Making The Burden Light: Homeschooling The Upper Grades

I think things really start to hit the fan sometime in the upper grades. Some families don’t get into too much worry and anxiety about the block content or repetitive practice that they are finding (or not finding) in curriculums until 6th or 7th grade; some until high school; and some starting in fourth and fifth grade. This is understandable, because some of the contents of the blocks tap into things that perhaps we didn’t receive in our own education, so in order to have to teach that,  and then to understand the impulse behind why we are teaching what we are teaching, and then to present that in this “magical” way we see on Pinterest or Instagram can often put a lot of pressure on a busy Waldorf mama!

One thing that always helps me is to have an idea of the flow of the curriculum of the Waldorf School in my head. No, I will not follow this curriculum exactly because I am a HOMESCHOOLER, but I also do not want to miss the iconic blocks that meet the archtypal development of the child. I also want to EXPAND the curriculum because I am not European, and I don’t want my homeschool to only include Western Civilization, but to be encompassing and inclusive.  If I was South African or lived in the Pacific Rim countries, the curriclum I have chosen to use would look different because we work where we are, and there are Steiner Schools all over the world, not just in Europe or in the United States! But still, I have to know where the curriculum starts for my country.

So, if I can think in my head at first in generalities by looking at the overall flow for grades 4-12… (not including extra artistic work or music) , I can find where things will come around AGAIN.  So I don’t have to include every little tiny thing about Rome  for my sixth grader, because it will come back in high school! This list is so brief for this blog post, but my friend Lisa found a great list here from Emerson Waldorf School in NC regarding content by grade.  However, here for your reference is a quick list for grades 4-12:

4th Grade – Local history and why early settlers were here and how natural resources were developed; Norse sagas; map making; Human and Animal block; Long Division/Word Problems/Fractions/Freehand Geometry; embroidery and cross stitch.  What I might include as an American:  hero tales; tall tales from North America;  book reports; letter writing; spelling

5th Grade- Ancient India/Persia/Mesopotamia/Egypt/Greece; the lives of Manu/Rama/Buddha/Zarathustra/Gilgamesh and more; Greek mythology; Geography of the United States; Botany; could include zoology of other animals not covered in 4th grade; Decimals/Fractions/Mixed Numbers/Metric System; Geometry; knitting with four needles. I may include the entirety of North American geography in this grade. I also include Ancient Africa and Ancient China and the Maya in MesoAmerica.

6th Grade – The Roman Empire; Medieval life; the Crusades; The Golden Age of Islam; the life of Christ; the life of Muhammed; Geography of North and South America; World Geography – the big pictures of contrasts in the world; Physics of light, heat, sound, and magnetism; Mineralogy; possibly continued botany; Business Math (especially percentages, ratios, exchanges, equations, proportions);Geometry with a compass; creating patterns and sewing. I include Medieval Africa here as well.

7th Grade – What is often called “The Golden Age of Exploration” in schools I term “Colonialism”; The Renaissance; The Reformation; biographies; Wish/Wonder/Surprise block for writing fluency; Geography of Europe (I often put in sixth grade instead) and Africa; Astronomy; Chemistry; Physiology; Physics; Beginning Algebra/Perimeter/Graphing/Roots/Formula/Area/exponents; Geometry; Sewing and embroidery

8th Grade – Modern History – I like to get up through present day; Revolutions (or I might put this in 9th grade depending  on the child); Poetry; Geography of the Pacific Rim; World Geography; Chemistry; Physiology of bones/muscles/the eye; Physics of light/heat/electricity/magnetism/aerodynamics; Meteorology; Geometry – Platonic Solids; Equations and Mensuration; Number Bases; Machine Sewing

9th Grade – Modern History (what I might focus on would be state history starting with the hunter gathers and First Peoples of our area, Early Settlers, any Modern History not finished in 8th grade); Great Inventions; Comedy and Tragedy; Art History; Meteorology; Mineralogy- Plate Tectonics; Chemistry; Physiology; Physics; Earth Science;  Algebra/Euclidean Geometry; Copperwork and Pottery

10th Grade – Ancient Civilizations and History; dramatic literature and epic poetry; Chemistry; Physiology – Embryology; Physics – Mechanics; Earth Sciences – oceanography/crystallography; Algebra – logarithms; Plane Trigonometry; Land Surveying; Projective Geometry; Metal Working; Weaving and Dyeing; Stained Glass work.  I included a block on African-American Literature from the Black Arts time period to the present day.

