- A Presentation at the Cincinnati Waldorf School on November 16, 2010
by Lori Ann Kran, PhD
Waldorf education brings academic rigor and artistic beauty to every subject at the developmentally appropriate time. A central aim of Waldorf education is to graduate students who do not settle for conventional solutions to the questions that face humanity. Indeed, we aim to cultivate heartfelt thinkers who make change in the world. If you’ve heard me speak before you know I talk about how Waldorf education cultivates Renaissance young men and women: students who have artistic, academic, and athletic skills. But actually I’ve rethought this, because the Renaissance was not a golden era for most people.
So, rather than hearken back to the past for a model of a well-rounded student, actually I ask you tonight to consider this Waldorf or Steiner educational model, because a central aspect of Waldorf education is the social deed. Indeed, we must cultivate graduates whose hearts and arms are able to enfold the entire world. A big Eurythmy embrace, a Buh for the world.
We want our graduates to ask, “What do I do with my academic brilliance, my artistic beauty, my physical prowess, and my social conscience? I reach out into the world and do the good!” If young people, in large numbers, are intolerant of injustice and suffering, and know how to think and take action, we have profound, radical, and revolutionary change.
Children learn in many ways and Waldorf pedagogy embraces a multidisciplinary approach to academics that includes kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning. In grade school, from the age of 7-14, students learn best when their feeling or emotional lives are engaged. We know that the right side of the brain houses artistic and communication skills and the left side of the brain houses scientific and language skills. Well, if there is no communication between the 2 sides of the brain then we have people who possibly act without feeling. We may have people in power making cold, calculated, emotionless decisions. Waldorf education strives to connect thinking to feelings and emotions so that we have actions/will/volition that are compassionate, that do the best for the most people. Waldorf education cultivates heart-felt thinking.
To reiterate, the Waldorf approach to academics is to use the developmental insights of Rudolf Steiner to more fully educate the whole student and to cultivate a love for learning, and an intellectual curiosity that embraces problem solving for the betterment of the world.
Let’s get to the specific examples.
Language Arts: The language arts curriculum follows the development of human consciousness from a pre-literate time as demonstrated most profoundly in the fairy tales, through the mythical literature of many cultures to recorded history.
Goals of Language Arts Curriculum:
1. Exposure to classic literature, mythology, and world history
2. Listening and comprehension
4. Composition5. Reading and comprehension
How we teach: The content of the Language Arts curriculum (including nature stories, fairy tales, mythology,history, human geography) is brought through the art of storytelling. Teachers memorize stories, biographies, and historical events and tell them to the class using rich prose, thoughtful intonation, and clear enunciation. We reach students through this heart-felt connection to the story. Whether it’s second grade Martin who risks defying the Roman army by cutting in half his army-issued, elite red cape to give to a poor man, or the story of Galileo who faces imprisonment by the Church for being true to his knowledge of Astronomy, students remember the story because it connects to their emotional life.
We assess listening and comprehension in many ways. Throughout the grades students are expected to be able to retell the story verbally. Teachers assess sequencing of the story, use of illustrative verbs, nouns, adjectives, sentence structure, and grammar. Student initiated short skits, perhaps getting the silks out as quick costumes, also serve as comprehension indicators.
Handwriting/penmanship: The obvious goals for handwriting are to develop beauty and fluidity. Yet, Stephen Graham, Professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbilt University, wrote, “In dozens of studies, researchers…have found that, done right, early handwriting instruction improves students’ writing. Not just its legibility, but its quantity and quality.
We know that main stream educators are allowing their students to rely more and more on word processing and perhaps see penmanship as archaic and unnecessary.
Waldorf teachers know that reading arises from the written word. In the early grades, teachers will write beloved and memorized poems and verses on the chalkboard. Then a student who can read will say, “Hey, that says “Yellow the bracken,” and then the emerging re
“Yellow the bracken, golden the sheaves, rosy the apples, crimson the leaves, mist on the hillside, clouds gray and white, autumn good morning, summer good night.”
They have now read their first lines of poetry. A far cry from “See Spot run.”
