351 | The Joy of Memorization: Why and How (Janice Campbell)
Memorization shouldn't be about rote learning — it is meant for cultivating wisdom, virtue, and a beautiful mind. Join me as I share a bit about my personal memory project — what I memorize, why, and how. I hope you'll be inspired to create a memory project that works for you!
Janice Campbell and her husband Donald homeschooled their four sons from preschool into early college using a lifestyle of learning approach influenced by Charlotte Mason and classical education. Janice is the author of the award-winning Excellence in Literature curriculum for grades 8-12, Transcripts Made Easy, and other resources, and she speakers at homeschool conferences and writes for homeschooling magazines. You can find her online at EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.
First letter method and Method of Loci
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Music and Moments with the Masters
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Hello and welcome to The Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell and I'm one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is "Homeschool Solutions", we don't pretend to have all the answers to all the homeschooling questions. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ, that you may seek His counsel as you train your children in the way they should go.
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Hi, I'm Janice Campbell and today we're going to talk about the value of memorization, and I'll share a bit of my own memory project. Charlotte Mason wrote that "memory is the storehouse of whatever knowledge we possess. And it is upon the fact of the stores lodged in the memory that we take rank as intelligent beings." The things we learn become part of who we are. And I've been thinking quite a bit about memory lately, specifically about what is stored there and how to be more purposeful about what is added. I find that my memory is a bit like my attic. There are a lot of interesting and possibly valuable items up there, but they're missing a shelf here, a lid there, possibly even their original reason for existing. Consider obsolete reel-to-reel audio tapes with no reel-to-reel tape player, for example. Of course, almost everything, both in memory and in the attic, had a purpose once and could be refurbished to be as good as new. But that requires time, thought, and commitment. That's why I want to focus my memory project on what is valuable and worth keeping. So each month my goal is to work on my own personal memory project and try to refresh one partially memorized item and work on something new. Busy seasons happen and sometimes I don't memorize anything for a long time, but it's something I can always return to. And it's also something that can be practiced while I'm waiting in lines or driving.
For my own personal memory project. I focus on Scripture and poetry. I choose Scripture because, through all of life's challenges, it has been an anchor for me, so I know it's valuable and worth keeping. The first things that come to mind when I'm not outwardly focused, when I'm joyous or sad, annoyed or weary, odd, humble, thankful, or lying awake at night are verses from Scripture. I love the Psalms. Those eloquent and beautiful prayers and praises, and have found them a fitting way to celebrate the glories of a star-studded sky on the beach. Psalm 8 is wonderful for that. Or meditate on the goodness and mercy of God. Psalm 103 is my go-to for God's amazing goodness and grace. I want to keep what I've learned, fill in the gaps and memorize more. When I was young, I memorized yards of Scripture, mostly from the King James Version. Some of it I memorized on purpose, but I also absorbed a good bit from just hearing it repeatedly. As an adult, I've continued to memorize, but mostly shorter pieces from a variety of translations. One thing I discovered is that memorization becomes more challenging if you frequently switch from one translation to another. So after spending the first twenty years of my life in the KJV, and another twenty years or so in the New International Version, I'm currently reading the Revised Standard Version, the RSV. And I plan to stick with it; it's a nice balance between the King James Version, which is literarily beautiful, and the more modern versions which perhaps are a little more accessible.
I also choose poetry because poetry has also been a constant presence in my life, and through the years I found many poets to love. Beautifully crafted poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Herbert and others have power to minister to my soul with truth, beauty, and goodness; and so they're certainly worth keeping. I need to review those I know--especially a few that the grandchildren enjoy--and memorize more. I discovered poetry while in elementary school and started memorizing it on my own. My grandparents had a couple of poetry anthologies: 101 Famous Poems, and that sort of thing. So I began with story poems such as "The Highwaymen" and "Charge of the Light Brigade", and I memorized those just for the fun of it. I was delighted when my grandson, at about the age of six, found "The Highwayman" as well, and also was enchanted with it. Mrs. Chester's high school English class introduced me to Emily Dickinson and I fell in love with her. She was the first poet whose entire work I thoroughly enjoyed, and I still enjoy her work. When I was sixteen, I found a lovely edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare at the Huntington Library's grand used Book sale--which I highly recommend if you love books. I think they still have it. It's in Southern California. And so I have fragments of Shakespeare tucked into memory as well.
