A memory circle is an activity that involves each student taking responsibility for part of a rhyme, poem, or sequence and eventually learning the whole with a little help from his/her classmates. It is a circle purposefully embedded with carefully chosen content. It could be a skill, a helpful habit of mind. The subject can really be anything. I have often used memory circles to front-load or connect a class with habits of mind or social and emotional skills that can contribute to student success. This is a poem I have used with third grade students.
I Can - By Liz Giles-Brown
When the voice inside my head - is saying, "Yes, I CAN!"
I'm halfway to success my friend – It's part of my grand plan.
I’ll keep my thoughts on positive – As I travel through my day.
For only I control my thoughts – And what that voice will say.”
Click to watch several examples of memory circles in action!
Students enter class, greet the teacher, and go about their morning routines and rituals as they prepare for the day. Music is playing to promote a positive emotional state. Things are humming along nicely. The teacher might be heard saying, "You hung up your backpack so that others won’t trip on it.” or “You remembered to complete your morning job before visiting a learning center.” Suddenly, there is a change in the music, and the children know it is their cue to finish their tasks and move to the circle. When the music ends, they are all there, ready to connect. The teacher says, "Hit it," which starts the moving memory circle they have been working on creating. The whole class is there with focused attention, ready to discover what they will be doing next.
Time Investment & Return
The process of learning a memory circle takes bits and pieces of time. Time is a teacher's coin, and we can plan to spend it wisely. This brain and body smart strategy does just that. Memory circles provide a connected way for the class to learn and can be built with small investments of time, creating a powerful tool to help students create a memory that lasts. Memory is essential when it comes to learning, but with this strategy, the return is much larger.
Each person in the class plays an essential role in the process of building connection and unity within the group. The strategy itself taps multiple pathways to memory. It is embedded with content (declarative memory) and taps procedural memory (movement), emotional memory (fun & challenge), and episodic memory (location & context) therefore creating many cues for recall.
Building a memory circle takes bits and pieces of time over a more extended period. There is no hurry, no deadline. It unfolds naturally and works best when the teacher/leader is open to creative thoughts and ideas from the group.
- Before you begin, print out the poem or text you will be using and cut the portions into strips. Number them in order. You can either hand them out randomly or assign specific parts to students by adding names to the numbered pieces of paper. Have them ready to hand out.
- Read the piece to the class.
- Hand out the strips and challenge the group to organize themselves according to their numbers, letting them know where the first and last number should be standing. Because students will always be in the same order, standing in the same space, this taps episodic memory. From this point forward, continue using short periods at the end of a class period, the day, or both. It should take a little over a week of using 3-4 minutes once or twice a day to have things pretty solid. Celebrate each success as a group.
- Have each person read the slip of paper silently, signaling for help if needed. Then go through and have them read out loud in order. Then read the whole thing to the group again. Collect the slips.
- Put the slips on the floor in front of you and call "connect" to cue the semi-circle. Offer the choice of picking up or leaving papers in a pile. There will be one or two students who want to challenge themselves and leave the slips of papers in a pile. If they discover they need them, have them come pick it up and carry on. Repeat this process at each session until nobody needs to pick up a slip.
- When you call "connect," and everyone gathers in this semi-circle, turn to the person on your right and say, "Hit it!.” They begin the circle, reciting each part in order.
- Movement Challenge. When you believe the class is ready, assign everyone the task of creating a moving illustration for his/her portion. Each student creates a "moving picture" that connects to his/her words.
- Some students will come back with a movement, and some will not. That's OK. Go through and see what individuals have created. Then ask if anyone has any ideas that might help those who haven't decided on a movement, creating opportunities to be helpful. Then let the individual choose from the suggestions (or perhaps at this point after seeing some of the others he/she will come up with something on his/her own). Adding movement to the content taps procedural memory.
- Spend the next few sessions, doing a "recite & move" each time you call the group to connect. Then move on to whatever comes next in the day's schedule. The circle becomes something you can use for efficient transitions and an attention-getter. It takes about a minute, and when you finish, you have everyone's attention. Read the group and decide when it's time to challenge the circle.
- If someone is absent, the whole class recites that part and performs the movement clue in unison.
- Unison Recitation – After a while, when you say "Hit It," everyone recites the whole thing doing all the actions.
- Movement Clues - Offer up the challenge of individuals reciting the entire thing with everyone supporting with his/her movement clue. Someone will take the challenge. Frontload with "What can the rest of us do to be helpful?" Tell them if they get stuck on one, they can ask someone to repeat a movement or ask the individual to remind them of the words. t This will be contagious too. Everyone will want to try it but remember – bits and pieces of time, so only do one or two each time until everyone who wants to take this challenge has a turn. Celebrate each success along with helpfulness.
- No Movement Cues – Individuals volunteer to try to recite the entire circle without any movement clues. Again, someone will try it. Now you have two challenges available so that you can offer a choice.
- Ultimate Challenge – With eyes closed, recite the whole thing from beginning to end.
- When you use this strategy with content, students will be tested on and teach them how to visualize the circle. Challenge them to close their eyes and see where everyone stands and the movements as they try to recall the content.
I've used this strategy successfully with students from first through eighth grade and done two tests to see if students could remember after a long period (one after a summer break and one after a trimester of not using it). In both cases, everyone could remember the order of the circle; most remembered their part—the few who didn't only required a few helpful cues for recall. Many could recite the whole thing and do each movement.
Memory circles ac an excellent method of reviewing content using little bits of time over a more extended period. It works in any subject area. I have used this successfully with many grade levels. One of my favorites taught students how blood travels through the circulatory system. The possibilities are endless.