Thursday, December 5, 2013

Learning by Heart

Learning by Heart

     Some of you know that I’ve been escaping into the Cotswold village of Fairacre periodically for nearly twenty years. I like reading about the British-schoolmistress-days of Miss Read during the 1950s. Ambling along a page in Changes in Fairacre I took note of her opinion and smiled.

throwing snowballs

     “After a short session of modeling [in clay] I embarked on two short poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. I am a great believer in stuffing young children’s heads with worthwhile verse which they will have safely stored away for the rest of their lives.”

vintage Christmas bulbs

     One of the lovely things about home education is the picking up of interesting ideas, beautiful thoughts, and sentiments that a teacher commits to memory while she is leading her children to do so. I followed Miss Charlotte Mason’s advice in Home Education in 1989 and chose some verses for memory work. Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses appealed to me and I thought they would appeal to my little girls, too. But it wasn’t work, really. I read a poem aloud one morning. Later, while I was preparing supper I read it again. And again when the baby was in his crib for the night and my little girls were in the bath. It only took a couple of minutes. It met their ears like a commercial jingle on the radio might, mingling into the atmosphere of the house.

     The next morning, between penmanship and arithmetic, I spoke the first four lines of the poem. I didn’t need to read it. Apparently, I had learned it by heart myself – effortlessly. I repeated it again at supper and again at bedtime. On the third day I recited it, then asked my girls to take turns reciting it. This they did with no trouble.

“Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession. . .” C.M.

     "It is possible that the disengaged mind of the child is free to take [in] . . . beautiful images clothed in beautiful words. . . . Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorizing . . . attempt only a little, 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, [it is] a pity that she should be allowed to learn twaddle.” C.M.

     Following this plan we learned the twelve lines of the poem, “The Swing” by heart.

     Years later when I was sitting together with my son on the sofa (the baby reached age 6) reading “The Swing” out of our picture book, it dawned on me that the lines could have been written as if following the path of a long rope swing - one line of the poem swinging forward – the next line swinging backward, in rhythmic pendulum fashion. We were renting a house in Oregon that had a tall sturdy oak tree at the edge of the lawn. A rope swing was attached to a branch that was high off the ground. I don’t know how the previous residents (a retired couple) managed to attach the rope to such a high branch. It made a wonderfully long ride. The rider thrillingly soured through the air (almost dangerously so) with the breeze in her hair, once she “got into the swing of it.”  

     I’ll probably always be fond of the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. More than twenty years later, with only a little prodding, I can still recall most of the verses we learned by heart. I savor their simple expression of joy – and made them a part of my Mother Culture. If it were not for home education I wonder if I would ever have had such a “child’s garden of verses” in my soul – if I hadn’t embarked upon “stuffing the heads” of my young children with “worthwhile verse,” as Miss Read puts it. 

     “It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages,” says Charlotte Mason. Of the Bible we read that in place of the “memory verse” we are advised to learn a longer piece to absorb the surrounding context.

     If anyone asks, “What shall I learn?" the answer is, “Begin with what you sincerely like best, what you would most wish to remember." This time of year it could be the Christmas story in Scripture written by the apostle, physician and historian, St Luke – so treasured by many and most familiar to us in the King James - as spoken impromptu by Linus in the old TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” (Luke 2:8-14)

     In summer I took a series of breakfast times to refresh my memory and secure the Twenty-Third Psalm word-perfect before my scheduled lumbar puncture that the patient is wide-awake for. I anticipated the need for its security. When the day and hour arrived I clung to each line of precious truth like a toddler does a blanket, I can assure you.  
     On a more serious vein, men have taken verses and literary passages committed to memory with them onto the battlefields of the world wars to recall them while they wait in the muddy trenches. 

     In the 19th century, Vernon Lushington, stirs his fellow adults onto a plan of self-education. 

     “Till he has fairy tried it, I suspect the reader does not know how much he would gain from committing to memory passages of real excellence; precisely because he does not know how much he overlooks in merely reading. Learn one true poem by heart, and see if you do not find it so. Beauty after beauty will reveal itself, in chosen phrase, or happy music, or noble suggestion otherwise undreamed of. It is like looking at one of nature’s wonders through a microscope.
     Again, how much in such a poem that you really did feel admirable and lovely on a first reading, passes away if you do not give it a further and much better reading. It passes away utterly, like a sweet sound, or an image on the lake, which the first breath of wind dispels. If you could only fix that image, as the photographers do theirs, so beautifully, so perfectly! You can. . . Learn it by heart, and it is yours forever!”