All these things are just delightful food for thought. And also, when you're with lying awake at night, it's fun to have something to consider. So since I have so many bits and pieces, and they come to mind at odd moments, I sometimes feel like Bertie in the P.G. Wodehouse novels with the exactly right fragment of poetry hovering on the fringe of memory just out of reach. Unfortunately, I don't have a Jeeves to fill in the blanks. My family's quite accustomed to conversations peppered with odd phrases quoted from something, and they've been known to do it themselves. And they often recognize phrases that I quote--and I recognize those that they quote--because we read some of the same things. But those fragments aren't just a way to creatively express something we're trying to communicate. But like any allusion, they can also quickly point to a bigger story lying under the surface. If I refer to someone as Macbeth's wife, for example, my boys would know that I'm not admiring someone's virtue and helpfulness. So poetry can be a delightful communication tool. So when my boys were very young, I shared poems that I remembered from my own childhood. And I also memorized special ones just for them, like "The Owl and the Pussycat", "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod", William Blake's "The Tiger"--you know, "Tiger, tiger burning bright--"Jabberwocky", and more. And I also partially memorized some of their favorite children's books, but that was purely by accident. We read "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "Things I Like" and others over and over and over and over. And, you know, you get the idea. So all of those things rattle around and it's nice to fill in the blanks because, like songs that are stuck in your head, as soon as you get beyond the bit that's stuck in your head and remember the whole thing, then you no longer have to cope with just the fragment going back and forth and back and forth forever.
So beyond words, the memory also holds a storehouse of music and art and life memories. And so one of the things that you can use to build memories is audio resources like CDs or streaming sources and whatever. So while we were homeschooling our boys, our oldest was auditory, and so things set to music were most memorable for things they needed to learn. So things from Music and Moments with the Masters to Lyrical Life Science, from math facts that are sung to geography and foreign languages. There are terrific audio resources set to music that make learning fun and easy.
But for me, what does a memory project month look like? I'll give you an example. For one of my memory project months, I chose to focus on two short pieces that each consider the beauty of creation. In Scripture, I reviewed Psalm 8, and in poetry, I worked on memorizing "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Because I had originally learned Psalm 8 in the King James translation, I use the same edition to fill in the gaps. Because if you have partially memorized something in one translation and use another one--you try to update yourself--it can kind of confuse what you already remember, and then it makes it hard to remember anything. So if you start memorizing scripture in a particular translation, try to stick with it when you go and memorize more of the same passage. For "Pied Beauty", I studied it both in print and in audio since I had the recording by Richard Austin, who recites Gerard Manley Hopkins professionally. (He's from the same part of England that Hopkins was from.) And so it's a delight to listen to him. And I've posted like three recordings of poems on my Excellence in Literature website, so I'll put a link in the show notes so you can read and hear it too. But studying both, you know, by hearing and by reading makes it easier to memorize as well.
My favorite way to memorize is the First Letter Method. It's highly effective and it works for both prose and poetry. So you can use it to learn, say, two lines a day--you don't have to memorize a whole poem in one day or a whole Scripture in one day. But it has a few well-defined steps. So first you listen to a well-done reading of the selection you want to memorize or just read it aloud to yourself. And preferably do it once or twice, because the more you hear something, the more it starts engraving on your mind and you start getting the rhythm and pacing of the language correct so that you're emphasizing parts that make it more meaningful. And as you get your emphasis correct, it makes it easier to remember. So then you copy the assigned selection, whatever it is, your text poem or Scripture passage, or something from the academic world. You copy the whole thing and, of course by hand, or you can copy via printer, but don't copy and paste because it's the art of hand copying that engages multiple senses, and it helps you with recollection and the understanding of the text. If it's a long text, just copy one stanza or paragraph or a couple of lines a day, and you can enjoy thinking about each bit one day at a time. But the key step is this: after you have listened to it and copied it fully, on a separate piece of paper, write the first letter of each word of the poem or text and then capitalize and punctuate it exactly like the original.
