Parents of Waldorf students get to see their children perform a play every spring. But why? Don’t tell the kids, but it’s not just for fun. Class plays are grounded in each grade’s individual curriculum and the appropriate developmental level of the students. Students act out what they’ve learned throughout the year in the language arts and bring their curriculum to life. This not only helps children truly remember what they’ve learned, but also gives students an opportunity to showcase other skills and employ teamwork.
Class plays incorporate music, recitation, memorization, acting, and visual arts (via set and costume preparations). Also, the play meets children at a place of their age’s unique social development — both in story and practice. The practice and performance of a play requires age-appropriate finesse in social learning and group dynamics. The play’s topic, or storyline, also seeks to address the struggles felt by the particular age group.
In grade 4, for example, a play about Norse mythology and the troublemaking of Loki reminds children of the consequences of their own budding morality and of their choices as they emerge from early childhood into an expanded worldview.
The parts within a play begin mostly as chorus in younger grades; as the children grow, so do the expectations for bringing individual characters to life. Waldorf teachers, who have been with their students through all the grades, know them well and give parts that challenge or complement each student’s personality. Through plays, students can be guided to emerge or develop from a comfortable place within themselves or perhaps play a part of someone very different and challenging.
Perhaps most importantly, the children feel exuberance and joy bringing their lessons to life for their loved ones during the class play. It is a culmination and presentation of much of the hard work done that year for the students. And they are understandably proud of their work.
Facebook has been abuzz lately with articles about the benefits of musical training on the brains and learning abilities of our children. The influence of music training on learning has long been cultivated in Waldorf Education, where musical instrument training begins in Grade 1 with pentatonic flutes and moves to stringed instruments by Grade 4. Students also receive choral training, study music reading and notation, and learn Solfege.
This latest round of internet excitement comes from a new study released by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. They found that children between age 6 and 18 had both physiological and behavioral benefits from musical instrument training.
According to this Washington Post article, Music Lessons Spur Emotional and Behavioral Growth in Children, James Hudziak, Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, says, “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument [the more it] accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.” When children played and practiced playing an instrument, it thickened an area of the brain related to “executive functioning, including working memory, attention control, as well as organisation and planning for the future.”
This new study is also layered on top of three additional studies published late in 2013 by The Society for Neuroscience. According to the press release, those finding show that “[l]ong-term high level musical training has a broader impact than previously thought. Researchers found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight” (Julie Roy, abstract 550.13).
The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact (Yunxin Wang, abstract 765.07).
Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the rain (Ana Pinho, MS, abstract 122.13).
Music Training at SGWS
Here at Spring Garden Waldorf School, musical training is seen as a layering of abilities. What is taught in the early grades is built upon each year, as more and more is expected musically from the students. Children are given regular opportunities to perform their music, at monthly Assemblies and also at Concerts and Festivals.
Grades 1 & 2:
In the early years, music is an expression and embodiment of imagination. In Grades One and Two, children learn music from the pentatonic scale both in song and on their flutes or recorders.
In Grade Three, during the nine-year change, children are ready to begin learning the language of music. A diatonic scale is introduced with a new recorder, notes are named by letter, and children learn basic music notation such as the scale and clef. Third graders also begin Solfege – a music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing.
Grade Four brings fraction studies, and fractions bring quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, which then leads to teaching rhythms, rounds, and some simple harmony. Now that the language of music has been introduced, children begin to play musical instruments, starting with the violin.
Students in Grade Five are ready for three parts in choral music. Accidentals are also introduced in this grade, and new keys are taught beyond the key of C. Students also continue to master the violin with regular training and performance.
In Grade Six, children can choose to expand their instrumental repertoire by selecting a different stringed instrument to master beyond the violin. They also learn and master written music from the Medieval period, aligning music with the Main Lesson curriculum. Acoustics are also studied this year.
