The Tyranny of the Main Lesson Book
by Donna Simmons
One characteristic of Waldorf education is its focus on the creation of main lesson books throughout all 12 grades. Every day, in every grade, during the first 2 hours of the morning, each class is focused on its current main lesson. The subject matter is drawn from indications in the Waldorf curriculum which is carefully crafted to speak to the developmental needs of the growing child. At heart, this is a therapeutic process.
Other forms of education might also favor a creative approach which could also include the creation of subject books by students. But where Waldorf education stands alone is how the main lesson books arise from a therapeutic approach. It is not simply a nice thing to do, a way for a child to document her lessons or a creative outlet although the creation of main lesson books can encompass all those things. What is unique, however, is how, when properly understood by teachers and parent-teachers, the main lesson book becomes an expression of the healthy rhythms which permeate Waldorf education when practiced at its best.
Foundational to Waldorf education is the recognition of the human being in his or her 3-foldedness. We are all beings of thinking, feeling and willing and each of these qualities comes to the fore during the 3 great phases of child development, namely birth through age 7 (willing); 7 – 14 (feeling) and 14 – 21 (thinking). This is quite an involved subject – some of you might wish to consult our Christopherus Curriculum Overview for further explanation.
What is relevant here is that during the grade school years, the Waldorf curriculum speaks most clearly to the feeling life of the child which finds expression through the great out-breath (sympathy) and in-breath (antipathy) of artistic work. Enhancing this is a rhythmic approach to lessons whereby activities such as modeling are balanced by wet-on-wet painting; movement by listening; receiving by giving, and so on. Throughout each day and in most lessons music, whether singing or playing an instrument, enliven the child’s learning and bring – literally – harmony to her experiences.
A great 3-day rhythm weaves through Waldorf education, whereby material is presented, taken in, revisited and artistically experienced. At home, we can abbreviate this to a 2-day rhythm, something I feel is more natural outside of the classroom (and which I explain at length in our various publications). Key to this rhythm is the fact of the child taking into her sleep the experiences of the day, before setting down to capture them in writing or art work. Here is where the main lesson book comes in.
The point of the main lesson book is for it to be an expression of what the child has learned. Main lesson books are not to be created for the sake of creating main lesson books –herein lies the tyranny I mentioned in the title to this blog! Some poor children at home or in Waldorf schools are subjected to churning out an endless stream of main lesson books because their teachers/parents have grasped the rule but not the essence. And the essence is that the child should be enabled to creatively express what she has learned: and a main lesson book is not always the best vehicle for that.
Shock! Horror! Do you know that I had the experience of teaching a colleague’s 8th grade class a main lesson on world geography and when I told her I would not be having the students create main lesson books she was shocked! She was a very experienced teacher in a very well established Waldorf school and this was a new idea for her!
Once a good idea (the creation of a main lesson book in this case) becomes rote, becomes formulaic, it dies. If a parent/teacher has not penetrated the reasons for why something is done and thus consciously chooses to work one way over another, then the benefits of something like a main lesson book are largely lost. Our teaching loses its power to enliven and to heal.
The most obvious effect on the children is that they ‘fall to sleep’ in their main lesson books. It becomes ‘this is what we do’. The naturally artistic ones will love making book after book but the danger is that the real content of the lessons becomes buried under lavish illustrations and content becomes incidental. Other children will simply rush through their main lesson work and produce books which they have no regard for. And others will refuse and then the parent/teacher might give up on main lesson books altogether.
And the point of this article is in no way to advocate abandoning main lesson books! The point is to encourage parent/teachers (and Waldorf teachers – this is a problem in many Waldorf schools as well) to be creative and conscious and to ask themselves ‘what does this main lesson require in the way of creative work?’ Throughout all of our Christopherus publications I give many, many suggestions for both the creation of main lesson books (sometimes in a way that might be new to people) as well as alternatives.
In closing, I would also like to encourage people to be mindful of the situation where working in the main lesson book takes up the entire morning, even sliding into lunch time and beyond. Generally, this is more of an issue with phlegmatic and melancholic children than those who tend more toward the choleric or sanguine ends of the spectrum. The phlegmatic takes ages to get started, is slow and careful in his work and, as their watery nature suggests, just keeps on flowing on and on and on…The melancholic is often a perfectionist and therefore hesitates to commit himself in fear that what he does will not measure up to what he wants to do. He can get totally entangled in details and spend half the morning just making the border to frame the page and never even gets to the writing! The melancholic can also take a long and agonizing time completing his work – and that’s only if, in despair, he doesn’t rip the page out of his book. Whereas the choleric might do such a thing out of anger, the melancholic often is motivated by the self-imposed shame of not doing as well as he should.
If we remember the therapeutic nature of Waldorf education, we can see that in both these cases, the child will benefit from a clear boundary to his work, to the maintaining the in-breath and out-breath between working in a book and moving on to another activity. “For the next 20 minutes you can work on your drawing in your book. Then you need to stop because we are going out into the yard to do a bit of gardening.” Note that the child is not told that she must finish in 20 minutes, but rather that the lesson time is finished and the next activity is going to start. Thus one avoids the real anguish some children experience when told to finish up their work –but the healthy boundary is maintained, giving lesson time a form. Moreover, if you follow up by asking your child to continue working during her own time, then at some point your child will not only internalize the ability to set her own boundaries, but will also learn to take responsibility for her own work. As long as your expectation is that the work will indeed be finished, you are helping your child reap the benefit of healthy rhythms and boundaries.
Blessing on your homeschool journey,