When teachers assign poetry memorization for students at Hillsdale Academy, they say the practice is essential for a student’s learning process and ability to converse about weighty things.
As Academy Headmaster David Diener puts it, Augustine couldn’t have written “The Confessions” if he had to look up all of his Scripture references on Wikipedia.
The students of the Academy recite poetry each day at the school’s opening ceremonies in the morning, one for K‑7th grade and one for high schoolers. After saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, students recite poetry from memorization. The recitations also include Scripture passages — especially from the Psalms — and famous speeches, according to Diener.
“One of the core educational beliefs throughout the classical tradition is that imitation precedes creation,” Diener said. “If we want students to be good poets, we need to expose them to great poetry and have them imitate that first. To be great artists, they need to study great art.”
The same is true, he said, for training great writers and mathematicians, for example. By teaching students to memorize passages from great works of art, students learn to engage with the works themselves and their historic conversations.
As a staple of classical education, recitations have always been part of the Academy’s curriculum and opening ceremonies, according to Ellen Condict, upper school literature instructor and adjunct professor of English and education.
“There’s this element of school liturgy to it that has become this weird part of what we do and who we are,” she said. “It’s useful for what I do in the classroom. These poems are certainly etched into the brain in a way nothing else will be.”
Condict pointed out that adults will more likely recall poems or monologues they memorized in school than specific lessons.
When it comes to working on poetry memorization with her students, Condict and her high students go over them in class, working on just a couple of lines each day. Rather than having students memorize on their own, the Academy’s approach is more effective for students to keep a poem in their minds even long after they’ve graduated, which is ultimately the goal for this practice, Condict said.
Memorized poems also help illuminate whatever students might be studying in Condict’s literature course.
Freshman Gretchen Birzer, who attended the Academy, enjoyed memorizing works from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare, along with Handel’s “Messiah.”
“We would be reading something in literature class, and then Ms. Condict would use one of the lines from the poems to clarify what was happening,” Birzer said. “It added new meaning, or it clarified what the poems meant.”
Condict is currently teaching Augustine’s “Confessions” to her students, and as they study the nature of being, she said there was a point where she cued her class to begin reciting Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” a poem which had a lot to do with their class discussions.
Junior Johannes Olson said he didn’t love the recitations in high school, but looking back, he has come to appreciate their value. The recitations push students to work hard, he said, at learning to speak in front of a crowd.
“It forces you to get out. Presenting and getting up in front of people is not a natural thing,” Olson said. “I think it’s important for poetry to be spoken in a group. It’s not meant to be read in a corner quietly.”
Now, at college, Olson has been heavily involved with the theatre department and has performed in several Tower Players productions. Having a background in poetry recitation, he said, has helped a lot when memorizing chunks of text was necessary.
Besides this, Condict said, keeping poems in our minds allows the ideas encapsulated in the works to stick with us. Sophomore Nolan Sullivan, who graduated from the Academy, still remembers parts of John Donne’s “Meditation XVII,’ which he learned in high school. Sullivan points to what Donne says about suffering: “Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.”
Because he had memorized these lines of Donne’s meditation on suffering, he found ways to apply them to life. He even had this chance before he graduated. In his senior year, he broke his foot and wasn’t able to play soccer.
“It shattered me. People go through much worse things, but these things are going to help me grow,” Sullivan said.
Beyond life experience, Diener said recitations can also be excellent training in public speaking and rhetoric. This is especially true in a time where students aren’t fully prepared to enter college, he said.
“They aren’t comfortable speaking face to face in front of large groups of people,” Diener said. “From 5th century B.C. Athens down the centuries, being able to speak well has been both of practical benefit and a demonstration of a well-educated person.”
Also, in a very tech-driven world, Diener believes that giving students access to great works, “unmediated by technology,” is a powerful tool.
“One’s ability to bring words of Scripture, or of poetry, or of wisdom to bear in a conversation is dependant on one’s having committed those words to memory,” Diener said.