We incorporated a lot of memorising, a lot of role-play and combined them into a heavily drama orientated programme of study. The impetus for doing this was aspects of the new primary curriculum programme of study for year 5 and 6. The outline is as follows:
Year 2 Programme of Study
"..continuing to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart, appreciating these and reciting some, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear."
Year 3 and 4 Programme of Study
"...preparing poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action
recognising some different forms of poetry."
Year 5 and 6 Programme of Study
"...learning a wider range of poetry by heart."
We wanted to see whether memorising parts of a difficult text, acting them out and just generally allowing the pupils to experiment with language would improve their ability to relate to difficult concepts, themes and a generally difficult style.
We decided to dedicate 2 out of the 5 lessons every week for this purpose. One of the lessons would allow the pupils to text-mark selected passages and choose the parts they want to act out. They would learn them with their partner. Often they would learn the lines that evening. The second lesson would be input on expression, acting etc. and every group would perform their piece (unaided) to the class.
That was the plan. I'm fortunate enough to work at a school that allows freedom of this kind and I was able to do this for the whole of the Autumn Term. I could have covered this particular aspect of the new curriculum with a few lessons and a few poems learnt, of course that is true. However, memorising texts, poems and dramatising them is not something I have ever dedicated much time to in my own teaching and I thought I should give the whole thing a try. Therefore, I had to make sure I gave it enough contact time to have an impact.
I could overload you with quotes from famous people on how memorising things is bad or I could roll out the argument about the Google generation having everything at their fingertips but I never like to accept anything until I have experimented it on my own classes. However, I particularly like the following quote:
We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
So I shall be waiting for ten or fifteen years when I'll have scores of my ex-pupils wanting my head for wasting their time. However until that time I shall enjoy committing them to my 'recitation rooms'.
- Pupils enjoyed having the freedom that the 2 lessons provide
- Pupils enjoyed the partner work
- Pupils liked having the time to understand difficult passages, not having the teacher explain them.
- Pupils liked the challenge of memorising, regardless of what it was.
- Phrases and words appearing in their writing in the correct context
- I was able to see the pupils bring the text or poem alive and assess their understanding
- It gave me the freedom to circulate the groups and work with different pairings.
- There was less pressure of outcome and more enjoyment during the lessons.
- Often the pupils would memorise without understanding the passage
This was addressed by getting the pupils to perform an interpretation of the words, either a modern interpretation, introduce different characters, change the words into their own but still memorise them. I found a good trick: pupils had to include passages that had no words at all and act out the concepts and themes. This meant they had to understand the words completely. If pupils couldn't do this, they would soon make you aware of it and you could work with them on the language or other elements.
- Justifying the time to middle leaders or senior management
For the first term, before any evidence could be produced, it was difficult to justify doing this. I just made sure they regularly came to visit during the sessions and saw that the pupils were experimenting with language. It was difficult to persuade them that I didn't need to put evidence for the sessions in the books. I am glad I was able to as this would have trashed the whole concept. Once a steady flow of writing was produced it was clear that the pupils had understood particular themes or concepts in the text and they were using language effectively and in the correct context. They were able to take on writing in a certain style very well and this certainly came through. Comparing their writing to my previous class, comparing the difference in using learnt words, phrases or lines, as I believe that's the only part I can compare, it is clear there has been a positive impact.
I was happy to bring a freedom, yet focus, to the programme of study for the Autumn term. It was something different and it certainly suited the texts we were studying. I will be using its format again for texts that I feel need it. Luckily this time I have the evidence to prove its worth. Is it any better than normal role-play? I don't know the answer to that, all I know is that learning different parts of the texts and having to understand the characters, feelings and motives to be able to learn it, was powerful and it impacted their writing significantly.
Do I believe in pupils memorising? I believe in it when it is purposeful in allowing pupils the freedom and independence to explore language. I don't, however, believe in 'recitation rooms'. I have almost always found that a combination of different styles of teaching yields the best results and I would encourage schools to give teachers the freedom to experiment and trust them to do it.