Organic Chemistry and the Ninth Grader

by David Mitchell

(Reprinted with kind permission from Child and Man, Vol.22, No.1, Jan 1988)

The 15-year-old Ninth Graders stand before us. When we observe them, what is it that we notice? Quite fast we may see that they are filled with emotional energy. They don’t seem to think, but rather they ‘do’ things and then watch the results. They are passionate, irascible, and apt to be carried away by their own impulses; and, yet they have high aspirations. At this point in their life they have met few humiliations and can be brazen and all-knowing. They can carry everything too far whether it be their love or hatred or anything else. They are compassionate and suppose all people to be virtuous, or at least better than they really are.

Riding the waves of advancing adolescence they can at any given moment be lonely, moody, argumentative, depressed, ecstatic, and challenging to all authority. Adolescence is a time of tremendous physical and chemical change. The body is in revolution and the soul is in conflict. Rudolf Steiner refers to the onset of adolescence as ‘a gentle sprinkling of pain that never goes away!’

What is it that is going on inside of our Ninth Graders? Physically their heart is doubling in weight. Their blood pressure is increasing. Their lymphoid system is shrinking which may open up infections to the throat area Boy’s voices are changing (they drop a full octave while the girls drop only one tone). The limbs, starting with the feet and legs are beginning to elongate (this can cause pain and restlessness). The lungs are increasing in size and the breathing is changing – costal in the girls and a deeper diaphragm breathing for the boys Two dozen different hormones are being released leading to the emergence of individual sexuality – fat becomes distributed over the body, lips thicken, thighs firm up, and the hips take on adult curves. There is a rapid acceleration and deceleration of the skeletal growth and there is a need for lots and lots of sleep – usually saved up for Saturday and Sunday mornings!

The alpha waves of the adult become added to the low frequency waves of the young chi d as the brain experiences change. The child feels alone, restless, sometimes angry and begins to formulate questions for their teachers such as ‘What really matters? What is the point of it all? Who am I?’ It is a difficult passageway in life and calls for a lot of compassion from adults.

The end of the 14th year is that point in time when the intellect is being born and the individual begins to find enjoyment in logic. Teachers and other adults become the whetstones upon which the teenagers can sharpen this new found ability to reason. They must be met in their school experience with subjects and teachers who challenge them.

The curriculum of the Waldorf School attempts to meet and exercise these forces. For the Ninth Grader ‘what’ has become he significant question, and proper directed activities such as a phenomenological approach to science is one of the answers.

Rudolf Steiner organized the Waldorf curriculum so that the chemistry in the Ninth should be carried forward from what was done by the class teacher in the Eighth Grade. This recapitulation involves experience and prepares for an intellectual grasping of the subject which is not abstract. It becomes then a living knowledge.

This age group benefits from a comparison of contrasts: black with white, inhaling and exhaling, heat with cold, anabolic with catabolic and acidic with basic. A key to working with this age is to have them summarize as much as possible. This helps to centre and pull the pupil in.

Organic Chemistry is one of the Ninth Grade main lesson blocks. Chemistry is the study of the inner nature of substances. The organic is the world of the living. Everything we refer to as organic has carbon in it and has had to be living substance at one time. As said before the Ninth Graders are confronted by the task of maturing not only with regard to sex but also to earth-life. Organic Chemistry is placed at this point in their blossoming self-knowledge for very specific reasons. The teacher must invigorate their awakening in their surroundings in order to help them retain their health. This will help to regulate their impulsive jumping into activity.

Their thinking is however a ‘willed thinking’. They learn by doing. Science is filled with activities which when structured properly lead the students into discrimination in their thinking.35fda368d9

The material covered should include the symbolic relationship of man and the plant world, a deep understanding of photosynthesis, the assimilation of carbon dioxide, the carbohydrates and their two pole direction toward solidification on the one hand (cellulose) and toward rarefaction (alcohol) on the other.

The contents of this block should be discussed in relation to the physiological process going on in the student’s bodies. They should experience the respiration of the plant in photosynthesis and contemplate nature s manufacturing factory for making carbohydrates. The technological process of making paper as well as artificial silk (rayon) can be demonstrated. Finally vegetable and animal fats can be examined as well as mineral oils rubber and petroleum. Joseph Priestly’s achievements and studies of phlogistron are studied as well as the nature of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. Van Helmondt’s observation of the plant and Ingenhousz’s discovery of the oxygen-carbon dioxide respiration cycle in plants can be read to the class.

