learning language arts and love
In our last block with Class Two of East Bay Waldorf School, the life and stories of San Francesco di Assisi brought forth the learning of language arts and values such as devotion, charity, kindness, and peace. In the second grade curriculum, the deeds of noble characters in fables, in animal legends, and the saints, speak to the spirit of the seven to nine year old child. As they emerge from the oneness of grade one, they begin to see themselves as separate individuals. And with that separation comes a mixed sense of freedom and uncertainty. Guidance that gives them both boundaries and room for exploration is a challenging task of the teacher and parent. It leads them to a balanced self-awareness and world-awareness.
Saint Francis offered an image for the second grader of a life that transforms from selfish to selfless, and also an opportunity to build our artistic and basic language arts skills. I brought for Class Two young Francesco born into a wealthy family, who enjoyed extravagant and boisterous feasting and partying with his friends. The town of Assisi was then engaged in wars with neighboring people and Francesco joined the army to fight, soon to be captured and imprisoned by the enemy. Alone and miserable in prison, he heard a voice, "Francesco, please help me to rebuild my Church."
When Francesco was released from prison, he shunned the wealth and partying of his youth. He donned a simple burlap robe with a rope for a belt, and wore no shoes. He began to rebuild a church in the countryside (it may be the church of San Damiano). Stone by stone, he restored the church. Francesco had a great affinity for nature, and he would often be seen outside among the birds and creatures of the earth, and they would flock to see him and hear him preach. A famous story of a fearsome wolf and the townspeople of Gubbio showed the peacefulness of Brother Francesco. He came to the aide of exiled lepers on the outskirts of town, providing them with food, clothing, and care, when no one else dared.
Devotion, Charity, Kindness, Peace - stories offered guidance towards selfless virtues. In the playground, at home, in the classroom, the second grader is in an amazing process of transformation. Based on a presentation made by wonderful Mrs. Ricketts, a friend and partner teacher at EBWS, I had written a letter to the second grade parents about this process: It is a process that is necessary and normal. The process unfolds, revealing human development at its most primal and at its most endearingly elegant. The poking is their way of communicating! We observe, we monitor, we are patient, we are very patient, we guide, we encourange, we model, we remain calm and smile (we cry when they are not looking), we become stern, we become firm, we become loving ogres when behaviors reach tipping points, and the children learn and grow. Lay down the fenceline, not too close, not too far, just enough room for both freedom and supervision. And always love. In the words of The Beatles, "all you need is love, love, love is all you need!" Click here for a YouTube video.
The langauge arts gleaned from Brother Francesco had been fruitful. We built on previously introduced curriculum such as word families and blended consonants, and I introduced some new stuff like story sequencing, setting, and mood. We unscrambled sentences. (Mischievous elves always seem to scramble my sentences when I am not looking!) We practiced printing on lined paper. We worked beautifully in our main lesson books, learning new artistic techniques.
Learning the mood of a story was particulary fun and memorable for the children. In using the story of Saint Francis, the children and I first sang songs and danced in our well-lit and gaily decorated classroom - the party youth of Francis. Then, we marched to the laundry room of the school, dark, dank, dingy, cold, and cramped - the lonely despair of Francis in prison. Then we were happily freed and we ran up to the straw bale structure on the upper fields of the school where the quiet, softly lit interior of this plastered, thick walled woodshop echoed like a church - the restoration of San Damiano. And finally, the children and I strolled into the grove of trees, where we listened to the birds, and played as second graders do, in nature.
The second graders had also been doing eurythmy to Saint Francis' Canticle of the Sun, so there was this interdisciplinary cohesiveness to their lessons.
During this last four week block before school's end, I hoped the children learned and grew, as I did. Interestingly, during this block with Brother Fancesco, a nest of young birds had hatched in the rafters just outside our classroom, where they chirped all day. We also, one day, returned to our classroom to find that a blue jay had come in and we carefully let it out through the window. And I, at home, was visited by mourning doves, who perched on branches just outside on our back porch. Brother Francesco's spirit lives on.