Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Awakening of Intellect in the Seventh Grade

Each year on my journey through the grades with my class I am pleasantly astounded at how elegantly the curriculum Rudolf Steiner outlined fits with where my students are emotionally, academically, and artistically. Our study of the Renaissance is a wonderful case in point. Where else could I discuss with brilliant young minds questions of personal fear versus responsibility, individualism, courage, conventions of gender, and destiny!!??

We began our study with the Black Plague. I must admit I relished grossing my students out with descriptions of puss-filled black and purple buboes: the tortuously painful manifestations of the Bubonic Plague. More tenderly, however, I described how social conventions broke down as people, scared to death of catching the dread disease, abandoned their children. Could any of us imagine an epidemic that would cause that level of mass hysteria and parental neglect? We all took a deep breath as we tried to put ourselves in this kind of situation and wondered if we’d have had the courage to stay with loved ones or tend to sick neighbors.

Courage of another kind was the class topic of conversation as I introduced Joan of Arc. An illiterate, pious, thirteen year old peasant girl heard messengers of God (Archangel Michael!) tell her to abandon her family, don men’s clothes, and lead an army to aid the dauphin Charles to become king and to save France from the English. Once Joan accomplished her heroic deeds she was denounced as a heretic and abandoned to the English. Joan was the age of the seventh graders! Could we imagine leaving home? Could we imagine defying female gender norms and leading an army into battle? Would we dare accept charges of heresy and face execution to be true to ourselves? Joan challenged the Catholic Church when she stood by her conviction that indeed she knew the will of God. She defiantly proclaimed that He had spoken to her (via saints) and she had done His will. We discussed Joan’s courage and steadfastness and wondered if we could ever be up for challenges of the same caliber. We wondered how much choice Joan felt she had, or if the voices she heard compelled her to fulfill her destiny.

Contemplations of destiny and self-knowledge arose as we discussed the lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Leonardo was deemed “illegitimate” because his noble-born father refused to marry his peasant-born mother. Leonardo’s father raised him but, in accordance with the patriarchal laws of the time, chose not to “waste” money on a university education for a son who could never legally be admitted to his guild. What luck for Leonardo and the world: he would have become an accountant instead of the ultimate Renaissance man. In class we discussed Leonardo’s biography in the context of destiny. Many “what if” questions arose as we wondered in awe at his life and accomplishments. I asked the students to consider their own destiny. Why was it that their parents chose to send them to a Waldorf school? Why were they with this particular group of classmates? Why was I their teacher? Not much was said, but it was seriously quiet for a few minutes! We also studied Leonardo’s self-portrait as an old man. We looked at his eyes, so black yet expressive, and wondered if they were mirrors to his soul. We studied his face, which one boy commented seemed sad on one side, but old and tired on the other. Of course, in true Renaissance style the students tried their hand at this master’s work and with charcoal drew the self-portrait into their main lesson books. They are incredible!

Continuing with the concept of destiny we studied Michelangelo, whose father struggled financially because he refused to take work below his genteel station in life. As a result, Michelangelo was left first with stonecutters in a quarry and then after showing great promise as a sculptor, was invited to live with Lorenzo de Medici. Again, questions of destiny came up in class: what if his father hadn’t been so obstinate? What if he hadn’t been left with a stonecutter?

Leonardo and Michelangelo were, not surprisingly, consumed with their thoughts and ideas for new projects. Both found it difficult to spend time socializing because they disliked being distracted from their passions. Each man handled this difficulty differently. Leonardo was known to be debonair and social, but he wrote how he felt compromised and frustrated when he had to leave his interior thought-filled life. Michelangelo, known to be ill tempered and even rude simply shunned society and seems to have been rather curmudgeonly. I asked my students if they had ever found themselves thoroughly engrossed in a book or project when suddenly, mom or dad announced that it was time to go to a family party. I think every student raised his/her hand! They could relate to the passion both artists felt when consumed by their own thoughts. They understood what it felt like to have to leave their internal worlds of creativity and imagination and be social, even when they didn’t want to.

Themes that naturally arise as I teach my students about the Renaissance: courage, individualism, destiny, artistry, self-knowledge, make for wonderfully engaging conversation because these students are experiencing similar stirrings in their souls. They are budding 21st century Renaissance men and women and I am proud to help shepherd them along their unfolding path.