In the teaching of chemistry there are four general rules which Frits Julius suggests we follow:

(1) Everything we present must be in correspondence with what is happening within the child.
(2) We must develop an all-embracing world outlook.
(3) The students must understand and remember the material we present.
(4) We must allow breathing space. Present a phenomenon, give it a chance to breathe and then bring it back. This is the fundamental rule within our block schedule We present a block of chemistry, or physics or astronomy etc., we let it rest and then we bring it back later.

In my class I like to keep the students actively involved in the experimental process. Besides demonstrations I involved them in 19 different experiments over a three week main lesson block. These experiments involve chromatography, the making of synthetic rubber, the fermentation and distillation of alcohol, the making of rayon, the creation of esters, saponification, the chemical identification of sugars (both monosaccarides and disaccarides), starches, cellulose, and photosynthesis to name a few. The starches corn, wheat and rice as representatives of the West, Europe and the East were discussed We did solubility tests, density tests, flame tests, fractional distillations etc. We did microscopic tests distinguishing between vegetable, animal, mineral and synthetic fibres. Every student concocted a synthetic rubber ball of their own after our study of rubber. The students were asked to write reports in their main lesson books on these experiments to include:

  • a list of apparatus,
  • a sketch of the setup,
  • the procedure,
  • their observations, and
  • whatever questions (at least two) that this particular experiment arose in them in the evening as they reviewed their main lesson work.

The next day in class we review the experiment and try to evolve any conclusions which are then written down in their block books. The conclusions, concepts and questions are drawn from the experiments. The airy side of the carbohydrates (alcohol and esters) can now, after a night of contemplation, be contrasted with the earthy side (cellulose and starch).

One assignment I like to do with my students is to have them research a biography of a modern scientist for both an oral and a written report. In the oral report I ask them to include where the scientist lived, what his or her upbringing was like, what their physical appearance was like, how they became interested in science, give an explanation of their most significant discovery and what it meant to the development of 906b829e33science, describe what difficulties they encountered in life and how they overcame them. I also ask them to include one humorous anecdote from the life of the individual they research. Scientists included have been Nobel, Boyle, Newton Cavendish, Priestly, Dalton, Pasteur, Curie’ Einstein, and others. I first contemplate each child and then assign a specific biography that I imagine will enkindle their interest. Then I hand them a photocopy of a brief biography and a picture from Isaac Asimov’s book Asimov on Chemistry to get them started. They are required to write notes from each others reports.

It is beneficial for the teacher to plan one or two field trips during the block so that they can have a first hand experience of an industrial process created by human thinking and borrowed from man’s observations of the activities of the plant world. I like to visit a local distillery and schedule a brewmaster to give a talk on fermentation some days after we have studied it in class.

The Ninth Grader needs to experience the world as their own, and should feel that the world is an important and fine place to be the task of the teacher is to bring the students of this age down into their physical bodies… to plant them firmly on the earth. We must invigorate their awakening in their surrounding in order to help them find their own personal health and balance which they will need in their adult life.

As described above the building up and the breaking down of the natural world is experienced through Ninth Grade organic chemistry. By describing the physiological process one can come to questions like alcoholism from an objective point of view at a time when the students are still open to such observations. They can see how sugar develops warmth in us while alcohol overheats us. Instead of stimulating our forces the alcohol creates a bluff and develops exaggeration and illusion. When they meet these realities through their own observations and experiments within the chemistry lab then they have learned objective lessons for life.

The 15-year-olds entering the Ninth Grade should be taught in such a way that they are led to the feeling that everything in the world is important. They must learn to trust human thinking and they should experience that thinking is capable of dealing with inner as well as outer problems. In their science courses, in particular, they should realise that it is human consciousness which awakens technology and that a proper, moral technology can provide us with a better world to live in.

After years of Waldorf class-teaching David Mitchell taught Life-Science, Chemistry and Geometry in the High Mowing High School He is currently at the Pine Hill Waldorf School and adjunct Professor of Education at Antioch College which offers an M.A. in Waldorf Education. [Biographical note from 1988!]

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