So if I were speaking to you in person, I'd show you an example, which I can't here. I'll put a link to an example in the show notes, so be sure to check for it. But I can give you a brief seven-word phrase as an example. It's neither Scripture nor poetry, but rather from a document you're probably familiar with. I'll tell you some letters to write down, and as you write them down and look at them, you can try to guess what they are. But at the end of the episode, I'll tell you what the phrase is. But I wouldn't be surprised if you could if you guessed. So the seven letters are: "W t p o t U S," Okay. "W t p o t U S," so after you've written down your page of first letters, punctuated and capitalized, exactly like the piece of text that you're trying to memorize, read aloud again the first sentence, line, stanza, or paragraph of whatever it is you're trying to memorize. And then you set it aside and refer to your first letter clues. And looking just at the first letters, try to recite your first phrase...just looking at the first letter. So repeat that until you can recite it from memory. But the first letters will be clues to what the words were, and you would be surprised at how helpful that is. So you finish each practice session by just reciting as many new lines as you have learned, along with however many old lines you've already learned. So if you've got a six-line stanza or a six-line poem that you're memorizing, and you have already learned four lines, and you've learned the last two lines, you would be reciting the whole thing.
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Another method of memorization that is also kind of useful--not as useful sometimes for text--more useful for events, or sequence of events, or a list of things-- So I learned this when I was in college and we had, you know, a big study skills weekend and one of the guest speakers came to talk about reading and memory. And so what he was focused on was what is called the method of loci. L-O-C-I. And it's a memory system. It's been helpful to me through the years. At the time he was talking about it, I didn't realize it was something that ancient classical educators also used. Cicero and Quintilian and others used it and wrote about it, and it's very useful. I just remembered it as the memory house, and you'll see it referred to as "the memory house". And this method seems best suited for memorizing, you know, timelines and things like that. So to use it, you visualize a location such as your house or an imaginary house, and then imagine a scenario that allows you to walk through a sequence of details. The scenario in the college workshop I attended-- The speaker suggested that we imagine we're at home getting ready to catch a bus to go to work. And so he painted a vivid mental image for the items that you might see as you move from the entry hall of your home and onto the bus. And so a few of the locations that he described were the front hall, the door, the front step, front walk, and front gate. Okay. And by the time he'd finished describing the trip, and then beyond that, it was, you know, getting on to the bus, bus door, bus seat, bus window, and so forth. But when you're trying to memorize something, you create a visual image for each of the items in your series and attach it to one of the locations of your memory house. So if I were trying to memorize a list of Shakespeare's tragedies in chronological order, I would begin by listing each play's title beside a location. King Lear might be in the front hall, a painting of a scene from Romeo and Juliet on the back of the door, and Julius Caesar waiting on the front step, and so forth. So place a mental image of your item you're trying to memorize into one of the sequential places that you already have in your head. And the association will help you remember. So with a bit of imagination, it's possible to attach mental images of anything--the parts of a flower, or the Beatitudes, or the major battles of the Revolutionary War--to your memorized series of locations. It takes a little time, but memorized items that are connected in this way tend to stick.
But the most important thing for memorization is to furnish your mind with what is good, true, and beautiful. Children who learn to memorize good things when they're young are equipped with the ability to create a beautiful, well-ordered mind. It's a little harder to memorize when you get older, but it's possible and it's worth it. And I do hope you'll try it. And remember that seven letters you wrote down earlier? "W t p o t U S," I told you I'd tell you what it was. And perhaps you've already guessed. But that's the beginning of the preamble of a very special document, the Constitution of the United States of America. When I'm speaking at a conference and post the first letters of the entire first sentence of that document, people in the audience recognize what it is almost immediately. And it's an example of how powerful the First Letter Method is for memorization and how it makes it much simpler.
So I hope you feel inspired to begin your own memory project. I've got some links in the show notes that will point you to resources that will help you memorize. And I hope you enjoy the project. To finish, I want to leave you with "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem that I have memorized and really enjoy: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?/ Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;/ And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod./ And for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;/ And though the last lights off the black West went/ Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." Again, that was "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. And I'm Janice Campbell of EverydayEducation.com. Thank you for being with me today. I wish you joy in the journey.
Thank you for joining us this week on The Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.mom. Don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve healthcare you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch. Go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. That's GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast. And while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom. That's @HomeschoolingDotMom. To let us know what you thought of today's episode.
Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the U.S. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there. Finally, you can connect with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com, where you'll find my Excellence in Literature curriculum, Transcripts Made Easy, and more. As well as at my blog, DoingWhatMatters.com. And my literature resource site Excellence-In-Literature.com. I wish you peace and joy in your homeschooling journey.