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How to Choose Memory Work for your Charlotte Mason Homeschool

When my eldest son started his first ‘formal’ year of homeschooling in January, we made some changes to our morning time together. While we already had the habit of reading lovely stories and enjoying music together, I began to ask my son to narrate our Bible passage for the day, and we began in earnest to start memory work. I selected some Scripture verses and a poem or two with the goal of helping my son memorize them over the course of the term.

As we wrapped up our first term, my son had indeed memorized what I had set. However, I had a few hunches that I hadn’t approached memory work correctly. As I say pretty often, I was missing a few key principles to help me select what we would memorize and how we would go about it. I needed to turn my hunches into ideas to guide my decision making. Here are the insights I’ve put together along with some general principles for choosing memory work for your homeschool students.

What does Charlotte Mason say about memory work?

As a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, I first looked at what she wrote about memorization. What did her students memorize and why? How did memory work fit into her philosophy?

To begin, Charlotte Mason included practices in her school that relied on students’ memories; however, this was far from rote learning, and much more about engaging deeply with literature, art, and nature. With narration and with picture study, we ask our students to apply their full attention to the lesson or picture. We want them to recall as much as possible from memory as they ‘tell-back’ the passage or describe the picture. Charlotte Mason hoped that a child would have a storehouse of beautiful stories, art, and music which they could recall with delight as adults. 

These are only general exercises that help students learn and remember these beautiful stories and pictures. Charlotte Mason also encouraged word-for-word memorization of poetry and Scripture.

Charlotte Mason wrote that “it is well to store a child’s memory with a good deal of poetry, learnt without labour”, and that we should “let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination.”

We see the same idea in her ideas on memorizing Scripture. She wrote: 

“The learning by heart of Bible passages should begin while the children are quite young, six or seven. It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages, and we cannot tell when and how this manner of seed may spring up, grow, and bear fruit.”

Committing what is beautiful and true to memory, whether it is art, Scripture, poetry, or a vista, is certainly a valuable part of the Charlotte Mason method, and is what I will refer to as ‘memory work’ throughout the rest of this post.

What does modern research say about memory work?

Modern research has plenty to say about memory and how it functions, but there are two ideas that I have particularly taken to heart as I’ve considered the part memory work plays in our homeschool. 

Memory Work and Dementia

As humans live longer, more people are likely to suffer from dementia as they age. Yet, even as memory is lost, poetry and music, and in particular familiar poetry and music can bring incredible comfort to dementia-sufferers. One article from the NHS states,  “There are many stories and examples where music in care homes and in institutions is extraordinarily effective at bringing people together and stimulating memories. Memorable stories of individuals who were withdrawn and apathetic who have been brought back to life by listening to their favourite music,”

Poetry by Heart says:

Most people with dementia remember the distant past more clearly than recent events. This is because memories tend to decline in reverse order to when they were experienced. People will often have difficulty remembering what happened a few minutes or hours ago, but can recall, in detail, life when they were much younger.

For that reason, poetry can be a useful tool for reminiscence activities; a poem has the potential to unlock memories and emotions. Perhaps there was a poem that someone will remember because their parents or grandparents read it to them when they were a child, or a poem that was used in English lessons at school. Maybe there were poems written by husbands or wives in the early days of a budding romance.

I find this very compelling. If long after I am gone, my children suffer from dementia, my opportunity to help them fill their memories with beautiful and comforting words is right now.

The Mechanics of Memory

As we grow up, we store plenty of experiences and ideas in our long-term memories. This is a natural process, but it doesn’t mean that we will remember them later. In order to do that, we have to have an ability to recall that information. We have to be able to bring a memory from ‘long-term storage’ and into our active remembrance. The more we practice recall on a certain memory, the easier we find the recollection of it. But we also have to have a ‘hook’ into the memory (an associated fact or a strong feeling) in order to locate it again. The more hooks we have, the more ways we have of recalling the memory.

What does this mean for homeschool memory work? Things we memorize with very little context we will likely forget. If we have a connection between a poem or song and something else (an event, with an emotion, or even something commonplace, like a meal or routine) it will have more ‘hooks’ for recall. We will more easily remember and enjoy that poem or song later.

Principles for Choosing Memory Work

With this in mind, I’ve developed some ideas for selecting what my children will memorize.

  1. Memory work should offer comfort, encouragement, and inspiration. I ask myself, ‘If my child could remember nothing else, would this bring him joy and support?’
  2. Memory work should have context around it. Did my child enjoy this poem when we read it? Does it reflect an experience he has had? Do I enjoy singing this song outside of school time? Is the passage long enough to tell its own story?

Choosing what to memorize

In practice, this means a few things. First, I avoid choosing one-off Bible verses for memory work. I tried this earlier in the school year, which felt wrong. My son didn’t have personal experience to give the verse context or meaning. He memorized it quickly, but hasn’t had any need or desire to recall it on his own.

Second, in these early years of homeschooling, I choose Scripture passages that communicate the person of Christ – stories about him and parables he taught. Because these are stories, my son can relate to them better. And who can give more comfort than Jesus?

Third, I choose poems that have resonated with my children, that they have asked to read again. I can tell when something captures their imagination! When they have an emotional connection with a poem or a psalm, it is easier for them to remember it later. Charlotte Mason writes, “Let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination.” For my young children, Robert Louis Stevenson and A.A. Milne are perfect.

It is tempting to choose memory work as a means of preaching to our children. We want them to memorize ‘Children, obey your parents’ because we want them to be obedient! Personally, though, I feel concerned about this approach. My ultimate hope is that my children will follow Christ and obey Him because they know and love Him. So instead of beginning with commandments and directives, we are starting with the passages that will enable them to know and love Christ.

How to Help Your Children Memorize Poems, Songs, and Scripture

So far, I choose a combination of three Bible passages, Psalms, and poems to memorize during a twelve week term. Because practicing recall is important, we practice each passage for two weeks, then review each passage again for one week. This takes up nine weeks of our term, allowing us to spend three weeks reviewing each passage once a week. As we build up a store of memorised poetry and Scripture, I keep the passages we have memorized in my binder, and we practice them on a rotation throughout the term, though less frequently than we practice new memory work.

Helping my kids memorize a passage is very straightforward. I read it aloud a few times. Then, I start to leave off the ends of sentences and have my kids fill in. I leave out more and more and before I know it, they have it down.  Charlotte Mason was clear that memorizing shouldn’t be burdensome or a struggle, but should be gentle and relaxed. So far, this casual approach is working for us. My son especially likes to record his recitation into a voice message for his dad!

Ultimately, I view memory work as a way to bless my children long after I am gone. I pray that they will be inspired by beautiful passages of Scripture and lovely poetry, and that these memories will bring them comfort and joy throughout their lives. 

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