Memorization? Yes! a CM Educator Can Embrace it!

In reaction to the educational philosophy which centers around children learning facts and information and the superficial nature of this supposed learning, CM educators may flounder knowing if or how memory work fits into a CM Life. Although we shun memory facts for a test, and memory for spouting off as if participating in an educational production, there is a place for memorization in a CM Education. And like everything CM did, she had her own spin on it, her own interpretation, her particular way of doing things. And that’s why we love her – a cut that is a little different, outside the box. So let’s not hide from the word memorization, lets embrace it and do it in a Living way!

            “Remembering and Recollecting.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 children learn in order that they may remember. Much of what we have learned and experienced in childhood, and later, we cannot reproduce, and yet it has formed the groundwork of after-knowledge; later notions and opinions have grown out of what we once learned and knew. That is our sunk capital, of which we enjoy the interest though we are unable to realise. Again, much that we have learned and experienced is not only retained in the storehouse of memory, but is our available capital, we can reproduce, recollect upon demand. This memory which may be drawn upon by the act of recollection is our most valuable endowment.” —Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.155-156


While rote memory —repeating of facts, figures, or words until it is stored in memory — is one way to memorize, Charlotte Mason gives us some other tips and ideas for filling our memory.

A Pleasurable Setting.
On the general side of the subject of memory, one interesting thing she points out, is that memory not only includes facts, figures, and words, it also includes impressions and feelings. The memory includes with it the atmosphere in which it received the input. We might call it a recollection of the surroundings. This involves the senses and is one key we can use to make the work of storing the memory delightful. It may be conscious or unconscious. At the first, the mind may be unconscious of the filling of the senses, but later if the mind travels back to the place of the input, it can often pull up some of the impressions from the surroundings. Atmosphere is always a key component to learning and a child’s life.

Chapter 18 in Volume 2 has several sections devoted to this idea. For now, I will pull out some of her various phrases and excerpts to give you a flavor of her thoughts.

            “…an association which recalls the image once permanently impressed by the original sensation…
The eye of his mind is infinitely gladdened; the ear of his mind, no longer conscious of the din of cities, hears the chord struck by the Wye in its flow, and the notes of the birds and the lowing of the cattle and the acuter notes of the insect world. Again he perceives the odour of the meadowsweet, he touches the coolness of the grass; and all these are as absolutely sensations as when they were for the first time conveyed to his consciousness by the sensory organs.

            Open-air Memories should be Stored.—We have in these few lines a volume of reasons why we should fill for children the storehouse of memory with many open-air images, capable of giving them reflected sensations of extreme delight.
            Memories of Delight a Source of Physical Well-being and of Mental Restoration.—these sensations sweet are ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart,’ a statement curiously true to fact; for a pleasurable sensation causes the relaxation of the infinitesimal nerve fibres netted around the capillaries; the blood flows freely, the heart beats quicker, the sense of well-being is increased; gaiety, gladness, supervene; and the gloom of the dull day, and the din of the busy city, exist for us no more; that is to say, memories of delight are, as it were, an elixir of life, capable, when they present themselves, of restoring us at any moment to a condition of physical well-being.

            If mere sensations are capable of doing so much for our happiness, our mental refreshment, and our physical well-being, both at the time of their reception and for an indefinite number of times afterwards, it follows that it is no small part of our work as educators to preserve the acuteness of the children’s perceptions and to store their memories with images of delight.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 2 p.192, 193,194.

I would propose that while Charlotte is talking of memorIES , that this idea of presenting memory work, or any school work for that matter, in an atmosphere of delight, relaxation, and beauty, helps to lighten the load of the work and gives the work a pleasurable aura because of its surroundings. So for anything we give the children to do as educators, present it in a package surrounded with subtle, beautiful pleasures. And then, memory work should be done in a pleasurable setting. In this way, showing the child our happiness to be reading and learning the Words of God, can in a subtle, simple way set a good tone.


——♦♦——

Charlotte’s Four Conditions for Remembering.

            “Given these conditions, there appears to be no limit of quantity to the recording power of the brain.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.158

The next 4 suggestions are conditions Charlotte speaks of in Volume 1. The title of this chapter is “The Habit of Remembering.” While she is speaking more to the idea of the general remembering of the material of a lesson, I think there are some valuable insights that could be applied to memorizing.

