Second Grade Speech and Poetry
The following is an excerpt from our Christopherus Second Grade Syllabus, from the language arts section. I am very proud of our curriculum materials but I have to say that I am especially proud of the language arts section of all our materials. I have been a high school English teacher for the past several years and in college studied creative writing amongst other things, so the Word, both written and spoken, has always been a special interest of mine. Indeed, it was my horror at the triviality and lack of creativity of most homeschooling language arts materials that provided the nudge to start Christopherus way back in 2004! And writing was the first thing I did – teaching writing to homeschooled students via correspondence and in small classes. And then writing my own materials.
So…our curriculum materials are especially rich in terms of language arts. Obviously, Waldorf being what it is, language arts is a component of just about all lessons – just as artistic activities and science , if only in terms of a mindful way of observing phenomena, is also present in every lesson. So the way I bring lessons – the stories, assignments, how to teach discussions and so on – are, from one point of view, all about language arts.
But I also include a special language arts section in every year’s curriculum. Here, over the years, I help people figure out how to teach writing and reading to their child; how and when to tackle spelling and grammar; how to choose books to read aloud to one’s child and for the child to read; how to ensure a child has a rich and varied vocabulary and much much more.
Here is an excerpt from Speech and Poetry:
When children acquire language, vocabulary and word-meaning, like grammar, are only a part of what’s going on. Young children acquire language by ‘getting a sense’ for meaning, not by literally analyzing what something means. When children are tiny, we don’t say things to them like, “Okay, this is a casserole. Can you say casserole – CASS-ER-OL. Good. It comes from the French word…” My goodness no! We just talk. We breathe life into our conversations with our children and they absorb meaning. This is how language grows and becomes part of each person and also why it’s vital to read to your child. Read to your child, read to your child! Read, read, read – way past the time he learns to read to himself. And read worthy, worthwhile books so that the images and language that penetrate his very soul are nourishing and sustaining.
Enjoy poetry with your children. We used to have a lovely ritual in our family, starting when one was a baby and the other a toddler, called Poems in Mama’s Bed. We would get in the big bed, cuddle up together, and I would read my sons the magic words of Blake, Emily Dickinson, R.L. Stevenson, William Carlos Williams and Shakespeare, amongst others. Their words have penetrated right to the core of my children, as we read these same poems time and time again for more than ten years. Language, the Word, has power. Choose carefully what language you surround your growing children with and choose that which will nourish and strengthen them.
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Another thing for you to do is to try to feel and hear the differences between vowels and consonants. Ideally this would have been part of your preparation for first grade, but you can do it now and find new depth and meaning when you work with verses and poems with your second grader.
Be conscious of sounds, how you speak and form them. Feel the hardness and sharpness of K, the unfolding of L. Feel how N pushes down, how D, T, B and P explode from the mouth but are each different. Become aware of the movement in the letters S, R and W.
And pay special attention to the difference between vowels and consonants. Vowels are often referred to as ‘heart sounds’ in Waldorf pedagogy and for good reason – they are expressions of the human being’s feeling life. Spend a little time working with the sounds “aahhh… oh… ooo… eee…” and the upright gesture/sound of “I”. See if you can get a feel for this.
Think about the pauses in sentences, between sentences, and between verses or paragraphs. Let words sink in – don’t rush! Reciting a poem or reading aloud a story is not a race – bring meaning to words by placing emphasis on what is not said as well as how things are said.
Once you start working with these speech exercises you’ll immediately become more aware of your breathing. And here is a wonderful opportunity for you to enhance your health and your child’s health. Speech and speaking are all about breathing out into the world and breathing in from the world. Become aware of how you breathe when you speak. And quietly pay attention to how your child breathes when he speaks, especially when he recites verses. Don’t bring this to his attention – the last thing you want to do is make him self-aware of his breathing – it’ll mess everything up! It’s hard enough to focus on the breath as an adult, as a child it is even harder and is not a good thing to do.
