Monday, November 22, 2010

The Waldorf Approach to Academics in the Grade School

The Waldorf Approach to Academics in the Grade School
- 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.


How many saw “Waiting For Superman”? In one scene there is a cartoon picture of students in a row with the “good teacher” opening their skulls and filling their brains with information, lots of facts. Although viewers disagree, my impression was that the director equated quality education with filling up an empty brain. In sharp contrast, the Waldorf philosophy is not to cram information in, but to draw information out, to draw out the individuality of each student. We do this when we provide a nurturing, rich, enjoyable classroom atmosphere for students. We do this when we teach subject matter when children are developmentally ready to understand it. If children are secure and confident then they are open to learning. If children have hindrances to learning, be they emotional or physical, then it is the teachers’ and parents’ responsibility to remove the obstacles/hindrances by employing every strategy from nutrition to extra lesson work and curative Eurythmy to academic tutoring.

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
3. Penmanship
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.

Students are also asked to demonstrate comprehension through composition and illustration.Once the story has been told the first day and reviewed the next day, the teacher, the teacher and the class, a small group of students, and finally, individual students will retell the story through writing paragraphs, essays, or poems. Thus with oral retelling, illustrations, and writing students are sharpening their memory forces, exercising their capacity for mental images.


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.


Of all the knowledge and skills that are required to write (to compose), handwriting is the one that places the earliest constraints on writing development (composition). If children cannot form letters—or cannot form them with reasonable legibility and speed—they cannot translate the language in their minds into written text. Struggling with handwriting can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which
students avoid writing, come to think of themselves as not being able to write, and fall further and further behind their peers.

Just as young readers must learn to decode fluently so they can focus oncomprehension, young writers must develop fluent, legible handwriting (and must master other transcription skills like spelling) so they can focus on generating and organizing ideas.” (American Educator, Winter 2009-10, page 20)


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, in contrast, continue to value penmanship and it’s satisfying to see the research catch up with our practice.





Form drawing, (see example image) which is unique to Waldorf education, plays a key role in developing beautiful handwriting, because it
develops eye-hand coordination, spatial orientation to the page, ability to move from left to right fluidly and gracefully across a page.









Composition: Learning to write well begins in the early grades and culminates in the abilities of eighth graders to write essays, reports, poetry, and fiction. Up until seventh grade writing assignments focus on how precisely a story can be retold. Waldorf pedagogy moves from teaching the mechanics of writing to the exercise of creative imagination. Creative prose and poetry happens in seventh grade because it is at this age that the student’s emotional/soul life awakens to truly allow for independent creativethinking.






Reading/comprehension: To ask if Waldorf education delays learning to read is really not a productive question. And while some Waldorf educators say yes, I say no, we don’t delay, but we do take a different tact in our academic approach to reading. My advice to parents of young children: immerse your children in beautiful, classic literature. Sit your baby, your first grader, your fifth grader, your adult child on your lap, or next to you and tell them stories, read to them: luxuriate in the art of storytelling and the art of reading aloud.

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
ader will look at those letters and words and with the poem in mind begin to track word for word,



“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.”








Those black squiggly lines on a white page that we call letters are human inventions that will be learned when the child’s brain is developmentally prepared to do so. Can we push it? Sure. But if we do push children to learn decoding over comprehension, will we continue to hear that Waldorf students become life long lovers of reading and develop solid comprehension skills? No. Waldorf teachers emphasize listening and comprehension skills over decoding in the early grades. Having said that, it is also Waldorf teachers’ and parents’ responsibility to make sure that their children do not have any hindrances to learning to read when they are developmentally ready. And this is why your teachers know if your child is reversing letters and numbers in the early grades, if they can track from left to right, if they can identify where one word begins and ends.

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.

3x4=12 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!

What if we need to double a recipe that has 1 ½ cups of flour? Students work with fractions before they’ve even been formally introduced. And it’s in 4th grade that fractions are introduced. Teachers bring the concept in an emotionally satisfying way. One whole pizza divided into 12 parts. One whole Belgian waffle divides into 4 parts. One whole apple divided into 2, and by the way see the cosmic 5 pointed star from first grade study of quality of number. Another wonderful way to work with fractions is through musical notation. If the signature is 4/4 then the whole note gets 4 beats, the ½ note gets 2 beats, the ¼ note gets 1 and a dotted ½ note gets 3 beats.




