Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Homework Waldorf style

Among the many wonderful qualities in Waldorf education is a healthy view of homework. Homework is essential but should not be burdensome. It should help to clarify and strengthen work brought in class. It affords the opportunity to produce a detailed project. Students who work slowly or who want their main lessons books to burst with detail and sophistication on every page will undoubtedly have to bring work home. Yet the most gratifying "homework" to me is the work students do at home without ever being asked! My first experience of this came in fourth grade when a couple students went home and worked on braided form drawings and brought them to school. How proud they were to show me their work. Recently I had the pleasure to read a poem that a student wrote at home. It wasn't an assignment; he wrote because he enjoys writing poetry. This represents true "homework"!
I asked my student if I could publish his poem: he agreed!

"Four Seasons" by Collin Leonard

Can you hear Spring singing?
Can you see the Summer dancing?
Can you tell Fall's descending?
Can you hear Winter calling?
Can you hear the birds chirping?
Can you see the melon growing?
Can you feel the wind rustle the leaves?
Can you lick the snow off your nose?
Sing with Spring the Splendid,
Dance with Summer the Magnificent,
Catch the leaves with Fall the Joyful,
Call for snow with Winter the Bright,
Bring the four Seasons,
And merriment will follow.

Physics of Camaraderie in Sixth Grade

For the last three weeks my class has been in a Physics block and so far we've covered sound, light/color, and heat. Next week we'll study magnetism and static electricity. The focus of Physics, and all sciences in Waldorf schools, is observation before any conceptual formulation. What do we actually experience as opposed to what we believe we know based on scientific theory and concepts? For the first experiment I prepared a room by covering every window with black paper so that no light could get in and the class could experience complete darkness. What an experience it was! As we sat in darkness and silence the class became very calm. I asked them to close their eyes: nothing changed. I asked them to hold a hand up in front of their face: they saw nothing. The next day they had to write an essay about their observations in the dark: what was the actual experience? Many students wrote that they felt both relaxed and alert at the same time. Once they were used to utter darkness they noted that heart rates and breathing were slower, but that they could also hear classmates breath and were aware of themselves breathing loudly. A few girls told me they held hands as an "anchor" in the dark. We did a few other experiments where we needed a darkened room, but every time we went into the room my class begged me to be able to simply sit in the dark for awhile. One day it was pouring outside and the entire class, in uncharacteristic unity, pleaded with me to let them run around in the rain and then go upstairs and sit in the dark! How could I say no? The period was complete for them when I told a ghost story.
So were these extra escapades in the dark completely frivolous? Or did they serve another purpose aside from Physics? In many sixth grades students may form small groups of friends that could lead to cliques; students may tease and be unkind to each other. I'd argue that their time together in the dark was a bonding experience. They emerged from the dark laughing and talking and I felt a unity, a sense of one whole class that hearkened back to earlier grades. What a gift to them; what a joy for me to see a simple Physics experiment become an unspoken moment of real camaraderie.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sixth Grade Geology and Astronomy

