Friday, January 01, 2010

Poems, Picture Study and Beginning Again

I have long thought that the very best gifts are not those that are most expensive or exclusive or even those you most want in advance; the best gifts are those that demonstrate somehow that the giver knows you. I received many lovely Christmas presents this year and all represented, in one way or another, this spirit of "best gifts." But one stands out: Poem a Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. It's a collection of 366 poems (including one for February 29th) organized by date, one for each day of the year.

The book cover says, "In times past, Americans with a love of poetry routinely learned by heart dozens of poems ..." and I was driven backward to memories of my Catholic grade school days in Philadelphia, to an occasional subject called "Poems and Picture Study." This was not a "special." We didn't leave our regular classroom (I and my 70 or 80 classmates never left the regular classroom :-). It was simply a weekly exercise in which each of us learned to recognize some famous work of art (Jean Francois Millet's The Gleaners comes immediately to consciousness) or to recite from memory some well-known bit of poetry (for example, "O young Lochivar is come out of the west ..." by Sir Walter Scott). These exercises in memorization and cultural appreciation seem, from my vantage point half a century later, to have been important. We knew then that they were important because there was a final exam at the end of the year in this study, just as there were cumulative exams in all of the subjects we studied.

Ironically, it is examinations (of the NCLB variety) that are partially responsible for chasing this kind of study out of the curriculum. But it is not only the NCLB mentality that impoverishes the studies our children take up. We are impoverished by attitudes that allow the legitimate need for "relevance" to trump the just-as-important need for perspective, for appreciation for the best that has been said and done. E.D. Hirsch was right about the latter, the Progressives were right about the former -- and John Dewey was even "righter" when he insisted that the two were not mutually exclusive.

Some will say that it is silly nostalgia on my part that causes me to bemoan the lack of poems and picture study in the curriculum. Some will say that both are there but in other forms in regular language arts and visual arts classes. Some will argue that we have no time for this nonsense in an age when literacy is lagging. Some will note that the pedagogies of memorization and site recognition are limited. And I will nod and agree. But even if all that is true, I think today's young children would be better off recognizing and reciting at least some of these kinds of expressive and aesthetic achievements. In such works, there is both intelligence and goodness.

As for me, I spent just a few minutes this New Years morning memorizing the selection for January 1st, "New Every Morning" by 19th century poet Susan Coolidge:

Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.


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