Friday, December 04, 2009

I the teacher, in order to form a more perfect student...

It was a pretty easy Friday in my classroom today. My 8th graders - all 126 of them spread over 5 different periods - stood up individually in front of the rest of the class and recited the Preamble to the Constitution from memory. There are 52 words in the Preamble, so I doubled that amount to arrive at 104 points, which was the points possible for the assignment. This made it something that was worth the students' while not to blow off. Two students did, but most of the students took this assignment very seriously.

I had warned my students about this assignment when we began studying the Constitution a couple of weeks ago. A week before we broke for Thanksgiving, I told them that they would be reciting the Preamble on the Friday after our return from Thanksgiving. During that whole time, I would hear students reciting the Preamble to themselves and practicing with each other as they would walk into my classroom every day, or during silent reading at the beginning of the period, I would watch many students read the Preamble poster that hangs on the classroom wall. I could see their lips barely moving as they silently repeated the words to themselves as they studied.

I have to say, I was rather impressed.

When all was said and done, the class averages (out of the 104 points possible) were 95.0, 95.5, 88.7, 101.5, and 84.4. The classes with averages in the 80s just happened to be the only classes with that one brain trust who refused to perform the recital, which netted them a big fat zero. Otherwise, the vast majority of my students either aced the Preamble, or missed less than 5 words total. This after I caught major bitching, whining, moaning, complaining, and much gnashing of the teeth as many of these same students who ended up doing just fine did everything they could to intimidate me or shame me out of going forward with this assignment. I heard it all: You can't make us do that! I'm telling my parents about this! There's no way we can memorize this! We're all gonna fail! You're gonna ruin my GPA!

In the age of constructivist education, rote memorization has become a pejorative. Nevertheless, I stick to my belief that memorizing important information is a learned skill that will always have a revered place in education. Well, it will be revered by me at the very least. You should have seen the looks of pride on the countenances of many of my students as they departed from the hot zone in front of the class after successfully reciting the 52 words of the Preamble.

I provide other confidence building assignments in the form of memorization throughout the year, with most of them being extra credit opportunities. Every quarter, I allow each my students one opportunity to eke out some extra points by identifying all the U.S. states (25 points), or all the capital cities of the U.S. states (50 points), or reciting all 44 U.S. Presidents from 1st to 44th (44 points). The students take these on with gusto. I always get quite a bit of resistance concerning the President assignment with the same tired complaints that listing them off by memory is not possible, but I always do it for them with no problem. I never ask anything of my students that I cannot do myself. Sure enough, I always get some takers on the President extra credit assignment, and they always do just fine. Whatever assignment they pick, I do tell my students that they need to study, study, study until they have the info down cold, because they only get one shot.

If you are interested in incorporating any of these extra credit assignments into your classroom or you are a non-teacher who is interested in brushing up on the states and their capitals, here is the website in front of which I plunk my students when its time for them to attempt the extra credit assignment. I use the beginner level for the states and the intermediate level for the capitals.

Hmmm, Now that I have proved to my students that they can handle a little memorization, I wonder what their reaction would be to memorizing the Gettysburg Address come this Spring?

Good Day to You, Sir


Cynthia said...

Keep it up. They will feel very proud of themselves (and empowered). My 6th graders do major documents like this every year.

Darren said...

Clearly you're a racist :-)

I have students who tell me they don't have time to memorize a few formulas (e.g., the rules of exponents) in a math class. OK, how's that grade working out for you!?

Kevin said...

Or Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I require my English 9 and 12 students to memorize lines from Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. How can students expect to learn and retain information if they never teach their brains how to do it?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I don't think that activity was worth the time. Although memorization has it's place in the classroom, I question whether or not they should have memorized the Constitution. I think The Internationale would have been a better choice. I jest of course. Nice job Chanman.


JoAnne said...

When I was teaching in middle school, I played the President song everyday in class. The younger class thought it was cool but the older kids would have nothing to do with it. One day, my younger kids started keeping the beat w/pencils and the older kids wanted to show them up! Well, years later and thousands of tape playings, I still hear from former students who can sing that silly song!

Chanman said...

I have also begun showing the School House Rock videos to my students through the LCD projector. You can find all the old faves on YouTube.

Forget "Conjunction Junction" - try getting "I'm just a Bill, and I'm sittin' here on Capitol Hill..." out of your head.