By Stephanie Sesic Greer
Integrated curriculum across subject areas is a hallmark of Waldorf education, and this integrative approach is applied not only among academic subjects but also between academic learning and social learning. In the early grades, storytelling is a key for student learning.
First graders learn math by hearing and telling stories about gem-collecting gnomes, but these stories also teach important social skills, such as cooperation. For example, when Matthew Minus loses some of his gems, Patty Plus will happily share hers. Teachers in the early grades also tell impromptu stories that address social conflicts as they arise among students. This allows children to consider the nature of the conflict and how it might be solved without naming names of the actual participants in classroom conflict. This inclusive method helps to maintain the class’s sense of community.
In second grade, fables are a main focus of the language arts curriculum, but because these animal stories are also part of the students’ social learning, teachers are careful never to tell children the moral of each fable. Rather, students are encouraged to discuss the fables and form their own judgments and characterizations of the animals based on their behaviors. In this way, young children learn the valuable social skills of interpreting behaviors and responding appropriately.
In the later grades, the social studies curriculum illustrates the higher level social skills of working together in groups for the advancement of society. Examples include the study of Native American circles and Viking councils in fourth grade, Ancient Greek democracy in fifth grade, the Roman Forum and Senate in sixth grade, and European Republics in seventh grade. These lessons about the development of societies throughout history also show how society’s development mirrors individual development in terms of learning to build community.
As with other aspects of Waldorf education, Spring Garden focuses on the long-term value of developing its students’ social skills. Consider, for example, the benefits to Spring Garden graduates who enter the challenging realm of high school with the tools to understand and express their own emotions and to confront and resolve conflicts between themselves and their peers.
How many adults do you know who suffer from the lack of these very skills? How much would society as a whole benefit if more of its members had been instilled from childhood with a deep understanding of self and a sense of responsibility to resolve conflicts within their communities rather than to merely assign blame to other groups or individuals? To me, this is the shining promise of a Waldorf education that develops self-motivation in both academic and social development: that our children will know who they are, that they will claim their place in the world, and that they will make that world a better place.
By Stephanie Sesic Greer
Just as conflict is a common occurrence among young children who have yet to fully develop their social skills, so discipline is a common concern among parents who naturally wish to ensure that no harm comes to their child as the result of a conflict.
Here at Spring Garden, some traditional disciplinary tools, such as accident and behavior reports, are used when serious behavioral issues arise. On the whole, however, the teacher’s goal is not to punish children for a behavior but rather to help children progress in their ability to govern their own emotions and temper their own actions so that ultimately, outside intervention or punishment from an authority figure becomes unnecessary.
A child may be separated from the rest of the class as the result of a conflict, but this is not a punishment so much as an opportunity for the child to calm down enough to reflect upon the conflict and to help in resolving it through discussion with the teacher and the other children.
This focus on progress rather than punishment helps children establish an internally derived sense of self-worth. For example, a child who is frequently involved in conflicts on the playground, rather than being scolded or given a detention, may need to have temporary physical limits placed on her or his play area in order to limit the potential for conflict with other children. A child who has a hard time avoiding conflict may need more boundaries in order to feel secure and to succeed on a smaller scale. Once the child has successfully and consistently avoided conflict within this smaller play area where fewer children will be encountered, the teacher will gradually expand the child’s play area. This process allows the child to progress toward better self-control and healthier interactions and, ultimately, a greater sense of self-worth based on those accomplishments.
Avoiding a simplistic system of punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior provides real self-improvement to children who might otherwise be labeled as “bad.” In a less obvious but no less important way, the Waldorf method also better serves children who might otherwise be labeled as “good” for reporting the bad behavior of their peers. Children who are told they are “good” for following the rules and reporting the rule breakers for punishment are unwittingly being encouraged to become overly competitive and self-serving, and they are learning to base their self-worth on external factors rather than on a more reliable internal sense. Such labeling of children also creates a divide in the classroom, undermining the sense of community that Spring Garden prides itself on cultivating.
In the next post in our series, I’ll discuss how our teachers use the Waldorf academic curriculum to reinforce students’ social skills.
By Stephanie Sesic Greer
As part of the Waldorf model of educating the whole child, the teachers at Spring Garden make great efforts to nurture and develop our children’s sense of themselves as social beings.
A feeling of social inclusion is key to a child’s happiness and success in school, and the conscious development of social skills from an early age may be one of the most lasting benefits of a Waldorf education.
The Waldorf model takes the long-term view that, as with academic learning, healthy social interaction must be self-motivated. Our teachers seek to provide students with important social skills that will enable to them interact compassionately with others, to create a sense of community, and to confront and resolve conflicts within their community.
