The Waldorf School
Those of you who know Eugene Schwartz or have read his plays and books will easily understand why we are so happy that he offered this article for posting at our site. Those of you who have not yet made Eugene's acquaintance are about to encounter a Waldorf master teacher anyone would wish for as their child's mentor. Eugene is that rare individual who combines a keen, ever-searching mind and a delightful, enriching artistic capacity with the social sensitivity and inner solidity needed to guide a classroom of children into a fruitful adulthood. Simply stated, Eugene walks his talk, and, in our experience, what he has to say is always worth listening to. You may contact Eugene at firstname.lastname@example.org
For over seventy years,
the Waldorf school approach to the teaching
of history has been based on two principles. Throughout our tumultuous
and mutable century, the Waldorf history curriculum has remained
true to its focus on the myths, legends and biographies that underlie
the development of "Western culture." The second principle
that underlies the Waldorf curriculum is its concern that history
not be taught as a specialized subject, but rather as a topic
thoroughly integrated with subjects as diverse as mathematics,
handwork and singing. Recent anxiety about the lack of "cultural
literacy" among American children has begun to point to the
wisdom of the first principle, while increasing indications that
the assimilation of factual information is meaningless unless
the ability to synthesize that information is cultivated as well
would suggest the value of the second principle, the integrated
The history curriculum generally follows these lines:
|Grade One:||Fairy Tales. "History" is not a separate subject.|
|Grade Two:||Legends and stories of saints. "History" is not a separate subject.|
|Grade Three:||Stories of the Jewish Bible. "History" is not a separate subject.|
|Grade Four:||Norse mythology. History is taught as part of an introduction to the cultural geography of the child's local surroundings.|
|Grade Five:||Ancient History. The peoples of India, Persia, Egypt, Babylonia and Greece: their myths, their monuments and their everyday life.|
|Grade Six:||Roman History, from Aeneas to the decline of the Roman Empire and the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor.|
|Grade Seven:||The Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Age of Exploration.|
|Grade Eight:||From the Reformation to the Age of Revolution. American history. Twentieth Century history.|
As the above enumeration indicates, in the first two grades, the
story content of fairy tales and legends underlies all of the
subjects that the children study. As Waldorf students grow older,
sagas and myths lay the foundation for the study of history as
a separate subject, which begins formally in the fifth grade.
The fifth grade history curriculum spans a period of time that
stretches from 3000 BC. to 300 BC. This is not to say that the
child learns no history until she is eleven years old; rather,
the history is so interwoven with all else that is learned that
it does not yet take on the quality of a discipline separated
from the child's whole experience. We might say that the third
or fourth grader still looks at the past with more of the credulous
and dreamy nature of Herodotus rather than the clear-eyed wakefulness
At this grade level, great stress is placed on the mythological dimension of ancient cultures, and the legendary human beings who stood halfway between the gods and humanity, i.e. the "heroes." The Waldorf schools' approach to history teaching in the middle grades is based on the premise that the need for heroes in the growing child is as natural and healthy as the need for mother's milk in the developing infant. Experience has convinced us that children can penetrate the Zeitgeist of a civilization most thoroughly by re-experiencing the deeds and sufferings of that culture's champions.
Although this may run counter to the antiheroic stance of our own time, Waldorf teachers find that children in the middle grades seek to emulate heroes wherever they can be found. While the ancient mythologies consistently present heroic figures who embody the highest ideals and qualities of the human being, modern American children must rest content with such paragons as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Batman. These modern figures often represent distortions and caricatures of the human form. By watching them by the hour in darkened rooms, by wearing them as icons on shirts, bedclothes or bath towels, by assembling them as "action figures" around his bed, the young child is drawn into what could be characterized as a modern form of idolatry.