11th Grade – Roman/Medieval and Renaissance history; Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare; Parsifal and other Grail legends; History of Music; World Geography and Map Making; Atomic Theory in Chemistry; Physiology – plant and animal comparison; Physics – Electricity and Magnetism; Botany; Algebra including logarithms, exponential equations, spherical trigonometry; Computer Math and Science; Projective Geometry; Blacksmithing; Poettry and Copper Work; Photography. I will include a block on Latin American Literature.

12th Grade – Modern and World History; Russian literature; The Transcendentalists; Goethe’s Faust; World Geography and Map Making; Chemistry; Biochemistry; Physics – optics, mirrors, light, color; Zoology; Algebra and Geometry brought together in Analytical Geometry; Statistics; Probability; Computer Math; Integral Calculus; Logic; Building computers;  History of Architecture.  I will include a block on Modern African Literature.

When I look at the blocks, I have to think – how much do I know about this subject? If I close the curriculum pages, and think about what I know, what do I know?  If I pull this topic up on the Internet what comes up? What is general flow for that subject normally for high school or early college?   I usually do some Internet research on my own plus extensively use my library in order to write up a summary or biographical sketch that I can present, along with reading the actual curriculum or Waldorf resources I bought!

Often, for history especially, I need a timeline in my head and match biographies to the timeline I have for that historical period.   For science, I may need to think about a particular flow to a block and  if I understand the phenomenon myself or not and what i would need to understand it.  It is very hard to teach these upper level subjects if you don’t know anything about them at all.  It is different than opening up the pages of a fairy tale and reading it three nights in a row in one way but in another way if you can condense the information down into a summary you can present to your child, then you CAN read it three nights in a row and memorize.  For example, right now I am writing some summaries based on what I have read regarding the Paleolithic  Age and the Neolithic Revolution for our block in February on Ancient Civilizations in tenth grade.  I have to research a little and put things together, and then own it and present it.

I have to understand the content in order to figure out the gestures behind the content and the polarities. I am always hunting for polarities, to teach in that antipathy-sympathetic way for the contrasts because that makes it all come alive! I also try to relate it back to what we studied previously.  I find fault with the Charles Kovacs books sometimes, but I do think that is one thing those books do well – find the polarities, find how it relates to previous subjects.

Secondly, what is the  Waldorf perspective on this? Do I understand the WHY of presenting this at this time? Most importantly, is  the child in front of me ready for this topic now or developmentally are they behind or ahead where this topic is? I may need to shuffle the order of my blocks!

Then I have to think how can I present this in the most ENLIVENING WAY possible for us?  What is most doable in our situation, and what excites us the most?  Pinterest can help there;  sometimes just having time to sit down and draw and decide what you want to capture is also the best use of time. The Main Lesson books for our oldest and middle daughters look different because we chose to capture different things, even with the same stories for fourth grade or for the Renaissance or whatever.   Or maybe we threw the Main Lesson book out for that block and chose lapbooking or some other way to do something, especially for high school due to sheer volume of information.  Homeschooling is flexible like that!

Then I have to think of the way we lay out sleep as our educational aid. With these blocks do I:

Open warmly (and how)

Review (many different way to review; variety is the spice of life!)

Practice skills; Work with the material artistically and in our heads

Have new material or deepen the material we have gone over.  There should always be something new there!

If you are looking for ideas about this, I suggest Meredith’s podcasts on these parts of the Main Lesson over at A Waldorf Journey Podcasts. I also suggest the great documents on planning a Main Lesson and especially all the different ways to review here at Waldorf Inspirations. I especially like the ideas about forming a daily rhythm and how this is different for older students in fourth grade and up, at least in the classroom setting (and it might give you ideas for the home setting as well!)

So, this may not seem especially “light” but I do think it is reality.  I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” for the upper grades. I think Live Education, Earthschooling, and Waldorf Essentials all have fairly complete curriculums for at least grades 6-12, and perhaps you start there when in doubt!  But you actually need to look at the content and not just open up the curriculum morning of to teach.  These upper level subjects need more preparation than that!  If you break it up into small chunks starting in the spring, it is really doable.  Use a few hours on a night to prepare for the next week, and the more you go through it, if you have multiple children for example, the more doable it becomes.  

