Our guest blogger today is the wonderful, wise and inspiring Lauri Bolland. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Eric, and their three always-homeschooled Waldorfy children who are now 22, 18 & 14. Their youngest, Gracie, recently published her first book, which grew out of their Seventh Grade Creative Writing Main Lesson Block. Gracie can be found on Lulu here:
I asked Lauri to share some words regarding the “botany” block of fifth grade, and this is what she wrote:
“Plant and Earth belong together… Earth, plant growth, and the influence of the Sun must all be viewed as being part of a complete whole…the child’s idea of the plant should be so steeped in feeling that, if one were to speak of the plant without referring also to the Earth and the Sun, the child would feel a twinge of pain like a plant being torn from its earthly home.” (Rudolf Steiner, Soul Economy)
It is the Waldorf Way to move from whole-to-parts, and to move from close-to-home to farther-away. In a Waldorf-inspired homeschool, we begin by learning all the friendly trees, flowers, and grasses in our own little gardens. Steiner originally called this study “Home Surroundings” for Grades One through Three, and the idea is for the teacher (or Mother) to imbue with life everything that is in the child’s surroundings. The intention is not to teach dry science or facts, in fact, that would destroy much of the good we hope to do. Instead, we live and experience nature as much as possible outdoors, and when indoors we teachers can bring it all to life through story. The plants will speak to us, the animals will be brave or cruel, and everything will be transformed into a Fairy Tale or Fable and have Living Substance.
In my own family, this meant lots of time spent outdoors. Although we rarely lived in abundant natural surroundings, there was always some kind of nature to discover. We learned the trees and plants (and animals) in our neighborhood, and the ones on our favorite treks. We planted seeds and grew plants. We watched the weather throughout the year, noticed the birds coming and going, watched the leaves coming and going, and observed the festivals and seasons together. We gardened (not just in Grade 3) and I read lots of anthropomorphic stories like Aesop and Thornton Burgess. I also told little adventure stories throughout the year. “What has been invented by oneself is imbued with life-giving forces. It has a wholesome effect upon the children if the teacher has created the story” (Rudolf Steiner, Dornach Christmas Course 1921) I cheat with books like Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock. There are other enchanting free ebooks (such as at google books) which I enjoy – not to read aloud to the child, but to inform myself.
The goal of this time is to engage the child’s heart and not her head. There will be time enough for facts. This is the time for story, imagination, and wonder, not facts. “Mommy, why does the Pin Oak still have its leaves?” This is not a cry for facts. “Yes, it does. Greedy Pin Oak! You like to keep all your leaves, even though they are dead, when the other trees have given us all of theirs. The Pin Oak is very tricksy, isn’t he?” No reason to go into chlorophyll or juvenile pyramidal trees vs. other shaped trees. “Just wait and watch our Pin Oak tree, and see what he does in Spring with all those leaves he greedily held on to through the Winter.” This is what makes Nature come alive for our children, and – in fact – it isalive. Although we adults see Nature and Plants as a Science, it is first and foremost a living occurrence. An occurrence that is so predictable, and so reliable, that we made a “science” out of it.
As the child approaches the nine-year change, this kind of answer will satisfy him less and less, but still I tried to bear in mind that maintaining the spirit of wonder is what creates real scientists. That spirit of Wonder we are creating now. “Why does the Pin Oak still have its leaves in the winter, Mom?” “Pin Oaks keep their leaves all winter.” “But WHY, Mom?” “They do. But, you know, it is curious as to why. I wonder…” The child waits and ponders and then says, “So how will the new leaves grow when the old ones are still there?” “What a good question! I wonder that, too. We’ll have to remember to watch and see what happens in the spring time.”
Yes, we adults are sometimes too jaded and cynical to approach life in this way. (Unless we are scientists by vocation.) Most of us want a simple answer so we can put the Pin Oak into a nice neat box. We don’t want to wait and observe and really learn. But I believe most of us Waldorf homeschooling parents truly do want something outside the box. It can be difficult to actually allow ourselves to move outside the box, though. The box is so comfortable, isn’t it? We forget to question the box.
So what else is happening during our Nature Studies in First through Third grade while we are listening to stories about friendly animals and greedy plants, and being busy in our garden planting seeds, weeding, watering, and nurturing plants? While we are taking long nature walks in our neighborhood or park, and drawing pictures of our favorite trees and flowers? While we are starting seeds, then planting seedlings, watering and weeding our vegetable and flower gardens? Or while we are harvesting our produce, and even (in 3rd grade), cooking from our garden and putting up produce for the winter? What is really happening while we are collecting leaves and acorns and gourds for our nature tables? The child is learning to observe. He isn’t memorizing the facts we teach him. After all, what is a fact? Something a teacher made you memorize? Who told the teacher? Another teacher? Instead – in the Goethean way – let’s go straight to the source. Let’s observe nature and see what she does for ourselves. No need to instruct on the whys and wherefores of blooms just yet, instead we can experience with our senses what blooming really is. We can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, feel, intuit, balance, move, conceive, observe, and experience for ourselves . No need for dry facts, let’s learn living facts.