"I look into the world, in which the sun is shining, in which the stars are sparkling, in which the stones repose..." These are the opening lines of the upper grade school verse that Waldorf students recite all over the the world. How apropos these words are as introductions to the study of Astronomy and Geology in sixth grade.
The sixth grader is a study in contrasts. Emotionally they are poised between late childhood and adolescence, not wanting to be called children anymore, but certainly not teenagers either. One moment I see them as third graders in all their nay-saying "let's disagree with Ms. Kran because we can" mode, and then as fifth graders in their eloquence and grace and beauty, and then I glimpse them as high schoolers and young adults, full of optimism for the future and belief in themselves. In short, they are a study in contrasts, in dualities.
The Waldorf school curriculum is informed by Rudolf Steiner's picture of the development of human consciousness and so sixth grade subject matter is a study in contrasts, dualities. The juxtaposition of Astronomy and Geology this year is a perfect example. On the one hand "naked eye" Astronomy draws students' gaze upwards to the heavens. I chose to study Astronomy in the winter because I hoped to capture the feeling of majesty and grandeur in the crisp, clear night sky. I asked students to keep a moon journal and to go outside and gaze upwards as often as they were able. Most days we discussed what we had seen (or not seen if it was a cloudy night) in the sky. Some students got parents to go outside to watch the sky together. One student proudly shared that she and her dad had gone outside on a cold night to discover the starry sky together. Students will fondly remember these experiences as adults and thereby Astronomy will be imbued with warmth. In the classroom, students consulted their "Peterson Guide to Astronomy" (my birthday gift to each student) and identified what they’d seen the evening before. The desire to begin to make logical, concrete sense of the cosmos was constantly contrasted and also enhanced with an immersion in the wonder and mystery of the heavens through poetry, drawing, and painting.
Whereas Astronomy has them soaring through the skies, Geology directs students’ attention to the earth and even below the earth’s surface into its deepest, hottest, core. Adults may perhaps remember their own 12 year old yearning to escape to the lofty heights of imagination one moment, but to also want to feel grounded and knowledgeable about your home, your surroundings, your physical environment, to perhaps feel like a “citizen of the earth”. In Geology students begin to read the earth. They come to understand how rain, a seemingly harmless substance, can and will over time bore enormous holes in rocks. They study how movements deep underground move entire continents, raise mountains, and destroy civilizations. They read novelists' descriptions of mountains and Pliny the Elder's description of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. They hear of and visit the underground world of caves where brilliant mineral formations explode from the ground and ceiling one minute and where the next minute they may find themselves in utter, complete darkness.
Waldorf graduates will go to college with enthusiastic memories of the sciences. Rather than shy away from college classes in Astronomy and Geology, I believe they will elect to enroll in them. Further, when they participate they will impress their professors with insights drawn from literature, history, and art. They'll produce research that is grounded in heart-felt thinking!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Amazing Girls

Amazing girls
How sweet their sound
That inspired a teacher like me
I once had doubt, but now I've found
That Waldorf girls work together amazingly...

So without revealing too many secrets, I have to relate how the 9 girls in my 6th grade regularly think, speak, and act with heart-felt thinking. Being 11 and 12 year olds, the girls occasionally get angry with each other. Sometimes one or two feel left out; mean words may be exchanged; feelings get hurt. This is all fairly typical adolescent, especially girl, behavior. But the girls' consciousness and strategies to set things right is not typical of average adolescent behavior. More often, bad feelings linger longer and may even be exacerbated before they are resolved. I would argue that the immediate and urgent attention, and genuine compassion, that the girls feel for each other is in part because of their education. Waldorf education is after all a social education. Although the Waldorf classroom is often referred to as a microcosm of the larger society's macrocosm, I 'd argue that my classroom is creating new social forms of friendship and caring. Rather than continue an argument or stand by when someone feels left out, the 6th grade girls will rally to put things right. A few months ago a girl was feeling left out. I mentioned this to 1 girl; she spoke with others, and within minutes the forlorn girl had a swarm of girls around her, hugging her, asking her what was up. More recently a girl felt left out and the response was incredibly heartwarming. In groups of 2s and 3s the girls spoke to the upset girl and tried to help her feel better. Later, they came to me excited, concerned, and full of caring. One girl said she was going to buy her classmate a diary so that she could write her thoughts out. Two more girls told me that at every recess they would make sure their classmate felt included and that even if she didn't want to play that she should be nearby. Finally, the girls asked if they could get together once a week to simply talk. "Don't be offended, Ms. Kran, but we want to talk without you present, just us girls," they pleaded. Offended!! I was impressed and overjoyed with the level of love and caring and heart-felt thinking. They embrace and care about each other deeply. They will carry this level of sophistication into their relationships when they leave Waldorf. I am truly blessed to watch these relationships blossom. The world is truly blessed to welcome these girls into the larger adult society.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Passionate Sixth Graders and Wise Grandparents

On Friday, March 9th, the Cincinnati Waldorf School invited grandparents and special friends to spend the day with our students. I had many grandparents visit the 6th grade, sitting next to their grandchildren and getting a sense of what we do. In the morning students sang 2 Gregorian chants in Latin, played their alto recorders, and recited some poetry. One poem, "A Sleep of Prisoners," by Christopher Fry, we had memorized. Over the course of a few weeks I told the class that I wanted them to think about the words they were reciting in preparation for a discussion. We did this yesterday. Students' responses reflected their passion for the future and their readiness to take on the world and "do the good!" A couple of boys argued that the poem called on them and their generation to take up the at times difficult struggle to improve the world, make it a better place. One boy interpreted the words as a warning about global warming. Yet another felt it was a description of an ice age. All the comments were thoughtful, well spoken, and passionate. I note that the boys spoke because, much to my chagrin, I couldn't coax any girls to speak!

