My students are required to memorize and recite one poem each month and have been doing it since third grade. We have struggled lately with students complaining that giving them the poem only 2 weeks in advance does not leave enough time for them to learn the poems. Over lunch one day, my colleagues and I were sharing our frustration about this issue. We decided that a very teachable moment had just appeared for us. We all agreed to go back into our classrooms after lunch and give each student a notecard. The students would be instructed to write their assigned poem, author, and any lines they had memorized. Despite having the poem for nearly a week, we expected that few students would even know the title and author. Of course, this would give us the opportunity to prove that giving them more time for the poems would not be beneficial because they don't use the time we give them.
Here’s the poem they were to memorize:
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
It would be untruthful to say that I didn’t get at least some pleasure from seeing the panicked faces of my students as they tried to complete this assignment. I knew that my subsequent lesson about time management would hold new significance to them. As I collected the finished notecards, I had a sense of satisfaction in seeing that the majority of my students knew at least the title of the poem. I stood at the front of the room, flipping through the notecards and congratulating students on knowing various parts of the poem. I was surprised to see one notecard with more writing on it than the others. Turning to the student who had written it, I asked if he had just put a random poem on his card.
“Uhhh. Sort of. I didn’t know the poem so I just made one up. I figured something was better than nothing.”
I read the card aloud to the class.
by: Langston Hughes
I like to dream happily,
about a horse and a rabbit.
Who once met,
and made a bet,
that if you lose,
you’ll pay a toll.
With tears streaming down my face and a class overcome with laughter, I decided that today was not the best day for a lesson on time management.