I am the 7th grade teacher here at DWS. It is my privilege to work with the young adults in our community as they make their transition from childhood to adolescence.
Waldorf Education is based on the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are not necessarily words which spring to mind when one reflects on their teenage years. These principles are still there and still guiding forces for the middle grade child in Waldorf education, just as they were in the lower grades. In fact, truth beauty and goodness are inherent in the middle school curriculum; it just looks a lot different in middle school. Bringing these qualities to the forefront is the main job of the middle school teacher. How do we do this?
I want to start by giving you a picture of the middle school curriculum as a whole. We end each day with the following verse:
To wonder at beauty
Stand guard over truth
Look up to the noble
Resolve on the good.
In these words we exhibit the values of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are not normally values synonymous with teenagers. But this is the task we ask of our young people and which we lead them towards in our curriculum. It is the very search for this inner balance which guides our lessons.
Starting in 5th grade, we move students from myths and legends to real concrete history, we explore the foundations of civilization in Mesopotamia, Persia, and India and the foundations of democracy in Greece. Students explore these concepts through stories and biographies of enterprising people such as Alexander the Great, of greedy people like King Xerxes, and heroic people like Leonidas and his wife Gorga. Students dive into the qualities of different city states, allowing themselves to feel as fierce as a Spartan or as reflective as an Athenian. This is the year which begins the natural sciences of Botany. This study is the child's first interaction with objective observation, as life skill for anyone seeking a career in the sciences but also an important lesson in analytical thinking and social dynamics. Students also expand the boundaries of their world, we explore that we do not just live in the state of California, but the North American continent. We look at the people who came before us, their cultures and their art. 5th grade is a blossoming and the beginning of middle school.
6th grade is full of change. Students no longer stand in the middle but begin experience in a real way, the changes of adolescence. Students feel that the very ground on which they stand is unstable, that they live in a place of constant and seemingly unpredictable change. So, we give them a curriculum with physics to show them that the physical world is balanced, that there is cause and effect; that behind every action or change there was a reason. We also allow students to explore the empire of Rome. Roman rule was iron clad, it was tough but it was fair, above all, it was clear. The laws of Rome were not negotiable. This grounds the child, provides a sense of stability in their ever changing lives. 6th graders are also becoming increasingly introspective, this can be great in certain situations, we want them to form that inner safe space for themselves (this is part of why we study caves in this grade), but we also want them exercising their will in the world, because adolescence wants to drag them inward to isolate, and isolation is the enemy of progress and empathy. So we present the child with physical activities, we climb Lassen, we sword fight, and we also build dragons. This, for me, was one of the most important experiences of 6th grade and this dragon is really the mascot of one side of the duality I was speaking of. The dragon is the chaos, the attacking astral, the isolation. We want that to land with the students, not on an intellectual (it’s happening to you right now) level, but on a feeling level. So, at the beginning of the year I told the students the story of St. George and the dragon. The next day, I asked the students what they thought about the story, and a student immediately exclaimed that “That story is so fake! It’s ridiculous!” Which was precisely what I wanted them to say. We discussed this and began to arrive at a conclusion; perhaps it was not a real dragon…but if there was no dragon, why would they tell the story? Together we were able to arrive at this idea that the dragon was a metaphor. We were able to brainstorm together everything that the dragon could be, and they ended up writing those words on the skin of the dragon. I felt like this was the tenderest moment for us as a class, to actually crawl into that skin and wear those titles and be that dragon. 6th grade is also a tricky year for the teacher, we spend much of our time studying the physical world, it is important not to fall into materialism. Always the curriculum is brought through wonder and beauty. When the curriculum is brought, even the most mundane detail (for instance, the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth on its axis) should fill the student with a sense of gratitude and grace. In this massive expanse of between 5th and 6th grade, full of history and geography, we show the students beauty.
7th grade; the year of exploration, it is important when working with 7th graders that you understand one thing about them; that is that they are fascinated with themselves. Teen years are truly the blossoming of self exploration. Often, this fascination is misguided, teens become self obsessed, they isolate, they become vain, or worse, they become self conscious. We strive to redirect that focus in our curriculum. We provide rich biographies of men and women who struggle with the same concepts as our 7th graders - social pressure, stress, feelings of inertia - 7th grade history is full of these people. We look at the early explorers such as Cortez and Henry the Navigator. We also study brazen rebels like Joan of Arc. The only way to have teenagers care about history is if they have an emotional connection to it. In this same way we begin with an individual centered science curriculum. Students in 7th grade taste acids and bases, we create batteries and experience the shocks, 7th graders use their bodies to build a massive lime kiln, a three by 5 hole in the earth which we fill with charcoal and lighter fluid before setting it alight to observe the chemical and physical changes of calcium carbonate. All these experiences begin with the student themselves forming a real and physical and personal connection with the material, so when they are in high school and learn about the transformation of CaCO3 through heat and pressure they will have a true understanding of the process, because they made it happen. In this experience is truth.
As we move on to 8th grade, we continue our work with science through human anatomy, studying the bones and the nerves. We explore geography through Asia and the Pacific. But, more than this, 8th grade marks a distinctive change. We begin in 8th grade to study modern history for the first time. It is in this study that we show the goodness which is inherent in the world. Whether we learn it in through the deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights, or through the gentle words of Mother Theresa, we see that the world, though it is tumultuous and rebellious, even at times revolutionary, that all of these struggles are to promote the greater good, to move civilization closer and closer to its ultimate goal. We see that each and every step, every change, every evil doer, coward, overcoming hero or victor, all of these people were part of this awesome and karmic task, that task of moving the individual and humanity towards freedom.
Ultimately, this is the task of all Waldorf teachers in every grade, but especially the middle school teacher; to take these children and transform them through love of beauty, dedication to goodness, and the search for truth, into strong, free, young adult, ready to face the challenges of this world, ready to change the world, with the critical and analytical ability to fight for the right, to overcome the isolation of modern life, to live through love of freedom rather than dogma. To wonder at beauty, stand guard over truth, look up to the noble and resolve on the good.