Teaching History á la Waldorf-Part I March 09 2018

History, or as it might be better to say, “Herstory,” is literally the story of the culture in which we live: his-story or her-story.

When a child is born there follows a long, demanding road to mastering the use of arms and legs, hands and feet, fingers and toes, vocalizing sounds, moving around, crawling, standing, speaking, and understanding this remarkable world which the tiny human being has joined.

Part I: Birth through grade four — learning to think about history through pictures

As aspiring Waldorf teachers, we learn to carefully observe young children to discern what each stunningly different little human being needs. Before the age of seven or so, the little ones learn myriad different physical skills — from rolling over for the first time in the first six months to jumping, running, skipping, counting, cooking, and cleaning in kindergarten. We learn to watch for the time when milk teeth give way to bigger teeth, knowing this signals the time when the physical demands are settling, and a new force for learning is released. We call this “first-grade readiness.” Though this is not always an easy assessment to accomplish, often it is very clear.

First Grade Waldorf Education

In the early years, and right on through elementary school in diminishing form, the child comprehends the world through pictures. This could be described as the language the child speaks. It is picture-language or story-language. Children love us as parents and as teachers, and they yearn to know how to live in their new world well. They learn most effectively through imitation, but as they ripen to first grade and grow to achieve puberty, they learn to master words best as they represent pictures. We speak many words to children, but most of their comprehension comes through the love they feel and receive and the images we give them to explain things.

One four-year-old, throwing stones into a pond, kept asking his mother repeatedly, “Mommy, why do the stones fall to the bottom of the pond?” The mother diligently explained to the boy the difference between the weight of the stone and the quality of the water. She tried telling him the water can’t hold the stone up because the stone is heavier than the water. But when, in exasperation, she finally declared on the fourth or fifth try, “The stone falls to the bottom of the pond because it is tired and it needs to rest,” the little fellow lit up, said, “Oh, that’s it!” and stopped asking “Why.” The picture told him something he could understand.

We understand, as we command the art of being Waldorf teachers, that the developmental stages of the universe are recapitulated in the development of the earth. We understand that the child’s development recapitulates this developmental sequence of the cosmos and the planet. The Waldorf curriculum, in its turn, recapitulates the child’s development and is designed to catch the increasingly acute awareness of the child at each turn of its content. There is nothing arbitrary about it.

Though it may seem unusual, we begin teaching history in grade one through the telling of fairy tales. These stories give youngsters the pictures of wisdom and human development that come from long before any recorded human history. They are “truer than true,” as one little girl once put it. The pictures in these tales remind the child of life before their birth, before time, and help them to develop memory and concentration and an acceptance of the light and dark forces involved in all human situations. Fairy Tales and Art Mirrored in Modern Consciousness, by Monica Gold, describes these ideas and the link between children’s continual urge to draw and make things, and the pictures offered to us in these ancient tales.

Waldorf Teaching History

In second grade, legends are told in contrast to fables, both of which advance the tales from a time when recorded history is just dawning in the consciousness of the people on the earth. Jakob Streit’s saint stories of St. Odelia and Brother Francis are fine examples of well-told tales from a sense of the past and a sense of human history. This is followed by the Old Testament in grade three, with its pictures of the beginning of the close relationship the first people shared with heavenly beings and their efforts to find their way as independent, thinking human beings. Read any of Jakob Streit’s stories (Journey to the Promised Land, We Shall Build a Temple) and get a sense of how these stories enliven the past and the dawning of oral and early, written history.

By fourth grade, students are ready to expand their views, and local geography and map-making are offered. Whenever we teach geography, history inevitably follows. Where human beings settle is determined by the gifts of the earth where there are water, fertile land, wood, stones or clay for building, climate and weather that can be managed. How the people discovered these places informs history. History reveals geography.

Check back next week for Part II: Grade Five through High School