When I was in fourth grade, I tried to memorize as many poems as I could to recite for my teacher, Mr. Hobbes.
It wasn’t because I was a nerd (although I was). If a student could recite a poem – any poem – he or she would receive a prize. Sometimes it was extra credit, sometimes it was bubble gum and on occasion, the candy bar of your choice. Some might question Mr. Hobbes’ methods, but I’m here to tell you it worked.
Students with no interest in reading, whose parents probably weren’t poetry lovers, made the effort to learn the works of Ogden Nash and Robert Louis Stevenson. Some may have done it for a candy bar, but they still memorized a poem. They found its cadence, they learned difficult words and they tested their minds. It was a great challenge issued by a great teacher.
Mr. Hobbes popped into my mind Tuesday morning while I was observing classical memory period at Providence Classical School in Williamsburg. Nearly every morning of the week, students in grades k-5 gather to share what they’ve learned through recitation and song.
Some classes recited famous poems, while others sang educational songs, such as a song naming all of the prepositions. I don’t know about you, but I could never name the prepositions off the top of my head.
When each classroom took its turn, the students would stand and recite with gusto as the other students craned their heads to watch. Because some of the songs and poems are taught every year, the older students were able to mouth the words along with the younger students. In the quick 30-minute session, I also heard a song about the history of monarchies in the Western world and poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Steven Vincent Benet. The fifth grade performance of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” was the hit of the morning. The students seemed to be having a blast as they shouted, “Mimsy were the borogroves!”
After a quick prayer, the classical memory period concluded and students headed to their classrooms while the tune of the “Preposition Song” still played in my head.
Providence Classical School is a private Christian school for grades K-9, with a lower and upper school called the Grammar and Dialectic schools. Previously located near the K-Mart, the school now occupies two buildings just off Greensprings Plantation Road. Annual tuition for the first child in the grammar school (with full-day kindergarten) is $7,508 and $7,649 for the first child in the Dialectic school. The book fee is $250 for full-day students in the Grammar and Dialectic shools.
The curriculum is based on the classical education taught in Ancient Greece and is similar to the way the United States’ founding fathers were educated. Students learn math, science, phonics/reading, grammar, writing, the Bible, history, music and art. Starting in the third grade, students take Latin and in the upper grades, classes study logic and debate. Lessons are structured around a child’s development, but are still rigorous and challenging. I was impressed to hear third-graders sing about the Battle of Hastings, accurately naming the year (1066) and the leader at the forefront (William the Conqueror).
I asked Jean Henry, the events coordinator for the school, how history is taught in the school. She said students in the Grammar school are taught chronologically, so ancient history pops up in kindergarten curriculums, leading up to modern history by fifth grade. In those years, the students learn songs and poems that help them memorize names and dates. But in Dialectic school, the students revisit the history they learned before – this time taking an analytical approach.
I visited several classrooms Tuesday and in nearly every one, students were learning through recitation. Nancy Blackford’s fourth-grade class begged to recite their favorite poem, “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
It’s certainly different from the way most of us were schooled, but intriguing. Henry says former students who have moved on to public high school have excelled at their Standards of Learning history tests and quickly advance through the upper Latin courses. I bet the memorization technique comes in handy when students are taking Advanced Placement exams, too.
I left the school thinking about all of the songs and poems I’d seen so passionately performed. Providence Classical students will be bound together by the shared experience of knowing and loving a song about prepositions. All of us are proud when we still remember something we learned as kids. If you stopped any of my childhood classmates today and asked them about Mr. Hobbes, many of them could probably recite the preamble to the Constitution, or some lines from his favorite to perform, “Little Orphant Annie.”
Mr. Hobbes died when I was in 7th grade. I asked some classmates earlier this week to share their memories of him and everyone mentioned the bubble gum rewards, the daily race to solve the newspaper’s word Jumble and the personalized poems he wrote in our yearbooks. He understood learning can be fun, boisterous and loud; years later, his memory is still cherished by his students.
Based on that experience, I imagine Providence’s students will look back on these mornings spent singing and reciting with fondness. And hopefully, they will be able to name 49 prepositions.