In sixth grade business math students learn how to balance a checkbook, they learn about profit, credit and debit, and simple and compoundinterest. Most classes learn these concepts by running a class business and they have a lot of fun buying and selling,
advertising, running sales and dealing with losses. An effective way to move the students’ hearts and minds outward into the wider world is to introduce the idea of microcredit and the empowerment of people, in particular of poor women, throughout the world. I gave a brief biography of Mohammed Yunus and his work with helping Bangladeshi women get loans to start businesses and thereby take control of their lives. Once again these approaches to the academics of business math are not extra, or nice, or superfluous. They enable students to make heartfelt connections to the academic subject and it makes working with the math fun and meaningful.


Finally, along with Algebra in eighth grade students learn about the five Platonic solids. They learn which are composed ofequilateral triangles, squares, pentagons, the number of faces and vertices, and of course students draw them, create them out of paper, and mold them out of clay. (Image of platonic solids.)

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 an
appreciation 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.


What is the academic approach to science in grades one and two? We begin with the pure experience of the natural world: nature walks, playing in streams, mud, piles of leaves, and snow. Students build houses, forts, fairy homes with logs, leaves, mud, and snow. We make a conscious effort to connect children to nature, to make them comfortable in nature, and to love nature.











In first and second grade nature story blocks are common. Last year and this year I decided to give my students a strong foundation in the qualities of animals who live inand by ponds, in meadows, in the forest, and, more specifically, in the winter forests of Maine.The life cycle, habits, and habitats of every animal are scientifically accurate. My approach, however, is to tell a story, for example, about Betty and Bobby Squirrel, who collect nuts for the winter, who create a warm and cozy bed for themselves, who care for their babies in spring. Children love these stories and so they remember the truth. I have tapped into their emotional lives and anchored the facts for future reference.

Third grade is a year of doing activities and our science curriculum addresses this particularly through cooking and gardening. Each week students experience the science of cooking firsthand. They transform ingredientslike barley, rice, wheat berries, carrots, onions, into delicious foods using recipes from around the world. (See image of Barley poem.) Ms. Kelley ‘s class bakes their own birthday cakes and my last third grade baked bread every Friday, not only because it is delicious, but because this is our “thinking, feeling, and doing” approach to the science of nutrition and healthy eating, to an experience of the transformation of ingredients from our mother earth into foods that sustain our lives.





Skipping to sixth grade, the science curriculum is a study in contrasts, in duality. The juxtaposition of Astronomy and Geology (Image from Astronomy mail lesson book) is a perfect example. On the onehand, unaided or naked eye Astronomy draws the student’s gaze upwards to the heavens. Many teachers study Astronomy in the Winter to capture the majesty and grandeur in the crisp, clear night sky. Students keep “moon journals” and watch the constellations move through the sky. The desire to make logical, concrete sense of the cosmos is enhanced with an immersion into the mystery and wonder of the heavens through poetry, drawing, and painting. George MacDonald’s classic novel, The Princess and Curdie, begins with an incredible description of the mountain. My second grade is hearing the novel now during reading time. I’ll bring it back in 6th grade to introduce Geology. Why?: Because these are the heart connections that re-enliven education.


Whereas Astronomy has the soaring through the skies, Geology directs the students’ attention to the earth and even below the earth into its deepest, hottest, core. In Geology students begin to“read the earth.” (Image from Geology main lesson book.) They come to understand how rain, a seemingly harmless force, can and will bore enormous holes in rocks. They wonder at how coal will, under intense pressure, become a brilliant diamond. They go caving and see mineral formations that dazzle the eye and perhaps see species of animals that have adapted to cave life over million of years.


A final example, in 6th grade Physics one experience involved piling my whole class into a room that was pitch black, every window, nook and cranny had been covered with black paper. We experienced complete darkness. In 8th grade Anatomy we discussed how the eye works and students drew an artistic diagram of the eye. On our 8th grade trip we entered a cave that no one had explored before. When we turned off our flashlights we again experienced complete darkness. Experiences like this can’t be described: they need to be lived. And that’s how we teach academics in Waldorf schools: we experience and do, we discuss and argue, we conclude and document.

Thank you.

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