Understanding the Waldorf Main Lesson and its Component Parts

In the last newsletter, we explored the seven-year growth cycles. In this newsletter, we will look at how these cycles are related to the component parts of the main lesson. Here is a bullet point reminder of those cycles, followed by a brief characterization of the fourth cycle, the birth of the ego-forces:



• The first cycle, from birth to dentition, is related to the development of the physical body ("hands"), focusing particularly on the role of the will forces during this phase of life. During this phase children need opportunities to engage their physical bodies and will forces. Play and imitation are the primary modes of learning.

• The second cycle, from dentition to puberty, is related to the development of the life forces, (sometimes called the etheric forces). These are the forces of health and healing, of memory, and of habits. During this cycle, physical development remains important. We add the need for feeling forces to have opportunities to do, to experience. In as many ways as possible, we bring the child to experiences of meaningful beauty, which can range from the beautiful order of mathematics, to the aesthetic beauty of a painting, to the wonderfully patterned beauty we find in the natural world of plants, animals, and minerals.

• The third growth cycle, from puberty to about the age of 21, expresses the birth and development of the astral forces, those of the individual's soul life, and are closely aligned with the early stages of thinking ("head"). This is when the young person strongly yearns for independence, for autonomy and freedom. With the engagement of the thinking forces, they will want to disagree, to debate, and to try on all sorts of philosophies and ideologies. Like a young child teething or learning to walk, the young person is exercising healthy thinking forces that must mature and balance over time.


These three cycles are the path to adulthood, with the fourth cycle, the cycle that sees the birth of the ego forces, beginning around the age of 21. As with the others, the birth of the ego forces is just a starting point. While the 21-year-old may be legally recognized as an "adult", we know that actual adult maturation is a long process. We do all that we can during the first three cycles to equip the child with what they will need to take up an active and conscious role in that ego maturation process.


The question arises: what does the ego need? What force is at play? The ego is the awareness of self and a similar awareness of the other. In that way, the ego cycle is the time when we learn how to understand and relate to ourselves and, if we are authentic in that pursuit, how we can healthily relate to the other to the world. This is a lifelong path which we hope is fully supported by the development of healthy will forces, healthy feeling forces, and healthy thinking forces. Beyond those, we could characterize the next stage as developing the forces needed for healthy self and healthy community.


So, with this in mind, let us turn our attention to the main lesson. Let me be very clear about what I will present. This is one form of the Main Lesson. It is the basic main lesson form that was taught to me during my Waldorf Grades Teacher Training. Moreover, it is the form that I have found to be the most effective with the students and classes that I have taught. During my twenty-two years as a Waldorf teacher, I have experimented with the form. I believe it is critical that we try new things. Also, there have been many speakers and articles over the years encouraging different main lesson schedules and rhythms. So, the experimentation was not whimsical in nature. Nevertheless, I have returned again and again to the original form. Each time I return, having tried something new and different, I have a new appreciation and deeper understanding for what I will now explore with you.


One last note: I provide the picture of the main lesson from a private Waldorf school classroom. As such, it is a reference point for those of you who are teaching in other settings. I would never try to directly transpose this form in another setting such as a homeschool setting with one student. Still, by understanding how the main lesson works for a larger class in a classroom setting, the homeschool parent-educator can make informed decisions or at least entertain possibilities about what to try at home. From there, observation and reflection will guide future decisions about what to preserve, what to transform, and what to omit. Obviously, in Waldorf Education the most important aspect of all is observing what is most effective for the particular student(s) with whom we are working. These understandings must guide curriculum, not the other way around.


There are four primary parts of the main lesson:


• The Circle/Rhythmic Movement

• Review

• New-Do

• Story


I will acknowledge that there is a lot to say about each part. If I attempted all of that here, the article would become cumbersome. So, allow me to proactively say that the next four articles I write will look more deeply into each part of the main lesson. For now, we will take a survey of the parts in an effort to understand how they create a whole main lesson and how they relate to the four growth cycles we have heard about.


Circle/Rhythmic Movement


Like the first stage of human development, we are engaging the student in meaningful play. This is not simply free play, as is so important for the child between birth and dentition, but it is playful movement that we lead them through. We want to engage the limbs and the whole body. We are building coordination and skill, certainly. Simultaneously, we are activating wide ranges of neural pathways, supporting the development and myelination of neural potential for the rest of their lives. We most often accompany these movement exercises and activities with verses and songs so that the feeling forces are also engaged and enjoyable. Bean bag exercises, balance beam work, rhythm sticks, finger games, etc--these are the kinds of things we can use in "Circle", especially in the first four or five grades.


Review


When we do anything with a class or a student, we actually want it to go to sleep. In other words, they may hear a story on one day, or engage in a certain activity on one day, but we do not attempt to complete that activity or lesson on the first day. There is a powerful process at work when we allow things to go to "sleep" within us. When we later reawaken that activity, story, or lesson, it will be different, enhanced, and more potent. This is like leaving a loaf of bread to rise. There is a "magical" process at work within us.


This is related to that second phase of development, where the physical play is still important but we add to it the experiences of beauty and order. We use habits and rhythms to support the child's learning. By returning to things every day, by re-enlivening what has come before, we support their growth and development over time and we create a silent understanding in them about how life is lived day by day. What we do today is connected to what has come before and will be connected to what is to come.


