Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What is really at the heart of a Waldorf School?

Sometimes it feels better to circle in on the answer to a question through a story.  I would like to answer this question by describing a fourth grade science lesson that I taught last year.  Only the names have been changed to protect the fleet of foot.

It seemed like the perfect fourth grade question: “Who is the fastest runner in the class?”
The hands shot up. I knew they would. Fourth graders divide their classes like fractions into a wide array of categories, the fastest runner being just one of them.

“Matthew” was the first answer that came from the students, and there were nods of agreement throughout the classroom.

“Who’s second?” I asked.

“Lydia is the second fastest.” Again there were nods of agreement – no dissension.

“Third?” I continued.

“Ben,” they said.

“Okay,” I said, “if I were to ask Matthew to stand by the window of our classroom and when I said, “Go” to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and turn around and run back, how long do you think it would take him?”

The students thought for a few seconds, and then the hands went up again.
“Sixty-five seconds one student suggested.”

“No, that’s too long,” came an immediate reply, “forty seconds.”

“Twenty-seven seconds,” another exacting student offered.

I wrote all of the times up on the board, and then I said something that I knew would make this lesson memorable.

“Matthew, stand up. I want you to climb out of the classroom window; and when I say go, you are to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and run all the way back. But first, who has a watch with a timer?” (There is always a fourth grade boy with one of these!)

Matthew climbed out the window while envious classmates looked on. He waited for his signal and raced across the playground and was back in 32 seconds. Lydia went next. Her time was 35 seconds. Ben was third, and his time was 37 seconds.

Of course, there were more students who wanted a turn, both to run and to climb out the window, but we needed to move on. I had a lesson in mind, and all of this was just the beginning.

I started my Waldorf teaching career nearly forty years ago, and I haven’t always been able to remember where I get my ideas for lessons. So many conversations have faded in my memory that I have started to think that these ideas are mine. However, the lesson I wanted to impart on this day, I knew originated with Dorothy Harrer.

Dorothy Harrer was a master teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.  When I took my first grade one, back in the early 70’s, the woman who was my unofficial mentor (we did not designate mentors back in the “old” days) was a friend of Dorothy Harrer’s. Every holiday season she would receive hand written notes on yellow legal pad paper with poems and verses and stories, all original pieces written by Ms. Harrer herself. Eventually, someone realized that all of these “gems” should be collected in books and that led to the publication of “Math Lessons,” “English Lessons,” and “Nature Studies.” The lesson that I was planning to use in our fourth grade study of the eagle came from Dorothy Harrer’s book on nature.

Continuing on then with the lesson, I was ready to ask my students the next question. “Can anyone think of a way to get to the fence and back more quickly?”  I scanned the faces of my students, and I could see by the look on one student’s face that I had not been precise enough with my question.

“But you cannot use a machine, I added.”

The student in question sighed with exasperation. He had been thinking “motorcycle.” However, his spirits revived instantly.

“Bicycle,” he said.

He was disappointed when I informed him that the bicycle is also a machine even though it doesn’t have a motor and now the rest of the class was puzzled as well.

Then a quiet girl, who sat in the back of the room, calmly raised her hand. When she answered, I realized again how perceptive and thoughtful these quiet children can be.

“With my eyes,” she said. “I can look at the fence and look back to the school instantly.”

I smiled and then said to her,

“But what if I had asked Matthew to run all the way down the hill to where the first grade plays at recess? What if I had asked him to go to a place that you couldn’t see, how could you get there more quickly?”

Another thoughtful child in the back of the room raised her hand.

“In my imagination,” she said. “In my imagination I could go to the first grade playground and back in an instant.”

Now we were at the place where we could really begin Dorothy Harrer’s lesson. I asked the children to close their eyes and to imagine that they were all outside the classroom as Matthew and Lydia and Ben had been. Then I asked them to imagine themselves in the air above the school as they had done when they made their map of the school (also part of the fourth grade curriculum).

