Second grade is a year of polarities. Second graders are naughty and nice, compassionate and unkind, focused and distracted- all sometimes in the span of one short interaction. With this understanding of their developmental stage in mind, language arts is brought to second graders in Waldorf schools through two main literary themes: stories of saints and heroes to appeal to the child’s inner moral compass and provide an image to aspire toward, and animal fables and trickster tales to give the children a safe and approachable platform to process the foibles and shortcomings of their own humanity.
As the second grade class teacher, I have the privilege of bringing this curriculum to my students this year. Over the course of this school year, I’ve told stories of shamans that selflessly tend to the sick, yogis that discover universal truths, and saints that display kindness towards all living things. As I tell these tales, I have been able to witness the children absorb these stories with wide eyes and, over the course of time, process them and uncover for themselves what it means to be a kind and upright individual.
This past fall, the second graders heard the story of a stonemason that grew jealous and angry that he was poorly compensated for his hard labor, while a Buddhist monk lived a life of seeming ease and luxury, sitting in meditation all day in a nearby temple, while the villagers brought him food, water and coins. ‘Your job is so easy!’ the mason cried. ‘Why don’t you switch places with me and see what it’s like to really work a day in your life.’
The monk calmly agreed, but the mason found himself surprised and chagrined when he struggled to remain still and silent, with an empty mind, in meditation for even a fraction of the day. The monk, though presented with the chance to gloat, was considerate as they each returned to their own profession, remarking solely that hard work comes in many forms. I was curious what the children would be able to glean from the story. Would they remark upon their own experiences of how hard it can be to stay focused and calm? Would they realize that one should walk a day in another person’s shoes before casting judgment?
Over the next few days, we drew a picture of the monk and stonemason, then wrote together a short summary of the story. I was surprised by the lack of comments on the story from the students and thought perhaps I had simply chosen a tale that the group could not connect with.
A week or two later, a few of the second graders made unkind remarks to a classmate during mental math. After a few chuckles and a ‘Pshhh, that’s so easy!’ when a wrong answer was given, I was ready to quickly intervene. Another child, however, quickly piped up indignantly and said ‘Different things are hard for different people! You shouldn’t laugh!’ ‘Yeah,’ another replied. ‘Like the monk and the stonemason! Meditation was hard for the mason even though he was so strong and good at lifting rocks! Math is hard for me, but climbing trees is hard for you! We don’t need to be mean about it.’
As this conversation unfolded, I stepped in here and there to facilitate, but primarily found that the children were teaching each other in that moment, leaving me blown away by the depth of empathy and human understanding they were displaying.
The stories that are presented in second grade at Maine Coast Waldorf School are, of course, a vehicle through which academic skills can be developed. After they hear a fable, the children practice their penmanship and their sentence construction, as they write summarizing paragraphs about the sly fox and the vain crow. They practice their reading skills as they flip through their Main Lesson book each day, proudly reading the pages that they themselves have written. The past month or two, the second graders have even begun sorting words from stories into different categories, setting the stage for a more in-depth examination of grammar next year. After the most recent animal story, we spent several days sorting out words drawn from the story. Fox and crow are ‘naming’ words, run and fly are ‘doing’ words, and sly and vain are ‘describing’ words.
Research in education is constantly finding evidence to show that children are much better able to approach new academic concepts if there is imagination, narrative and vivid imagery woven throughout the presentation of content. With this in mind, it is always thrilling to me as an educator to see my students progress in their understanding of material and hone their literacy skills. Equally exciting to me, however, is watching the Waldorf language arts curriculum support the children as they develop internally as well, navigating the long path of becoming an empathetic, kind, and upright human being.