So now we have come through the first three grades, and then experience the first “true” science block in Grade Four: The Human Being & The Animal. (I mention it here because it is related to the Study of Plants. As the Animal shows us Mankind, the Plant shows us The Earth. – Modern Art of Education, Lecture 8) While we are learning local geography in Grade Four, we notice where the conifer forests are, what grows next to the rivers, what grows on the hillsides and roadsides in our local area. (Practical Advice to Teachers, Lecture 11)
Next we move on to Grade Five and the block known, regrettably, as Botany. Steiner says we are to remember that the point of this first Plants main lesson block (in 5th grade) isn’t to make the children into Junior Botanists, nor is it to prepare them for future life as a Botanist. Here is Steiner’s quote (as taken from Rhythms of Learning):
“When we are teaching the children about plants and animals in our grade school lessons, we could hardly imagine a greater mistake in our method of education than to treat the subject as an introduction to the studies needed for that child later to become a botanist or zoologist… for no one should become a botanist or zoologist through what is learned in grade school; that can come about only through special gifts revealed by the student’s choice of vocation, and this would certainly appear in the child’s life if there is a true art of education.”
For this reason, I think it’s unfortunate that this Main Lesson Block is often called “Botany”. We are teaching the life of Plants and the Earth. To call it Botany only serves to cause parents confusion. It is not Botany. The Waldorf presentation of The Plants Main Lesson Book does not follow the current reassignments of the Kingdoms, for example. It follows the older assignments and a “tree of life” approach. (Such as in The Golden Guide to Botany, 1970 T. Alexander.) We are not trying to learn “up to date” Botany classifications, which quite possibly could change before our children reach college, anyway. (Remember when eggs were good for you, then they were bad, then they were good?) Instead, we are using Goethean science, which teaches flexibility. So we learn through observation, story, modeling, drawing and painting the form of a plant as well as the function of a plant. We are learning through our observations and our senses, and not memorizing the latest info from the ever-changing reference books. Instead, we learn the story of plants in a way children can feeland not in an intellectual way. (It is the Waldorf Way that students aged 7-14 learn through the heart, not the head.)
Several years ago when my youngest was in Fifth Grade, I recall telling her about the “lower plants” which are less awake and had less plant wisdom than the upper plants. I used Charles Kovacs’ description, explaining how we can’t remember being a baby because we were mostly asleep then, and how we woke up little by little. At the end of the story (taken from Kovacs’ chapter on Fungi) my daughter sighed and said, “THAT makes much more sense!” I asked what she meant and she explained. “National Geographic Kids (a magazine) said the reason we can’t remember being babies is because we were so busy learning then, but I knew that didn’t make sense! It makes sense that we were just *more asleep* than we are now.” She sighed and repeated, “THAT makes sense!” At the end of this day, we watched some videos on youtube of plants blooming via time-lapse photography. One in particular was of a “dancing fern” which moved over six hours, if I recall correctly, in response to the light of the sun. The tip of the fern frond was actually drawing a lemniscate in the air, and not dancing “randomly” at all, but most certainly in a very specific way. That’s the Waldorf Way, and I agree with her — it does make sense. It makes sense, too, to meet the child where her needs are, and the child aged 7-14 needs to be met through the vehicle of story and emotion. When our children are in the ages 14-21 stage, they will learn Botany through the intellect, using their reasoning, facts, experiments, and texts. From 7-14, however, we learn about the form of the plant, the relationship of the plant and the sun to the earth, all of the various lower and higher plants, roots, seeds, the life of plants, and how Bees help the plants, to name a few.
The Study of Plants does not stop with the Fifth Grade main lesson blocks. As we travel the world with the Fifth Grade geography study, we should also be studying the plants of each location. In Sixth Grade, the Study of Plants is to continue where we left off in Fifth Grade. In Grade Eight we revisit the plants as we study the chemistry of sugars, starches, cellulose, fats, oils, and perfumes in plants. In Grade Nine (now firmly in the 14-21 stage) we come back to plants and this time with an eye to true Botany. We now experiment with plant photosynthesis, carbolic acid, and alcohol. In Ninth Grade, my son (now starting 12th grade) and I used Thames and Kosmos kit “Power House” and we studied Environmental Science from a very modern perspective, while building upon the “heart” aspect we had covered in the 7-14 stage. Ninth Grade is the “what” grade, and we ask the student to train his eye in careful attention to detail and facts, careful reporting, and clear observation. What better way to hone this than with nature study and nature journaling, as well as careful science observation, experimentation, diagramming, labelling, and recording in a proper science notebook?
The Study of Plants (or “Botany”) in the Waldorf-Inspired homeschool is too big to cover in one blog post, but I hope I’ve given some idea of how it can be approached. There are some wonderful lectures that helped to frame my thinking and approach to this topic, and they’re all available free online:
- Discussions with Teachers – Discussion 9-11 and a bit in 12 – This is very meaty.
- Kingdom of Childhood – Lecture 3
- Renewal of Education: Chapters called “Teaching Zoology and Botany”
- Modern Art of Education – Chapter 8 (another meaty selection)
- Essentials of Education – Lecture 4 (another good one)
- Education for Adolescents – chapter 7
- Child’s Changing Conscious – lecture 4
I’d like to end with two verses from Rudolf Steiner which give expression to a great secret of nature:
Behold the plant:
It is the butterfly
Fettered by the earth.
Behold the butterfly:
It is the plant
Freed by the cosmos.
Many thanks to Lauri, and many blessings to all of you reading this!