Main Lesson Books: How and Why

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who is  Waldorf teacher – she had read through my 4th grade book The Human Being and the Animal World and commented on my advice about main lesson books. She found it freeing to think that her class could do a main lesson book for one of the man & animal main lessons but perhaps not the other. Then she laughed and said that during her in-service training recently, the teacher said that one should write corrections in ink directly into the main lesson books, that this was helpful to the children. She said it was funny to think how people had such differing ideas on main lesson books.
I was shocked! I have always felt it is deeply intrusive for a teacher to write in a child’s main lesson book – I have always appreciated it when I have seen Waldorf teachers put their comments on post-its into children’s books. My friend laughed again and said that at another teacher training session she had attended, she was told firmly that post-its were a no-no!
I then shared with her my experience in teaching recently in the local Waldorf school where the teacher whose class I was taking was shocked that I wasn’t requiring a main lesson book from the class – instead, I had them draw maps on large pieces of paper and work on an in-depth paper. She later told me that she had been a Waldorf teacher for 8 years and had gotten into a bit of a rut with main lesson books, expecting her class to faithfully churn one out for each main lesson. I told her that I could see this – that I had observed the amount of time and care and love that each student had put into his or her book – but that for the main lesson I was teaching, I wanted to shake them up and focus on a different way of experiencing the lesson content. I wanted fast reactions and thinking on their feet – as 8th graders, this was something they needed to be able to do – as well as put time and care into work.
So what is  main lesson book? Why are they so important?
Rudolf Steiner, as far as I know, did not go into great detail about exactly what constitutes a main lesson book. In several lectures he speaks of the children making their own books. In other places he goes into great depth about children artistically and creatively capturing their lesson content through drawing (as well as other artistic media). He also makes disparaging comments about the quality of textbooks available in his day for children. Lastly, he speaks in many, many places about the importance of care, perseverance and effort, qualities that every child – every human being – should have the opportunity to develop.
When I was a girl in my Waldorf school, these books were treated almost as sacred texts – indeed, they were not called “main lesson books” – they were Good Books (those of you who have our science book, From Nature Stories to Natural Science, know this as, being our first publication, I refer to Good Books out of habit! It took me a while to see that out in the larger Waldorf world, the books are called main lesson books!). Good Books – think about it! Each of us was trusted with a beautiful blank book into which we would do out very best work. For parents’ meetings and various public events, our teachers would collect a selection of our books – we were proud to know that our work was representative of our school or class as well as of us as individuals. At the end of the year, the books were carefully carried home – more than one Waldorf graduate I know has referred back to their main lesson books for reference during college – and not just the high school ones, either! Remember, one of Steiner’s concrns was the lack of suitable texts for children – thus a main purpose of the books is to be a text on the given subject. This itself necessitates that the book be legibly and neatly made. One can impress this upon one’s child without getting into “But I want you to make this nicer”!
So with this background, one can see why I am horrified by the idea of a teacher writing in a child’s book!  Sure – expect correctness and proper spelling in the book – but surely it is better to gently point out the mistakes to a child than to write in her book. And one must be careful with corrections, too – a child who takes great care and is breathlessly showing you his wonderful and beloved book could be crushed if all a parent focuses on are his mistakes! One might even choose to not say anything while looking at the book and instead make a mental note of problems and address them at a later time. Crooked  writing can be helped with form drawing (here are some other blog articles I have written on form drawing: form drawing; to correct or not to correct;  and form drawing with older children )spelling can be addressed; math mistakes…. and so on. Always help your child stretch himself – but also receive his work with reverence and love!
As a teacher as well as a homeschooler  I have discovered that one can  become formulaic about the form and content of main lesson books. And this can be a great problem. I have a friend whose children attend a Waldorf school in New England – she says her seventh grader regularly complains about churning out main lesson book after main lesson book – he has even made up a clever new name for his school, based on its (to him!) clear purpose of creating endless main lesson books!
One must always guard against going stale – whether one is teaching in a classroom or teaching at home. Whenever you feel that something in your teaching is on automatic pilot, I would say that there is a problem – or a potential problem. We must be conscious, we must choose why we do things and think through the reasons – and we must keep things fresh. Fresh, however, does not mean chaotic! I also strongly warn against constant chopping and changing. Rather, the idea, I’d say, is to create a form and then, when it is in in danger of “falling asleep”, find a new way to express what is needed.
I strongly suggest that one start out in first grade (or wherever your child is at if you are new to Waldorf) with having your child make a beautiful main lesson book for each main lesson or subject (I give more details on this in our First Grade Syllabus). Your child is not just creating something – she is also learning to orientate herself in space; to slow down and work with care; to form her letters and figures beautifully; and to develop her sense for the aesthetic. Use the large main lesson books of about 14 x 11  (see Paper, Scissors, Stone).  The goal is to develop good habits and forms. Then, in second grade, you could use somewhat smaller books if your child is able to bring her writing into a smaller space – and many are not, so don’t push this. Again, keep to the main lesson book scheme. An exception could be a notebook for weather data – here, something new is called for.
In third grade there is a change – there are many changes in third grade and thus breathing a bit of a change into the usual main lesson book approach is very much called for. I suggest having a Math Notebook for one – this will be used throughout the year for your child to note down the various work your child does with measurement (again, I am basin
g what I say here on our curriculum materials – you will, of course, find other suggestions elsewhere). I also suggest that your child makes his own cookbook this year. An “English” book could also be a good idea as your child now starts to have lessons specifically focused on grammar, spelling and other similar lessons. Although in earlier years (and always according to other Waldorf educators) your child puts such work into the given language arts book, I think that such exercises disturb the flow of the content of the main lesson book. And since one objective of making a main lesson book is to teach your child to have a sense for flow, content and what she is creating as a whole, I think that, for instance, a main lesson book about Norse mythology should be just that and not include grammar lessons, even if they are drawn from the story content.
As children get older, further possibilities open up. In fifth grade, I suggest that for botany, a child make a book which includes sketches, leaf pressings, poems and the usual content – but could also have graphs, photos and paintings. Thus a “normal” main lesson book might not be suitable. Instead, a child could put together a portfolio – or even a display, beautifully done on  a series of poster boards.
Back to the discussion on teacher corrections – well, I still feel that the child’s book should be the child’s book and that’s that. I think best work should be demanded – and that first drafts be copied into the book after correcting – yet one has to take care with this as such tasks can become onerous and encourage children to not write very long! Instead, as the child starts to create her own compositions from about 5th grade on, require that some go into her book and that others be kept separate, perhaps even as works-in-progress. As homeschoolers, we must also always be mindful of the parent-child dynamic which can make things more than a little tricky: whereas in school thee group is doing what the teacher says because that is what the class does – and the teacher ‘s authority and love enables this – at home there is no group to ensure that things get done. Instead it is always Parent and Chid. And this can get a bit intense. So….while recognizing the extreme importance of ensuring a child has ample opportunity to pull himself up by his bootstraps and do sterling work – even in the face of his own resistance – one also must sometimes learn the art of looking the other way. Have clear standards – but also be prepared to occasionally say “OK – that’ll do.” and find other times to help your child do better.
And while we’re on the subject of main lesson books, do have a look at the Homeschooler’s Work section on our website to see examples of work drawn from the main lesson books of a wide range of students! Enjoy!