In his recent study of the crisis in American public schools, The End of Education, Neil Postman acknowledges that
For school to make sense, the young, their parents, and their teachers must have a god to serve, or, even better, several gods. If they have none, school is pointless. Nietzsche's famous aphorism is relevant here: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." This applies as much to learning as to living. 1
|In a similar vein, the distinguished University of Chicago Professor of Social and Political Ethics, Jean Bethke Elshtain, cites a story told by the psychiatrist Robert Coles "of a little girl named Ruby whom he met during the early days of desegregation":|
Coles became intrigued by the 7-year-old, who had to be escorted to school by federal marshals. She would get out of the car and be met by jeering mobs who shouted racial epithets at her. She would pause, bow her head for a moment, and then walk into the school staring straight ahead. He got to know Ruby's family, and finally felt comfortable asking Ruby why she always paused before she went into class. She said, "I'm saying a little prayer. I'm saying, 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" This little girl had access to a religious story and tradition, and it gave her great strength.
|So it is less of a question as to whether heroes are needed for a child's healthy development than which heroes are going to be espoused; it is not whether stories will be presented in school, but rather which stories will be heard. Paradoxical as it may appear, it is those myths which were told in the distant past that best explain the present to a child, and it is those demigods and heroes whose nature is divine who are best able to tether the Millennial Child to everyday life. The eminent psychoanalyst Rollo May, wrote the book The Cry for Myth after decades of research into the psychological and social illnesses of our time:|
I speak of the Cry for myths because I believe there is an urgency in the need for myth in our day. Many of the problems of our society, including cults and drug addiction, can be traced to the lack of myths which will give us as individuals the inner security we need in order to live adequately in our day. The sharp increase in suicide among young people and the surprising increase in depression among people of all ages are due, as I show in this book, to the confusion and the unavailabilty of adequate myths in modern society. 3
The figure of Heracles or Krishna, Moses or Achilles, imaginatively
apprehended by the young child, tends to take root and grow as
an heroic impulse within the child. The plastic and electric Power
Ranger, its facial expressions simulated by computer, will soon
reveal its feet of clay (or polystyrene). As the modern media
heroes are recognized as mere creatures of artifice, born and
bred in the special-effects studio, the child who had been mesmerized
by them may fall prey to disillusionment, and eventually feel
that nothing is real or worth valuing. The consequence of the
real hero is the inculcation of heroism; the consequence
of the "superhero" is the antihero.
During a recent visit to a New York City public school classroom I experienced something of the "healing power" of the heroic myth. When I entered the combined 4th/5th grade room, the teacher told me that she had to set aside her lesson plan for a while in order to deal with an argument that had arisen between two girls involving jealousy and cliqueishness, which had led to some acrimonious insults. Utilizing a method that was very much the creation of Generation Two methodologies, the teacher set up a flip chart and asked two students to moderate. The two principals in the conflict were asked to give their versions of what had happened - which led to more acrimony - and other children were asked what they thought was best to do in such a situation. Ideas and suggestions were duly noted and recorded on the flip chart: "Ignore people who insult you," "Be nice to your friends," "Don't use bad language," etc. It was clear that by this time of year (late December) such discussions were not new among the children, nor had they proven terribly effective. The overall feeling I had was of children who had been trained to intellectualize their emotions in order to "control" them, but whose real feelings were lurking behind the scenes, ready to erupt as soon as the discussion ended and the flip chart was put away. I could almost feel the spectres of Generation One and Generation Two haunting the classroom's corridors.
During a break time, the teacher, her principal and I discussed what I had seen, and she acknowledged that little or no progress had been made in healing the rift between the two antagonists. I stated that Waldorf teachers perceived such argumentativeness, even vindictiveness, as a natural part of fourth grade behavior.
"So what do you do about it?" she asked. "What do you do in a Waldorf school when this stuff breaks out."
I smiled. "We tell a story," I said, "In which the antagonists are given a mythical dimension. That tends to objectify the experience. In fact, in fourth grade we tell many Norse myths, in part because the Norse gods are the most argumentative and aggressive gods in world mythology - that, and their liveliness, provide an accurate reflection of the fourth grader's own nature. We don't say very much directly to the children involved, but let them 'digest' the story and see the effect of their behavior as though it were happening to someone else."
The teacher looked skeptical.
"And that works?" she asked.
"It takes a few weeks," I conceded, "Or a few months, or sometimes a few years. But, yes, eventually it works."
"If you tell these kids a Norse story, they'll just use it to make fun of each other even more," she said, "And they probably won't even listen in the first place."
"Let him try it," said her principal. Within a few minutes I was standing before the class, relating the tale of Loki's jealousy towards Baldur. The envious and spiteful Loki finds a way to kill the almost immortal Baldur, but, instead of being accepted by the Aesir, he is scorned all the more. In the tried-and-true Waldorf method, I did not draw any link with the events of the morning as I told the story, and I did not look at the two girls involved, but rather spoke to the class at large. They proved to be a quiet, attentive and completely involved audience.