Later that day boys and girls read their essays and explained pictures they'd drawn in their main lesson books. I was so impressed with their upright stature and clear speaking voices! I believe that Waldorf education cultivates these qualities in our students. Perhaps you've noticed that Waldorf students will look you, an adult, in the eye and have a serious conversation? It's common among Waldorf students because teachers consciously cultivate the expectation that students' ideas, thoughts, opinions will be taken seriously. I know that I enter the classroom every day with the expectation that my students will impress me with their words and actions and teach me something new!

I have been deeply moved by many students' responses to the inevitable contrast between the political and cultural violence endemic to the period encompassing the Fall of Rome and the Medieval Era and our study of the philosophy of non-violence and love as professed by Jesus, who we studied as an historical figure of ancient Rome. Well, I decided to ask my class to revisit this issue with the hope that some grandparents would lend us their thoughts, and indeed, wisdom. In sum, the grandparents who spoke hoped the students would remember to keep separate the philosophy (study of wisdom) of non-violence and love and peace and the culture in which that philosophy arose. We were reminded that kings, queens, warriors, and religious leaders, are human beings and therefore fallible and at times weak. Throughout history we see great civilizations come and go, but what remains is the wisdom: the mathematics, the science, the literature, the philosophy. To those grandparents reading this blog, I extend a deep felt thanks to you for visiting my class and offering us your wisdom.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Empathy Deficit

Today I heard a report on NPR about Barak Obama's concern that Americans have an "empathy deficit" or "gap". Why might Americans have difficulty identifying with, or vicariously experiencing, the feelings or thoughts of other human beings both here in the USA and abroad? Well, I'm sure the reasons are complex and numerous, but I'd like to offer one possible solution for turning the "empathy deficit" into an "empathy surplus": education imbued with heart-felt thinking. In my 6th grade Waldorf classroom I encourage my students to engage their hearts when they consider any problem, be it a history lesson, a political-economic discussion, a painting class, or a disagreement on the recess field. Today we discussed the 12th century Crusades and King Richard the Lion-Hearted. In the midst of battle against the Sultan Saladin over control of the Holy Lands, Richard gets a letter from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, warning him that his brother John and the king of France are plotting against him. Eleanor wants Richard to return home. It makes logical, calculated sense for Richard to return to England and secure his kingdom, but legend has it that as he spoke to his knights he saw fear on their faces and tears well up in their eyes. He chose to stay with his knights, risking his throne. King Richard empathized with his men. Did my students empathize with the knights as well? This year I often assign first person perspective essays; students must become a crusader or Richard or Saladin and then write a factual essay describing how that character may have felt. They empathize!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Gender Relationships in Waldorf Classrooms

Today I had the pleasure of observing in the 2nd grade at our Waldorf school and it was so wonderful to see the easy friendships forming between the boys and girls. By 10:30 I was back with my 22 6th graders, smack in the middle of hormonal anarchy! It's amazing! On the one hand many of my students are experimenting with thoughts of crushes amidst the laughter and teasing and games of tag. On the other hand many of them have known each other since kindergarten and feel a deep and easy kinship with each other. What I truly find amazing is that most boys and girls feel at ease to adopt many personae throughout the day. During main lesson they are serious, engaged, show their brilliance and thoughtfulness. At recess they run and compete and show off their physical prowess...yes, boys and girls alike. There is little to no self-consciousness or feeling that... ooh boys or girls can't do this or that. Boys and girls in my class cry, are emotional, get academically competitive, are dramatic, like to sing and run and play soccer and football. There are no rigid gender-specific ways to act in my classroom. Why? I think it's in part because they all feel so comfortable with each other. They are able to be multi-talented in the arts and academics and sports and therefore multi-faceted in their characters. They are even able to see each other with newly budding eyes of "zest"...the lovely all-encompassing word that my daughter's 6th grade came up with to mean...well...pre-adolescent feelings! I am so lucky! What healthy young adults they are becoming!

