the ones we actually have in ourselves.

    After our first term of poetry memorization, I learned to like poetry. Now, after doing this for a couple years, I would almost say that I love it! The only thing I changed was adding memorization. In addition to this, my children initially seemed neutral, but now they claim they “love” poetry. It is hard to love poetry if you haven’t learned to love individual poems and poets, and that is the possibility which memorization holds out to us.

    In Charlotte’s first volume, we read about the ultimate simple method:

    Recitation and committing to memory are not necessarily the same thing, and it is well to store a child’s memory with a good deal of poetry, learnt without labour. Some years ago I chanced to visit a house, the mistress of which had educational notions of her own, upon which she was bringing up a niece. She presented me with a large foolscap sheet written all over with the titles of poems, some of them long and difficult: Tintern Abbey, for example. She told me that her niece could repeat to me any of those poems that I liked to ask for, and that she had never learnt a single verse by heart in her life. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without hesitation; and then the lady unfolded her secret. She thought she had made a discovery, and I thought so too. She read a poem through to E.; then the next day, while the little girl was making a doll’s frock, perhaps, she read it again; once again the next day, while E.’s hair was being brushed. She got in about six or more readings, according to the length of the poem, at odd and unexpected times, and in the end E. could say the poem which she had not learned.

    I have tried the plan often since, and found it effectual. The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems as ‘Dolly and Dick,’ ‘Do you ask what the birds say?’ Little lamb, who made thee?’ and the like. The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child’s enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed.

    When Miss Mason says that “she had never learnt a single verse by heart in her life,” she means that the child was never drilled. And this, my friends in the point. If a child can learn something in a pleasant manner, why would we choose something less pleasing?

    I have found something similar to be just as effective in my own home. We simply read the poems we are memorizing in their entirety once per day during Circle Time. As time goes by, I pause and allow the children to fill in more and more of the words for me. Eventually, they can say the entire poem on their own. I have considered recording myself reading the poems, then burning this onto a CD for them to use in their play nook {I would fill it with many of the things from their memory word, including their folk songs, hymns, etc.}. I have wondered if they would learn these things even faster with that sort of reinforcement as the “background noise” to their play.

    Regular Poetry Reading
    Ambleside Online has assigned one poet per term, and you can view those assignments on the poetry schedule page. If you click on an individual poet, you will see actual poems that you can print out. I haven’t read much discussion on how other families do their poetry readings, so I will just tell you what we do, and if you do differently, you can share with us in the comments!

    For many years, because I had only one “official” student, I read these poems aloud during Circle Time. This year is a little different. I could have kept poetry in Circle Time and read one poem for each student, but I decided to break it up. My Year Four student is reading his poems on his own, and I am reading aloud to my Year One student.

    Each week, my Year Four student is supposed to tell me which is his favorite and why. Then, he clips that poem out and adds it to his commonplace journal {something he just began this year}. He hand-writes the title and author, but he likes to cut and paste the poem. Anyhow, at the end of the term, I will ask him to pick his favorite of the favorites, and that will become his poem to memorize for the next term. I will continue to pick simple poems for the little ones until they are older, even though they tend to memorize his poem, too.

    All we do is read the poems. Sometimes we discuss it, if the child has a question. But mostly we just read. And I find that this is enough. This past summer, we read Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, one chapter at a time, just E.-Age-Nine and myself. We read in the evenings when we were able to catch a few moments alone. We never really discussed it, but the poem felt like it lingered in the living room afterwards, and E. would always sigh and say, “I just love that poem.”

    If I have one goal for our regular reading, it is to appreciate the poem. There is time enough for analysis. In these young ages, reading the poem in whole, and appreciating its beauty, is not just the main thing–it is the Only Thing. Please do not be tempted to tear the poems apart and analyze them. I am reminded of what we learned in Poetic Knowledge

    At the beginning level, poetry, music, astronomy, Latin, etcetera, are done rather than studied.

    The interesting thing to me is that the more that poetry is done, the less analysis required to understand it, if that makes sense.


    In analysis, we are approaching the subject at hand scientifically. This is appropriate for a controlled experiment, but much less so for something that is not, by definition, in the sphere of science: poetry. I’m not saying that analysis is never helpful, but if we start that way, we are likely to make our children hate poetry while not increasing their understanding of it at. all. Taylor quoted Mill as saying:

    [T]he habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings.

    All of this to say: do poetry. That’s it. Read it and savor it. Start with simple poems and work to more complex. This is also where the Ambleside schedule will help you. Starting with Stevenson and Milne is beginning in the right sort of place.

    How About You?
    Have you incorporated poetry yet? And, if so, how do you do poetry in your home?

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 4, 2011 at 4:38 am

    Thank you Dawn! I saved that list to get ideas for future memory work. I was recently thinking about the importance of speeches, documents, etc. I think we will try our hand at the preamble to the Constitution or Declaration of Independence this year to coincide with our history rotation.

  • Reply dawn September 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Brandy, the lists are actually available here. I’m a little surprised that they share the whole list. The curriculum comes with an essay on the importance and a way to schedule memory work, and a book with these lists and the poems typed out. There is also a list of “beyond” that includes famous speeches and soliloquies. Purchasing the CD portion also has a DVD of Mr. Pudewa encouraging memorization.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Jennifer, That is because your oldest is a 5yo BOY! 🙂 We were in that stage once, too. 🙂

    Dawn, Is IEW’s list available online somewhere? I would like to see it.