Sharing thoughts across the years and across the miles with you, 
toward the "Gentle Art of Learning."
Karen Andreola

To hear Linus' impromptu recitation click play button.


  1. Karen, you are a dear friend to me. Thank you for this lovely, inspiring post. When I came to read it, I had just finished working on a particular passage of scripture that I've been struggling to memorize. You have given me courage to persevere.

    One of our dear friends read the Luke 2 passage two Sundays past during our worship assembly. I smiled as I thought of Mr. George playing the role of Linus! That quiet scene always warms my heart and lifts my spirits.

    May you have a joyful Advent season.


  2. Thank you for inspiring me today. What a beautiful way to help our children and ourselves fall in love with the things that truly matter and help us in life.


  3. I love Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verse, too! After being in Edinburgh this summer, I decided that my students would learn a few of his poems this year. They have learned Autumn Fires already.

    We have seen that the reading aloud of scripture helps children commit it to memory. Several years ago, Tim was reading Psalm 23 every night when tucking Kyle into bed for the night. After a few weeks Kyle at age 3 could recite the whole Psalm word perfect. Tim never asked him to repeat it - he just read it to him every night!

    We love Linus, too.

    Merry Christmas Karen!


  4. In ages past, memory work was not something to be shunned, but it was the way things worked.
    I was so afraid of "forcing" my children to memorize things because I had never been taught to do that (except to cram stuff for tests), but I'm glad I followed CM's advice and did it anyway. I was amazed at how easy it was for my children to memorize..they had no "baggage" to tow along like I did.
    My oldest daughters, now 18 and 17, still fondly recall the RSL poems they memorized, and they can recite whole books of scripture. It's amazing to me.
    I have been using a program called "Memorize His Word", which really helps for memorizing scripture. You choose which passages you want to memorize and it sends you daily email reminders. There are different prompts you can set, or you can do a "test" and it will give you a score for what % of the passage you've memorized. For Macs, there is a yearly subscription ($15 and well worth it) or for PCs you can buy a disk.

  5. Thank you so much for all you do to keep me inspired. I love, love, love this page! Merry Christmas and God bless you! Margo

  6. I so enjoyed the words and pictures you have shared here. I just not long ago learned of Miss Read...through a blogging friend who sent me some of the Miss Read books, along with some Gladys Taber books as well. My first to read was No Holly for Miss Read...I loved it. Can't wait to read more :) Merry Christmas to you and yours dear Karen

  7. "The Swing" was one of the first poems I memorized, and recited while swinging, too! I have an idea of how the couple got the swing rope up that tall tree- my dad used to do this to get our swings up: he tied one end of the rope to a short, thick stick, then threw the stick up over the desired branch. This always took several attempts and was watched with much anticipation. Once it was over, he carefully lowered it to attach to the swing ( just don't let go of the other end when trying this!). I loved swinging and was very sad when we moved to a place with no swing trees.

  8. One of my favorite Christmastime memories is watching the Charlie Brown Christmas and waiting with anticipation for Linus to ask for the lights to be dimmed before he recites the passage from Luke and then explains, "that's the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown." It's so simple, and yet, so many miss it. Likewise, it is easy to miss out on the simplicity of verse and it's use in educating our children and improving their speech and vocabulary. As you described the swinging of that rope swing in Oregon, I could imagine words playing upon the motion as it swept back and forth, back and forth. Inspiring! Thank you, dear Karen. :)

    Your tree and ornaments are lovely and must hold much nostalgia as ours do. I truly enjoy seeing what ornaments others decorate their trees with!

    Advent blessings to you and yours,

    Lisa :)

  9. Thank you for this lovely post. We have been reading poetry each morning, and doing some memory work, but I need to get back on that.
    PS I love your new photo collage!

  10. Thanks for sending along your comments during this busy season of the year, Ladies. I am blessed by your sharing.

    I will pass along your compliments of the new winter header to our web-design son. He is able to use a mouse now and loves getting back to work. I didn't do anything but stand behind his shoulder and say "yea" or "nay." We still await news of his treatment in Philadelphia.

    The ground is covered with a white blanket of snow and the sun is shinning. Today I am polishing up my next post and hoping to get the housework done early enough to enjoy the last sunny rays for cross-stitching. Tomorrow "baking" is on the Saturday schedule. More snow is on the way.

