This is a big topic, and may take several posts. You may need a cup of tea for the length of this post! The question from the field is how to integrate Waldorf elements into a predominantly Christian focus in the First Grade – such as how one would teach letters through the Saints instead of through Fairy Tales.
First of all, I have to say, Steiner did not say to use the Fairy Tales to teach letters. Fairy Tales are a mainstay in First Grade due to the archetypal images found in those tales, Dr. Steiner did say to use Fairy Tales in the first grade (age six and a half to start, please!) for reasons of history and literature, but he talked specifically about teaching letters in “Practical Advice to Teachers”, among other places and I would like to use that as a guide to looking at teaching letters today. Let’s just use Lecture Five in this book as an example of how to look at teaching the letters.
Dr. Steiner says, “The sequence you follow is quite immaterial, and you need not proceed in alphabetical order; I will do so now merely so that you will have some sort of comprehensive record.” Dr. Steiner discusses at length why to introduce vowels and consonants separately.
So Steiner goes on to speak about the letter “B”: “I would now say to the children, “You know what a bath is.” Let me here interject another point. It is very important in teaching to be cunning in a rational manner, that is, always to have something up your sleeve that can contribute unseen to the children’s education. In this sense it is good to use the word bath for the step I am about to describe so, that while they are in school the children are reminded of a bath, of washing themselves, of cleanliness of such. It is always good to have a hidden purpose in the background, without actually mentioning it or masking it in admonishments. It is helpful to choose examples that compel the children to think of things that compel the children to think of things that might also contribute to a moral and aesthetic attitude.”
So, that should help you all think regarding possible examples of habits or Biblical traits you would like the child to acquire that is concrete and practical for each letter of the alphabet and incorporate that. But, the question is, can you do this in a more sideways manner than saying, “One must do this, and one mustn’t do that” ??
Steiner actually took his “bath” example and developed it further by saying, “Then you continue, “You see, when grown-ups want to write down what a bath is they do it like this: “bath”. This is the picture of what you express when you say, “bath”, and mean a bath.” Now I again let a number of the children copy this word, just copy it; whenever they are given a concept like this, it should go straight into their hands so that they take it in not just by looking but with their whole being. Then I say, “Watch how you start to say, “bath”; let us look at the beginning of the word bath, b.” So, this is how Steiner leapt from practical to word to writing to sound. He then went on to give other “b’ words such as bow, band, and then bear and drawing how a bear would move into being the letter “b”. He also choose words such as “baby” where the letter “b’ and that sound was in the middle of the word. He says in Lecture Five, “There are educators who have pointed out that writing ought to be derived from drawing, but they proceed in a different manner from the one recommended here. Their starting point is the shape of the letters as they are today; instead of proceeding from the sign for the dancing bear to the B, they try to lead the children from drawing to writing by cutting the B into separate lines and curves: l , They advocate an abstract version of what we are trying to do concretely.”
So, you could start with your idea of the letter from everyday life, from traits or habits you would like to see and then use a story for how you will draw something like looks like the letter and then you can see the letter there….You could bring in your story of a Saint – however, the way I would do it is to bring in a concrete way to really show that progression of how a letter came about: this is what “a fish” looks like (Dr. Steiner always gave the example of a fish), this is how it looks like the letter “f” if we draw it this way and this is the sound the letter “f” makes. So it may not be so much the Saint starting with the letter, but an element in the story that starts with the letter.
But we are going to back up just a minute. What other things do we need to think about to introduce writing and then reading well?
First of all, please do assess your child from the standpoint of trunk strength and also grip/hand strength. Can your child do a wheelbarrow race without collapsing? Can your child transfer objects with tongs into a muffin tray? Can they sit still or are they restless and draping their arms and legs and feet around a chair to figure out where they are in space? These are important things to address before you ever start a Language Arts Block. Steiner also says in Lecture Five: “We assume children have reached the point where they can master straight and curved lines with their little hands.” So, for a yearly rhythm, please consider starting with a block of Form Drawing prior to Language Arts.
Now we can jump back to where we were and consider the three-day rhythm as part of Waldorf Education and how sleep is a learning aid….
So, perhaps we do it something like this, this is just an example and you will think of the best way to do this with your own child and your own family!
