In the early elementary school years, children learn best when academics are conveyed through painting, drama, music, storytelling and other direct experiences that stir their emotions. A sense of beauty weaves throughout the day, engaging children in their learning.
The school day begins with a long, uninterrupted main lesson. One subject is the focus; the class deals with it in-depth each morning for several weeks at a time. This long main lesson allows the teacher to develop a wide variety of activities around the subject at hand. In the younger grades, lively rhythmic activities get the circulation going and bring children together as a group; they recite poems connected with the main lesson, practice tongue twisters to limber up speech, and work with concentration exercises using body movements.
After the day’s lesson, which includes a review of earlier learning, students record what they learned in their lesson books. Following recess, teachers present shorter “run-through” lessons with a strongly recitational character. Foreign languages are customarily taught from first grade on, and these lend themselves well to these later morning periods. Afternoons are devoted to lessons in which the whole child is active: Eurythmy (artistically guided movement to music and speech), handwork, or gym, for example. Thus the day has a rhythm that helps overcome fatigue and enhances balanced learning.
The curriculum at a Waldorf school can be seen as an ascending spiral: The long lessons that begin each day, the concentrated blocks of study that focus on one subject for several weeks.
As the students mature, they engage themselves at new levels of experience with each subject. It is as though each year they come to a window on the ascending spiral that looks out into the world through the lens of a particular subject. Through the main-lesson spiral curriculum, teachers lay the groundwork for a gradual vertical integration that deepens and widens each subject experience and, at the same time, keeps it moving with the other aspects of knowledge.
All students participate in all basic subjects regardless of their special aptitudes. The purpose of studying a subject is not to make a student into a professional mathematician, historian or biologist, but to awaken and educate capacities that every human being needs. Naturally, one student is more gifted in math and another in science or history, but the mathematician needs the humanities, and the historian needs math and science. The choice of a vocation is left to the free decision of the adult, but one’s early education should give one a palette of experience from which to choose the particular colors that one’s interests, capacities and life circumstances allow. In a Waldorf high school, older students pursue special projects and elective subjects and activities, nevertheless, the goal remains: Each subject studied should contribute to the development of a well-balanced individual.
If the ascending spiral of the curriculum offers a “vertical integration” from year to year, an equally important “horizontal integration” enables students to engage the full range of their faculties at every stage of development. The arts and practical skills play an essential part in the educational process throughout the grades. They are not considered luxuries, but fundamental to human growth and development.
The Class Teacher
The Class Teacher takes the same class of children through eight years of elementary school (Grades 1 through 8), teaching all the main subjects. For the teacher, this means time to really know the children and help them unfold their gifts, as well as the enormous challenge of working with a new curriculum each year. This child finds stability and continuing guidance that may not even be present in the home life.
Textbooks are not used in the elementary grades. Instead, the teacher creates the presentation and the children make their individual books for each subject taught, recording and illustrating the substance of their lessons. These books, often artistic and beautiful, are an important way in which art is integrated into every subject: they have been the focus of Waldorf exhibitions at American and European museums.
Morning “Main Lesson”
The morning main lesson begins each school day. It is a two-hour period in which the main substance of the day is presented. The subject (it can be algebra, Greek history, botany or physics) is taught for a three-week or four-week block, then it is allowed to rest, often to be continued later in the term. This approach allows for freshness and enthusiasm, concentrated, in-depth experience, and gives the children time to “digest” what has been learned.
Drama, painting, music, drawing, modeling, etc., are integrated into the entire academic curriculum, including mathematics and the sciences. The Waldorf method of education through the arts awakens imagination and creative powers, bringing vitality and wholeness to learning. No other educational movement gives such a central role to the arts as does Waldorf education.
World languages are taught beginning in the first grade, giving the children insights into and facility with other cultures. The languages vary according to the location of the schools. The Denver Waldorf School offers Spanish and Russian.
The sciences are taught experientially. The teacher sets up an experiment, calls upon the children to observe carefully, ponder, discuss, and then allow them to discover the conclusion (the law, formula, etc.) Through this process the student develops rigorous independent thinking and sound judgement.
An Extraordinary Humanities Curriculum
An extraordinary humanities curriculum begins in second and third grade with mythology and legends. The Old Testament is Grade Three, Norse mythology in Grade Four, the ancient cultures of India, Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Greece in Grade 5, provide the background for the study of history and are presented through excerpts from original texts. By living into these cultures through their legends and literature, the children gain flexibility and an appreciation for the diversity of mankind. By the close of eighth grade, the students have journeyed from Greece and Rome to medieval history, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Exploration, up to the present day.
Letters are Learned
Letters are learned in the same way that letters originated in the course of human history. Individuals perceived, then pictured, and out of the pictures abstracted signs and symbols. First graders hear stories, draw pictures, and discover the letter in the gesture of the picture. This process is accompanied by much phonetic work in songs, poems and games that help to establish a joyful and living experience of language. Through the grades, texts taken from the rich humanities curriculum: Genesis, The Bhagivad Gila, The Kalevala, etc. provide material for reading practice.
Music permeates and harmonizes life in a Waldorf school through a curriculum designed to develop the innate musicality every child is born with. In the first grade children sing and learn to play a simple wooden flute; both singing and playing musical instruments are practiced daily through the elementary school years. In the second and third grade, the lyre and the recorder are introduced, while the fourth graders have the challenge of learning to play a violin, cello or viola, and joining a class “orchestra.” Some schools provide instruction in wind instruments in sixth or seventh grade. Music is taught in a Waldorf school not only for its own sake and the joy it engenders, but also because it brings a strong harmonizing and humanizing force into the student’s life, strengthening the will and other capacities for the future.
Crafts and handwork are an integral part of the required curriculum from kindergarten through high school. Boys as well as girls learn to knit in first grade and crochet in second, creating many functional and colorful objects like cases for recorder or pencil boxes, potholders, puppets, etc. Decades before brain research could confirm it, Rudolf Steiner recognized that brain function is founded on body function. Learning to knit and crochet in the early grades leads to motor skills which metamorphose into lively thinking and enhance intellectual development later on. Coordination, patience, perseverance and imagination are also schooled through practical work. Activities like woodwork, housebuilding and gardening included in the elementary school curriculum, give the children an understanding of how things come into being and a respect for the creation of others.