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!

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