Eight Steps to Make Memorization Magical


As you can read in my "About Me" section on this blog, my deep, life-long connection to Shakespeare got its start in 6th grade. As a skinny, socially awkward 11-year-old, I stood next to my peers in a packed gymnasium, illuminated by spotlight and way too much stage makeup, and I delivered line after line of Shakespeare's words. I pushed air with my diaphragm and spat out my consonants so that the person in the very back of the echo-y room could hear the words as I spoke them. I put thought into the inflection, the rhyme scheme, and the meter in each piece.

I basically had no idea what I was saying, but that was a challenge for an older version of myself to tackle.

Anyone who's studied Shakespeare will tell you that you can read and re-read plays or monologues and continually reveal new layers of meaning with each repetition. And what's even more mind-boggling is that Shakespeare actually seems to evolve with us through time. Your first interpretation of Romeo and Juliet as a freshman in high school is undoubtedly different than your interpretation of it as a post-graduate student or as a person about to turn 40 or as a person who has just retired. Great literature has the power to grow with us, repeatedly leaving us baffled and awed by its bottomless depths and timeless relatability. 

What an amazing gift to give a young child - a jumble of words that are inexplicably pleasing to the ear. When committed to memory, they lie in wait to reveal their messages at the right moment. It's like a mental time capsule--one that opens again and again with fresh, new meaning over the course of one's life.

This was my first year requiring students to memorize and present Shakespearean monologues, and I'll be honest--I half expected them to revolt and key my car. This work is incredibly difficult and the fact that my students are learning English as a second language, have special needs, and are reading at least 4 years below grade level is probably what discouraged me from trying this sooner. But oh, what our students can do when they are presented with a mountain to climb and the tools to conquer it..!

Here's how I set it up for my students to reach the top of the mountain:

1. Begin with a pep talk and a demonstration to show them how it's done.
On the day when I assigned this project, I projected this quote from Twelfth Night on the board: "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." We had an informal discussion about the ways society views young people simply due to their age or experience levels, and how unfair that is. We talked about what it means to have a growth mindset and the power in saying things like, "I don't get it--YET." We talked about the hardest things they've ever had to do in a classroom and how they got through it.

After I explain what will be expected of them and they've stopped throwing staplers at me, I show them photos of me in 6th grade reciting Prospero's "our revels now are ended" monologue from The Tempest. And just to drive home my point about how attainable this goal is, I project the full speech behind me and recite the entire thing from memory for them. Then I answer their questions, many of which I respond to in Spanish: "Si, se puede!"

2. Empower students to choose their monologues. 
Next, I share a document with them that I spent many days over the summer compiling. It contains links to clean, double-spaced copies of each monologue they can choose from. This means every student has access to a digital copy, which they can easily access from their phones or other devices any time. I also hand them paper copies, but these are great to have in case they lose them. The second column on this document tells students how many lines each speech has. This was a no-brainer; I knew that many students would simply want the shortest speech possible. The third column has links to YouTube videos of actors delivering each speech. I scoured YouTube for the very best versions that really revealed the meaning of the words through diction and inflection so students had a top-notch model to emulate. I even purchased a classroom set of headphones so students could listen to their speeches in class whenever they had time. The last few columns have spaces for me to type in each student's name and presentation date so all students know and can be held accountable for their own due dates.


3. Set performance dates that relate to the difficulty and/or length of each speech.
After letting my students "shop" the selection of monologues, I announced that it was time to choose their speech, which they would be responsible for memorizing and delivering to the class in about two months' time. I also informed them that no more than two students could each sign up for any one speech. Then I doled out speeches in the fairest way possible--by drawing names out of a hat one by one and letting students choose speeches.

Okay, that's a lie. Behind the scenes, I carefully constructed a list of students, putting them in order of who needed the most support to those who needed the least. That way, my students with special needs or those who were in early stages of English acquisition could select their speeches first. The fact that these students chose longer and more challenging speeches, even though the shorter ones were readily available to them, blew my mind. One student with a learning disability and a moderate speech disorder was dead-set on choosing one of the longest speeches available to him. He ended up getting one of four perfect scores in the class.