Teaching IS an art.  I would love to deepen my own teaching and help readers deepen their own homeschool teaching. I would love to hear from you! How has working with your fourth through eighth graders deepened and differed from teaching your first through third graders?  How has your high school teaching deepened?  What have you learned along the way?  This would be a great subject for a conference call with many mothers!





7 thoughts on “Making The Burden Light: Homeschooling The Upper Grades

  1. Dear Carrie,
    First of all, I wish you a happy new year !
    it’s always a nice moment to read you, especially all that you write about upper grades. I miss so much of such lectures.
    My daughters (twins of 13 yo) are always homeschooled with Waldorf pedagogy, here in France. But it became more difficult, year after year, to keep only a Waldorf way. We are a very few families who are using Waldorf for homeschool big kids. It’s very difficult to harmonize a Waldorf homeschooling (for big kids) with certain steps of the society as certain exams. Some choices are very complexes and due to our french context.
    So, to read you is always giving me some feedbacks for my reflexions.

    • Hi Monique!
      Absolutely! I recommend mainstream resources at points because there simply isn’t enough on the Waldorf market for upper level homeschoolers (in English, let alone in French! :)) One day the market for upper level Waldorf homeschoolers will catch up , so I think the main thing is to know what is normally taught at what age, and WHY, and then you can bring whatever resources into it that you need. I use some mainstream resources for my upper level children as well and lots of use of the library. 🙂 I am excited to hear some of the things you do if you have time to share!

    • Hi Carrie,
      It is so comforting to read you ! I feel sometimes (always ?) as a pioneer, experiencing multiple ways to keep Waldorf in our journey.
      In addition to study what to learn at what age in Waldorf pedagogy, i have the great concern to keep an artistic way of learning. It is complex as i find that the academics tend to be (too much) preponderant ; but as we are controlled by the Administration, we have to show that our homeschooling is “serious” (art isn’t serious for many people….) It request to be very creative… sometimes i’m not !
      Thank you so much for your blog which is very inspiring for me 🙂

    • Monique,
      It is always wonderful to hear from you. For these upper grades, I think a lot about painting and drawing, but also a lot about speech and poetry during the science blocks. Those can be good ways to expand the arts and also be “serious” for outside observers!
      Hugs and Love,

  2. We used to go to the playgroup at Emerson Waldorf school! It was held at a farm. That was a long time ago. Your post brought back memories.

  3. Hi Carrie! Happy New Year! I think you read my mind with this post! I am preparing second grade for this spring and thinking of your wisdom often. I am researching Islamic and Hindu saints especially, which took me to reading more about both traditions generally because I know so little. So then I was so inspired by everything I read, I was anxious to know when we’d get to delve more into both!! So it’s wonderful to see when you include them later on. What really shocked me was, just getting a peek, into how much western scholarship has distorted the information that’s available, like western scholars refusing to admit that Hindu texts could be older than the Bible. I knew that would be the case with indigenous history, but it’s everywhere! I am a bit overwhelmed about all that lays ahead in this vein — finding my way through the many versions of history.

    What I wanted to ask you is, what resources do you suggest to understand the Waldorf perspective, why to present which material at each developmental age? I feel like I’m missing something, like, what is everyone else reading? 🙂 I’d like to understand better the “whys” behind telling stories of the saints, versus later on creation stories, legends, mythologies, etc. I feel strongly that my daughter (soon to turn 8) has maintained a foot in the spiritual world and really is only now “waking up,” and me along with her in a way. After our shared experience of her birth, I think I kept a foot there along side her for a long time. Anyway, the saints stories do feel right for us now, but I’d like to understand more. And of course, as someone wanting to add a multi-ethnic perspective I want to understand the basis to know when and how to add things! I go back and forth so often between really connecting with the thread of the Waldorf curriculum and feeling that it doesn’t appropriately represent the ancient roots of my own family’s histories, as I know many others feel, too.

    Thank you so much for sharing with us all that you do! It means so much.
    Happy New Year!


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