Again, Waldorf teachers emphasize comprehension of the material over decoding in the early grades. This is why our students enjoy Brian Jacques, Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Shakespeare. Yet teachers also teach phonics and the whole language approach to reading. We teach rules about vowel sounds, and make sure every student knows the consonant blends, and spelling rules, etc. For most children decoding, or learning to read, will happen when they are developmentally ready. But if there is a hindrance, a red flag, teachers make sure those children get the remedial help they need.
From Arithmetic (mechanics of number) to Mathematics (grasping insight into what is solvable).
Goals of the Mathematics Curriculum
1. Quality of number: from first grade to 6th grade compass and straight edge to platonic solids
2. Fundamentals of calculation: from 4 process of the early grades to Business math to order of operations
3. Abstraction of numerical calculation: AKA Algebra
The academic approach to arithmetic, particularly in the lower grades, is to enable children to come to a profound understanding of number through the rhythmic movement of their hands and feet, or their rhythmic gross motor system. We teach the children exercises that bring their whole bodies into movement. Next, we move to small motor activities, in particular writing numbers and solving problems on paper, and mental math, solving number problems in their heads. A great way to combine both gross motor movement and mental math is the following exercise: Stand up and face left or right by alternate rows. I’ll say a problem, you shout the answer, I say “go” and you move. If it’s subtraction of division step backwards, if it’s multiplication or addition, move forward.
divided by 2=6 backward
plus 10=16 forward
subtract 9=5 backward
Let’s make this more difficult, although many of my second graders can do it!
5+995=1,000 / 2=500-250=250-200=50/10=5 forward!
Other activities include partners for clapping the times tables, circle of 10numbers, 0-9, each child on a number, move the times tables and find 2’s creates a pentagon and 4’s a pentagram, odd numbers create circle: pentagram inscribed in a pentagon inscribed in a circle. Here on the right is a photo of my 2nd Grade in pentagram formation.
As with every academic topic in Waldorf education, we also bring arithmetic concepts through story. This is not superfluous; it is fundamental to how we teach academics. We are engaging the heart, the emotional, the soul life of the children. We are re-awakening them. They remember the story of the four process characters (Picture of the gnomes) from first grade and they associate their personalities with the function. Adeline Addition loves to count methodically, every item in every row. Her brother Timmy Times, however, loves to count every item in one row, then count the number of rows and more quickly than Addie, he’s got the answer. Teachers do the same with place value (Image of 2nd grade mainlesson book on right): they tell their class a story that reaches them and helps them to understand the concept. This year I told my class about Onely, Tenly, Hunny, Thously, siblings who live by a cave of gems. Only Onely can go into the cave. He collects nine gems and when he gets the tenth, he hands them to sister Tenly, who bags each group of 10 gems into yellow sacks. Soon as Tenly has 10 sacks of ten she gives them to Hunny who keeps 100 gems in osage orange buckets. Soon as he has 10 buckets of 100 he hands them to sister Thously who deals with wheelbarrows of 1,000 gems.
This story is the vehicle to move quickly into the beauty of number. Take 1,035. Who is resting? Hunny, What’s Tenly have to do to rest and give work to Hunny? Tenly needs 7 more sacks of ten, or 70, so that Hunny has 100, and Tenly rests. Soon the students transition to referring to place values as ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, and beyond, but they have this imaginative picture as the anchor. Now my class has dictations in numbers in the 10 thousands. I ask how many numbers in ten thousands, (5), do you hear that anyone is resting in the number 21,400? Yes, ones and tens.
Along the same lines, math concepts in third grade are brought through the practical work of cooking and gardening. (Picture of Turner Farm on right.) When children work with recipes they are asked to make numbers concrete and consequential. There is a big difference between 1 tsp of salt and 10 tsp of salt!
Goals of the Science Curriculum
1. Reverence for and stewardship of Nature
2. Percept to Concept: observe the phenomena before you
3. Introduction to Science subject areas (Zoology, Botany, Geology, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Anatomy)
Science is approached uniquely in Waldorf schools with an emphasis on observation of the phenomena before you. Teacher asks the students to begin with their perceptions: “What do they perceive, see?” before moving to concepts or conclusions. This naturally segues into anappreciation and respect for nature and this is cultivated through field trips such as canoeing, skiing, caving, rock climbing, camping, and culminates in the 8th grade trip where students survive, and actually thrive, in the wilderness for a week. As the 8th grader goes into the world they become natural stewards of the earth.