Later that afternoon, as I was preparing to leave, one of the antagonists came up to me and handed me a piece of lined paper. Upon it she had written her name, her school name, the date, and the following (spelling has not been corrected):
|ODIN = King||ASGAARD|
|THOR = King's son||AESIR = GODS BEINGS|
|LOKI = Jokester||OF LIGHT|
|BALDUR = Nice man|
Comments: I think the story was nice
it had a good morale.
Morale: Should not be jealous enough
Your a great Teacher!
P.S. Can you come again?
You don't have to
Since all of the fairy tales and heroic sagas to which I refer
arise out of oral traditions, Waldorf teachers always commit the
stories to heart and tell them to their class. It is difficult
in our time for an adult to convey the nature of heroes and their
deeds without lapsing into cynicism or trivialization, but every
effort is made to see the hero from the child's perspective, which
is still filled with unconditional love and belief. Fostering
such love so that it unfolds as idealism in adolescence - rather
than jaded disillusionment - is probably one of the greatest challenges
facing teachers today.
After the children have heard such a story for the first time - for example, the life of the great Persian sage and hero Zarathustra - the teacher does not immediately throw out questions to test the children's comprehension. Instead, the teacher allows the children to "sleep on it," and engages the whole class in an oral review of the story the next day. (Although we do a lot of "reading comprehension" these days, not enough is done to assure that youngsters listen to what the teacher says!) Now that the children have inwardly pictured events from the hero's life, the teacher may draw a definitive scene from that life on the blackboard, or ask the children to depict an event with which they felt linked.
On the third day, the teacher tries to guide the children to connect their own lives and strivings with that of the hero. Following this discussion the teacher may give a written assignment. That is to say, on the first day the children took in the story as a sensory experience, related to their thinking processes; on the second day the tale's content arises in their feelings, and on the third day it is accessible to their will. This is, obviously, a slow process, which values the child's depth of penetration over his facility at rattling off newly-acquired facts. The pre-adolescent thrives on those assignments in which she feels her life as one with the life that under study. Here are excerpts from a fifth grade girl's response to the story of the birth of Zarathustra, the ancient Persian sage:
In this eleven year-old's work, the mood is one of a healthy acceptance
of the transcendent nature of the Persian hero, and the stark
contrasts of the battle of the forces of good with the forces
of evil. It should be noted that this essay is not a "creative"
work, drawn from of the child's still-nebulous life of feeling,
but is rather a re-creative effort, drawn from a melding
of the teacher's presentation and the child's inner response to
the material. Re-creation stands as a necessary foundation for
the truly creative work which will be done by the adolescent youngster
a few years hence; it is sad that our times the word "recreation"
has been so trivialized.
By way of comparison, excerpts from an eighth grader's work indicate an understanding of the complexities of a relatively modern figure - in this case, King Henry VIII of England:
Weak and tired, he looked down at his obese, flaccid body as he lay on the bed. Henry sighed. How happy life once was! But now, now he was just an old man, with many worries. If only he could return to those years when he had just become King. If only; if only...Blackness. Then the sound of familiar music; people laughing; but it seemed so far away...He sat on his throne, dressed in rich finery--but who was this sitting next to him?
The eighth-grader's composition, like that of the fifth-grader,
was based on material presented by the class teacher, but the
adolescent writer brings more boldness and individuality to her
treatment of the subject matter. Reversing the chronological sequence,
placing a far greater stress on the subject's emotional response
to his deeds than did the teacher, and charging all the events
with high drama, the author makes it clear that she is ready to
strike out on her own and write in a more original and creative
This narrative approach contrasts markedly with the methodology proposed by the team of scholars and teachers responsible for setting the standards for teaching history in the next century. In the history curriculum developed as part of the "national standards" to which the federally-mandated Goals 2000 program aspires, history-as-story disappears. This living and stirring approach to history is replaced by the tired warhorses of Generation One, history-as-ideology, history-as-concept, in short, history as the inexorable pressure of abstract forces. Compare these sample essay assignments from the Goals 2000 study with the Waldorf student essays above:
Analyze gender roles in different regions of colonial North America and how these roles changed from 1600 to 1760...