4. Be transparent with your grading practices. 
One way to reduce anxiety and increase accountability for this type of assignment is by providing students with a rubric that explains clearly how they will be graded. Here's mine. You'll notice that there's basically no way for a student to get below a C unless they simply don't present their speech on their due date. Knowing how difficult this was for my students made me want to set them up for success. I didn't want anyone's grade to take a dive because they didn't reach the memorization finish line. After all, the whole point is to leave them with the mental time capsule described above, not to make them hate Shakespeare or to make them feel insecure about their spoken language skills. The goal of this type of activity must always be to build students up and make them feel powerful.

5. Incentivize and schedule checkpoints. 
Every week, I incentivized students to recite small chunks of their speeches from memory. The first week, it was simply the first line. The second week, it was two. Then I wanted to hear four... then 5... then 7. Anyone who could reach each checkpoint when I asked received a reward. In my case, students received points toward earning admission to a field trip to see A Midsummer Night's Dream performed at The Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Any reward will work. The key to incentivizing is the publicity of it all. Any student who successfully met the checkpoint was publicly lauded for his or her efforts. This wasn't just to make that student feel good--it was to let the rest of your class know that what they once deemed impossible was, in fact, being achieved by those sitting right next to them regardless of their shared struggles.

6. Stand your ground. 
Amazing things started happening when we were about three weeks into this project. My students were finding me in the hallway, running up to me, and breathlessly reciting their lines to show me they could do it. There was joy in my classroom--pairs of students worked together to cue each other, quiz each other, cheer for each other, and perform silly pantomime they were considering incorporating into their final presentations.

Alas, all good things must come to an end (or stall, in this case). The fear of failure slowly curled its fingers around my students as their performance dates approached and several of them began to realize they had not used their time wisely. I heard rumblings of students planning to be absent on their performance dates. I had students quietly ask me if they could perform privately (just in front of me) during their lunch periods. I got questions about re-take opportunities. Their little puppy dog eyes made me want to grant all of their worried wishes... Luckily, my very strict co-teacher urged me to stand firm in my expectations. "They can do this," she assured me. I felt a little guilty for doubting them.

7. Create a supportive environment for your performers. 
Performance dates rolled around much quicker than my students preferred. I mean, sure, I assigned this project just before Thanksgiving and they didn't have to perform until the end of January... but I digress.

I had a very firm talk with the class about the expectations for an audience at any type of formal performance: they must remain silent, they should avoid fidgeting, and they shouldn't shout out or interrupt/distract performers in any way. They should welcome performers to the stage with applause and congratulate them with more applause after their speeches. And above all--they should understand how nerve-wracking it is to be in front of the entire class doing something terrifyingly difficult. Therefore, they should comport themselves with empathy.

I also agreed to cue students any time they got stuck as they performed. I understand that, even though they may have an entire speech memorized to perfection, nerves can cause unexplained difficulties to surface when they least expect it. Therefore, any time a student paused during their presentation, I'd cue them from the back of the room with enough of the next line to get them going again. I also didn't dock their grades for this. This seemed to cut their anxiety in half.  Phew!

8. Get meta. 
When it's all over, reflect with your students on what they've just accomplished. For me, this meant returning to Malvolio's 'greatness' quote from Twelfth Night once again. We talk about greatness and how it's not necessarily what you are--but what you do that makes you great. I talk about the greatness I've seen in each of them and the power of conquering a goal you once felt would be impossible. I give them time to free-write and discuss with partners about the experience. Any time we can get students to take a moment and think, "I didn't think I would be able to do it, but I worked hard, and I did it." that's a valuable use of classroom time.

Do you assign memorization tasks to your students? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject and I'm always listening for ideas to make this type of project even better.

Thanks for reading! 

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