Grade 7 & 8:
Middle School layers skills and practice upon all that has been learned before. Ensemble choirs read music and sing in harmony and rhythm. Sight singing also begins and Solfege study continues, and Orchestra is part of every student’s curriculum. Students can also begin training on woodwind instruments in the upper grades, if they so choose, or they can continue to master their stringed instrument choices.
Students in Waldorf schools will ideally have the same main lesson teacher for first through eighth grade. The one teacher approach to elementary, intermediate and middle school helps children learn by respecting and modeling authority figures. Keeping the class teacher (by no means the child’s only teacher) as a steady authority in a child’s life is beneficial to social and intellectual learning.
Class teachers also have time to learn children’s gifts and challenges and are able to serve as the child’s true learning advocate by consulting with subject teachers and parents about learning styles and techniques that suit individual children and/or work well for the class as a whole.
Here is Spring Garden Waldorf Parent, Tyra Scott’s, experience with our one teacher approach.
On November 19th, Spring Garden’s current Grade Six teacher, Michael Gannon, hosted a lecture titled Child Development 101. During this Coffee and Conversation, he explored the Waldorf perspective on child development through the different classes and ages.
According to Gannon, “Waldorf education strives to see the child for where they are, right now, understand how they are developing, and then work to support that in the classroom.”
Gannon began by explaining Rudolph Steiner’s understanding of child development, which was very forward thinking at his time. A contemporary of Freud and Piaget, Steiner’s training as a philosopher inspired him to look beyond brain development and into the corresponding realms of the social, physical, and spiritual development.
He felt a child’s development was an Epigenesis — a cognitive, social, spiritual, and physical process through distinct stages— leading to a differentiated state of adulthood based on how these elements were influenced. And, of course, one of the primary influences is education.
Steiner divided child development into three distinct stages and labeled them based on the primary force driving a child’s experience in the world. Ages 0-7 are defined by Will, ages 7-14 by Feeling, and ages 14-21 by Thinking. Through each phase, the child works to understand and eventually utilize these forces.
Every action of an infant is done from their own will — a will that strives to survive, to crawl, to walk — all with little to no encouragement from the outside world. This intense desire to do their will continues far beyond infancy. According to Gannon, before the age seven, the child works from instinct converted into impulse and desire, which can then be harnessed into learning and behavior.
That is why, ideally, children during this stage spend as much time as possible learning to master the use of their bodies. It is best for them to do this on a schedule, using their will in a constructive way, as opposed to being told to subdue their will for a specific task. Imitation of the behaviors they see is a natural process for children of this age, and providing healthy models for that imitation, without intellectual explanation, allows the will to develop more fully.
This is also why the day moves between work and play in Waldorf early childhood classes. The work, a channeling of the young child’s will, happens through imitation of meaningful tasks versus an authoritative coercion to understand concepts. At this stage, children will develop their physical, cognitive, and social skills from unstructured play as their will and desire runs up against the forces of the outside world.
After age seven, a child’s world expands beyond the self, and with this expansion, they develop a great subtlety of feeling. Gannon explains that children’s feelings dominate their world in this stage as they move between joy and sadness and learn to manage these different emotions within the greater, more expansive world now open to them.
The healthy feeling life of the child is supported by providing a context of beauty for all things, from simple movements to complex ideas. By appealing to their natural imaginative capacities, children can be encouraged to use these active feelings to connect to learning as a process.
It is at this time that children are ready for academic instruction, as long as it continues to appeal to social and physical realms and, even more so, the realm of feeling. This is why Waldorf grade school lessons are taught through engaging stories of trial and triumph. Children who sympathize and relate to a story in these years are moved to carry the information and process it in a deep and meaningful way that persists as they grow into a more conceptual and thinking way of being.
By the time they reach high school, children are ready to work with their thoughts and beliefs. They are ready to think critically and evaluate the world around them. Where they first learned to manage their will and then work with their feelings, they now learn to work with their thoughts.
