Updated: May 1
In Waldorf Education, grades one through eight, teachers usually design the school day with a main lesson, followed by several subject classes. We will provide articles about the design of a typical Waldorf school day as well as the overall design of a main lesson. This article is specifically written to address the three-day rhythm.
Still, we need to put this in context. So, let us take a brief survey of a typical Waldorf school day and the general design principles of a main lesson within a school day. We will look at these with a school setting as the example; nevertheless, the principles can be applied to any educational setting, including homeschool.
A Brief Look at a Waldorf School Day
The Waldorf school day, grades one through eight, usually consists of several different classes. It usually starts with a main lesson, which is followed by a number of subject classes, usually some before lunch and some after lunch. The main lesson is longer than the subject classes because it is designed to be the foundation for everything else. Also, it is given more time in order to accomplish more diverse activities. At the risk of oversimplifying it, let us say there are four parts, almost like the four primary organs of the human organism. (Each of these four parts deserves its own article. Don't worry, they are in the works!)
The Four Parts of a Main Lesson
There is a movement portion, which includes lively group and, as they grow, some individual activities such as singing, instrument playing, speaking verses, rhythmic exercises with balls, bean bags, rods, balance beams, etc. This portion is often referred to as the "circle time" in the early grades and "rhythmic activities" later on. For ease, I will call it "circle. Circle is often followed by a "Review". The review can take many diverse forms, but the goal is always the same. The Review helps the class as a whole and each individual student to reawaken lessons and images from previous lessons. This can apply to the stories previously heard, to artistic work from previous days, and to previous academic lessons. There are many ways to go about Review activities. The most effective ways are to use artistic activities such as modeling, musical composition, poetic composition, prose composition, drama, drawing, and/or painting. After the Review, or once the lessons have be reawakened, then the teacher leads the class into the New Work. In this way, the new lesson material is not simply brought arbitrarily. It fits within the overall context of previous work and previous activities. It has more meaning in this way. After the New Work, the class hears a story, a biography, or a historical episode, depending on the main lesson subject and the grade level of the class.
A very simple way to think of the main lesson composition is the following:
Besides the composition and the amount of time given to the main lesson, it is very important to understand its purpose. The main lesson serves many purposes, as you can see.
One of the primary purposes of the main lesson, especially when we consider the "New-Do" / "New Work" portion, is to introduce new material and to have the students work and play with those new elements.
Main lesson is not where the new material is completely mastered. Mastery is achieved with practice over time. Practice usually happens in those subject periods in the other parts of the day. It also happens when parents practice things at home with their children, things such as multiplication tables and reading and spelling outside of school. Main lesson, in relation to material, focuses on introducing new material in such a way that the later forms of practice will be more meaningful and even joyful. You could think of it as planting and watering of seeds. We do all that we can to begin the life of something that will do a great deal of growing later on.
Yes, there is one more thing we need to understand: the main lesson blocks. It is helpful to organize the school year into thematic blocks of study. In other words, if we look at first grade, we see that we spend between three to six weeks on language arts. Then we spend another three to six weeks on math. As the student progresses through the grades, other main lesson subjects enter the rotation. In fourth grade, for instance, there will be at least one block on zoology, often referred to as "The Human Being and the Animal". By bringing the main lessons within a thematic block, the students have the opportunity to live deeply into one subject, experiencing the lessons as they develop the theme over the course of many main lessons and weeks. It allows just enough depth of work in one subject. Then a new block comes along and the students experience the newness of the new theme as well as the connections that can be drawn between various themes.
So what is the three-day rhythm?
Now that we have a basic overview of the main lesson, its purpose and composite parts, we can explore the three-day rhythm. The three day rhythm is a way of designing the week during a language arts main lesson block. And it is quite straight forward.
Day 1 - STORY (end of main lesson)
Day 2 - ARTISTIC WORK (during the "New Work")
Day 3 - ACADEMIC WORK (during the "New Work")
This begs another question: "How does a three-day rhythm work with five week days?" Let's look at an example week from a first grade language arts lesson block.
As you can see, Wednesday is the key. It is day 3 for Story A. It is ALSO day 1 for Story B. This is how a three-day rhythm fits in to five weekdays.
A Few Notes...
There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Story A and Story B could be two different stories or they could be the same story. In other words, we could go through the three-day process and have two different artistic lessons and two different academic lessons derived from the same story.
Yes, it is okay to tell the same story for an entire week in first grade. Students only become bored with the same story if we become bored (or if they are over-exposed to media which will train their minds to lose focus very quickly). Also, their engagement depends on our ability to present the story well. This is precisely why we have offered our storytelling courses. The story, as you can see, is the foundation of all of the main lesson work. So, we need to present the stories as well as possible. This means telling stories, not reading them, by the way.
Repetition is Very Important
Besides the challenge of keeping a child interested, consider what we know about learning. We learn and master through repetition of things that have meaning to us. We do not learn a song the first time we hear it. We do not typically understand a poem the first time we read it or hear it. In other words, we learn when we live with things over time, when we experience things repeatedly. Whether we are talking about learning how to walk (where the child experiences gravity for about a full year of life) or the multiplication tables, we have to revisit things over and over.
When we tell a story well, they use their imaginations to create the images inwardly. When we let them live into the imaginative experience of hearing stories for multiple days, they have a greater chance of not only learning their ABC's, they also have a greater opportunity to glean the wisdom that is being handed down to them from folk traditions, mythologies, biographies, and history.
The Blessings of Spending Time
How often do people today become frustrated because they cannot learn something immediately? Those people who have spent time learning things such as how to play on instrument or how to speak a foreign language or how to use a complex computer program--these people understand the value of returning to the same things over and over, learning over the course of time and through repetition. Sometimes, we can make great strides quickly. But life will not always work that way. So, when our children encounter those more difficult times, what do we want them to do? To give up or keep trying? By bringing them things repetitively, we show them from the very beginning of the school journey that life works in patterns and that learning is a process. Spending time with a story or a lesson is much like spending time with a person--a stranger can become a friend.
Like I said, this three-day rhythm is what we use in language arts lessons. If you purchase one of our language arts courses, you will find that I refer to this regularly. Thus, each language arts lesson is actually a "double lesson". It has day 2 and day 3 lessons presented together. So, you essentially get a two for one deal. You receive a drawing lesson for day 2 and an academic lesson for day 3. Also you see how the two are integrated. This integration is the heart of what we are doing.
And speaking of that, if you want a well-rounded experience of integration, you can see that in what we call the "CORE BUNDLE". The core bundle is three courses, "Storytelling", "Language Arts", and "Mathematics". So, you get 36 examples of the story, the language arts lesson derived from the story (artistic work and academic work), and the math lesson derived from the story.
What About Math Blocks?
Lastly, in case you are wondering, Math blocks work with a two-day rhythm. We hear the story on day one. On day two, we play with/work with math in movement and activities that lead straight to the academic work on the page. Again, our Mathematics courses take you through this process for thirty six lessons.
Obviously, there is so much more to say in relation to all of this. For now, I hope this helps everyone understand how a three-day rhythm is used in a language arts main lesson block.