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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.