In the middle school years, the activities of the gods and nature
beings withdrew, to allow for the deeds and sufferings of the
heroes. With the onset of puberty, the Age of Heroes fades, and
young people are eager to hear biographies, tales of flesh-and-blood
figures whose lives can be documented, who lived and struggled
and died bearing physical bodies as tangible as the bodies the
pubescent students are themselves taking on. In order for the
study of history to awaken and vitalize the forces of feeling
and will that the Millennial Child possesses in such abundance,
teachers must bring human beings, rather than abstract forces,
to the forefront of their lessons.
Although each history main lesson block focuses on this single subject, the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum calls on every class teacher to weave a number of other subjects around this central core. Above all, it is essential for the Millennial Child to bring every subject into her will; after studying the neurological development of school-age children, Robert Sylwester of the University of Oregon said,
Children need to be more physically active in the classroom, not sitting quietly...Knowledge is retained longer if children connect not only aurally but emotionally and physically to the material... 7
In sixth grade, for example, the study of Rome, from its ancient
origins to its regeneration as the "Holy Roman Empire"
is studied. In those weeks in which the sixth graders are learning
their history, a number of other subjects are attended to as well.
English and Composition
Students in the Waldorf grade school do not use textbooks, but create their own "texts": the "Main Lesson Book," described above is a compilation of all that a student has learned about a subject during a particular block. Much of the text of a sixth grader's main lesson book has been written by the student in draft form, corrected by the teacher and then rewritten neatly into the book. Compositions are also read aloud as part of each day's review, critiqued by classmates and teacher etc., so that every history block is also a period of intensive work in composition.
Drawing and Painting
Rather than cut and paste magazine illustrations or photocopy textbook illustrations, Waldorf students learn to draw and paint images that they copy from primary sources or imaginatively create themselves. As a youngster carefully recreates a detail from a Roman sarcophagus or depicts a naval battle against Carthage, he lives much more fully into the subject than he would by passively gazing at photos or digitized images on "interactive" software. Clay modeling is another artistic medium that can be put to good effect in this grade.
From three to five times a week, the class teacher will begin the morning with a few minutes of math work, using worksheets or asking the class to do "mental arithmetic." Here, too, the children's interest in Roman life can be put to good use, e.g., "A Roman legion was composed of 10 maniples of hastai, 10 maniples of principes, 10 maniples of triarii and 10 turmae of cavalry. Maniples of hastai and principes each were made up of 125 javelineers, 50 velites and 10 commanders. Maniples of triarii were composed of 60 spearmen, 40 velites and 10 commanders. Turmae of cavalry had 30 horsemen and 6 commanders. How many men were in such a legion? The legion was led by six tribunes; that meant that each tribune commanded how many men? Create a pie graph that tells us what percentage of the soldiers were on horseback. What percentage were spearmen?" And so on! Time/distance problems involving the construction of the Via Appia, area problems involving Roman monuments and arenas, or problems concerning the growing and decreasing population of Rome through the ages exemplify the way in which the children's enthusiasm for history can be channeled toward other subjects.
The integrated Waldorf curriculum for sixth grade indicates Mineralogy as the central natural science for this year, while Mechanics will be central in the Physics studies of seventh grade. The engineering genius of the Romans, and their thorough mastery of quarrying and masonry, provides much in the way of source material and cross-referencing for the science work in both sixth and seventh grades. An excerpt from a sixth grader's composition illustrates how history and science can intersect. It was written from the point of view of an African infantryman who accompanied Hannibal across the Alps.
...Today our commander Hannibal did the strangest thing. We had come to a mountain pass that was completely blocked by a huge boulder. We were all certain that we would have to head back. There was no way that our elephants could ever go over that rock.
The Performing Arts
An historical period is never taught in a Waldorf classroom without being accompanied by poetry and song from that particular period. Waldorf students routinely learn long poems by heart, and, through the grades, sing increasingly demanding musical pieces, from American folksongs to Gregorian chants and Elizabethan madrigals. Macauley's lengthy poem Horatius at the Bridge is often recited by sixth graders during their Roman history block, and many classes learn poetry in Roman Latin and Church Latin as well. No less important are the class teacher's efforts to embody the historical period as a class play, which is performed for the entire school at the end of the year. Students not only learn their parts; they are also responsible for helping to design costumes, props and sets, so that all that they have learned now takes palpable physical form. A modern youngster who is able to experience the weight and warmth of a toga (up to eighteen feet of cloth gathered around one body) learns a great deal about the aggrandizing nature of the Roman aristocracy.