Monday, March 5, 2007

Sixth graders question the Crusaders!

Today, I gave a lecture about the Crusaders of the 11-12th centuries. I spoke of Pope Urban and how he absolved Knights of their sins before they marched to the Holy Land to fight against the Muslims. Pope Urban wanted to conquer the Holy Land for Christians and battle in the name of God. Here are some comments from my students:

How can a human being absolve anyone of sins; only God can really do that!

Pope Urban absolved the knights of their sins, so they could go and commit more sins in war.

Some were shocked that knights would wear the sign of the cross on their tunics, as they took very seriously the non-violent message at the core of Christianity.

I am so proud of their heart-felt thinking. I told my class to keep those thoughts alive and go out and change the world. "Know your history, choose your destiny, in the abundance of water the fool is thirsty!"

Sunday, March 4, 2007

6th grade class play

Last Wednesday, 2/28 my class performed "Crown and Mitre: King Henry II and Thomas Becket", by William O'Toole. My 11 and 12 year olds demonstrated independent initiative and creativity in every aspect of this production. The emotional content was intense and fit perfectly with what Steiner school sixth graders grapple with: duality in thought; duality in moral decision making. Thomas Becket had to decide whether to go with his gut and remain true to his position as archbishop, or to bow to the outside pressure of the King, his friend Henry. Sixth graders are beginning to grapple with similar issues: do they remain true to their own aspirations, even if they aren't cool, or do they bow to peer pressure? Are the students able to feel free to express their dramatic talents, thereby exposing their emotions? One of the wonderful aspects of Waldorf education is that every student engages in every activity. The athlete is the musician is the actor is the mathematician is the writer is the shy one is the awkward one is the "Renaissance" thinker!

Waldorf Creates Genius

Waldorf Education and the Cultivation of Genius
By Lori Ann Kran, PhD
Grade Six Class Teacher, Cincinnati Waldorf School

In their book, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein sound a call for a “new kind of transdisciplinary, synthetic education” in which educators focus not so much on changing what we teach, but on changing how we teach (page 316). Although the authors argue that schools with this new focus need to be created, I believe they already exist in the form of Waldorf schools. Indeed, the Root-Bernsteins have unknowingly made a powerful argument in favor of Waldorf education. As I shall argue below, both the way the Waldorf curriculum is brought and the curriculum itself encourage “sparks of genius” to blaze in Waldorf schools.

Waldorf teachers strive to look for and cultivate the capacity for genius in every student. Rather than seeing our mission as filling students’ brains with information, we try, through our method and our curriculum, to unlock capacities for genius in all students. The famous Einstein quote, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination,” is a fundamental tenet of Waldorf education.

Integrating Learning Styles. First, we teach with kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners in mind. Practically speaking, this means that over the course of a day we are sure to present “academic” material through movement, through written material, and through oral presentation and discussion. In addition to these three learning styles we have the primary goal of engaging all students artistically. Hence teachers present academic material through the arts of storytelling, drawing, painting, beeswax and clay modeling, singing, recitation of poetry, and conscious, creative movement.

True Engagement of Students. Waldorf teachers want to encourage “heart-felt” thinking in their students, and this is best achieved when students have a heart or emotional connection to the curriculum. This does not mean that every student loves every subject taught, but it does mean that teachers plan lessons that engage students’ imagination, critical thinking, and feelings of antipathy and sympathy. A student may really dislike some aspect of a lesson. Disliking something means the student is engaged; boredom, on the other hand, signifies the student is not engaged.

