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How I Prove to My Students that They Actually Can Memorize Things

By Dave Stuart Jr.

First of all, I do want my students to memorize some things, even in the age of Google. Smarter people than me agree. Knowing things — rather than being able to Google things — facilitates further knowledge-building, critical thinking, and literacy. There are many ways we can come to know things — incidental learning, topic immersion, inquiry, and so on — and one of those ways is just straight-up memorization. In my history classes, I want my kids to memorize a handful of “must-know dates.” My ninth grade AP kids memorize about 120 of them, and my ninth grade general kids do about 70. Here's a sampling from the unit we're working on right now:

  • 1776 – American Declaration of Independence; Adam Smith writes Wealth of Nations
  • 1789 – French Revolution begins; “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” (DoRoMaC) published
  • 1804 – Haitian Revolution
  • 1815 – Congress of Vienna (“balance of power” established)
  • 1848 – Marx and Engles publish The Communist Manifesto
  • 1839 – 1st Opium War in China (sign of declining Qing dominance)
  • 1861 – End of serfdom in Russia
  • 1863 – Emancipation Proclamation in USA

Near the start of the school year before I give my kids their first list like this, I have them write a 100-word quickwrite warm-up on the following prompt: Are you the kind of person who can memorize a list of dates? How do you know? What kinds of things in your life do you memorize, and how do you do that?

We do some Pair-Share after kids have written for five minutes, and then I say, “Okay, get out a few sheets of blank scrap paper.” I then lead them in the following steps:

  • Step One: Write down the list on the projector screen in its entirety. (I limit this initial list to five dates/events.) In a minute, I'm going to have you write these from memory. (Student scoffing ensues.)
  • Step Two: Cover up your list, and now write that list of dates from memory. (I black out the projector at this point.) Write down every scrap that you can remember — every bit of numbers, every bit of event description. It's okay to be wrong — get as much down as you can. (I give 1-2 minutes here.)
  • Step Three: Get out your initial list, the one we copied from the projector screen. Let's call this List 1. I want you to use List 1 to correct List 2. Give yourself a score out of 10 — 1 point for every correct date, and 1 point for every correct event description. And then, I want you to make List 2 perfect, just like List 1. Cross things out, erase, use arrows, but make List 2 perfect. That's important.
  • Step Four: Cover up Lists 1 and 2, and once again, write the list from memory. (I again black out the screen.) This will be List 3.
  • Step Five: Okay. Get out Lists 1 and 2 and use them to correct List 3. Again, give yourself a score, and again, make List 3 perfect, like Lists 1 and 2. How many people improved their score from List 2 to List 3? (At this point, almost all hands go up.)
  • Step Six: Okay, you get the idea. I want you to do it one more time, even if you just got a perfect score with List 3. Cover up Lists 1-3, and create a fourth, and final, list.
  • Step Seven: Correct, score, and make List 4 perfect.
  • Step Eight: Back in the warm-ups section of your notebooks, answer this question in writing: Are you the kind of person who can memorize dates? What do you do to memorize information like this? How long does it take? How hard is it?

I typically end this with a chance for kids to share out what they learned from the experience, and as they do this I punctuate their remarks with my own comments and arguments on why memorizing dates, and memorization in general, matters. Memorization isn't our “thing” — long-term flourishing is — but it's one activity we'll come back to repeatedly to strengthen our minds and hearts throughout the year.

What I'm Doing In this Simple, Fifteen-Minute Activity

So first of all, this date memorization stuff is one pillar of the year-long knowledge-building campaign we're going to undertake. I want to help all my students learn as much as humanly possible while they're with me. Knowledge is inextricable from all the other things I want for them. It doesn't matter that there's Google — I want it in their brains, and I want to show them that there's a lot of under-advertised joy in this old-fashioned idea of building knowledge. This is why Knowledge is one of the six things I address in my creatively-titled, forthcoming book, These Six Things. Get on the waitlist for that book here. It's being published by Corwin Literacy, and they are a top-notch house. I could be biased, but I think you should probably buy a copy of the book for everyone in your department.

But secondly, I'm adding bricks to the key beliefs I want all my kids to hold while they're in my room.

  • Credibility: The kids now know that I'm a teacher who can help them do things they didn't think they could do, and I can do it fairly quickly. I do more than say, “Work harder, punk.” I teach them.
  • Value: I'm planting seeds for why memorization matters. My arguments for the value of memorization are one track toward helping them value this work. I'll be sharing more in the student motivation PD course I'm working on — get on that waitlist here.
  • Effort: I'm showing the kids that rightly applied effort can quickly make them more knowledgeable about history.
  • Success: By limiting the list to five dates and explicitly guiding them in the memorization process, I'm proving that success is possible.
  • Identity: Especially with the opening and closing writing exercises, I'm helping my kids to see themselves as the kinds of people who can do the work I'll ask them to do.

An important final note

Knowledge-building is most effective (and easiest) when the knowledge is meaningful. If the rules for comma usage in Doug Stark's Mechanics books weren't marinated in constant practice, then Doug's mechanics instruction wouldn't stick. If I just have the kids memorize dates during one lesson and then never revisit them in subsequent lessons, readings, writings, or discussions, the dates won't stick and they won't matter. Knowledge-building must be meaningful — toward this we labor constantly.

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One Response to How I Prove to My Students that They Actually Can Memorize Things

  1. Twins Happen February 13, 2018 at 11:58 pm #

    I just love your posts like this. This is a practical, skill-building strategy, and it helps me so much to see exactly how you teach it to your students. I’m already trying to think of how I can use this for the things we need to memorize in English class. Speaking of English, I really want you to teach English again, at least one class period! 🙂 I use so many of your ideas, and I love how your instruction is literacy based. Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m eagerly awaiting your book and your upcoming online course!

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