News from the foreign language scene

August 2019

The trend in foreign languages in Waldorf schools is towards main lessons. An overview.

Good language teaching in lower school

In two surveys in 2017 and 2018, the teaching consultant Dagmar Diestel investigated what characteristics in the structure of a school and in content supported good foreign language teaching in classes 1–4. Colleagues from about 60 Waldorf schools in Germany and other countries participated. The goal was to understand both current trends and proven examples of practice. 

As far as the structural conditions are concerned, a trend towards main lessons is evident which in some instances is also presented as the decisive prerequisite for pupils’ successful learning. Some teachers even clearly expressed their regret that in their schools this form has been abandoned in favour of ongoing subject lessons in lower school. If, additionally, just two hours are available per week, there has to be some question about the point of teaching foreign languages. 

In some schools, the introduction of language blocks in the curriculum, that is language teaching taking place in parallel in several classes with at least three subject lessons, appears to have established itself as a further effective prerequisite for learning. 

Important prerequisites considered necessary for the teacher, alongside a training in Waldorf education, were primarily the appropriate induction and mentoring of new colleagues, reciprocal attendance of lessons, external trained specialists sitting in on lessons,  as well as clear continuity so that lessons could, as far as possible, be guaranteed from the same teacher even as far as into middle school.  

Despite all the doubts expressed by sceptics, respondents frequently emphasised the importance of consistently implemented monolingualism in early language teaching which stimulated the younger children to speak themselves. Other often quoted features were, among other things, varying methods and content with a broad range of linguistic and poetic diversity, pictorial teaching and creative elements of play to stimulate the forces of imitation in the children, as well as sympathetic togetherness and an empathetic atmosphere for learning in which humour and enjoyment of the lesson positively influence the basic mood. 

Although none of these features are new for experienced foreign language teachers, the results of the survey do suggest that the focus should be in particular on these clearly proven characteristics through beneficial framework conditions, and that everything should be done that they can be applied in practice at Waldorf schools. 

Contact: diestel_fortbildung(at)icloud.com

Foreign language teaching in main lessons

Main lessons are used in many schools. But for a long time it was a controversial question in Waldorf education whether foreign language teaching was suitable at all for main lessons. In one well-founded study, a degree dissertation at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy with Prof. Dr Christoph Jaffke, Mechthild Contino obtained a surprisingly clear result from a broadly based survey of schools: schools which have introduced “periodic foreign language teaching” rarely abandon it again. And if they do so, then it tends to be for external organisational reasons, not educational ones.  

The great majority of the surveyed schools speak about the many advantages which come with main lessons, from concentrated, deepening work to the improvement of the pupil-teacher relationship.  


Language blocks in the timetable

The greatest obstacles to good foreign language teaching often include the tiresome timetable, this “weapon to kill off the true development of the human forces”, as Steiner once radically expressed it. For the sensitivity of language lessons, in which listening, social togetherness and interaction are particularly important, Steiner therefore demanded that the lessons should take place early in the morning. But the practice at Waldorf schools is often quite different to this day. At the Widar School in Bochum-Wattenscheid, an alternative timetable has been implemented in the last two years in which all classes up to class 8 only any longer have foreign language lessons before midday. They are located in fixed language blocks always at the same time on each day of the week. This “grade timetable” is made possible by grouping the teachers in grade teams which, alongside the class teacher, are also concerned with the educational concerns of the grade levels, as well as a deliberate shift in the work period of the different subjects. Thus larger blocks of subject groups are created which deliberately alternate cognitive, artistic and practical subjects in the individual grade levels (classes 1–3, classes 4–6, etc.).

Foreign languages in gardening and craft lessons

The Geneva Rudolf Steiner School has for some years successfully used a method called “Content and Language Integrated Learning” (CLIL). Nikolai Höfer successfully undertook gardening and craft lessons at the school in the foreign language German. As he set out in 2018 in his degree dissertation at the Academy for Anthroposophical Education (Dornach/ Switzerland), this requires certain methodological steps such as for example rigorous monolingualism in large parts of the lesson with exercise books, signs, work instructions all in the foreign language but the opportunity for pupils to ask questions in their native language. This method has been widely evaluated, including a survey of pupils. CLIL has also spread to other schools in Switzerland but hardly yet in Germany.  

