A Waldorf Grade School – Joyful, Lifelong Learning

“Where is the book in which the teacher can read About what teaching is? The children themselves are this book. We should not learn to teach out of any book Other than the one lying open before us And consisting of the children themselves." 

Today, I would like to share some simple ideas about a Waldorf Grade School, especially for our parents who are newly stepping into the Waldorf journey. While schools across the world may function differently from one another in the way they are administered or in aspects of pedagogy, there are certain characteristics of each of these schools that unite them as WALDORF or STEINER schools. The scope of this article is limited to the Pedagogical aspects of a Waldorf Grade School.

 With Anthroposophy as the source, and the knowledge of the human being as not just a body but also a soul spirit, emerged a practical curriculum based out of the indications given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner. This curriculum is adapted by each school to suit the unique culture and the folk soul of the land the school is based in. Today, Waldorf schools exist in all continents, with children learning in many different languages and in diverse environments. 

The curriculum in each grade is divided into “BLOCKS” for the academic year. Each Block is a 3-4-week period that addresses one aspect of the curriculum. During a Block, the teacher only concentrates on that subject for the entire 3- 4-week period, with an aim of allowing the children to experience true learning and find relevance and develop interest in the subject being taught. 

The teaching of each Block is done through a 2hour MAIN LESSON period every morning. This is Steiner’s greatest contribution to the field of Education. The 2 hours include a 3-fold teaching approach that nurtures 3 important faculties of the human soul – WILLING, FEELING & THINKING. 

The first part of the Main Lesson is a Morning Circle, which helps the children and their class teacher reconnect as a class and get ready for the day. Morning Circle includes saying a verse, prayers, songs related to the seasons, festivals or the theme of the lesson itself, recitation of poems, tongue twisters, alliterations, stamping and clapping tables, mental Math exercises. The VERSE given by Steiner to children in the primary grades and recited in different languages across the world is as follows: “The Sun with loving light; makes bright for me each day. The Soul with Spirit power; brings strength unto my limbs. In Sunlight shining clear, I reverence, Oh God! The strength of Humankind, which thou so graciously have planted in my Soul. That I with all my strength; will love to work and learn From Thee comes light and strength; To Thee rise Love and Thanks.” 

ALLITERATIONS & TONGUE TWISTERS like “Betty Botter bought some butter; but the butter was bitte So she bought some better butter to make the bitter butter better” during the introduction of ‘B’ or “She sells sea shells on the sea shore” during the introduction of ‘S” during the alphabet block of Grade 1, are extremely fulfilling and great learning at the same time 

The next part of the Main Lesson includes ‘RECALL’ of the previous day’s story or learning and a free rendering of the same as a work of art – drawing, modeling, painting or poetry. One can speak at length about the role of ART as a tool for learning that not only nurtures the feeling realm of the child’s soul through cultivating interest and love for the subject, but also builds human values in an unconscious way. 

The third part of the Main Lesson includes the actual BOOKWORK like writing the letters of the alphabet, a story or a Math solution and presenting a new concept to be recalled, the following day. 

The Main Lesson is followed by 45-minute Subject lessons, often doubled for arts/crafts and languages. In a Waldorf School, these are an integral part of the curriculum (not co-curricular, optional subjects). Subject lessons include 2 Languages , Handwork, Games, Painting, Form Drawing, Eurythmy, Music – vocal and instrumental. Each of these Subjects contribute in a purposeful way towards the development of the child. One cannot underestimate the great saying, “Nimble fingers really do make for nimble minds.” Woodwork, Charcoal Painting, Portraits and Experiments in Physics or Chemistry are introduced in middle school. 

The thread of integration that keeps all the subjects together as a whole is held by the NARRATIVE or the STORY that the class teacher presents continuously over the years. Be it the fairytales in Grade 1, the animal fables and saint stories in Grade 2, the Hebrew Creation stories of Grade 3, the Norse myths of Grade 4 or the stories of the early human civilizations like Indian, Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian or the Greek Cultures of Grade 5 – each story has the greater task of meeting the consciousness of the child, relevant to that age. Needless to say, that this age-appropriate curriculum to meet the child’s consciousness is an archetypal idea and one must still deal with where an individual child meets the archetype. 

Thus, the school Curriculum establishes a healthy breathing rhythm between concentration & relaxation, practical & mental work, movement & rest, listening/seeing & participating. The faculty of imagination & mental picturing of the previous day passing on into the night’s sleep and turning into concepts and vivid memories to be recalled the next day, forms a major part of all Waldorf teaching. Moving from one Block to another and allowing for a period of rest, or even forgetting what was learnt and raising it to consciousness again sometime later and remembering the past lesson, helps in building REAL (not Rote) Memory & Learning.

The TEACHER plays a central role in the life of a Waldorf child. The learning of a child does not come from prescribed textbooks but from the elaborate research material and detailed presentations prepared by the teacher. The preparation includes the practice of stories and songs, beautiful blackboard drawings, setting the classroom, extra work for children who finish fast, homework assignments, math worksheets, vocabulary lists, maps and diagrams. Planning of festivals and field visits that go with the Block theme, arranging for materials required, seeking help from parents through an active life of collaboration, and observing the child’s progress in every lesson, are all part of the teacher’s thorough preparation. 

All this preparation, along with the inner work of the teacher that involves daily study and practice of the arts, night review and a meditative life of reflection and SELF-EVALUATION will develop in children, an appreciation and respect for the teacher’s authority. While children need clear guidance and boundaries, it is the teacher’s conduct and consistent behavior and expertise in the subject that will establish his or her authority in a loving way and also foster good discipline and an environment of learning in the classroom. There are real challenges in the behavior of children sometimes and one needs to consult the larger pedagogical group, engage in Child Study and have meetings with parents and develop appropriate strategies of ‘CREATIVE DISCIPLINE’ for the benefit of all. 

One should not forget to talk about the detailed assessments about children given to the parents as year-end reports. While on the one hand, it supports reflection of one’s own teaching effectiveness, it also brings to our awareness, the attainments of the goals set in the beginning of the year. While one part of the assessment speaks of the QUALITIES of the child like attitude towards particular subjects, behavior in a social group or the zeal and participation in the classroom or completion of tasks undertaken, the other part of the assessment is a more QUANTITATIVE one. One should, of course, look out for children with learning challenges. It is important to identify issues of poor letter formation, mirror images, spatial disorientation seen in the written page, poor spelling or sentence structure, unclear speech or memory as this can lead to withdrawal or frustration, if not addressed with careful thought by the teachers and the participation of the parents. 

Therefore, a teacher must play a double role of an artist during the teaching process and a professional educator during the process of evaluation.

 The importance of the role of the parents in the life of the child through proper rhythms and through the relationship with the teacher, cannot be overemphasized. Together, the teachers and parents of the children, through their striving and the strong relationship they develop over the years, support, guide and help the child grow to reach his/her full potential.

I would like to end by quoting Dr. Rudolf Steiner.

 “The Heart of the Waldorf method is the conviction that education is an art – it must speak to the child’s experience. To educate the whole child, the heart and will must be reached as well as the mind.

Manivannan Ganapathy