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Understanding the Waldorf Main Lesson: Story

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

This is the fifth part of a series of articles dedicated to exploring the Waldorf main lesson as a whole and its four primary component parts. In the last newsletter, we looked to the New-Do part of the main lesson.

As a reminder, there are four primary parts of the main lesson:

  • The Circle/Rhythmic Movement

  • Review

  • New-Do

  • Story

As we see, the Story is the last part of the traditional main lesson.

Now, before we dive into this part, let me remind you that I am speaking about the "traditional" main lesson. Lots of teachers have rearranged these components. Lots of teachers have omitted some of these and included others. I certainly experimented too, especially about ten years ago when many long-time Waldorf pedagogues were encouraging teachers to do so for the sake of having a real, living understanding for what is best rather than a loyalty to the way they were taught to do main lesson. In time, this was great advice, because I returned to the "traditional main lesson" with a much deeper understanding and appreciation for why it works in this format.

I am not implying that other main lesson formats do not work. I have just found that this is the format that worked best for the classes I taught during the eighteen years I spent as a Waldorf grades teacher.

So, please keep in mind that this is one teacher's perspective on how main lessons can be designed effectively and why each part works as a unit and how each unit fits together into a wonderful whole.

The Story

I will move from the more practical to the more esoteric qualities of the Story component of the main lesson in Waldorf education. I believe that these will be equally relevant in homeschooling applications because the qualities relate to benefits that are universally true to all students because all students are human beings and Waldorf education starts and ends with the wisdom of the human being.

Practically speaking, the story provides images of characters and events, images that the student imagines while the teacher/parent tells the stories. These images "go to sleep" after main lesson ends and then they are re-awakened the next day during review and then the images are used as context and lesson content for everything from math lessons to language arts lessons. It is this imaginative context that helps make the academic lessons in Waldorf education more meaningful, and/or less abstract, for the student. This is why we offer storytelling courses at Simply Waldorf. The oral tradition of storytelling has been a part of human civilizations since the earliest times in cultures all over the world. When the teacher is able to present stories in a living imaginative way, we participate in this time-tested tradition and start the learning process in the best possible way.

That being said, we should remember that storytelling in Waldorf education is not the same as what one might encounter in a storytelling event out in public. In those settings, the storyteller attempts to entertain an audience of many different ages of people. That is very different. In the classroom setting, we present the stories in the ways that are most fitting to the age and/or developmental level of the student(s). Our goal is not to merely entertain them, we want to support their imaginative process. Certainly there is some overlap. A well-presented story will be somewhat entertaining, but entertainment is not the end-goal.

"What is the difference?" you may ask, and rightfully so. The difference is that a story that is presented for the purposes of entertainment will involve an entertainer. In other words, the storyteller becomes part of the event, a focal point. When the goal of the story is to engage the imagination as fully as possible, then the storyteller is more of a medium. The storyteller is there, yes, but in many ways they are doing everything they can to be less visible, less perceived than what the child is busily creating with the imagination.

Think of it this way. With the "entertaining" story, it would be like watching an artist painting a mural on a wall. You see the artist moving and painting and climbing ladders and cleaning brushes, etc. You might see the images appearing as the artist paints, but you are also quite enthralled with the painter as well. There is nothing wrong with this. I love watching a true artist at work. It is wonderful. Each type of story has its place. This type of presentation is not optimal for the classroom though. It is better for social settings and/or public events.

With a story presented in main lesson, it would be more like watching the painted images appear on the wall magically. The student is much more concerned with the images that appear, not the process of making them appear, and certainly not concerned with the painter's process. Thus engaged in the imaginations, the images, the student builds a treasure trove that will be intrinsically useful for future lessons and learning.

The next beneficial quality is that this imagination process is helpful, in and of itself, to the young person's will forces. The person listening to a story is active, inwardly building the imaginations. They develop a daily habit of inner activity, of seeing things in their minds' eyes. When it comes to the most universally applicable skill set for living and working in the world, the ability to see things with the mind's eye must be one of the most important. It serves the doctor and the mechanic, the electrician and the attorney, the construction engineer and the farmer. As we look at a world full of issues that need solutions, the ability to see things that do not yet exist, to see possibilities that no one else may have considered, the imagination stands paramount in those abilities that humans must possess. So, the practice of telling and hearing stories each day builds a very strong inner power for the human being that can be applied in myriad settings throughout life.

Lastly, let us consider the way in which the story is presented and what this signifies. The Waldorf teacher creates a little "ritual" for opening and closing the time of the story each day. This can be something as simple as lighting a candle, singing a little song, reciting a verse, or playing an instrument. By creating these openings and closings we are creating daily pattern by which the student is helped to settle in for the imaginative journey. We are saying, without words, that something special and significant is about to happen. The opening and closing ritual is the transition period from whatever just happened before the story and whatever may follow it.

On an even deeper level, we can recall that Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, said that the first prerequisite for anyone who wishes to walk the path of spiritual development is the mood of reverence in one's soul. It is very important that child, according to Steiner, has experiences of reverent moments as well las the experience of people who are worthy of true reverence. Thus, the story ritual, as a daily process, provides a brief little experience of this mood of reverence. This is not about religion, as is obviated by the fact that we tell stories in Waldorf education from many different cultures and/or religious traditions. With the same enthusiasm, we present stories from fairy tales, to fables, to the Old Testament (Hebrew mythology, some might say), to Norse mythology, to Ancient Indian mythology, to Egyptian mythology, Greek Mythology, African tales, etc, etc. There is no attempt to create believers. These stories are used to create a bouquet of mythological imaginations which represent the flowers of the world's cultures. It is a rich and beautiful bouquet. The growing person learns about each flower, how their petals are formed differently and their various scents. People in different lands and different times may have a certain flower they prefer, even today, but this should not prevent anyone from experiencing the beauty of other flowers. And when we encounter each different kind of flower, each different story tradition, with a soul mood of reverence, we learn to see what is beautiful, what is universally valuable, what is universally true.

I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the main lesson components. I find these aspects of Waldorf education endlessly inspiring and I marvel that Rudolf Steiner, not a teacher by trade or training, had the imagination, inspiration, and intuitions to design it so beautifully.

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