Do not forget the amazing ear, for it remembers

by Mr. Sheehy

One thing I’m finding is that it is easy to underestimate the human ear. Our mind has a knack for retaining things it catches, even things we didn’t realize it caught. Granted it can mix things up—my brother owned a book called ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, a book full of misunderstood song lyrics, using a Jimi Hendrix song as the title. As a side note, I can’t resist showing you a great interpretation of a Pearl Jam song whose words many people have memorized . . . sort of.

Despite such difficulties, we retain quite a bit through the ear, and one of the obvious helps to retention is repetition. Repetition is a bit of a dirty word, I suppose, but it does in fact work, if the ear is listening when the item is repeated. While reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I decided it was important for students to memorize a bit of Shakespeare, and I had them work on Puck’s monologue at the end of the play:

If we shadows have offended,
think but this and all is mended,
that you have but slumbered here
while these visions did appear . . . (and so on)

We memorized it mostly by repetition and saying it together, out loud. I’d say a line, and then the class would say a line. Then half the room would say one line and the other would call out the next line, moving back and forth until we’d finished. Eventually, using a memorization website I like, I’d reveal only so many words of each line, and students would call out what they remembered after I’d said the words that were on the screen. Ultimately they were getting it, repeating the lines even when I’d hidden all but the first words. It helps that the speech is written in couplets and the regular meter lets you know when something is wrong, of course—but that is why we chose Shakespeare to memorize instead of a passage from Night.

My favorite moments surfaced the day before we took the quiz, when a number of students had fully internalized it. With just the one word from each line showing on the projector, I’d start them off, saying the first line with them; after that, they’d continue on, not needing my assistance to stay together or to prompt the words. I’ve read many responsive and congregational readings in church, and they never go so well, being as scripture is not written in iambic pentameter. A passerby would have heard 26 students reciting the last lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if that passerby were someone like me, she would have stopped to listen. It was beautiful to hear.

Interestingly, many students who have not done well with memorizing things in my class did quite well on this assignment. A few students who bombed vocabulary quiz after vocabulary quiz nailed this monologue. I am absolutely sure that the difference was the use of the ear, an assurance arising from the spelling errors that riddle their written versions of the quiz. Some quizzes were the Shakespeare-version of that Pearl Jam video–words that they obviously heard but had no idea what they were. This means these students had not memorized the monologue by looking at the screen while we read it time and again, but had listened to the class and retained it like they retain the multitude of song lyrics they have absorbed.

Do not underestimate the power of the ear.

A couple nights ago at the dinner table our middle child, who is now in the later half of her third year, told an exciting tale involving Israelites battling captives and David fighting Grendel. In a further, more detailed version that I caught on video Hrothgar and David defeated Grendel, beheaded him, chopped him up, roasted him on the fire, and then ate him. After dinner they told everyone about God, providing an entirely original approach to the great commission.

She pulled Hrothgar’s name out on her own, which is not a total shock considering how many times it is used in Beowulf, which I’d been reading to them recently. Still, it was amusing to me nonetheless. After the video she strayed further into reenactments of David’s life and I was struck by the accuracy with which she told the account. David and Goliath, though told numerous times to both girls, has never been a particular favorite of theirs. They tend to opt for Esther, Jezebel, or baby Jesus when given total choice for reading, but our middle child here was including David’s comments about having slayed a bear and a lion and having the Lord on his side. What struck me in hearing such detail is a point Susan Shaeffer Macaulay makes often in For the Children’s Sake (and she is clear that she pulls her original thought from Charlotte Mason), that when reading the Bible to children, the far and away best approach is to read the actual text to them. Let the word as best as we know it begin to interact with them, and they’ll pick up what they are able and no retelling will match it for beauty and distinction. Listening to our daughter, I realized too that they’ll quite likely remember exactly what it says.

This seems worth remembering when introducing children to the Bible. Too often in reading children’s Bibles–even good ones like The Jesus Storybook Bible–I find the material reworded so thoroughly that it echoes translations only in content. Even that echo can become confusing when extra-biblical material is added, which it is. The same situations arise in verbal retellings of scripture. At AWANA we give the kids story time and it is always a Bible story, but it is never straight from the Bible. I do not quite understand this (and obviously don’t agree with the approach), especially considering how exciting so many scriptural accounts are. It is fine, in my mind, to add explanation and clarification to unfamiliar language, but why not read from the actual text rather than babble through an inferior retelling of the event? If for no other reason, the reading of the actual text is a superior idea because it would repeat the same words that children will hear other times they hear the story, helping make familiar the words young ears are perfectly capable of recalling verbatim.

This is one of my favorite tendencies of The Picture Bible: it often speaks exact phrases of scripture, so that reading the actual text immediately following can feel like an echo (though even this book adds a few details). And in reality, it is here, in The Picture Bible, that our middle child would have repeatedly heard these details about David and Goliath.

The details that stuck in those amazing ears.

Thanks for reading.

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