The Role of Verse in the Waldorf Curriculum
Kristine Goldynia, a specialist in Speech and Language Pathology who works for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, had a life-changing experience the first day she observed classes at RSSAA.
“I was amazed at the way language is used in this school,” she recalled. “There was a poetic flow and movement that just invited the students right in.”
Her introduction to Waldorf pedagogy came at a good time.
Ms. Goldynia was looking for additional tools to bring to her private speech therapy practice. Sensing that she had found them, she shifted her priorities and began course work at the Waldorf Institute of the Great Lakes. She also signed up for a summer course in New York that comprises a four-year training program in Curative Speech — a Waldorf language specialization that itself has been the subject of entire articles — and embraced an entirely new perspective on her work.
Ms. Goldynia’s response to her classroom visit at Steiner isn’t unusual. Parents often feel suprisingly moved upon first visiting a Waldorf classroom. Alumni wax poetic about the gratitude they have for their early schooling. Some continue to recite the morning verse into adulthood.
It is not just verses that make up the rich language environment in Waldorf schools. The oral storytelling tradition, the literature that is read aloud in class, the annual plays presented by each of the grades, culminating with Shakespeare in 12th grade, all fill children’s — and adults’ — hearts and minds with beautiful language. But it is the use of choral verse recitation that is most unique to Waldorf classrooms. Here is an example, recited by children in grades one through four to begin the school day:
“The sun with loving light
Makes bright for me each day.
The soul with spirit power
Gives strength unto my limbs.
In sunlight shining clear,
I reverence, O God,
The strength of humankind
Which Thou, so graciously,
Hast planted in my soul,
That I with all my might
May love to work and learn.
From Thee come light and strength,
To Thee rise love and thanks.”
Here’s another, a favorite of kindergarten teacher Sarah Vandermeulen:
“The earth is firm beneath my feet
The sun shines bright above.
And here I stand so straight and strong,
All things to know and love.”
In elementary classrooms, the children learn these verses not by reading them from a sheet of paper, but by listening and joining in when they are able. Margo Amrine, a longtime RSSAA faculty member who also teaches at the Waldorf Institute, believes that children “live more fully into the words” when they speak by memory in this way.
In addition, she says, the memory training serves children well in their academic work and also gives them the gift of beautiful poetry committed to memory, which can last a lifetime. Here is one of many beloved mealtime verses:
“The silver rain, the shining sun,
the fields where scarlet poppies run,
and all the ripples of the wheat
are in the bread that I do eat.
So when I sit at every meal
and say a grace, I always feel
that I am eating rain and sun
and fields where scarlet poppies run.”
Students also recite verses in Spanish and German, beginning in first grade. This helps to imprint the language patterns in their minds as they perfect their pronunciation.
Waldorf teachers make frequent use of poetry and prose by the great writers of the world. When teacher Claudia Browne wanted to bring something really special to her fourth graders at the end of this school year, she introduced Walt Whitman’s “O Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun.” Teacher Lawrence Mathews gave his eighth graders the following prose selection this past year because he felt it met a need they had to make a powerful statement to the world. It was written by Marianne Williamson and recited by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 inaugural address.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We consciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.”
The class that recited this verse also printed it on the title page to the Lower School yearbook — a clue, perhaps, to the meaning it holds for them. Many parents also report that their children recite their school verses at home.
Besides benefiting memory training, rhythmic language has a focusing effect on the mind. It helps students and teachers shed their daily concerns and prepare for the work they will undertake in class. Mrs. Amrine notes that choral recitation also helps to bring members of a class into sync with one another through the shared social experience of creating beauty.
Mainstream educational research that points to the benefits of learning through the “language of the heart.” Besides evidence of higher intellectual achievement by children given an arts-rich education, the findings of molecular biologists, neurocardiologists, and psychologists are now pointing to the importance of actually engaging the heart.
Author Joseph Chilton Pearce, who addresses scholarly audiences worldwide on the topic of education and brain development, has said, “The idea that we can think with our hearts is no longer just a metaphor, but is, in fact, a very real phenomenon. The combined research of two or three fields is proving that the heart is the major center of intelligence in human beings.”
A February, 2005 article in Wired magazine also argues the case for a language-rich, heart-centered education. In it, Daniel Pink, author of “Revenge of the Right Brain,” writes:
Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, these capabilities are still necessary but not sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere — artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.”
Maybe this is why, in a time dominated by technology and competition, families are nonetheless flocking to Waldorf schools, where teachers engage students in a multi-layered learning experience designed to consciously nurture the heart.