Recently, the 8th-grade English classes ended their study of L.M. Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables with a literary concert. Students selected poems from the author’s book of poetry, The Watchman and Other Poems, and recited them before an audience of teachers, other classes, and peers.
Mrs. Harwell introduced the study of Anne of Green Gables with a historical and cultural background of the story’s setting, the author’s homeland: Cavendish (Avonlea), Prince Edward Island, the smallest province of Canada. Though the Cavendish settlement was rural, it was no “cultural backwater.” The Scots, who mainly settled Cavendish, ensured that their children were educated and able to express themselves well in public. To this end, children would put on “school concerts” which consisted of poetry recitation, dramatic readings, and debates. The students not only selected and practiced their poems, readings, and debate topics, but they also made the programs, arranged the seating, and decorated the community hall where the concerts were held.
To mimic this tradition, Mrs. Harwell’s students memorized their poems and rehearsed their performances, and they also made festoons of colorful tissue-paper flowers — Anne’s favorites — to decorate the classroom. Though engaging her students in the background study of the story was important, Mrs. Harwell ultimately hoped to have her students gain the numerous benefits of memorizing poetry. Many educators today are quick to dismiss rote memorization as an unnecessary exercise; however, memorization strengthens the brain for retaining more information, promotes better mental health, provides better recall, benefits the brain for episodic and spatial memory, teaches balance and symmetry, frees the mind for creative activity, improves vocabulary, and staves off cognitive decline. Furthermore, memorization has emotional and spiritual benefits. Poetry gives students a deeper appreciation for the beauty around them as they internalize poetic lines and apply those truths to their life experiences. For example, Christians know that one way to grow closer to God is through his Word, memorizing Scriptures and taking them to heart through faith and obedience: ”Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you” – Psalm 119:11.
While the literary concert may have seemed to be just another project to some, Mrs. Harwell had something more in mind than simply to educate; she hopes this exercise helped to prepare her students not only for college, but for an abundant life. Above all, she desires “. . .to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson) when it comes to the most effective ways of teaching her students.