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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Widemire Smith

The Memorization Hack

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

“Landon, I want you to do this assignment.” I handed him his black history month project sheet.

He read the requirements, his mouth gaping open like a codfish, Mary Poppins would have shaken her head. “Mom! I…” he shook his head. “NO WAY!”

For three days he gave me attitude. Every excuse he could come up with I heard. He wanted to avoid this project so much that he even complained to his teacher about me, who then pulled me into a pow wow. “You know there are other options on the sheet.” she said, “Ones that might be more suited for him. This project is suppose to be a fun one it’s not suppose to be this stressful, and you told me dyslexics don’t do this kind of thing well. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Her concerns were valid. I had indeed told her that this type of learning is very difficult for him and she had listened to me. Ms Guy and I have worked tremendously well this year. She and I would spar back and forth weighing what was needed verses what was best. She heard me when I said, “I want to find the balance of accommodations but no excuses.”

Dyslexics do not learn by using rote learning methods, and what I was asking my son to do was memorize a three stanza poem, recite it for his entire class, and answer questions on the spot about the poet.

It was a big ask.

It took my nine year old son nearly three years to memorize his alphabet. This year times tables were the big issue. Even though he has learned the alphabet, he has somewhat learned his times tables (at least enough to pass), he very much believed he was incapable of memorizing, and to some extent he was right. He couldn’t do it using rote learning.

Rote learning is when we drill ourselves for fact fluency. 2 times 4 is 8. Or when we try to learn the definition of perspicacity we use flash cards, drilling ourselves over and over, using repetition and practice. Lots of practice in order to learn new facts.

Rote Learning is defined by the medical dictionary as: “the learning of arbitrary relationships, usually by repetition of the learning procedure through memorization and without an understanding of the relationships.”

Dyslexics and rote learning methods are natural enemies. Facts get lost in the sea of thoughts as useless information. One ear in and out the other. We have to understand the relationships that govern information in order to remember it. How something works—not just its function. We need context. Images. Five senses engagement. Emotional attachment. Experiences. Immersion. Once we have any one of these things to anchor the new information down, the brain has a road map to it and there is no forgetting.

“Oh I’m aware of what I said Ms Guy. But, I have a plan,” I winked, “my kid currently just doesn’t trust me.” Ms Guy raised an eye brow at me. “We need to get him to stop listening to his inner critic’s voice of “I can’t” before he can see exactly how he can.”

“Okayyy” she said. “I trust you.”

The school let out for Mardi Gras break. We celebrated the parades and then the day came. It was time to confront his excuses head on and not leave a single one of them standing.

“Landon it’s time to memorize your poem.”

He looked up. “Wha? But? MOM!” Tears instantly filled his eyes. “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to memorize…ANYTHING!?!” he shouted.

“Yes I do. But do you know that I’ve been studying why dyslexics struggle with memorization and I’ve learned how to do it?”

“Yeah right.” Sarcasm dripping as he crossed his arms over his chest—going into self defense mode.

“I’m going to read the poem and for each line you’re going to think of a way to imagine it inside your mind. What it looks like, feels like, anything that pops into your imagination is what I want you to think about, ok?”

“This is stupid mom. It will never work. Everyone always says if I do it enough times I’ll remember” he trailed off in a mumble, “eventually.”

Yeah I thought to myself. Hasn’t worked yet has it kiddo?

“Look at me.” Landon met my eyes. “EVERYONE is WRONG. That is not the way dyslexics learn. We have to understand it before we can remember it.”

“This is going to take forever.” he said wiping his face.

Dad tried to help, “It’s easy Bud. You just have to...” Landon shot him that look that kids do when you’ve just hurt their feelings and they no longer trust you. I shot him a look a too—a “what do you think you’re doing?” look.

Dad remembered the golden rule in our house—never assume anything is easy! “I’m sorry Bud I shouldn’t have said it was easy. I should have said it’s simple. Listen to your mom she really knows this stuff. Trust your mother.”

Landon rolled his eyes but I ignored it and continued, “It’s not easy but I am going to make it simple. You’re going to remember. And you’re going to learn something really cool about yourself.”

“FINNNNNNE.” he took a breath and glared at me, “What do I do?”

“Think of a comic book that’s empty. Each line of the poem is going to be a box we fill in with pictures. Tell me what you see as I read each line.”

I read the first stanza of the poem and Landon came up with images. I read it three times and each time Landon filled in more details. I smiled. He was ready. “Ok kid, your turn. Tell me the poem, use your mind’s pictures to remember.”

He recited the whole thing verbatim.

“Wait, was that right?” He asked. A glimmer of hope rising up.

I smiled wide, nodding, “Yep.”

He turned to his Dad, flabbergasted. Dad stood tall proudly nodding to his son.

“But how?" Landon asked, "It’s not even been five minutes!! I can’t believe it. Wait I need to do that again.” He did it half a dozen times or so. His grin growing bigger and bigger.

Landon dove bomb into my arms. I hugged him back and said, “Marvelous darling simply marvelous!”

Since we’d been at it for 20 minutes I decided to stop. “Tomorrow I want you to draw it. Make it a comic book story.”

He nodded in excitement. “I could do this and that and this. And oooh what if I do....”

“Good night my little dyslexic Superman.”

Lying, thinking Last night, How to find my soul a home...

The next morning we took blank notecards and drew the pictures. Then we worked on stanza’s two and three, in exactly the same way. Next we drew and colored the pictures his mind had come up with effectively turning the poem into a visual story.

We talked about the poem’s meaning. We talked about how everyone needs a team when they walk the path of life. Being alone all the time is not good.

We entered the weekend and would occasionally pop quiz Landon on the poem. He had it down. He knew it backwards and forwards with such little effort. No drilling. No frustrations. Just pictures.

We did however, make him practice reciting it verbally. We made him practice standing still, making eye contact for his presentation, we would *cough* dramatically interrupting his thoughts. Purposely distracting him. Conditioning his mind for the unexpected. He was perturbed but relentless. Even when we'd ask him trick questions about the poet.

Coincidentally, we had also been listening to a book everywhere we went. It was called Way of the Warrior Kid, Mark’s Mission. Landon had paid close attention.

Monday morning arrived—it was GO day. Landon was nervous. I was volunteering in his school, and had the privilege of being invited into the classroom to watch the kids present their projects. Landon walked up to his teacher and said, “Can I do mine first?”

She smiled. “You sure can.”

He sat nervously waiting for the teacher to finish all their morning work routines before project time. I asked him why he wanted to go first?

“Because Mom. Discipline equals freedom. And Uncle Jake says, procrastination is the opposite of discipline. If I go first, I’m free of the butterflies in my tummy!” Uncle Jake is a character in Way of the Warrior Kid who is also Ret Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink. I grinned from ear to ear. So very proud of him.

He got up and recited the poem flawlessly.

Ms Guy could not stop grinning. She and I have made a great team, both strengthening each other to not let Landon believe he’s incapable of doing anything, he need only learn how.

And just like that another warrior lesson was learned—do hard stuff first.

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not stone

I came up with one thing

And I don't believe I'm wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone...

Now if you listen closely

I'll tell you what I know

Storm clouds are gathering

The wind is gonna blow

The race of man is suffering

And I can hear the moan,

'Cause nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone” by Maya Angelou

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