According to Gannon, children at this stage become immersed in the world of ideas and have the capacity to think abstractly and critically, seeing both sides of a story, which can then be broken down and criticized. Steiner believed that, along with their search for knowledge, children at this age also search for truth as they work to make their lives their own. He believed that teaching through a sense of idealism and justice was essential for the health of the young adult, who, if not given role models of hope, would succumb to cynicism.
This is why older children in Waldorf Education are often engaged in service to their community and encouraged to contribute their gifts to the world in a meaningful way.
It is with this understanding of child development that Waldorf educators work to support and teach children. Incorporating and addressing these stages of development, every day and within every subject, allows Waldorf schools to educate the whole child by teaching
the right subject matter at the right time, in the right way.
Last Wednesday, Spring Garden hosted speaker Cate Hunko, M.Ed., as she discussed Waldorf education and her experiences teaching math to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students.
Ms. Hunko has been a Waldorf Teacher for over 15 years, is the mother of two daughters, and was previously an artist working as an automotive designer — all experiences that have helped fuel her passion to understand how young teens of both genders approach and process mathematics.
During the algebra block in Grade 7, Ms. Hunko noticed a divergence in her class between the boys and girls. This difference had never presented itself in the younger grades, where all children (for the most part) approached and learned math similarly. She wanted to know why she was seeing this happen in the older grades and began researching the topic.
Her studies led her to information on a developmental split that occurs when children enter puberty. Their physical maturity, it seems, alters their brains and their approach to mathematics.
While she acknowledges that every child is different, she has seen a few trends in differences between boys and girls. In her experience, boys in middle school seem comfortable with numbers and willing to move through the process of math without much questioning. As they gain new skills, they can become competitive about their accomplishments.
Girls have no trouble memorizing formulas, but they often seem more separated from the black-and-white process of mathematics; instead, they display a deep drive to understand the how and why of the calculations. The competition the males bring to the table is not always engaging or encouraging to their female peers. As girls bring memorized formulas to problems, they often hesitate in the application of those formulas, standing outside of the process and analyzing it instead of just jumping in.
According to Hunko, this difference between male and female students often requires teachers to give young women more time at math, both in the short term and long term, while understanding that their careful approach does not indicate a lack of skill.
She says, “They want to be intuitive about it, but sometimes it takes time for them to set that aside in order to accomplish the task.”
What does giving students “time” mean?
and ‘not talented,’ especially considering that more young women may fall into this lesser category during this important time in their physical development.”
Hunko feels adolescent girls are often left behind in STEM learning because adolescent boys, who often have fewer physical challenges and different brain development than girls during puberty, seem quicker at math – a quickness that doesn’t necessarily correspond with innate talent. However, it is a relatively short time before the young women can catch up with their male peers, and a slower and more dedicated teaching style that avoids labeling can ensure female students’ success.
What does effective STEM teaching look like for young women?
Hunko recommends engaging young women in both the history and practicality of math, but also stresses that they cannot stay in that place in their mind as they put what they know into practice. “They must transfer that enthusiasm to the formulas they’ve committed to memory and then they must focus, stay grounded, and commit to the formula.”
Hunko feels that even more than the teaching itself, the home life and support of parents makes the biggest difference in women entering STEM careers. “Many of the women currently in STEM had parents in STEM. Parent support in the sciences is key. First off, don’t give up on your girls, even if they struggle with math during junior high. That doesn’t mean they’re ‘not math people.’ Don’t use labels like that, and don’t discuss your own struggles so they have a chance to be true to themselves. Don’t say you ‘also hated’ math.’ Struggle and hate are not always the same.”
Hunko believes it is women’s different approach to math – careful, focused on the big picture, and less competitive – that makes female career roles in STEM essential.
“When it comes to teaching, the pendulum is swinging to a far side in STEM right now. We need to bring it back to the center. Women have a lot to offer the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math industry. They bring a different and essential perspective.”