Innovative Teaching Strategies: The Main Lesson
Overview: In most educational models the vehicle for teaching is contained within a class period, usually 40 minutes, and the focus is on one subject such as math, music, and science. Waldorf Academic, Roberto Trostli writes, “When Rudolf Steiner inaugurated the first Waldorf school, he established the “main lesson”—a two-hour class during which all academic subjects except for foreign languages would be taught. The subjects taught in the main lesson were studied for a block of time lasting from three to six or more weeks. Teaching in main lesson blocks has become one of the most successful and distinguishing features of Waldorf education, for it allows teachers to cover the curriculum intensively and economically, and it provides the students with the fullest possible immersion in a subject. The students’ experience of the subject is further deepened by allowing the subject to “go to sleep,” before being “reawakened” later in the year or in the following year. Through this process of forgetting and remembering, students return to a subject with new interest and new insights. The time between the main lesson blocks in a subject allows students’ concepts to develop gradually and to mature. Knowledge needs time to take root, blossom, and bear fruit. The main lesson block assures that students have sufficient time to experience a living process of learning.
Grade 2 Class teacher, D’Arcy Colby, provides a window to the parents in her bi-weekly communications.
Deconstructing the Main Lesson
Warm up, Review, New and Do
Main Lesson begins at 8:20 am and ends at 10:30 am. In that window of time, the children do so much! I was astonished the first time I watched a whole Main Lesson from beginning to end many years ago.
The warm up takes about 45 minutes and includes singing, rhythmical poetry, movement (skipping, games, body percussion, folk dances and so on).
Skills practice, mental math, and recorder work are woven into the warm-up. These exercises are designed to get the blood flowing, to oxygenate the brain and to help the children become fully embodied.
Socially, warm-up brings the children together as one whole group and wakes them up for a day of learning.
The themes of the activities are seasonal, connected to festivals and to the content of the Main Lesson subject (lower school subjects).
Setting the tone and space for learning: We always follow the same pattern each day so that the children know exactly what to do and when. Knowing what to do makes transitions predictable and predictability gives the children confidence. In the morning, the children greet their teachers at the door. They enter into the classroom, put on their shoes, water their plants and place them on the window sills. The children greet each other and chit-chat happily while putting on their shoes. I ring the gong and sing the opening song. They clear their desks as we sing. We preview the schedule of the day, and we begin morning skill time. The skill changes with each Block (which typically lasts about a month). In the past weeks, during the Gwinna 2 block, we have been working on forming the cursive letters of the alphabet. As of Friday, the children have been introduced to all of the letters. We will slowly transition to cursive and as they become more confident with the script.
After skills practice time, the children need to move. We play the recorder and we skip with the long rope. On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, we go down to the gym to play a social cooperative game. Throughout the Main Lesson there are songs to signal transitions. The children know what to do when they hear a given transition song.
Review, New, and Do: After warming up, the children are ready to have a drink of water and settle down into the deeper academic part of the lesson. This section of the lesson includes a review of the previous day’s content, something new, and time to practice. How this looks depends upon the content of the Main Lesson. During the Gwinna Block, the students review the story, and I tell them more. The story unfolds a little bit each day. The students read what they wrote previously, and they write something new. We bring it all alive and tie it together by drawing pictures to illustrate the story. Along the way, we have been looking closely at the spelling of interesting new words. The children are becoming aware of proper punctuation, including quotation marks. They are learning about titles. Some of the children write with Ms. Colby and some of the children write their own version of the stories. Some of them do a combination of both. Recently, I have been drawing on my big blackboard in front of the students so that they can see how I draw. It is not about being perfect or realistic. It’s about capturing the essence, mood, or gesture of a thing. While I draw, the children are working on their own drawings in their books, using block crayons and smudging for the background. They use pencil crayons for detail. Drawing gives the children an opportunity to “live into” the story. That is to say that the act of drawing allows the children time to connect to the story and form a relationship with it. When they are connected to the story, they express interest and enthusiasm to write. Sometimes they can hardly wait.
A good main lesson reaches an array of learning styles. In Waldorf, we say that children are nourished when the main lesson offers something to inspire and awaken the hands, the head, and the heart. In other words, a good main lesson nourishes the whole being of the child. One of my mentors once told me that Steiner believed that children benefited from experiencing a range of emotions in a Main Lesson.
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