Sunday, March 4, 2007

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!

1 comment:

April said...

Thank you for your wonderful insight and information on 6th grade history. Our daughter has been part of the Waldorf school in Santa Cruz since kindergarden. Two years ago she started requesting to be home schooled. This year we could not afford to send her and have jumped off the cliff. She wants to learn "other ways of learning" so I have not purchased a Waldorf curriculum. She has Marine Science from a wonderful teacher, math and English will be tutored. There are lots of extra curricular classes she will be involved in. I want to do history with her and include several other classmates who are also being homeschooled. Do you have suggestions for being able to get materials just for 6th grade history so I don't have to purchase the whole curriculum.
Thanks so much,