So the Review portion of the main lesson is about how we reawaken things. That "how" is all about artistic processes. When we engage creatively, we are processing things on multiple levels. For instance, let's say I told a second grade student or class the story of "The Shepherd Who Cried Wolf". On the next day, I could ask: "So, who can tell me what you remember about the story we heard yesterday?" This is, technically, a review, but it is a rather dreary way to do it. On the other hand, I can perform a little skit with the student(s) thus engaging the child's involvement in recreating the story. We could not only put the story in movement but also create dialogue together. In this way, the child is not only "recalling" the story. Instead, the child is recreating it, processing so many aspects beyond just what I said the day before. The skit process becomes an exciting, engaging, real-time experience of what lived the day before in the child's imagination.


Of course we don't want to simply re-enact every Review. So we also use poetry, music/song, modeling, and drawing. If one so chooses, these could be a regular rotation over the course of a five-day week. I never formulated it quite so rigidly because I wanted to stay awake to what might most engage a class or particular students most effectively. But it would be an option to make sure one covers all artistic areas. It is such a benefit to the child.


New-Do


This is basically what one might call the actual "lesson" of the day. If we are in a language arts block, then this is where the teacher derives the language arts lesson from the previous day's story or artistic process. If we are in a math block, this is where the teacher creates math lessons and exercises from the imaginations created in the previous day's story. In other words, the work from this part of the main lesson is often what we see on the main lesson pages of a main lesson book. It is the more academic aspect of the lesson, if you will. It is that "academic" aspect that is most closely related to the thinking forces, even though those forces will not be truly born and fully active until after puberty, not in the truest sense.


Story


The fourth part of the main lesson is the telling of the day's story. In grades one and two, these stories are often repeated. Sometimes the same story is told on consecutive days. Sometimes the same story is told during a language arts block and then repeated in a math block. Once the classes reach third grade, stories are rarely repeated, if ever. The first question must be: Why? Why do we tell the students stories? And we must be very clear that we are talking about telling stories, not reading stories to them.


First of all, the story and the imaginations that the students create upon hearing the story, provides a wonderfully rich context in which we can bring our lessons. This is in stark contrast to what students will experience in other educational systems.


In some of the more traditional systems, the curriculum begins with abstractions being brought to the child and then the abstractions are practiced or drilled until the child remembers what is desired by the teacher/program. For example, the teacher will show a very precisely computer-printed letter "B" and tell the class that it is the letter "B" and it makes the /b/ sound.


In Waldorf education, we tell the class a story on the first day. The next day we review the story in an artistic way. Then we do a drawing from the story, perhaps of a bear. On the third day, we say the word bear (which comes from the drawing which comes from the story). Then we listen carefully to the word "bear" and find what the first sound of the word is. Oh, yes, it is the sound /b/. Then we show them how the letter we use to represent /b/ can be found in the drawing of the bear. They can see how we have adapted the drawing (which came from the story) so that today we have our forms of letters, such as this letter "B". So in this way, the abstract sound symbol, which we call a letter, is given a greater context, a connection to something they are quite connected to: the imaginations that they created as they heard the story.


It is the same for the lessons in math as well, not in the sense of finding the letter symbols, but in using the imaginations as vehicles for creating math stories that lead the students into the discovery of the four processes and the wonderful patterns and order of the number world.


So that is why we tell the story in Waldorf education on a very practical level. However, it goes much deeper. We must remember that one of the most fundamental of all human characteristics is that of language, of spoken communication. The telling of stories predates any written language system. Indeed, many scholars would suggest that storytelling itself was one of the initial practices that fostered actual human, civilized community. When we tell stories, when they are shared across our society, we build a mythos, a social connection of psychological, emotional, and even behavioral patterns. The story becomes the vehicle for retaining a history. It also becomes the means for imparting moral and ethical ideals for a society. The story can reach into the future as well, offering promises of beneficial possibilities as well as warnings about potential calamities. Every civilized culture throughout the world has had its fundamental stories or myths that function in these ways. Thanks to the power of modern communications, we are the beneficiaries of these myriad cultural gems. We have access to many different wisdom streams, story traditions that provide the richest and broadest possible contexts for learning about life, about others, and about the self.


While I will always advocate for parents to read daily with their children, this is a very different interaction than that of story-telling. Storytelling is a much riskier and rewarding activity. The storyteller must call up the images, characters, and events from memory, must present it all with beautiful language and appropriate gestures--all of this done in ways to support the child's imagination at their particular developmental stage. The child, as listener, becomes a very active participant in this process. They become time/space travelers. They are still in the room with us, listening to the story; yet, they are also in their own world, forming a beautiful version of their imaginative, creative process. When we really have them listening, they look almost glazed over because they are so busy, so active in "seeing" what we are telling them. It is absolutely magical!


And...the richer the imaginations we help them to create, the richer material we have for future lessons.


When we recall the fourth growth cycle, where the ego forces are truly born, we can begin to see the connection. We said that this path of ego development can be characterized as a path of become self-conscious, of developing a healthy sense of self, while also developing a healthy sense of the other, of the community, of the world. This is very much what the sharing of stories does for us as humans. Whether we are telling or listening to the story, we can learn about ourselves. We also learn about others and about our world--and as we do these things, we strengthen the mythos, the societal bonds that can serve us a human community and as human individuals. For the young child, whose ego forces will not be born for many years, these benefits are like seeds planted deeply within their souls.


So that is a look at the four primary parts of a main lesson. As I said, there is so much more to be said about each part, so we will take a deeper dive into each one in the coming newsletters. For now, I hope this survey of the whole serves as a useful perspective.

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