Small but epoch-making

By Luise Alf, August 2021

The Lækjarbotna Waldorf School in Iceland says goodbye to the stroke of the timetable.

In spring two years ago, our entire teaching staff stood in front of a large empty blackboard, tearing their hair out, but highly motivated. Equipped with loads of colourful pieces of paper and inspired by big ideas, we tried to put together the timetable for the coming year. This year, for the first time, in a completely new form.

The school where I work, Waldorfskólinn í Lækjar-botnum, is a tiny Waldorf school on the outskirts of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. The school was founded almost 30 years ago and is the first of two Waldorf schools on the island. Around 90 children and young people, from kindergarten age to class ten, attend this institution, which is located in a small valley surrounded by snowy mountains, rocks and lava fields. With its 20 staff, Lækjarbotna is very manageable.

A small pioneering school in a country where Waldorf education is relatively unknown does not always have it easy. But this inconspicuousness and small size also has advantages, because it is relatively easy to put daring ideas into practice. For example, the question: “School without a timetable, is that possible?”

That was our goal as we were tearing our hair out in spring 2019. A few months earlier, the college of teachers had gone into retreat in Sólheimar for several days. Sólheimar, an anthroposophically inspired community in the southwest of Iceland, offered us the perfect setting to immerse ourselves in education work in peace and quiet. Working in groups on the different age groups and the teaching content that follows them, we asked ourselves: “What could a daily, weekly and yearly rhythm look like that is even more oriented towards the real needs of the children and less towards the rigid structures of a timetable?” What could a rhythm look like that makes the day a healthy whole, allows us to “breathe” even better and gives more space for deepening lesson topics and human connections? What could a timetable look like that serves living learning processes even more and less predetermined processes that we only submit to with friction and resistance?

As is customary at Waldorf schools, the morning teaching had been as a main lesson until then, but the subsequent subject lessons were in a weekly rhythm that changed every day. After much deliberation, discussion and study, we decided to take the first step towards a school without a “timetable” and also to teach all subject lessons in a main lesson format. This means that three main lessons are taught on most days: the morning main lesson, the middle main lesson and the afternoon main lesson. The experiences of the last two years show that we have come a big step closer to the wishes and needs of the children, but also to the needs of the teachers, with this structure. The new structure makes it possible to combine different subjects even more satisfactorily, to deepen lesson topics and to teach and learn more easily in a project-oriented way. For example, a class 5 day could look like this:

  • Morning main lesson: botany
  • Middle main lesson: art, watercolour painting
  • Afternoon main lesson: horticulture

Once started, there are countless interesting possibilities to combine main lessons. When the blood circulation was discussed in the morning main lesson in class 8, the pupils were able to reproduce this movement in eurythmy in the middle main lesson. Later in the day, when the Industrial Revolution was discussed, the pupils learned how to use the sewing machine and about the process of making clothes. Of course, it is not always possible for a theme to run through the whole day as a common thread. Again and again, compromises and sometimes emergency solutions have to be found. But that does not change the fact that the main lessons are also a great gift for the subject lessons. Our handicraft teacher reports that it has become easier for the pupils to develop a sense of process through the main lesson teaching. They experience more easily that they can get better, develop a skill, be creatively effective and complete a project satisfactorily.

A few days after a main lesson has begun, the pupils immediately get to work without many words. The task is clear, the teacher can stay in the background advising and the material itself becomes the teacher. Class 10, for example, is working on a bowl made of hard maple wood. Every day, for weeks. Doesn’t that get boring? Asked for their opinion, the answer is a unanimous: It’s great! The daily encounter with the material leads to a much deeper relationship than when the pupils come to class once a week. You immediately feel the great calm and the almost meditative atmosphere when you enter the craft room, which nourishes not only the students but also the teachers.

Another observation is that the main lesson teaching in the subject classes make it easier to start and end the lesson. For the younger pupils in particular, there is great security in knowing exactly where they are going after the break, that they will come back the next day and that it is the same person they will meet there. This makes it easier to pick up the work – but also to put it down again. With the same teacher working with the class over several weeks, it also becomes easier to build interest and get into a flow with the whole class. This form of teaching is a blessing not only for children who have difficulties with transitions and changes. Whereas classes used to often have six or seven different teachers a week, now there are usually only three. The subject teachers can thus work much more effectively on shaping the class atmosphere or provide targeted support for individual pupils; the cooperation between teachers in these educational tasks also becomes more productive.

Our handwork teacher describes what a relief it is to be completely involved with one class instead of teaching the whole group of pupils every week and that it is easier to build trusting relationships with the pupils, to solve social problems and to support the pupils in the learning process in this way. Of course, there are also difficulties. In the event of illness, a considerable part of the lessons in a particular subject may need to be cancelled at short notice. Then things have to be tweaked and shifted, which is not always easy because all the main lessons are connected and deviating from the plan entails all kinds of changes.

The reality is often that the ideal plan cannot be implemented and alternatives have to be found. Despite everything, we experience this “main lessonisation” as a successful first step that we want to and will continue to develop. Our next hair-raising plan is to build a peat house in the old style as a community project. Peat has to be cut, stones layered, trees felled and nails forged. We have no shortage of ideas on how to integrate such projects into the lessons and with the new structure, further adventures are bound to come.

About the author: Luise Alf has worked as a class teacher at the Lækjarbotna Waldorf School for seven years.

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