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The following is an excerpt from an article in Education as an Art (Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1973) by Christy Barnes, a longtime Waldorf teacher, poet and former student of Steiner’s. She is writing about choral recitation and the article is intended for teachers in classrooms, but I think she illustrates clearly the health benefits of working with speech:
The children should and do, of course, recite individually in the classroom. They all sharpen their tongues on tongue-twisters and fill out their voices and lungs on exercises that have sonorous, rolling vowels. But they need more than this. The ten-year-old boy who still speaks in the high tones of a six-year-old, who does not yet place his heel firmly on the ground and whose thoughts wander off into space, like his voice, needs some individual work. The teacher encourages him to speak with the decisiveness and strength of a king or a general. She may give him alliterations based on the strong, guttural sounds G and K to recite. As the boy works in this way over a period of time, you may gradually notice a new firmness and confidence begin to take hold of his whole nature. The girl who has a tendency to stutter needs harmonious, rhythmical verse to speak, for the rhythmical quality of her breathing is impaired. She needs, too, the kind of exercises that will help her to breathe out fully before she gasps too quickly for the next breath. The boy with the strident voice and the all-too-ready fists can be led to speak with a more relaxed fullness, to become sensitive to the modulations of his voice and the subtleties of the consonants spoken exactly and clearly in the foremost part of the mouth. Thus, through individual speech work the teacher becomes aware of the way in which each child is related to his speech organism, and the child’s speech may be one avenue, and a very important one, for understanding, diagnosing his difficulties and helping his development. By guiding his speech, she is provided with one means of leading him to become more daring or gentler, less heavy and insensitive or more down-to-earth, as the case may be. She can help him to breathe more deeply and freely and to become more harmonious in himself and in relation to the world.
Herein lies a profound piece of Waldorf pedagogy, one I discovered myself in connection with working with traumatized and challenging children: to work sideways. Stammering, a fiery temper, a child who has yet to incarnate properly can all be gently and holistically worked with via something like movement and speech. Instead of making a child self-conscious, we can home in on challenges our child might have and find suitable material – whether certain meaningful stories, form drawing, watercolor painting or, in this example, poems which will address what’s going on for her. Once you’ve cracked this, you’ve got it. You have found how to be a Waldorf teacher, even if ‘only’ at home, because you have, out of your own efforts, understood what your child needs and have found a creative way to address that need.
By working with literature and especially with poetry, we help a child become attuned to the subtleties of mood, nuance, measure and imagery that can be expressed. The artistry of poetry can work on the feeling life of the child and enliven his thinking as he becomes aware of the myriad of ways of expression. Poetry can speak to any child. Christy Barnes also states:
The pictures in a poem fill a child’s imagination; through them his sympathy for the world and his enthusiasm for beauty are awakened. His ear learns to follow the melody of the vowels and the sculpture of the consonants. He breathes deep with the wonderful surge, swing, skip and ripple of the rhythm. And these things he learns to appreciate not just with an aesthetic passivity but with active artistry. As the poem moves from enthusiasm to defeat, from bitterness to joy, his whole inward being becomes more agile, pliable and lively. The boys soon learn that this is no idle “playing around”, but that often every bit of their strength is not enough to fulfill the demands of a powerful passage, and that they must be every bit as active and skillful as one on the baseball field if they are to cut the consonants sharply enough and throw them home in just the right dramatic slice or curve.
The following are some ideas for working with poems and verses. Please follow your heart and your intuition when selecting pieces for your child and focus on experience not analysis. In later years you and your child will take apart poems and see how they work – for now the goal is to expose your child to a wide variety of poems and other forms of language such as riddles, tongue twisters and stories.
· Please see Joyful Movement for spelled-out instructions for many movement-based games, verses and poems. Make this the bulk of your speech work with your second grader.
· Whilst choosing poems, be aware of rhythm, meter, image, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, grammar, punctuation, interesting spelling and mood. This is for you to be aware of – do not bring it to the attention of your child, at least not before fifth grade. After that, if you are working with a poem it could be quite appropriate to point out the alliterative quality of a poem, for example. But remember in such a situation that you are awakening or bringing to consciousness what is already there because you have been surrounding your child with verse since his youngest days!
· Leave poetry writing for later years. As with journal writing, such exercises can be most uninspiring and produce trivial results from youngsters who simply do not have the maturity and self-awareness to express their inner experiences. This can even discourage children from attempting to write poetry when they are older.
· Enjoy reading poems out loud to your child from earliest days. Do not worry if they are over your child’s head. A wonderful poem like Blake’s The Tyger, through its choice of words and strong rhythm, will make a strong impression on your child, calling call up the image of a tiger even if she has no idea what “symmetry” or other words mean.
· It is wonderful to come back to favorite poems over time, to revisit them like cherished friends.
· Generally speaking, poems and verses which are simpler and have more predictable rhythm are best for younger children. But many very young children are captivated by quite sophisticated poetry by people such as Sylvia Plath or Langston Hughes. This is fine.
· Expect that your child speaks clearly and enunciates her words when reciting poetry. Here is your opportunity for speech exercise with your child. It is not easy: many children are extremely resistant to this and refuse to cooperate in any way. And you won’t have the rest of the class to prop your child up as in school. So just do your best. Keep it light-hearted and enjoyable. Heather Thomas’ Journey Through Time in Verse and Rhyme (W) has many verses with strong moods which could help inspire your child.