Integrating the Disciplines. The Root-Bernsteins argue that if teachers integrate the thirteen thinking tools of genius into their lessons then genius will arise in students. Because Waldorf teachers are responsible for all academic subjects, as well as artistic subjects such as painting, drawing, singing, and flute, we are able to prepare lessons in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. I would like to describe some aspects of the Waldorf curriculum and simultaneously show how the curriculum supports the tools that the Root-Bernsteins identify.

The Waldorf Day: Circle

Movement and Learning. It is becoming axiomatic, even in mainstream education, that younger students (especially those in grades one through four) learn a great deal through movement. Hence, in grades one through four at Waldorf schools teachers begin with “circle.” Circle ranges from forty-five to fifty minutes, depending on the grade level, and is designed by the teacher to exercise the student’s gross motor skills, body strength and balance, and ability to move through space both as an individual and as part of a group. Circle also corresponds to the main focus of academic material, known as a “block.”

Typically, the teacher will begin with a song or a seasonal verse or poem that has been set to movement and incorporates body geography, spatial awareness, crossing the midline, and balance. If a second or third grade is working on memorizing times tables, they will often sing the tables to a song with a strong beat that perhaps also includes a hand-clapping pattern. Next, the class, with the teacher at the helm, may recite a poem about a snail while moving as one whole line in a spiral, contracting in and then moving back out. Circle may end with a verse, spoken so that speech becomes art, which brings intention to do our best work for the rest of the day.

Referring to the Root-Bernsteins’ tools, the Waldorf “circle” engages the student’s body thinking, dimensional thinking, modeling, and playing. The student must move in space individually, but with the group in mind too. When students are marching, clapping hands, and reciting times tables or poetry, the information “gets into their bones.” Waldorf teachers and students alike will testify that when this occurs the learning is enjoyable and runs deep.

The Waldorf Day: Main Lesson Blocks

In grades one through eight the school day begins with a two-hour “main lesson” in which a teacher brings her class through a rhythm of review, presentation of new material, and a time for written work in “main lesson” books that the students create themselves. Blocks normally alternate between a math and a language arts focus and last about four weeks.

Music and Math—An Example. At their desks students may be asked to take out their flutes. Over the course of eight grades students come to play beautifully, at first modeling the teacher and learning visually and orally, and later learning how to read music. If it’s a fourth grade classroom, students will also be learning fractions. In true interdisciplinary fashion, the teacher will explain and relate the value of musical notes to fractions: the quarter note gets one of four beats, the dotted half note gets three of four beats, the whole note gets four of four! After ten minutes of flute, perhaps ten minutes will be taken for “mental (oral) math” problems.

This is one of the many opportunities teachers have to assess students’ learning styles. Who loves mental math” (oral)? Who prefers written problems (visual)? Who likes math games that include manipulatives or movement (kinesthetic)?

Once again, many tools to cultivate genius are employed: linking fractions and musical notation enables fourth graders to observe both mathematics and music in a new light. Reading the notes and thinking of their value develops students’ ability to recognize patterns. Learning to play and sing beautiful songs fortifies their empathizing abilities.

Review. During the critical review period students are actively engaged in the Root-Bernsteins’ tools of analogizing, abstracting, empathizing, transforming, and synthesizing. The focus turns to review of material from the previous day’s lesson. If it’s a fifth grade class studying ancient Greece, students may take turns orally retelling a story. They may be asked to prepare a five-minute skit acting out one scene. They may engage in philosophical questions related to the story such as the symbolism of Odysseus’ long journey from home. They may do a joint web-writing exercise in preparation for an essay that each student will write independently. They may draw, using beeswax crayons and colored pencils, a scene from the story.

Truly, the ideas for review are limitless and, if well prepared, will engage all three learning styles at some point. What could be a standard exercise, in the hands of a thoughtful and creative teacher becomes an opportunity for everyone involved to gain new insights.

New Material. Next the focus shifts to new material. In Waldorf schools this is yet another wonderful opportunity to engage students’ imagination, critical thinking skills, and memory. As a myth or history lesson is told the room is quiet, the students held in rapt attention. Teachers present the lesson with an intention to enunciate beautifully while drawing on their skill for storytelling. This is a very different experience from reading a story to a class or having students read it to themselves.

