Reading and Telling Stories

One of the hallmarks of Waldorf education is the practice that teachers have of telling stories to their class. Lessons are not a series of points from the teacher’s notes, or passages from a text book. There are no power point presentations, no slide shows, no worksheets. Everything comes from the teacher and is presented to the children.
Or almost everything – and this differs from the earliest grades to the highest. In first and second grade what I say holds – everything comes from the teacher – though there might be a time during the day when he reads aloud to the children froma book. But all the main lesson material, foreign language, art – all the lessons flow from him.
The idea here is that the teacher is seen as the source of knowledge. Steiner tells us that the teacher in the grade school years must love his students (and do all the inner work necessary to make sure this is so) and that they love him. This relationship based on love strengthens and nurtures the feeling life of the child. And in the grade school years, in the second stage of the child’s life, from 7 through 14, she is most in need of strengthening her heart center. In the first stage, birth through 7, the will is worked on – via imitation, via strong rhythms, via activity. In this second stage, as the child comes into her sense of “I”, her need is to feel safe, secure and to enter fully into life. Artistic activity encourages the heart forces as do interesting story material of the great men and woman who have shaped history, flowing from the warmth of a beloved teacher. As she heads toward adolescence and into the third stage of childhood (14 to 21) she is now ready to really stretch and deepen her intellectual powers. She is fully in her body, grounded and balanced and her heart forces are open to receiving the knowledge of the world. She is ready to become the fully integrated adult that Steiner talks about – one who thinks clear thoughts, warmed by compassion and which she can bring to fruition in the world. She can think, feel and act.
This is a major reason why the bulk of the material the children receive in Waldorf schools flow from that teacher. Other reasons include the fact that the teacher can also adapt the material to suit the needs of that particular class, weaving in  references from previous lessons, giving hints of things to come. And, he can also take into account the temperaments of the children, skillfully adjusting his narrative to speak to all the children – to the excitable sanguines, the suspicious melancholics, the explosive cholerics and to the solid phlegmatics.
A further reason for the emphasis on the teacher telling the stories is that the children experience the teacher as a creative person, as a source of knowledge. Instead of books – instead of Other People as being the Ones Who Know, the children can see that anyone can know, can tell, can share, can be a story teller. And as much of the classroom time is a group activity whereby the children are revisiting and retelling the stories from the previous day before experiencing them artistically, they learn the art of being story tellers, of being verbally adroit, of being able, eventually, to teach others.
Now…. what about reading aloud? Do the teachers do any of that? Of course. As I already said, the teachers in all grade read good books to their class and the children are, of course, encouraged to read for pleasure when they are able to. Great authors are revered, and there would certainly never be an attempt to re-tell a classic that needs to be experienced as a book! But…. even in high school, the bulk of the lessons take a narrative form. So this morning, when I was teaching Comedy and Tragedy to my class of 9th graders at the Waldorf high school where I teach, I wove a narrative about the history of Greek theatre. The students sat, rapt, l;listening. Then we moved on to the play which we are currently working on – Electra by Sophocles. I shared out parts, clumped the extra students into the chorus and off we went. We;’d stop every once in while (“Can anyone tell me what that passage actually meant?”) for conversation, then back to our play.
In the classroom next door, a colleague is teaching the junior about meteorology. He spends half the morning talking about cloud formations, the relative positions of the hemispheres….. all sorts of thing. They butt in when they have a question or comment, and so they also discuss the material. Then they spend the other half of the class working on presentations, doing reading, drawing diagrams into their main lesson books, etc etc.
And at home? Ah well….. what do we do at home? When my sons were home (they are both at high school now) we wove a combination of reading aloud, them reading alone and me presenting material. Sometimes I’d tell them about things – the French revolution, the story of Isis and Osiris, the life of Madam Curie, the story of Saint Francis. Other times I would read to them – from D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Goddesses, from a Joe Bruchac Native American story, from a book of poetry…. Or, after about 4th grade, I would hand them a book and ask them to read a section. And then we’d talk about it. Or, as they got older, I wouldn’t know as much and they’d teach me – my younger son’s 8th grade project on Napoleon was a case in point – I brushed up briefly on the life of Napoleon so I could ask him intelligent questions, but he filled me in on the details of Napoleon’s life.
So it’s a mixture, whether one is in a Waldorf classroom or at home. And of course, if one has a number of children or the baby’s ill or husband is working late, then it just might be that for a time there is less you telling the material and more let’s look this up together. That’s fine, that’s real life. But…. there is certainly something to be said for the adult to be able to present material – if not all the time, if not most of the time, even just some of the time! – out of herself. She can warm it with her love, she can weave it into her own words, she can adjust it to refer to things her child is interested in. And she can model to her child the wonderful picture of the adult, the known and loved person, as being an authority in something.
Which isn’t to say that cuddling on the couch together looking something up, sharing a story or similar aren’t also wonderful experiences. But…. sharing out of yourself, sharing your interest in the story, the person, the science project, the math problems that you’re presenting to your child is a wonderful experience for every homeschooling family. And Waldorf presents many opportunities for it!

Posted on September 27, 2007 in Waldorf Curriculum

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