My high school had a somewhat archaic English assignment. Freshman were required to memorize and recite a 40-line poem twice a year, sophomores memorized 50 lines, juniors 60 and seniors 70. Fortunately by the time I was a senior, they had canned this assignment.
During the fall semester of my freshman year, I bombed the assignment. I waited far too long to begin the memorization. Disappointed with myself, I made an honest effort during the second semester. I chose a poem of high interest; I planned ahead and pledged to memorize five lines each night. Most importantly, I felt confident in my abilities.
But then, as I began memorizing, I stumbled. The first five lines came relatively easily. The next five proved a little more challenging. Lines 11-15 posed significant problems; lines 20+ seemed impossible. I continued to study, but I began to doubt myself and I lowered my own expectations; instead of aiming for mastery of all forty lines, I became content to just memorize thirty. Soon, with the due date upon me, I knew thirty might be a stretch.
Sure enough, when it came time for me to recite my poem I floundered. While I was highly frustrated, I tried not to let the teacher know. I brushed it off as a stupid assignment (too this day I still believe that) that I didn't care about and didn't prepare for. That was surely easier than showing and admitting a weakness.
As my sophomore year rolled around, I dreaded the assignment--and having an additional ten lines. But I committed myself to acing it. I began preparing almost as soon as the school year began. Things didn't improve, however. For whatever the reason, I couldn't get past twenty or thirty lines. On the day of the recitation, I imploded. I did worse than ever. My well-meaning teacher, tried to boost my morale with generic statements like "you'll do better next time," "keep trying," "I'm sure you can..."
Didn't she get it? I truly had poured everything I had into this assignment. What else could I do?
I contemplated, "Why bother trying to memorize the 50 lines for the spring term?"
Seeing little value and possessing no confidence, I completely rejected
the assignment. I felt helpless. My self-efficacy hit an all-time low; one that
extended beyond my English classes. My own negative beliefs about my
abilities presented a huge barrier to my own success. I withdrew from
my classes and became increasingly sarcastic and began to
brush-off my poor grades.
After a summer of testing, I learned I had a learning disability, one that greatly influenced my ability to learn and memorize.
While I eventually regained my confidence and regained my self-efficacy, the the assignment forever turned me off of memorization and poetry.
Twenty-five years later that assignment still leaves a bitter taste, but while I never learned any tricks to memorizing poetry, it did give me a unique perspective on what it's like to struggle as a learner. Sadly, too much of what we do in school further alienates struggling students from school and learning.
Let's never forget, it's difficult for students--for that matter anyone--to remain motivated when one is consistently unable to meet the expectations of others, especially when it's not your fault.