Teachers are consciously exercising students’ ability to remember, to think sequentially, and to form mental images of the events in the story. With no pictures or written words the students are creating rich images in their minds, thereby actively engaging emotionally in the material and ultimately honing their comprehension skills. The Root-Bernsteins would call these skills observing, imaging, abstracting, analogizing, empathizing, transforming, and synthesizing.

Individual Student-Directed Work. Finally, the focus is individual, student-directed work. Waldorf students create their own main lesson books, meaning they begin with a blank book and document, with direction from the teacher, a three- to four-week period (or block) of study. Upon completion the book will be full of student-directed essays and poems, pictures, and perhaps some classic verses or poetry. When students are asked to craft essays, poems, or pictures based on the myth or history they have learned, they are actively and critically reflecting on the material. Using the Root-Bernsteins’ concepts of observing, empathizing, and synthesizing, students are absorbing the material and then “retelling” it, either with words or pictures, in their own unique way.

If, for example, the focus is ancient Greece, the opening to Homer’s The Iliad, which may have been used as a speech exercise in circle, may be written in English and in Greek. Then students may want to enhance the beauty of the page by adding a form drawing appropriate to the theme. In this case the Greek key, a typical image found on ancient Greek pottery and paintings, would be an excellent choice. The entire two-hour period may end with the song “Glorious Apollo.” Why? After a period of inwardly directed, intense work the class joins again as a whole in song. The beautiful music, filling the entire classroom, also fills the students’ hearts. Thus the main lesson is completed.

The Waldorf Day: Special Subjects

Life-Long Learners. After a short break for a snack and outdoor recess, students return for Special Subject classes: art, choir, orchestra, games (like PE), foreign language, handwork (knitting, crocheting, sewing), woodwork, and Eurythmy. Each of these classes is taught by a specially trained teacher and is organized in conjunction with the particular curricular themes for each grade. In their chapter on “Synthesizing Education,” the Root-Bernsteins quote Shinichi Suzuki, who cautioned against teaching students to become professional musicians. Rather, according to Suzuki, students should be taught in such a way that they come to love music and thereby become lifelong learners.

This is exactly the point of the Waldorf “Special Subject” classes. Every Waldorf student is expected to create handwork such as knitted socks and mittens in fifth grade. In sixth grade every student hand carves a wooden bowl. Beginning in fourth grade every student plays a string instrument. The Waldorf curriculum is consciously rich in the arts, in part for “art’s sake,” but also because Waldorf teachers know that, for example, students who have mastered the fine motor skills necessary to knit have also developed in terms of brain functioning.

Arts Supporting Academics. As a concrete example, we found at the Cincinnati Waldorf School that students who play instruments well also tend to do very well in mathematics. Students who do Eurythmy learn intricate patterns as they move through space in time with the pianist and with the class. Students who are allowed to choose between cherry and black walnut for their wooden bowl come to love their piece of wood: they know its scent and grain, as well as the feel of their hands on the curves of the bowl that they have created.

Finally, because all subjects have been brought to them in an interdisciplinary fashion, Waldorf students don’t compartmentalize their knowledge and are thereby able to think musically about math; to think artistically about botany; to think mathematically about movement; and to think three-dimensionally about geometry. Students engaged in this incredibly rich and varied work constantly access all of the Root-Bernsteins’ tools for creating genius.

Who We Graduate
When asked to describe Waldorf education I often say it’s an arts-rich, interdisciplinary, classical education. I also say that we are graduating students who study and learn because they have a passion for knowledge, who would never ask, “Is this on the test?” Waldorf graduates not only will be able to answer questions in college or in job interviews, but also will ask new, creative questions of their professors and potential employees.

I believe Waldorf students are budding Renaissance men and women for this time and for the future. They are well read in literature, history, and science, well versed in the arts, love to think and to learn, and indeed will be life-long learners. They carry the awakened “sparks of genius” required for success as individuals; for success in relationships with others, from families to organizations; and for success as citizens, from local to global settings.