These examples only hint at the fullness of experience that the Waldorf curriculum provides the developing child. The class teacher, who must, of course, prepare for all of these subjects, and who never gets to repeat anything for eight years, is similarly enriched as she teaches. A multitude of integrated curricular examples could be garnered from the teaching of history in the seventh and eighth grades, but these would go far beyond the scope of this section. It is my hope that what has been discussed indicates that history can be successfully taught as part of an integrated curriculum. If, as Cicero has said, "Those who do not learn what happened before they were born must always remain children," the teaching of history in our turbulent times is a grave responsibility. To teach history in such a way that it illumines every other subject in the curriculum is a challenge that we should forcefully take up.
Two examples may give some sense of the effect that the Waldorf approach to history may have on students. Elyssa Moseley, a former student of mine, visited Israel in the summer after eighth grade, and in a letter described a visit to David's Tower, a medieval castle:
I had never been in a castle before, and as soon as I was on the drawbridge I was struck with a sense of wonderment, considering all that I had learned about castles from a certain teacher of mine. The history! I was delighted, entranced, excited and amazed at the courtyards, the gardens, the towers, and the excavations going on in them. You see, people kept rebuilding this castle on top of the remains of the castle before, until it extended into great depth. The whole feeling of being in that castle, and imagining how the medieval ladies had sat in the gardens sewing, and how the soldiers had stood at the slit windows to shoot arrows or pour Greek fire - perhaps in the very place where I was standing! It was very exciting! Experience is so much more rewarding when you have learned about its history beforehand. I have to stop now, my mom wants to write something. Sincerely, your history-intoxicated student...
|For Elyssa, history was a magnifying glass that allowed her see the myriad interweavings that make up humanity's collective past. For another Green Meadow graduate, history becomes a lens allowing insight into the future. Will Eaton is an engineer who is working in Hanford, Washington, with Westinghouse, to turn radioactive waste into glass that will contain the radioactive components for hundreds of thousands of years. In a recent interview, he remarks:|
I am one of the engineers whose task it is to develop test plans for the process, monitor the tests, collect data, and evaluate the results. It's quite a project. We're essentially on new ground here, and there are few models to fall back on.
|1||Neil Postman, The End of Education, (New York, 1995), 4.|
|2||Marilyn Berlin Snell, "Turn Down the Volume: Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain," Utne Reader, (November-December, 1995), 71.|
|3||Rollo May, The Cry for Myth, (New York, 1991), 9.|
|4||Rosemary Boyd, a Waldorf graduate now active in economics and politics, recalls: "Waldorf gave me a good foundation in World History. For example, I remember studying Zoroastrianism (10th grade), the ancient Middle Eastern culture centered around the pillars of fire that burned over oil seepages. This historical insight helped me build a strong relationship with the Persian Chief of the Oil and Gas Division of the World Bank, which led to my assisting him with his book on financing energy projects in developing countries..." (Quoted in Margulies, Learning to Learn, (Fair Oaks, 1996), 42.|
|5||Cited in Albert Shanker, "Where We Stand," The New York Times, December 31, 1995.|
|6||The epistemological foundation for this approach was be found in such thinkers as R.G. Collingwood. In his The Idea of History, (Oxford, 1973), we read: The historian, investigating any event in the past, makes a distinction between what may be called the outside and the inside of an event....By the inside of an event I mean that in it which can only be described in terms of thought: Caesar's defiance of Republican law, or the clash of constitutional policy between himself and his assassins... [The historian's] work may begin by discovering the outside of an event, but it can never end there; he must always remember that the event was an action, and that his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent. (p. 213)|
|7||Cited in LynNell Hancock, "Why Do Schools Flunk Biology?," Newsweek, February 19, 1996, 59.|
|8||Margulies, Op.cit., 44.|
©1996 by Eugene Schwartz
274 Hungry Hollow Road
Spring Valley, NY 10977
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