1.  Use their Whole Attention.
Attention is a key element in a Charlotte Mason Education. So it naturally follows that when students are memorizing something, it is well worth the effort for the teacher to make sure attention is on. But always remember it is also being trained and strengthened. It takes time and patience, working consistently and in small steps not leaps and bounds.

            “…give an instant’s undivided attention to anything whatsoever, and that thing will be remembered. In describing this effect, the common expression is accurate beyond its intention. We say, “Such and such a sight or sound, or sensation, made a strong impression on me.” And that is precisely what has happened: arrest the attention upon any fact or incident, and that fact or incident is remembered; it is impressed, imprinted upon the brain substance. The inference is plain. You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention, the fixed gaze of his mind, as it were, upon the fact to be remembered; then he will have it: by a sort of photographic (!) process, that fact or idea is ‘taken’ by his brain, and when he is an old man, perhaps, the memory of it will flash across him.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.176-157

We severely underestimate and underuse the power the brain has. When it is fully engaged with complete focus, amazing things can be accomplished. It may not be possible to gain, as the woman in the below story did, the strong power of memory through undivided attention, but always keep this in mind. And maybe this would be something to utilize on a sick day.

         “ I remember once discussing this subject with the late Miss Anna Swanwick in some connection with Browning which I do not recall, but in the course of talk an extremely curious incident transpired. A lady, a niece of Miss Swanwick’s, said that after a long illness, during which she had not been allowed to do anything, she read ‘Lycidas’ through, by way of a first treat to herself as a convalescent. She was surprised to find herself the next day repeating to herself long passages. Then she tried the whole poem and found she could say it off, the result of this single reading, for she had not learned the poem before her illness, nor read it with particular attention. She was much elated by the treasure-trove she had chanced upon, and to test her powers, she read the whole of ‘Paradise Lost,’ book by book, and with the same result,—she could repeat it book by book after a single reading! She enriched herself by acquiring other treasures during her convalescence; but as health returned, and her mind became preoccupied with many interests, she found she no longer had this astonishing power. It is possible that the disengaged mind of a child is as free to take and as strong to hold beautiful images clothed in beautiful words as was that of this lady during her convalescence.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.225-226

2.  Review.
Again the below quote is for lessons, but when it is possible have the student recall or compare something from the memory work of the previous session.

            “…you must not only fix his attention upon each new lesson, but each must be so linked into the last that it is impossible for him to recall one without the other following in its train… Let every lesson gain the child’s entire attention, and let each new lesson be so interlaced with the last that the one must recall the other; that, again, recalls the one before it, and so on to the beginning.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.156, 157

In a more direct sense to memorizing, Charlotte didn’t abstain from review. Often as a new CM Educator, I thought that if a child’s attention was on, there would be no need for review. Whatever it was that the child should know, was made available once and only once. This interpretation of the philosophy, came from the narration discussion in the Volume 1 (p.229-230) and 3 (p.179-180) where Charlotte says not to repeat a reading, the child should get what he needs from only one reading. While this is what she said, and this is a good habit, everything must be taken as a whole.

            “Next day the children will recite what they have already learned, and so on, until they are able to say the whole parable.” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.253

This idea of repeating the memory verses the next day I find falls more in line with Charlotte’s  idea of reviewing or recapping the lesson from the past day prior to the lesson for the current day.

            “Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson…” – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.233

3.  Time.
But the ‘lightly come, lightly go’ of a mere verbal memory follows no such rules. The child gets his exercise ‘by heart,’ says it off like a parrot, and behold, it is gone; there is no record of it upon the brain at all. To secure such a record, there must be time; time for that full gaze of the mind we call attention, and for the growth of the brain tissue to the new idea. – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.158

4.  Don’t let it Grow Rusty.
Return to what was memorized now and then. I’ve had on our schedule to review a poem or Bible verse on Fridays. The children could choose something they wanted to review from the list they had kept of poems for passages they had done for recitations or memory.

the path should have been kept open by frequent goings and comings.
But Links of Association a Condition of Recollection.—To acquire any knowledge or power whatsoever, and then to leave it to grow rusty in a neglected corner of the brain, is practically useless. – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p. 158

——♦♦——

Charlotte’s Other Ideas for Memorizing.

There are some other insights that Charlotte gives us throughout the volumes in relation to memorizing.