Day One: Perhaps you could open with prayer, a psalm, singing of hymns or music specific to your religion or seasonal songs, play a song on the recorder and include some finger plays and such for the little ones in the household. Then perhaps we can have a Circle Time and story for the Kindergarten-aged child in the family and then have a little bathroom break and snack. Pull out something for the Kindergarten-aged child to do, whether this is salt dough or coloring or bouncing on a mini-trampoline in the corner and then doing something quiet. Or home school outside, so your Kindergarten-aged child can run about and you can sit with that First Grader (age six and a half and up, please!) for their Main Lesson.
So, then there may be movement to get ready to support writing – wheelbarrow races, something fine motor, something with balance and imagination. Perhaps then whilst standing you and your child could recite some tongue twisters having to do with the upcoming letter. Then the habit of the day like Dr. Steiner spoke of and really try to bring in those 12 senses. “Water” makes me think of cleanliness, for example- what does a hot bath feel like versus a cold shower? Is being clean or water mentioned anywhere in the Bible? Let’s find that. Let’s write “water” on the board and maybe one sentence from the Bible that has “water” in it and can we find that word again? Then you could tell a story about a Saint that relates to water…maybe not a Saint that begins with “W” if you are doing the letter “W” but the story of St. Brendan, on his boat across the sea with the “W”aves… This is what a wave looks like, can you find the “W” in it? “W” sounds like this. What other words make that sound? Can we think of any other words where that sound is in the middle or at the end?
Let it rest – go on and do something else: tell a fariy tale before you close your Main Lesson, prayer and then music or form drawing, handwork and gardening and crafts or cooking in the afternoon.
Day Two: Opening as above and then after break when it is time to start that Main Lesson, how about some movement with jump rope rhymes? Can the child draw the letter “W” on the driveway with big chalk and walk it? Perhaps you could write all the words that begin with “W” that your child can think of also on the driveway. What was that Bible verse again- could you write that down and recite it together? Re-visit the story, and perhaps have a poem ready to recite about St. Brendan. Perhaps build a model of a boat, or make a small wooden boat and go sail the boat on the water. Tell a fairy tale, the same tale you told yesterday, before you close.
Perhaps on this day after the story and building a boat, you do some cooking or something else. I have to say I am against every single thing tying into the letter, because that almost turns into a unit study to me more than Waldorf, but you will have to decide what your particular child needs. The other thing is I would save some of those, for example, “W” crafts and cooking and such for the NEXT week, when we are done with the letter “W” but then you can say, “Oh, do you remember last week when we were doing with the letter “W”, this is an example of making a (whatever, a waterfall craft, watermelon balls, etc.)
Day Three: Opening as above, finish up any artistic work, re-visit the day before with the words beginning with “W”, revisit the story, practice making the letter “W” and what sound the letter “W” makes and put the best examples of the letter “W” in the Main Lesson Book, draw a picture of Saint Brendan for the Main Lesson book. In further blocks, once more letters are covered, perhaps the child could write down a very simple sentence summary that you have both orally recited and written on the blackboard.
At this point you could introduce another letter and move into a new three-day rhythm, or you could stop there and use your fourth day for something else: painting, a day to focus on your kindergartner…
I really love this quote, and it gives those of us who are teaching small first to third graders much to think about. “The children who come to us at the of their school days, the thirteen-to-fourteen olds, are already warped by to intellectual an education. Too much emphasis has been laid on the intellect in the way they have been taught. They have experienced far too little of the blessings of also having their will and feeling life developed. Consequently, we will have to make up for lost ground in these spheres just in these last few years. We will have to seize every opportunity to try to bring will and feeling into what is merely intellectual by taking much that the children have absorbed purely intellectually and transforming it into something that also stirs the will and the feeling.”
What part of your lesson is stirring the will and the feeling? How are you speaking to your child’s strengths, weaknesses and temperament?
Steiner closes “Practical Advice To Teachers” with four things every teacher should strive for:
1. The teacher must be a person of initiative in everything done, great and small.
2. The teacher should be one who is interested in the being of the whole world and of humanity.
3. The teacher must be one who never compromises in the heart and mind with what is untrue.
4. The teacher must never get stale or grow sour.
More to come on this topic!