Posted on April 1, 2009 in Waldorf Curriculum

COMMENTS
  • mudmama says:

    Homeschooling allows us to tailor things to the individual child too.
    My daughter struggles with anxiety and perfectionism and dyslexia. When I looked to making Main Lesson books (I love the term GOOD BOOK!) I decided we would work on paper and bind our books LATER so that she wouldn’t face any blank book anxiety.
    She NEEDS to see her spelling errors and work through them in a gentle way as well so rough copies and help with revision is VERY important for her.

  • donna says:

    Yes – main lesson book anxiety can be a real issue – again, more so at home than in the classroom (though when I was teaching I remember a boy who, in second grade, regularly flung his book across the troom and then himself under his chair in the agony of his expectations not being met by what he produced).
    So binding a book together can be a good compromise – one can punch holes through the paper, make a beautiful cover – perhaps out of colored construction paper) and bind it together with a ribbon.
    At some point perfectionism does need to be dealt with – but this is a long slow process and for some children, even binding a book of loose pages can still present [pictures that aren’t quite right and writing that isn’t as it should be…. but at least with this method, one is able to take a step forward with overcoming a degree of perfectionism which can stand in the way of creating anything at all!

  • I think best work should be demanded – and that first drafts be copied into the book after correcting – yet one has to take care with this as such tasks can become onerous and encourage children to not write very long.

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