    Nice to have you stopping by,
    Karen A.

  11. Blessings of the season to all.
    Thanks for sharing dear Linus reciting even dearer St. Luke. During the St. Olaf Christmas concert on the radio, the announcer reminded us that the birth of the Baby is only the beginning. And the glory still shines round about us...

    Thank you for your lovely blog. Prayers for you as you begin a new writing project.

    In Christ,

    Mary Chiles

  12. I am a grandmother of a five almost six year old grandson. He suffers from ADHD. He is a sweet child, but he loves to see what he can say to shock and get a reaction. I set his classes up for 15 minutes max. He is very strong willed, and when I am trying to introduce him to the wonderful books of classic stories, music, etc, he quickly loses interest. Unfortunately, he has had some significant exposure to the trendy trash that most kids are exposed to, and he loves it. My question is, how should I help focus him on things that matter most? Manners, Godliness, a love for those things that inspire us in a Godly direction and soothe our spirits in moments of anxiousness, and excitability, such as his hyperactivity. It's a little rough trying to teach him the difference between indoor activity and outdoor activity. He loves to memorize Bible scripture, but trying to help him understand what reverence we should display during prayer or Bible reading is quite challenging.
    Just needing alittle insight for a bright, precious, active special needs child. Thank you so much. Susan

  13. Dear Susan,
    My grandson is 6 and sounds as energetic as yours. On rainy, very cold, or very hot days he must play indoors and can be rambunctious and loud with his little brother. It would be convenient if there were a button on his back that his mom could press that would make him docile and attentive when his mother wishes him to be. Boys, especially at that age, crave physical activity - they need to use their larger muscles so much of the day - it is astounding. If we look at what we grown-ups do we will discover how much we use our hands (at least). Rarely are our hands folded on our laps unless our eyes are watching the scenes go by in the car (in the passenger seat) or watching a film.

    Start the day with protein and fat along with the carbohydrates so that breakfast doesn't raise his blood sugar so quickly. And do chores together. Then physical activity. Then a lesson that is less than 15 minutes. 5 minutes of reading aloud from a picture book while he turns the pages for you at the sound of you ringing a funny little bell, perhaps.

    Read about subjects that interest him. My grandson likes undersea creatures - esp. sharks. This subject is helping him become more attentive to books.

    Boys often like math. My grandson does. Get out the pennies (not candy) and do "hands-on" counting and other hands-on math activities for size and weight, length, etc. Require he sit for a short time but also let him "get" out things for his lessons and put them away - rather than you doing all this leg work. One day my daughter had her 6 yr-old son measure things around the house for math. He was very willing and this "discovery-learning" interesting. Can you tell that she and I talk on the telephone?

    Boys are attracted to movement and like moving themselves. That's why the flashy, emotional cartoons are riveting entertainment. Limit this if you can, certainly. Patterns, too, in shapes and colors, stimulate the brain - as do 3-D opportunities - to build, make and do. Therefore, esp for boys, let "Kindergarten" activities continue, "life skills," too, while skills in the 3 Rs develop gradually. Games, songs, manners, cut-n-paste, etc.
    My grandson enjoyed "standing" next to me while I was sitting and drawing a shape with pencil and paper and he had to guess what I was drawing. He saw my "house" and wanted to draw one, too. This simple pencil and paper activity was developing needed dexterity for penmanship - a skill boys are often not too keen on developing - a skill that seems to come more easily to girls.

    While you are keeping lessons very short, also alternating the type of lessons and activities - using feet, head, hands, ears, - what Miss Mason recommends.

    Sensory games are fun in between the 3 Rs (or with them). A blind fold and a brown bag do wonders for the curious child. "Reach your hand inside this brown bag. What do you feel? The blind fold works well for identifying smells of things in the kitchen, too, or sounds you make around the house.

    Be encouraged. Active, healthy, energetic boys do learn - but not necessarily in as docile a manner as we anticipate (or remember from our own classroom days of strict immobility).

    I remember saying prayers at mealtime and bedtime that were about two-three sentences in length when my children were age 6 or so. The prayers were sober, respectful, sweet and sometimes were verses that rhymed. Adoration can be modeled even in this simplest form.
    Karen A.

  14. Beautiful post. I remember the days of my children's childhood fondly.
    I didn't do it all right, but they know the LORD and what He's done for them.

    One note, the video no longer works.
    Be blessed friend!