Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reflections on the Sixth Grader

The sixth grader is poised between childhood and adolescence. He no longer feels intimately connected with his parents and the cosmos: indeed with the passing of the golden period of fifth grade he now has an increased sense of individualization. To recall, the teacher worked with her students’ etheric (life) forces to establish solid, healthy habits and rhythm in the early grades. In the middle grades she worked with her students’ astral (emotional) forces to connect their hearts and feelings to their increasing knowledge. Finally, in the last three grades (sixth through eighth) the teacher strives to balance thinking, feeling, and willing in the curriculum to spark her students’ developing ego (intellectual) forces.

A telltale sign of the twelve-year change is the struggle between the student’s inner and outer life. Although the sixth grader still respects adults, she will become more distant. The sixth grader has less interest in interacting and sharing with adults, but has a rich, full, important inner life that will more likely be shared with peers than with parents. This gradual change extends to all the adults in their lives, including teachers! It is a natural and healthy desire to keep things from their teachers; they won’t want to tell us everything and we should respect this change and trust them as well. Indeed, sixth through eighth grade is a delicate balance between adult intervening and allowing students to work out issues themselves. Rather than tell them who is right or wrong in an argument, they need to be encouraged and allowed to gather their thoughts, speak for themselves, and formulate resolutions. The Leadership class this year was designed to give students the tools to work out issues. When bullying or teasing occurred, teachers had to consider when and how to get involved. Waldorf education is a social education; teachers want their eighth grade graduates to be active peacemakers in the world.

As the teacher’s role changes from strong, loving authority to supportive guide so too does the focus of the curriculum. Sixth graders want to understand the world and universe. Rather than feeding them facts and concepts told to them by books and teachers, we enable them to observe phenomena for themselves. We encourage them to gather information and articulate their own arguments. This year witnessed students expressing stronger, individual opinions. They questioned their teachers and argued with passion. They also questioned each other and then looking inward, questioned themselves. Adults working and living with sixth graders must be aware of how critical they are of themselves and each other. They contrast and question popular culture versus the Waldorf world; fashion versus the CWS dress code; textbooks and grades versus main lesson books. They are sensitive because they are vulnerable because they are questioning everything.

The sixth graders demanded honesty from me. They winced if I made blanket statements of praise about their work. I had to develop a positive critiquing method that offered guidelines for improvement and clear assessment. I mixed compassion, humor, and honesty in an effort to encourage them to work hard and excel.

The unifying challenge of the year was to encourage the sixth graders to observe all phenomena and begin to create understanding, context, and order for themselves. It was in this spirit that my birthday verse to them was from Johannes Kepler. Human beings were born to think and it is my greatest wish that my students develop the capacity to think free of prejudice and for themselves!

We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is
Their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we
Ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets
Of the heavens… The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great,
And the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that
The human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.

From Mysterium Cosmographicum, by Johannes Kepler