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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Committing Words to Memory

Note:  This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write (ah, the best laid plans, wink) on how I have learned to learn in spite of (and sometimes because of) my particular learning glitches

I’m not a learning expert, and I don’t even play one on this blog, but I offer these thoughts, ruminations, memories, whatever you’d like to call them, in an effort to give you a window into what living with a learning disability looks and feels like for some. 

I also want to share some of the techniques I’ve stumbled across that have helped me to learn.  While these techniques won’t work for everyone and may not work for your child, I’m hopeful that some of these ideas can be used as a source of inspiration, whether you homeschool or just want to give a special child some extra help.  

I would love to hear about any of your children’s successes in overcoming (or embracing) their learning differences.

When  I was in 7th grade, our English teacher wanted us memorize some poems.  The very first one was by Emily Dickinson.

Imagine being a shy, self-conscious 7th grader who had to go over the math facts with her mom every single night in 4th grade and still had to practice them in her head to remember them (more on that in another post) and being told that you had a week to memorize and recite an umpteen line poem.

Add to that my OCD-style perfection and fear of failure, and well, I was a wreck.

To say I had the shakes is putting it mildly.

So, I read over the poem.  I read it aloud and in my head.  I tried to picture it in my brain.  And when the day came to recite it, I simply did not know it and refused to recite it.

“Ok, Susan, you get a zero and you will recite it for us tomorrow.”

And my heart sank.  Not only did I have to live down the humiliation of standing up and admitting in front of the whole class that I didn’t know the assignment, but I still had to do the thing I could not do.  And I didn’t have a week or even a weekend to do it in.  I had a day.

I did not tell my parents.  I did not ask for help.

Maybe I could have just kept getting zeros indefinitely?  But in that case, my parents were bound to catch on.

An aside:  I mention this part for a reason.  There’s a possibility that you have a child who has similar struggles, but they are not coming to you for help.  It might be pride, fear (even if it’s unwarranted), perfectionism, or confusion.  Maybe she’s simply unable to put into words what’s going on.  But if she is having difficulties, even invisible difficulties, your help, at home or in school, could make a difference.

I was stuck.  I had to succeed.  My teacher was not going to just let me get by and fail this part of the course.  On the other hand, she didn’t really give me the tools I needed to succeed.  Not exactly her fault, she certainly didn’t know about my learning difficulties.

But, aside from reading the material and trying to remember it, no one had ever really given me a clue as to how to commit words to memory.  When does reading something, or looking at it, translate into knowing it and being able to recall it at will? 

Tip:  Always explain or show your kiddos how to do something.  Don’t assume that they already know (they’ll tell you if they do.;0)

I’m going to tell you what I did and explain why it worked (there have been a lot of studies in brain function and learning disabilities in the few decades and I’ve done a lot of reading).

Rather than simply read the poem over and over, which simply didn’t work for me (I know that works for some), or  reading it aloud, which didn’t work any better (I’m definitely not an auditory learner), I copied it out by hand.  And copied it again.  And again.  I think I copied it 3-5  times.

I was then able to recite it in my head, which I did over and over again, only referring to the written poem if I got stuck on a word.

By feeding the information to my brain through more than one channel (hearing it, writing it, reading it--- auditory, kinesthetic, and visual), I strengthened the neuron pathways in my brain.  There are modern studies, now, that confirm that that multi-stimuli approach is very effective for learning. 

A child who has difficulties with the physical aspects of writing could probably do this by typing.  A younger child could arrange word tiles or even letter tiles if it is a very short passage.  A pre-writing child, or one who has trouble sitting still for any of those things, may benefit from drawing what they are hearing, or acting it out, or building it with blocks or Lego.  The point is that seeing and hearing something is not enough for some of us.  We need to feel it.   We need to do it with our hands.

The next day, I recited the poem without any difficulty.  In fact, I recited it so well (it wasn’t a dramatic recitation, by any means, but not a sing-songy schoolgirl recitation, either), that my teacher became convinced that I had known the poem the day before.  I was just too shy to recite in front of the class.

She changed my zero to an A.

She was wrong, of course.  But only I (and God) knew that.

Happy ending, right?

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there.  Learning something for a single recitation isn’t really of much value if you don’t retain that knowledge for future use. 

Learning for me is difficult enough.  Remembering what I’ve learned…that’s an ongoing struggle.  I simply don’t retain well.  There seems to be a glitch in the “converting to long-term memory department.”

So, whenever I thought of it, I recited that poem in my head.  And over time, I did it much less often, until I got to the point where I recited in my head (or out loud to someone) maybe once a year or even less often.  

Today, about 38 years later, I still know this poem by heart. though I rarely dust it off and recite it.

Here it is from memory.  Please pardon any wrong line breaks or punctuation errors.  I’m not going to cheat by looking it up (remember, I learned it for recitation, not grammar ;0):
A Day by Emily Dickinson
I’ll tell you how the sun rose
a ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
the news-like squirrels ran,
the hills untied their bonnets,
the bobolinks begun,
then I said softly to myself
that must have been the sun.
But where he set, I know not,
there seemed a purple stile,
which little yellow boys and girls
were climbing all the while,
‘til when they reached the other side
a domine in gray
put gently up the evening bars
and led the flock away.
This technique served me well when I had to memorize a new poem every week or so in a writer’s workshop class I took in college.  And be prepared to recite any and all of those poems from memory at the end of the semester.  Yikes!

Of course, you can’t use this technique on your history lessons, nor would you want to.  But if you are memorizing scripture, poetry, or even famous quotations in your homeschool, and the kiddos seem to be having some difficulty, give it a try.

What techniques have you found that can help a challenged learner commit words to memory?

You might also enjoy:
When Mama Has a Learning Disability, Too

1 comment:

  1. This was a very insightful look into learning difficulties. Thank you for sharing your story.


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