Sixth Grade History and Heart-felt Thinking

Sixth Grade History and Heart-felt Thinking
By Lori Ann Kran

In sixth grade Waldorf students learn about a broad spectrum of time beginning with Ancient Rome and ending with the close of the Middle Ages. The stories of ancient cultures, from fairytales in first grade to Hebrew stories in third grade to medieval life in sixth grade, are meant to parallel the development of human consciousness. In other words, the myths and stories, and by the end of fifth grade, history (with the study of Alexander the Great) are meant to connect with the students on a profound level. The stories nourish and enliven the students’ emotional, soul-life because the messages “speak” to their stage of maturity or human development.
Fifth graders end the school year with the study of ancient Greece, culminating in the Greek Pentathlon, a glorious event that highlights the perfect physical and emotional harmony of the fifth grader. This state of beauty, grace, indeed perfection, is but a fleeting moment in time as the students continue to grow and mature. Sure enough upon arrival back to school after summer break, sixth graders are lanky and awkward, voices shaky and squeaky, attitudes questioning and challenging. Ah, the joys of early adolescence for the class teacher! Truly one of the greatest gifts from Rudolf Steiner was his recommendation for curriculum throughout the grades. Sixth grade subject matter, be it math, science, literature, or history, serves as a springboard for richly satisfying conversation. Sixth graders love to talk! They also want a sense of independence and a feeling that they have some control over what they do. This milieu is easiest to offer when rules and expectations are clear. Whereas in third grade the teacher takes on the role of Moses as the lawgiver and arbitrator of right and wrong, the sixth grade teacher would do a disservice to her class if she became Caesar. Rather, the sixth grade teacher makes classroom laws clear and fair, and then allows the students to “live” as law-abiding citizens. This was the expectation in ancient Rome: citizens would be well educated, understand the laws and customs, follow them, and thereby go about daily life with a sense of ownership and being in control of one’s future.
During our Ancient Rome block I set the classroom desks up to resemble the Roman senate: 2 semi-circles with a rostrum for speakers in the front. I would give a lecture, present a story with a serious dilemma that required debate and decision-making. The students listened to the facts of the story and then, after dividing into small groups had to present arguments and, once all were heard, then the class of citizens voted, with a majority determining the outcome. This was fascinating. In telling the particular scenario, the class understood that Roman law was cut and dry, black and white. Had I asked them to think like ancient Romans there would have been little need for extended debate after the presentation of facts. Indeed, some groups stuck very clearly to Roman law. Yet, other groups, without my prompting, engaged in what I refer to as heart-felt thinking. They processed the information and then, before sentencing, allowed the “facts” to travel through their hearts. Their final arguments were thereby infused with moral, emotional, humane thinking! Here’s an example: Horatius, a proud Roman soldier has just defeated the enemy in a bloody battle. As he marches proudly back into Rome, he carries the cloak of an enemy combatant as a sign of victory. Then Horatius, surrounded by a sea of cheering Romans, happens to spot his sister, Horatia, staring at the cloak on his arm. Her face is aghast; she begins to cry hysterically. Without a pause, Horatius walks over to her, yells “traitor”, and slays her with his sword. We find out that Horatia had made the cloak for her secret love, none other than the enemy that Horatius has slain. My class is shocked. “Okay,” I say, “get into your debate groups and decide if Horatius, as a Roman soldier, was justified in slaying his sister for treason or should he be jailed for murder?” The conversation is animated and intense. Finally, we reassemble and the opinions vary: some groups argue that Horatius, following Roman law to the letter, was justified, others, move beyond the law, question Roman authority and decide that Horatius is guilty. I am in awe of my students because they have just demonstrated an ability to take their thinking from unquestioning reliance on government and law to discussing whether a particular law is just or flawed. Before my eyes they have demonstrated heart-felt thinking.
The sixth grade is now studying Medieval history and of course the spread of Christianity. Without going into detail, here is a sampling of the students’ questions and heart-felt thinking. How did the philosophy of Jesus (non-violence, peace, love) contrast with the declining Roman Empire? Why did the Romans see Jesus as subversive and revolutionary? Why did Charlemagne engage in horrific violence in his quest to bring Christianity to the pagans? We haven’t gotten to the Crusades, but if you’d like to visit and hear the compassionate, heart-felt thinking of the sixth graders, just let me know!