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8 Ideas for Cultivating a Culture of Memory in the Classroom

Further thoughts for cultivating a culture of memory, this time in the classroom:

Repeat important things monthly, weekly, daily. Last year my students read Aquinas’s Student’s Prayer at the beginning of class on the first day of each school week, and by the end of the year, all of them could say it by heart. When we began class again this week after a whole summer away, I walked into the room and said the first few words of the prayer; they spontaneously joined me, and we finished the whole thing together. Cultivate repetition, for anything done with formality and intention, even once a week for the whole year, will probably be remembered.

Recite a class catechism, as proposed recently by Joshua Gibbs, to cultivate the expectation that important truths and words ought to be remembered.

Re-read significant passages or whole books throughout the year to cultivate the habit of activating memory to delve deeper in understanding.

Record conversations, ideas, stories, experiences that seem significant at the end of a recognizable time period—a day, a unit, a book, a quarter—during a time set aside for journalling in class, to cultivate the practice of reflection over against our tendency to rush.

Experiment with incorporating place into memory. At CiRCE’s 2017 National Conference on memory, several speakers described intriguing uses of particular places and objects for memory. The frescoes and paintings in medieval places of study were used as the backgrounds for memory palaces; a Renaissance book collector placed the busts of Roman emperors over his shelves and used them to identify and remember the locations of his books. Could this principle be employed in the classroom at all? In my rhetoric classroom, for instance, what if I designated five spots for the five common topics, and directed several class discussions or debates in which, when students made an argument from a particular topic, they had to stand in that section of the room? Could this activate spacial and muscle memory (and also, for this example, give life to the original meaning of the topoi or “places”)? Cultivate the memory of the body as well as the mind.

Honor students’ birthdays—a card at their desks, perhaps; or time set aside on Friday, or one Friday a month, to pray individually for students who had birthdays that week or month—to cultivate in them the joy and humility of being remembered.

Craft creative assignments (not just tests!) which draw from books read or ideas discussed throughout the year—compare-and-contrast essays, narratives in which authors of several novels debate a proposal, artistic presentations of a recurring theme of the year’s readings, projects that require synthesis of several math formulas or theorems—to cultivate memory as “the cabinet of imagination.”

Tell stories of those who cultivated exceptional memories in the past (Simonides discovering memory palaces, bards reciting whole epics, Mozart remembering and transcribing Allegri’s Miserere, Milton knowing the whole Bible by heart, Frederick Douglass memorizing the speeches of The Columbian Orator) to cultivate students’ ambition to emulate greatness in memory.

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