The main lesson as a work of art

By Johannes Braun, November 2016

Main lessons are one of the particular features of Waldorf education. For several weeks a class deals with a subject which is worked through with the teacher from all different aspects. A main lesson is all the more successful the more the lesson turns into art.

In planning, carrying out and reviewing a main lesson, it has become increasingly clear to me that the artistic element can come to expression in a great variety of ways. Indeed, the more completely and comprehensively the artistic element pervades the lesson, and the more it shapes the material for the children and with the children, the greater will be the impression which a main lesson makes, the greater the satisfaction with which we can look back on it together.

To begin with, the question arises: how do I start? Because the introduction and conclusion are as important as the frame of a picture without which it cannot come to full expression, which arouses interest, leads us into the picture and gives it the appropriate space.

Just as a piece of music contains the three basic elements of melody, harmony and rhythm, so in a main lesson we can also embark on a search for these three elements and keep them in mind as we plan it.

Melody

What is melody in our main lesson? Nothing other than our subject, the thread which runs through the weeks, develops, perhaps appears in variations, aims towards a climax and finally comes to an end. The more interestingly and at the same time simply the subject is formulated, the better it remains in the ear – that applies to music as much as the main lesson.

The subject must resonate everywhere, both in the smallest detail which is being described and in the great arc to which we keep referring back. The melody is the dimension of moving forwards, progress. It is close to the thinking in the soul forces.

Harmony

The element of harmony corresponds to the harmony between various aspects of our subject in the main lesson. The descriptive narration of the teacher is part of it as much as the lively discussion in the lesson. This can be supplemented in middle school by pupils working on subsections of the subject in writing and verbally in small presentations.

Structuring the subject in the main lesson books, reciting a poem together, singing a song or going on an excursion with the class are just as much a part of the field which in music corresponds to harmony. Harmony brings the subject to life, expands it gives it colour and enriches it. It addresses the feeling above all and is much more difficult to grasp than the linear thread.

Rhythm

But the most mysterious of these three things is rhythm. It is connected with the will and is largely removed from our waking daytime consciousness because it arises equally from what we do and what we do not do, what we experience as breaks and relaxation. The beat of the heart and the alternation between day and night as well as the rhythm of the breathing can provide inspiring models for our work with the pupils.

The effort of the day, undertaken with care, must be handed over trustingly to the night, confident that what has not yet been achieved can be brought at least a little bit closer to fulfilment the next day. All work must include a phase of active absorption, breathing in, and a phase of breathing out, of giving back if we want to avoid becoming asthmatic.

In the lesson, too, this balance must be observed with the greatest care to ensure the healthy development of the children. Thus concentrated listening must alternate with independent activity, movement with calm, joint work with individual reflection, cognition with creativity. Rhythm creates the power to get to the bottom of things, but also to grow through them – the vertical dimension.

Bringing all three things – melody, harmony and rhythm – into equilibrium means creating a balanced, beautiful three-dimensionality which does justice to the soul abilities of thinking, feeling and the will which are to be developed. This is the demanding challenge both in the art of music and in the art of education.

Main lesson books

The design of the main lesson books offers a wonderful opportunity for the pupils to reproduce in creative activity what they have absorbed through the teacher. This establishes an intensive connection between them and the subject matter. Constant encouragement that the work should be undertaken with care and loving attention can build in them a respect not just for what they have learnt but also for their own effort. The deliberate emphasis of artistic design can also support their aesthetic education:

• Framing is important, both in the form of an attractive title page and a proper table of contents, and in the form of a short introductory and concluding text; but also on each individual page through a nice regular edge or its colourful or other decoration.

• Text and drawings, lists and diagrams should alternate and support one another.

• Value should be placed on a well-proportioned division of the page with headings which are clear and, if possible, colourful and well-spaced.

• If from the beginning attention is paid to regular, proper writing and this is practised – not on ruled pages but with the help of a ruled sheet – then this can make a significant contribution to a lovely overall impression. Continuous effort by the teacher to write beautifully on the blackboard has model character. The children should write exclusively using ink.

• Similarly inspiring and motivating are the teacher’s beautiful, carful drawings on the blackboard. In the book they should be prepared not using uniform and thus relatively dead felt-tipped pens but variable wax crayons or wooden colour pencils.

• Brief texts prepared by the teacher are increasingly supplemented by texts and small essays by the children themselves on given subjects. Poems are also suitable.

Rudolf Steiner’s comment that children in the period between the replacement of the baby teeth by the permanent teeth and puberty are fundamentally informed by the attitude that the world is beautiful may perhaps be supplemented in this approach by giving the child the feeling: “The world is beautiful and I can contribute to its beauty through my own action.”  

About the author: Johannes Braun is a Waldorf class teacher, first in England, Kenya and South Africa, today in Balingen.

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