Contact: (Thomas Stöckli);

Spanish in the ascendant

As the last of the “big three”, Spanish has meanwhile also established itself in German Waldorf schools alongside French and Russian. Today some 30 Waldorf schools offer it as a subject. Eight schools start in class 1, the others in middle and upper school. In some, the language is offered in a project group due to the great interest. Some schools have already managed to offer study trips to Spain or cultivate other forms of encounter with Spain or Latin America. 

The development of well-founded Spanish lessons at our schools with a solid basis in the subject matter and the anthroposophical understanding of the human being assumes that the faculties as well as the Spanish teachers themselves are networked among one another, make use of training and advanced training opportunities, and support the exchange of suggestions, experiences and materials. As Anne Wolf from the Greifswald Waldorf School reports, the Spanish teachers at the individual schools are looking at, designing and inventing teaching materials of all kinds so that the pupils can securely immerse themselves in the language without textbooks. 

Meanwhile it has already been possible three times to organise a Semana Española in the same way as the other language weeks: in June 2016 a group of Spanish teachers investigated modernistic Barcelona and at the Escola Waldorf-Steiner El Til·ler in Barcelona attended seminars with Georgina Escalante and Luis Romaní; in March 2017 Elena Forrer (San Francisco, Fair Oaks, California) organised intensive, instructive days for participants at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim; and in May 2019 committed teachers addressed educational, methodological and artistic questions with five experienced lecturers (Tamara Chubarovsky, Georgina Escalante, Robert Hartung, Isabelle Schweitzer and Gloria Picón). 

Exchange with Russia 

Weimar pupils regularly travel to Russia for school exchanges. As the Russian teacher at the Weimar Free Waldorf School, Christiane Harder, reports, there have been close cultural relations between Weimar and Russia since Goethe’s time, such as for example through the daughter of the Czar and German princess by marriage, Maria Pavlovna. In 1999, an agreement was concluded in Weimar to promote the youth exchange between Russia and Germany – in the same house, by the way, in which Rudolf Steiner wrote his Philosophy of Freedom. A few years later the great-grandson of the great novelist Count Leo Tolstoy came to Weimar, as a result of which a school exchange came about between the Waldorf school and Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s famous estate. 

An encounter with teachers from the Pinskogo Waldorf School in Moscow led to something which was felt to be the seed for a new, common feeling of responsibility for the world and the earth. Pupils from Weimar and Moscow together went to the completely isolated village of Yuryevskoye north of Yaroslavl, which does not appear on any map, to do farming and forestry work there. For the return visit in Weimar, the Russian pupils participated in looking after a wood which had originally been planted by Maria Pavlovna as an orchard for the poorer inhabitants of Weimar. Now the pupils were working side-by-side again and helped to transform the wood, meanwhile dominated by conifers, into mixed woodland with nut trees. 

Interest in the school exchanges, which has for some years been funded by the German-Russian School Exchange Foundation (DRJA), has kept growing in the Weimar school. Whole classes are meanwhile showing their interest in an exchange and to take in guests. There is a clear feeling in lower and middle school that it provides a clear incentive for language learning, even if an exchange has not been directly experienced. Private friendships are also on the increase. Everyone has a sense that Germans are warmly received in Russia and the encounter in science, culture and education is very much welcomed. Much good is expected of Germans – despite all the political crises! 

Learning with chansons  

French is an eminently musical language. Many phenomena show how the musicality of the language takes precedence over the logic of grammar. 

Thus the exceedingly rich repertoire of French songs, in which the boundary between “folk” and “artificial” songs is fluid, can also be seen as an inexhaustible treasure chest for musical language lessons as taught by Bertold Breig at the Frankfurt Free Waldorf School. 

Both in terms of music and of content, the chanson composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have created a repertoire of incredible diversity. The texts, which provide an insight into everything that moves French society, are an accepted part of the literary canon and there is no subject which has not had songs written about it. The range extends from intimate, personal feelings to politically committed chansons. 

All of this offers an extensive field of experience for the young people. There are songs for every age group which address something in the pupils. Everything is musically available, from effervescent to melancholy moods, so that something can be found for everyone with which they like to identify. Thus lessons produce both choral performances and presentations in small ensembles or brave solo performances in which the young artists individually grapple with chansons they have chosen themselves.