    Елизавета, I hadn’t thought to put poetry into our lunchtime reading, but that is a wonderful idea! I have questions for you: How does this work for you exactly? Do you read multiple poems at lunch many days in a row? I’m trying to visualize this…

    Kelly! You don’t know how badly I wanted to take Dr. Taylor’s Shakespeare class! Unfortunately, the timing made the class hit right in the middle of my morning, which is not ideal with preschoolers in the house. I might try it some summer when my children are older, if they are still offering such things. I hope you are enjoying the class…I am happy for you!

    Mystie, I think your words will get me to stop putting it off. I was waiting on it at first because we had some tech issues, but now I *could* do it, and I found myself wondering if it would really be worth the effort–if it’d make much of a difference. But it sounds like it would! It would probably be good for O., especially, as until recently he couldn’t hear our memory work. 🙂

  • Reply Mystie September 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    A CD as background noise really does work wonders, though now I’m starting to see that it works particularly well for the 5-and-under-crowd. It seems like 6+ — at least mine — get more wrapped up in their own thoughts and tune out the CD. But my second, when he was 5, loved listening to Milne during quiet time and had 2 or 3 20-minute stories perfectly memorized. It was crazy! 🙂 I finally made my 3 year old a quiet time CD with hymns and catechism and a couple stories, and in two weeks, listening to it 6-8 times, she went from knowing 3 catechism and none of Psalm 1, to almost being able to recite Psalm 1 and rattling off 10 catechism answers. I have our Psalms and Scripture passages and hymns (and Latin and Geography Songs) recorded and we also listen to them in the car for painless review. You know, I should add in the poems, too!

    For poetry we read a page from a poem book (Garden of Verses, Poetry for Children, Practical Cats) during our couch reading time, and that’s just for fun. Then the 6 & 8 year old have a page per 6-week term with a poem to memorize that they read aloud to themselves 3 times, 3 times a week.Usually by the second or third week they can start saying most of it to me when they come to show me their work, and I help with pronunciation or cadence then or as I hear them practicing. I still need to work in review of their previous poems, though.

    Also, right now during our couch time Hans is reading aloud to us from the Book of Virtues, which is pretty heavy-laden with poems.

    Plus, we have a lot of picture books that are illustrated poems like Paul Revere’s Ride or Hiawatha, and those get circulated in regular reading times or free reading, too.

  • Reply Kelly September 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    The last couple of years I was doing three rounds of poetry per day: During our Morning Time with all the kids we were reading American poets, one poem per day, with a different person each day reading the poem. Then I’d meet with my four younger ones who are all doing Ambleside together, and we’d read a selection from the assigned poet. In the afternoon I’d meet with the older three — we were reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets.

    This year I’ve had to cut back, so we’re only doing one poem, during our Morning Time. We’re reading Edgar Allan Poe right now because we’ve finished AO’s assigned poet, even though we haven’t finished the rest of the scheduled readings.

    All we do is read the poem, then sit quietly for a minute or so to let it have time to soak and to give anyone the opportunity to say anything they want to about it. I’m very very weak on knowing how to talk about poetry, so that’s one reason why I signed up for Dr Taylor’s class this year. I do so LOVE poetry, but my ability to SAY anything about it is pretty much limited to “It was nice, and I liked it.”

    For memory, we’re all doing that together, and I use the same method I use for Scripture memory — I read it aloud and the kids listen, joining in when they’re able. Sometimes I’ll ask if anyone wants to recite, and at least half the time someone does. We’ve learnt two so far by this method — Poe’s “Eldorado,” and Yeats’ “Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” The latter only took a week of regular reading. The former took longer because it was over the summer when we weren’t meeting regularly.

    Before I started doing it this way I would have each child working on one, alone with me. I think three of my kids memorized one or two things over the course of four years. I’m just not able to be consistent enough with it on a one-on-one basis for it work that way for us.

    About 1/3 of our Scripture passages are Psalms. So far we’ve done Psalms 1, 23, 24, 29, and 100. We’re currently working on Psalm 8.

  • Reply Елизавета September 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    We have found that just reading a poem one time is not enough to enjoy it. It usually takes several readings over a week or several weeks to learn to enjoy the sound of the language. I’ve found that after lunch, while the kids are still eating and I shouldn’t be, is a great time for poetry. I usually pick one or two poems and then let the children take turns picking favorites.

  • Reply dawn September 1, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    We do IEW’s poetry memorization program, “Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization” We’ve enjoyed the selection of poems.

    I also try to read a poem or two a day from a book of poetry, right now we’re reading A Child’s Garden of Verses.

    Going closer to analysis, M-girl and I are enjoying “The Music of the Hemisphere” by Michael Clay Thompson from Royal Fireworks Press. While, in general, I agree that analysis can hurt a love of poetry, MCT is put together beautifully and engagingly and has helped us enjoy the sounds of poetry better. We just read some of this every once in a while for fun, kind of like you described you and E Age 9.

  • Reply Jennifer September 1, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Our poetry leaves something to be desired. The only way a pice is appreciated by all is if it revolves around the grand theme of “poop”. That is shameful to write out. But true.

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