Poems have the power to touch the soul and make the sound of language visible. They train memory and much more. But it is becoming increasingly rare to learn poetry in schools. Elementary school teacher and School Portal columnist Sabine Czerny describes why she regularly learns poetry with the children and how this works best.
Sabine Czerny 23. December 2019 Updated 01. July 2020
"Market and streets are deserted,
Silently lights up every house,
I walk through the alleys thinking,
Everything looks so festive. …" ("Christmas" by Joseph von Eichendorff)
What do these lines do with us? In any case, they make me instantly devout and contemplative. Like music and song, poems have the power to touch our souls, to trigger strong emotions. This alone makes them enormously valuable, especially in a time that is characterized by restlessness. Poems can be a gift that makes us pause, gives us moments of peace and emotion, and cradles our soul.
Hardly any poems are learned in schools anymore
In the schools, however, poems are hardly learned any more. Most of the time we don’t have the time and the leisure – as for so many other things as well. And many a teacher, many a student or even their parents lack the knowledge of the value of poems. Not a few see the learning of a poem as nonsensical, even as an ordeal or punishment.
At the same time, learning poems has far more valuable things to offer. It trains our memory, helps us to refine, differentiate and rhythmize our speech expression. The sound of language becomes more melodic, the flow of language softer, the expression more conscious. The vocabulary is expanded. Old words, some of which have already been forgotten, often have a very special vibration.
But you can’t get all these treasures just like that – they need to be saved. In elementary school, it makes little sense to give up a poem to take home to learn. Young children cannot yet learn by heart alone. They need a counterpart who learns with them. And often there is no one. This inner "dialogue partner" that we adults have, with whom we think things through together or discuss them "with ourselves", so to speak, is something that children must first develop. This only develops gradually from elementary school age onwards. Older children are already able to work on poems on their own – but they also enjoy it more when they do it together with the others and the teacher.
What is a key to learning poetry – at school or even at home? Start in time! Ultimately, poems are learned by auditioning, repeating, speaking with each other – over and over again. To cram Eichendorff’s Christmas poem in one day would be exhausting and brain physiologically not useful either. In the memory one keeps something by constant repetitions.
A few minutes every day is enough
Whether I recite a poem to the children in advance as a whole or whether I turn it up piece by piece every day, I decide anew for each poem. I speak, the children repeat. Every day, a short time is reserved for this in the morning circle – two or three minutes are completely sufficient for this. Regularity is important.
For some poems, I invent movements or gestures that make it easier to remember them. But emphasis is far more important – the children first have to learn how to read a poem in an appealing way. In addition, they are often not aware of how many modulations their language has in store – speaking softer or louder, deeper, higher, more stretched, mysterious, soft or hard ..
A great advantage of learning together is that all children learn along with them, and not just those children whose parents would sit down with them at home.
So we work our way forward every day. Every day something new is added. A great advantage of learning together is that all children learn together and not just those children whose parents would sit with them at home. My experience is that you should allow a good three to four weeks, or two weeks more if you have a performance coming up, so that the children feel really confident in the text and intonation.
When we have spoken the whole poem together several times, at some point I don’t speak anymore, at most I help with a hang now and then. And so far, it has never been long before the first children wanted to recite the poem all by themselves or just together with one or two classmates.
Poems strengthen the children’s self
And at this point, poems acquire yet another value that goes far beyond the poem itself: they strengthen children’s selves.
Nowadays children are expected to give presentations and to present something earlier and earlier – often already at the age of six in the first grade. Many feel insecure about this or refuse completely. To stand in front of a group of people and speak – all eyes on you, every word, every movement is noticed and seen – is not always an easy and natural thing to do. Quite a few children experience their first appearance of this kind as rather traumatizing. Putting themselves in such an exposed role they do not necessarily associate with joy and the opening of possibilities, but rather with discomfort and failure.
If children are given the opportunity to choose the time of their presentation, they appear before the group in a completely different way.
Here, reciting poetry can set a positive development in motion, if you give yourself and the children time and wait for "Kairos" – as the ancient Greeks called "the right moment". If you give children the opportunity to choose the time of their presentation, they appear before the group in a completely different way. In terms of content, they can stick to the framework of the poem. Every child has spoken it so many times by now that the child can fully concentrate on getting into the role of the presenter: standing on both feet, facing the audience, possibly a smile on the relaxed face. The pleasure of being the main character for a few minutes and getting full attention. Afterwards the applause, possibly a feedback – and then again the experience of stepping out of this highlighted role. All these are important experiences that should be consciously experienced.
Up to now, our practice in the morning circle has been to let the children recite the poem on their own first in this setting. Later, I offered to change the set-up so that the other kids were in their seats and the presenters actually stood in front of the class. Some children first have to experience a few times how others do it, until they dare to do it themselves. So far, however, it has always been the case that after the third or fourth poem in the school year at the latest, each child has volunteered to recite it alone in front of the class. And after the lecture the beaming faces – priceless.