“And now,” I said, “imagine yourself flying west above the blacktop. Look down; there are the basketball courts and the trees by the first grade playground. Let’s cross the Potomac River. We are over the state of Virginia. Look up; you see the mountains in the distance. Those are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Let’s keep going.”

I continued to describe our imaginative journey across West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (states that I told the students we would study in fifth grade). We crossed the Mississippi and looked down on the Great Plains. Finally, we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. From this point on, the lesson was pure Dorothy Harrer.

“Let’s let our quick, wakeful thought make its way, now, in this instant, to the high mountain cliff that rises up above the prairie, way off to the west, farther than the eye can see or legs can run. Let’s go to the rocky ledge, like a platform, where the storms have made the rock break away. Far below us, lies the prairie. Far up above, rises the top of the cliff. Here on the ledge, we find that a bird has its dwelling which looks like a giant robin’s nest. Sitting in the nest, are three strange looking young birds, already bigger than any robin. We hear the sound of wings beating in the air.  As we are only here in thought, we are invisible, and the great bird that soars down to the nest doesn’t even see us. And life goes on as if we weren’t there at all. The big bird has a body that is almost as long as Neal is tall. Its wings spread out so far on each side that we could lay a yardstick down three times from one wing tip to the other. Now we know that it is an eagle.

In its great, hooked claws the eagle carries a fat, but lifeless jackrabbit. This it lays before the young birds who crouch and spread their half grown wings and utter squeals of excitement, but they do not approach the rabbit. The mother bird then stands on the dead rabbit and with her strong hooked beak begins to tear it into pieces, some of which she swallows herself while others she passes over with her beak to the beaks of her children. Each one of them patiently awaits his turn. It isn’t long before the rabbit has disappeared entirely.

Just as the meal is over, the father eagle soars down from the blue sky, carrying in one foot a dead mole which he soon disposes of with a few sharp strokes of his beak.

Then as the mother settles down and draws her eaglets under her great wings, the father perches on the rim of the ledge. He scans the sky as if on the lookout for any enemy that might sail down upon them. He peers downward toward the prairie as if to spy out another meal moving among the grasses far below.”

As I described the eagle lifting up and rising on the warm air currents, I told the children how the eagle is a kin of the air, how its feathers have air within them, as do its bones and how it even has small air filled sacs within its body. As the eagle rises higher above the land and I described how with its keen vision, it spies its prey hundreds of feet below. “The eagle,” I said to the children, “has remarkable eyesight. I have been told that if an eagle could read, it could read a newspaper from a quarter of a mile away.” When I finish saying this, the eagle is drawing in its wings and plummeting toward the earth like lightning, descending to strike its prey with its talons and carry it away. Finally I said to the class, “ Do you know children, where you are like an eagle? It is in your thinking that you can see so clearly. It is in your thinking and your imagination that you can soar to such heights and move from one place to another in an instant. It is in your thought-filled, wide awake mind that you are like eagles.”

And that was my “aha” moment, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to understand. In a Waldorf School we are continually helping the children know what it means to be a human being. Yes, we teach many other subjects and develop a wide array of capacities, but this was the underlying assignment. And I had to ask myself, “What else would a school based on Anthroposophy (the wisdom of the human being) offer its students?” At that moment I felt that above our school entrance there was a sign, written in invisible letters, just like the one at Plato’s Academy, “human being, know thyself.”

What better lesson could I bring to the children? How wonderful that I could let them know that within their thinking is the power and the strength of this magnificent bird. It seemed like the same understanding that the Native American people had, that the spirit of an animal they revered could empower and inspire. I had started out to teach my class about the eagle, but in the end we had both learned so much more.

Jack Petrash


  1. What a great lesson. So nice to read this.

  2. What a beautifully written piece. I loved this and forwarded to a few friends who are interested in
    Waldorf Education. Thanks for writing and sharing and explaining so well. I was moved by your story and lesson.