My dream was to be a mission-minded, crime-fighting, lollipop-giving explorer, rescuing children and adults from the depths of poverty and despair while being a mother to twelve. Well, actually that was just one of my many complex aspirations as a young homeschooled child through sixth grade. As I devoured living books, I became the characters, often-times acting out the stories while I picked up my toys or cleaned my bedroom. Quite honestly, my vivid imagination still inspires me as a young adult to pretend, while cleaning the house, that I am a lowly servant of Princess Jobynah, preparing her quarters for her return home after being rescued from the venomous, insidious Elliad (Carolyn Ann Aish’s three-book series Treasures, Castles, Kingdoms). It works like a charm; the room is clear of clutter in no time.
I am thankful for this homeschool foundation in my life to fall back onto as a new teacher. Nearing one year ago come August 25, I met Charlotte Mason at Gillingham Charter School and am grateful to have been baptized into this transformational philosophy. Mason has greatly expanded my thinking and perceptions on children and education through such insightful expositions on some of my favorite topics thus far: knowledge/the act of knowing, habit formation, role of parents, memorization and recitation, and narrations, the latter of which Dr. Smith has carefully addressed in the last few months.
As I had many types of quality literature at my disposal in addition to a few classic films during my homeschooled years, I began cultivating the tools of memorization and recitation at an early age, consciously and unconsciously. According to Mason, memorization is a very natural resource that children have at their disposal. I found this to be evident in my own life as I began watching the “Sound of Music” around age six and unconsciously memorized the songs and much of the dialogue. Was I making a conscious effort to do so? I do not believe so. It came as naturally to me as flying does to a baby bird. I then proceeded to sing the melodies, imitate the voices of the characters, and act out scenes—a one woman show! As I grew older, my mother gave me biblical passages to memorize which I then recited in church, much to my chagrin yet the delight of the congregation. After my mother became chronically ill, my parents sent my younger brother and me to a small private school. During the remaining half of my education until high school graduation in 2008, the school’s philosophy centered around an endless cycle of tests, quizzes, papers, and projects. I had precious little time to read for pleasure because of the inundation of assignments and the need to study in order to score well. During this period, I learned to memorize facts and information but did not derive self-gratification from doing so as I had when I was younger. Learning became more of a burden than a joy when it was no longer the hand that fit perfectly into the glove of rich literature.
Memorization, a habit I have learned to enjoy from a young age, is a beautiful and natural process expressed by Mason as “The Children’s Art.” As the Title I teacher at Gillingham, last school year I witnessed my struggling readers in first and second grade memorizing and informally “reciting” from their favorite “book friends.” When I would come to their classrooms to pull them out for some sessions of guided reading, they would inevitably have a favorite book tucked under their arms. But then I noticed that they would bring the same book for weeks. To my surprise, they would read a book such as Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown) or Each Peach, Pear, Plum (Janet and Allan Ahlberg) straight through for the first 5-6 pages without looking at the words (a common emergent reader skill). The children did not even know that they were memorizing and then reciting the book to me. They enjoyed hearing their friends read the same titles and easily and naturally without labor intoxicated the words for effortless and pleasurable memorization.
“Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems…The gains of such 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” (Volume 1, pp. 225-226).
Read a short verse to a young child while s/he is eating lunch, playing, brushing his/her teeth, sitting on the porch, and resting in order to facilitate this art in children. Although my first and second graders were not teacher-directed to unconsciously “memorize” and “recite” the excerpts, the frequency of hearing themselves and classmates read the words as they partook in the rich feast before them was enough to root these words in their minds and cause the ideas to blossom. Mason affirmed that “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” (p. 225). As my little ones recited from their favorite books, they used creative expression and dramatized the passages and verses. They especially loved making illustrated narrations of such books, stories, and poems while the children effortlessly exercised the “habit of making mental images.” The literature became a part of each child’s thinking and a part of them as persons. This is truly a portion of what is means to know, but I am still toiling to wrap my brain around the act of knowing in the truest sense.
Just as Zoltán Kodály—upon whom Gillingham’s music program is centered—theorized that all children can learn to sing and play a musical instrument, Mason, in likewise fashion, purported that all children can memorize and recite. Children are endowed with natural habits and abilities that, as stirred to life and fostered, will enable them to grow into fruitful adults. May we strive as educators—formal and informal alike—to introduce, expose, and guide our charges into the pathways of rich literature, meaty ideas, and decadent grand conversations because knowing, after all, is a feast of ideas for the mind.
And so, from the waters of fantasy to nonfiction from whence I have leapt this past year, I once again leave you with this: Is it a mission impossible? Never. A hazardous journey? Sometimes. A leap of faith? Every day.
© 2013 by Kara Stalter