Give in Story Form When Possible.
Charlotte talks about reading a parable. Parables are stories found in the Bible that Jesus told. His stories were intended to communicate a message or truth to the listeners. Charlotte mentions to read in an engaging way as any story should be told- with feeling and interest.

The whole parable should be read to them in a way to bring out its beauty and tenderness; —Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.253

Story form is the ideal, because firstly it is the method Jesus often used to communicate. Translating to CM philosophy, story form most easily moves into the child’s imagination as it paints a picture. This same idea can be had with some other verses. The story surrounding a particular verse could be told prior to the child learning the verse. For example, one of the most famous Bible verses is John 3:16. This verse comes to us as part of the story of Nicodemus and his night visit to Jesus. The story could be painted in words for the child and a short retelling of Nicodemus’ questions to Jesus concerning being born again. John 3:16 then could be learned with the whole engaging story in the child’s mind.

Read and Repeat.
One method Charlotte uses to store the memory is to read the information to be known several times. After several readings, the child repeats it when they think they know it.

The whole parable should be read to them in a way to bring out its beauty and tenderness; and then, day by day, the teacher should recite a short passage, perhaps two or three verses, saying it over some three or four times until the children think they know it. Then, but not before, let them recite the passage. — Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.253


Although this method smells of rote memory, or kill and drill, reading carefully reveals a slight CM spin on the method. Don’t brush over the phrases, “…until the children think they know it. Then, but not before”… It is very important. In order for the child to do this there must be engagement and interaction between student and teacher to set up the idea that the teacher is going to read the passage, but the student will soon be expected to do his part. Doing this invites the child as a participant in his own memory work. By involving the child in this subtle way, we are putting most of the duty on him, rather than letting the child be mindlessly spoon fed a plethora of words to be pasted in the brain. Rather than read the passage to him over and over, drilling it into him, we are setting up the expectation that the child will attend and take the responsibility for his own memorization. When you engage the child by telling them that they will soon repeat what you are telling them, it engages their attention and is then more effective.

Begin Young.
Charlotte mentions children starting to learn Bible passages at six or seven. This is the time when formal lessons would begin in a CM Education. They can easily be worked into the daily lessons.

The learning by heart of Bible passages should begin while the children are quite young, six or seven… —Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.253

Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. – Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.226

Certainly, six or seven when a child starts formal lessons is a good time to start Bible or poetry memory, but long before that a small child can pick up many short stanzas and phrases from Bible verses in a by-the-way fashion. Maybe a short verse or phrase at meal times or upon waking or at bed time.

Read a long passage by-the-way.
I use this technique for parables, longer passages, poetry, and historical and civic passages like the Declaration of Independence. A quick summary of what Charlotte is proposing—while the student is distracted with quiet playing or other quiet engagement, a long poem was read to the student. This was done for several days in a row up to six times.

Some years ago I chanced to visit a house, the mistress of which had educational notions of her own, upon which she was bringing up a niece. She presented me with a large foolscap sheet written all over with the titles of poems, some of them long and difficult; Tintern Abbey, for example. She told me that her niece could repeat to me any of those poems that I liked to ask for, and that she had never learnt a single verse by heart in her life. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without hesitation; and then the lady unfolded her secret. She thought she had made a discovery, and I thought so too. She read a poem through to E.; then the next day, while the little girl was making a doll’s frock, perhaps, she read it again; once again the next day, while E.’s hair was being brushed. She got in about six or more readings, according to the length of the poem, at odd and unexpected times, and in the end E. could say the poem which she had not learned.
          I have tried the plan often since, and found it effectual. The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems as—‘Dolly and Dick,’ ‘Do you ask what the birds say?’ ‘Little lamb, who made thee?’ and the like. The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child’s enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed.
– Charlotte Mason Volume 1 p.224-225

My childhood school had daily chapel. Each morning we would read a long passage of verses, aloud, all grades together. Some passages that I still remember are Psalm 19 and John 1:1-14. While this isn’t the same technique Charlotte is describing, it is along the same vein.

Make it quality.
This probably goes without saying, but no twaddle please. Good poetry, Bible verses and passages, hymn lyrics, other music lyrics, or a meaningful passage of prose are all good candidates for memorizing.

…and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. At the same time, when there is so much noble poetry within a child’s compass, the pity of it, that he should be allowed to learn twaddle!

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