Poem’s title as mnemonic – a closed book conditions life-saver? Memory Strategy 6.

This is the last post in my series on memory-friendly anthology teaching and it moves onto that old favourite, the mnemonic. Many web-pages, such as 9 Types of mnemonics for better memory, are devoted to describing these strategies so I’m not going to rehash any of that information here. Most of what I want to suggest is actually exemplified in the pics at the end of the post, but I thought a few broader points would be worth making first.

GCSE students at my school are already familiar with the SPIT acronym. An understanding of what’s meant by Structure, Point of View, Imagery and Theme gives them not only a framework for anthology study and revision, but also angles from which to tackle an unseen practical criticism – though they do need to be very clear that ‘Imagery’ is intended to provoke wider considerations about a poet’s use of language.

English Departments will have their own versions of SPIT, of course. It’s important to consider James Theobald’s misgivings when devising them, however. There are good acronyms and bad ones. Good ones remind candidates to consider key elements. Without SPIT, many would forget to look at who is speaking in the poem, and the contribution of its structure and form to meaning, preferring instead to alight on the first reassuring example of some alliteration. SPIT ensures they both stand back and zoom in. Others acronyms, such as the suspiciously convenient POETIC, are less helpful. Indeed, as James argues – citing chief examiners – they can lead candidates up some extraordinarily convoluted blind alleys.

I’ve used SPIT to structure notes in this Edexcel Conflict cluster anthology revision guide. There is a lot here for students to remember, though, even with all of the memory-friendly teaching described in this series. There is also the deplorable fact of the closed book to consider. Without this ridiculous and unfair constraint, candidates would use the words on the page to stimulate all of their learning about SPIT. As it is, they must remember a poem before critically appreciating it and a significant minority of candidates will recall entirely the wrong poem. You can guarantee it. For example, both ‘What were they Like?’ and ‘War Photographer’ in ‘Conflict’ offer an outsider’s perspective on war – they would be very easy to confuse in the heat of an examined moment.

To guard against this, and to support candidates in retrieving from memory as many elements of the poem they’re not able to see as they can, I think we need to do a lot of work with titles. These, and the names of the poets, will be available in exam materials for candidates to see. Its imperative, therefore, that they trigger a stream of associations – that the poem’s title, or the poet’s name, or both, generate as much SPIT as possible.

It’s important to note that I am not for a minute suggesting that the strategies suggested here represent best practice poetry teaching. In fact I wish we could do without them. They are simply pragmatic and will, I hope, give those without strong verbal memory some chance of succeeding.

Title Strategies

Invent a catchy rhyme which begins with the title and adds to it so that candidates are reminded of a key theme.

  • William Blake / don’t be fake – relates to a theme in ‘Poison Tree’
  • Belfast Confetti / words left me – not the strongest rhyme, I admit, but it does take us straight to a key theme whilst also reminding us of first person
  • My Cousin Kate / I really hate etc etc

There’s one of these for each poem in the revision guide linked above, though students could be encouraged to create their own.

Adapt the letters of the poem’s title so that key images from the poem are incorporated. Advise students to display these prominently in their bedrooms so that when they see the title in the exam, they also see the images.

Use the title as a peg for key quotations, as in:

C

    Tight

            Red rope

I

N

There is a space within the revision guide for students to record a mnemonic for each poem – as illustrated here.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.09.34

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.12.19

Of course, it’s important that students have opportunities to discover how effective their mnemonics are – whether they are sufficient or need to be further developed, perhaps. Whether, indeed, they are memorable. Mini-testing will allow them to find all of this out. So will more interactive alternatives to the mini-test – such as  ‘Just a Minute’ in which learners must talk about a poem’s SPIT with only their mnemonic for reference. Many would enjoy this type of challenge – and memory work can be fun. I just don’t think it’s what the study of English Literature should be all about.

So, on that somewhat depressing note, this series ends. I had the feeling all of the way through the writing of this particular post that there was a big idea I was somehow missing though. Please, any further suggestions about how we might work with titles and names so that they are as helpful to candidates as they possibly can be, do share!

In the meantime, thanks for reading.

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