Using a little bit of rhythm, a mom helps her son learn.
Watching my sweet young son clap along with the singing in church was an almost painful experience.
When I tell you that he didn't clap on the beat, you might sweetly assume that he clapped on the off-beat. Oh no, dear reader. No such gracious allowances can be given. He did not clap on the on-beat. He did not clap on the off-beat. This child simply clapped where God never ever intended there to be a beat.
His hands would shoot up and clamp onto a piece of rhythm known only to him and completely hidden to the rest of us. He almost appeared to be catching flies, his hands darting up and closing down on little odd pockets of air, completely oblivious to the regular rhythmical patterns swirling about him.
Thus, it probably won't surprise you to learn that it never occurred to me to use rhythms or what I've come to call "ditties" in any of my efforts to educate him. In fact, I missed this extraordinary teaching tool for far too many years. Why bother? Surely his lack of rhythm would make any such efforts fruitless.
But one day my previously comfortable notion of how this child learned was overturned. I happened upon this same child practicing his spelling words. He would spell the word out loud, over and over again, until a natural rhythmical pattern would develop. What was that? A rhythm? From my son? This was the day I discovered something that would radically change our schooling: the amazing power of the ditty.
This is not a new method. Pause a minute and tell me ... how did you learn to spell Mississippi? The old rhythm comes right back to you, doesn't it? Learning facts by using a rhythm or rhyme has been a part of schooling since the beginning. Still not sure? Let's try another one. Finish this sentence. "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two ... "
I'm betting a good 90 percent of you completed it with, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue." You probably couldn't forget that date if you tried. Rhythms simply make stuff stick.
When this idea began to take hold with me, I decided to test my new rhythm theory on my heretofore rhythm-less son. He had been struggling with fractions in our current math work. So I created a silly little rhyme and quickly incorporated some basic fraction rules. When you read the part that says your shoes should match, that simply means that the denominators must be the same. Here's how it went:
When adding or subtracting fractions, you can't lose.
Just be sure before you start you've got matching shoes.
Once your shoes DO match, keep your shoes the same.
And work straight across the top. That's the name of the game.
To multiply 2 fractions, it's so easy if ya got 'em.
Multiply across the top. Multiply across the bottom.
When ya got 2 fractions that you need to divide,
Just flip the second fraction and multiply.
That's it. No big fanfare. Yet, the results were instantaneous, successful, permanent and dare I say it ... fun. He had the information down cold. This changed everything. Thus, we embarked on a love of the ditty.
Start each day the rhyming way
Now we start all our school days with a little three- to five-minute period we call "recitations." There's no pressure to quote the ditties perfectly on any given day, because they'll just hear them again tomorrow. It's similar to when I recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school as a child, or the Pledge to the Christian flag in Sunday school. We repeated it at the start of every single class. I didn't need to memorize it, because I heard it with such regularity that it just naturally became a part of my long-term memory.
Our homeschooling recitations cover a wide variety of academic subjects. We might rattle off the names of the presidents in order, rules of capitalization, the planets in order from the sun, the classification system, common weights and volumes, fruits of the Spirit, speed of light and sound, music notes, the Ten Commandments, even the elements in the Periodic Table of Elements. My 8-year-old daughter can recite any of these and so much more. Any time I find something worth memorizing, I throw it into a silly little ditty and voil-practically instant memorization.
These little powerhouses of rhyme have become a vital aspect of our history studies. When we study a period in history, we devote a whole year to it. We act out important events, read historical fiction, watch documentaries, make food, listen to music, read, read, read, and of course, discuss the impact of this period on our world today. We sort of immerse ourselves in the period. Then, we cap off each study with one or more ditties that will cement not only some relevant facts, but also some dates. Yes, those dreaded dates that so many of us struggled with in our childhoods. But with a ditty that is repeated each morning over the course of three weeks, the memorization is effortless.
Take a look at one we created for the Irish Potato Famine:
In Ireland, eighteen forty and five,
They ate just potatoes; it kept them alive.
Then a blight came along and the crops failed for years.
One million, they died. Two million came here.
Not only does this affix the date firmly in your child's mind, but it also records the tremendous numbers that were involved. It's a great launching point for a discussion on immigration and its impact as well.
Let's do another one with the pilgrims. But before we do, check yourself. What year did they arrive? What was the name of their ship? Why were they coming? How did they first govern? What document recorded their first form of government? Did men and women sign documents? How did you do? Let's take a look.
In sixteen and twenty, the pilgrims they came.
Mayflower their ship. Faith, freedom their gain.
They drew an agreement on how they should act.
Signed 41 men the Mayflower Compact.
All these facts are recited simply in poem-like fashion at the start of the day. I say "poem-like" because a ditty is not a quality poem of great literary merit. It is not snippets of scholarly discourse. It is not necessarily even witty. It's second-rate rhyming at best. In fact, the simpler, the sillier, the better. The key isn't in great writing. It's in simplicity, repeated over and over again.
Who can use ditties?
The power of the ditty as a tool works nicely for those using the Classical method, especially during the Grammar Phase (approximately K6) when kids are like sponges, taking in the names of all the things in the world around them. A set of vocabulary words accompanies every academic subject. At this stage, kids are hardwired to absorb things by memory. That's why in the past, historical or character lessons were often taught via regularly repeated nursery rhymes. And that is also why the Classical method uses this time period to expose a child to a wide variety of information. It's as though kids are building a scaffolding onto which they can later arrange, build, and manipulate more complex thoughts.
The use of ditties also fits nicely in schooling a special needs child. For a variety of reasons, a child may struggle with remembering things that are needed in order to function, both academically and in life skills. A ditty is a way to make needed information stick so that it can be retrieved and used when needed. For some special needs kids, you might want to create ditties for the steps involved in making a bed, setting the table, or cleaning their rooms. For other kids with processing problems, it may be an issue of retention. No matter how many times they've seen a multiplication flashcard, they never ever seem to put it to memory. This child may benefit from some simple skip-counting ditties.
Even higher-level academics can be more easily retained with ditties. Every time my oldest daughter needed to memorize a mathematical rule or chemical formula, we put it into some sort of silly rhythm. Even years later, she can recall the facts that were memorized through rhyme.
If you see your child struggling with something, ask yourself if a simple little ditty might not alleviate some of his frustration. Grab a pencil. Write down the main items you'd like him to retain. Then begin a simple rhyming scheme. One of my favorite online tools for finding unique words that rhyme can be found at www.rhymezone.com. It's a great resource. It will put an end to the creation of boring and typical rhymes. So instead of always choosing fool or spool to rhyme with school, you'll have some fresh options, such as gruel, milking stool, garden tool, swimming pool, and majority rule. Oh, yeah. And ditties are cool.
Carol Barnier, author of The Big WHAT NOW Book of Learning Styles, is a popular conference speaker who lives with her husband and three kids in Connecticut, where she is forever in search of another ditty. Want her to speak for your group? Or just want to get your hands on some more ditties? Check out www.CarolBarnier.com .
Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 2009/10.
Used with permission. Visit them at www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com .
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