This is the first in a series of posts that will detail how these long term goals of social inclusion are achieved through the daily practices of Waldorf teachers and students from first through eighth grade.
The first and most important goal is to help students learn how to work together as a group and to view their class as a community that each student plays a vital role in nurturing and maintaining. Instruction in academic subjects cannot effectively progress until some social cohesion within the classroom is achieved, allowing the teacher to focus on letters and numbers rather than on policing students’ behavior.
Students learn to work together by first learning to play together. When conflicts occur among students, on the playground or in the classroom, the teacher acts primarily as a mediator, expressing sympathy for children who are upset, calming the children so that they are able to constructively discuss the conflict, making sure that all of the children involved in the situation are allowed to speak about what happened and how they feel, helping each student to think about what they can do to resolve the conflict, and finally, discussing how a similar conflict might be avoided in the future. Thus, children learn self-control, empathy, responsibility, and conflict resolution.
In the early grades, teachers may focus at least as much on developing students’ social skills as on academic instruction, thereby establishing a community of students that is able and eager to work together to learn.
In the next post in this series, I will discuss what happens in acute or ongoing situations that call for the teacher to be more than a mediator.
As adults, many of us may be embarrassed by our off-key singing voices or our arrhythmic dance moves; I know I am! But children love to sing, and they absolutely need to move. I know that my own Grade One child is particularly excited to begin playing the pentatonic recorder/flute this year, and I’ve already been regaled with the songs she’s learned. As she moves through the grades at SGWS, she’ll begin to practice the violin in Grade Three, sing in the choir in Grade Four, and learn the instrument of her choice in Grade Six.
More than offering separate music and choral lessons though, the integration of music and rhythm into multiple subject areas is a keystone of the Waldorf education model. Song is an integral part of the Spanish and German lessons in the early grades, and focusing on the music and rhythms inherent in the English language is a great way to develop literacy skills in general.
One of the most distinctive features of a Waldorf education’s focus on musical and rhythmic intelligence is the unique practice of Eurythmy. Eurythmy was developed by Waldorf’s founder, Rudolph Steiner, who created a series of specific, dance-like movements and gestures that correspond to the sounds of spoken language. Eurythmy goes deeper than language though. Sylvia Bardt, in her book Eurythmy: A Creative Force in Humanity, explains that children learn by imitating the movements that they see in the natural world, such as flowing water, flying birds, and scampering animals. Eurythmy uses dance to express and develop children’s connection to the natural world.
At an even more basic level. SGWS seeks to create a rhythm to the school day itself that facilitates learning. The Main Lesson period allows children to focus intently on their work, and the frequent recess periods and other outdoor activities, including gardening and nature walks, give them the opportunity to experience those rhythms of nature firsthand, as well as to create and inhabit their own rhythms as they perform what is perhaps the most important activity that any of us can engage in: play.
The Multiple Intelligences Institute defines spatial intelligence as “the ability to represent the spatial world internally in your mind–the way a sailor or airplane pilot navigates the large spatial world, or the way a chess player or sculptor represents a more circumscribed spatial world. Spatial intelligence can be used in the arts or in the sciences.”
As a new parent at Spring Garden Waldorf School, I have been immediately and consistently dazzled by the beautiful, concrete evidence of the school’s commitment to nurturing its students’ spatial intelligence in multiple subject areas. On my first tour of the school, I was impressed by the youngest students’ knit handwork; by the middle students’ multiplication art boards, geometric designs that use different colored strings to represent parts of the multiplication table; by the correctly proportioned marionettes that the older students were constructing; and by the year-long woodworking project for Class Eight, which was to transform a raw chunk of log into a chair.
In addition to these examples of spatial skills being utilized by students of all ages across the curriculum, the classrooms themselves feature teachers’ full color chalk drawings depicting everything from fractions to historical events. And, of course, each desk holds lesson books hand-written and illustrated by the students themselves.
This learning space, carefully crafted by the community of staff, students, and families, exemplifies some of the most basic tenets of Howard Gardner’s theory of intelligence itself. In his book, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century, Gardner defines intelligence as the “potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve a problem or fashion a product that is valued in one or more community or cultural settings.” From the moment I walked through the door at SGWS, I could see that I’d found a community that cultivates intelligence in its students and values the tangible objects that they create.
But more than merely teaching children to accurately represent the external world in their own minds, I believe that a Waldorf education can empower young people to express their own inner worlds in three dimensions, to enrich the world around them by giving physical form to their own visions of reality. I don’t know about you, but that’s my kind of spatial intelligence.