Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hold Them Close, Then Let Them Go

By Jack Petrash

I learn my parenting lessons in the oddest ways, but even so, this last lesson took me by surprise. I was trying to engage my fifteen-year-old daughter in cheerful dinner conversation, refraining from serious questions about homework or music practice. And I thought I had succeeded when my jokes elicited a chuckle. But the joy was short lived. She looked up from her plate, lowered her fork and said, “Dad, you are so bi-polar.”

My smile froze and she left me wondering if this parenting roller coaster we were on had left a permanent mark on my psyche with its dramatic ups and downs. How could it not? Parenting is awash in bi-polar opposites – highs and lows, joys and sorrows, work and play, responsibility and freedom. The list is endless and that’s what makes parenting such an emotional stretch. I wanted to reply, “Of course I’m bi-polar. I’m a parent.”

Parenting is an art and like all of the arts it exists between opposites. Artists always work with polarities: light and dark, space and counter-space, foreground and background, piano and forte. The only difference with parenting is that we don’t get to practice our art in solitude. We’re not at a piano in the quiet confines of a studio or in a lovely pastoral setting with watercolors and an easel. Instead, we get to fashion our artwork in the carpool or in the kitchen, and always at the dinner table. Our creative endeavors take place seven days a week, at all hours of the day, and over long stretches of time. And because parenting is a most demanding art, it requires even more conscious awareness to reconcile and mediate opposites. That is what makes it so complicated.

The Parenting Essentials

Parenting doesn’t seem complicated when we start out on the journey. Aside from loving our children, there are essentially two basic assignments: to provide for our children and to protect them. These are the primary parenting responsibilities that we take up selflessly in order to build a foundation of trust, safety, and dependability. It is the important work that we do on a number of levels. We provide nourishing food and clean clothes for our children, but more than this we establish a consistent routine of caring. We hold our children when they cry, change them when they’re wet, talk to them, sing to them, wash them, and comfort them continually. Amidst the confusion of the first weeks of a child’s life, we establish a dependable rhythm of consistent care. This protective environment enables our children to rest assured and to begin their lives in a healthy way. In their book, The Irreducible Needs of Childhood, T.Berry Brazleton and Alan Greenspan, note that having a safe, predictable environment is one of childhood’s irreducible needs because it influences the way that children’s nervous systems develop. Calm, dependable environments give rise to calm, dependable children.

A protected physical environment must also be accompanied by a protected emotional environment. The softness of our words, the gentleness of our touch, our patient attention, all convey to our children another level of safety. In the home, feelings are safeguarded as well.

But the confusing part of the parenting paradox is that protection as a parenting goal is inherently flawed. Years ago a friend of mine went to a marriage counselor. He was told that in relationships, the very characteristic that draws us to an individual, will in the end repel us. Find a reliable, dependable spouse and their predictability will eventually disappoint us. Become involved with a carefree, free-spirited person and sooner or later we will long for steadiness and responsibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words probably express this best: “Every excess causes a defect… Every sweet hath its sour.”

The same is true with parenting. Provide the important protective environment for our children and over time the need to provide a markedly different environment will make itself known. The pendulum invariably swings the other way.

Overprotecting Our Children

Currently, in our society, we are much better at protecting our children than we are at allowing them to develop independence and a little daring. With all of the best intentions we have sequestered our children in our homes. Fear of automobiles, pedophiles, injuries, and lawsuits has denied our children the opportunities we had growing up. We rollerskated without knee pads and helmets, walked to school, to our friends’ houses, and to stores without supervision. We played in the schoolyard, climbed trees and fences, and stayed out after dark. So few children do the same today.

In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Traditions to Raise Self-Reliant Children, Wendy Mogel notes that it is also a parent’s job to teach children to manage risks. Mogel contends that if young people today were faced with the opportunity to do something dramatic and life-changing, like the Exodus from Egypt, most would decline, enslaved more by fear than by Pharaoh.

During the second half of childhood, parents need to help children manage risks as a counter balance to the protective home environment we have developed during their early years.

For ten years my wife and I worked at a summer institute in Maine. This was a fine arrangement for our family as it allowed us to leave the heat and humidity of Washington in the summer and to spend six weeks in northern New England. From the time our daughter was four, we all headed north in July and our daughter took part in the program that was provided for the children. In many ways the environment there was ideal. The Steiner Institute was housed on a small college campus and my daughter and her summer friends could walk anywhere without restriction.

Just prior to her fourteenth birthday, our daughter began voicing reservations about returning to Maine. She complained that there was nothing to do. We reminded her that there were art classes, kayaking trips, beach excursions, swimming, innumerable opportunities provided by the program, but she was adamant. So we began to explore other options. My wife did some research to find alternatives and discovered a wilderness canoe trip solely for teenage girls led by young women guides. This trip would be vigorous and rugged. The group would head off for a ten-day adventure with extensive paddling and extended portages. They would have to camp out, cook their own food, make do without the comforts of home (no showers, no toilets), and be at the mercy of the bugs and the weather. We thought for sure that our daughter would express no interest whatsoever. We were wrong. She wanted to go.

Sending her on this trip was a huge step for us. We had to leave her with her brother in Boston and know that she was getting on a plane for Canada and that when she got off one of the tour leaders, whom we had never met, would be there to meet her and a few other girls and take them six hours north of Toronto to the base camp where they would join the group to begin their trip. The only communication that we would have during the two weeks that she was away was a phone message that she had arrived in Toronto safely and two e mail messages – one when they left the base-camp for their canoe trip and one when they returned.

At the end of the two weeks, my wife and I drove back to Boston eager to pick her up at the airport. When she came through customs with the stewardess, she flew as an unaccompanied minor, we were there waiting. She looked so pleased with herself, self confident and mature. She was strong from the canoeing and portaging, healthy from the days outdoors, and different, not just because of the hair rinse that the girls had shared on their adventure, but because she had been through a rite of passage and was so pleased with herself.

This year she was eager to return. She saved her babysitting money and spent nineteen days in the wilderness braving mosquitoes, whitewater, and the SARS epidemic. Protecting our children is essential, but not protecting them can be just as important.

Parents as Providers

Providing for our children is another of parenting’s paradoxes. Because our children start out in life depending on us for everything, it is vital that we live fully into our role as providers. Food, clothing, and meaningful experiences are all a part of what parents work hard to provide. The more thought and care we put into providing for our children at an early age, the more they benefit. Providing healthy food, warm clothing, and good medical care are just the kind of assignments that good parents take seriously. It is our job to provide the very best for our children and over time these decisions will involve schools, camps, after school lessons, and all sorts of teams. But here too, Emerson’s words apply: “Every excess has its defect… Every sweet hath its sour.”

In his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, Dan Kindlon points out that providing too much for our children for too long, impedes character development. When Kindlon did a survey on “too good to be true teenagers”, the kinds of healthy children parents hope to raise, he found that there were certain characteristics that these young people had in common. They cleaned their own rooms. They did not have a phone in their room (I assume that also means a cell phone). And they did some kind of community service. What the parents provided was very simple; these children ate dinner regularly as a family.

What is clear from this study is that we should always provide our children with opportunities to give as well as receive. This can mean different things in different families. It can mean that children make their own beds or do the dishes. It can mean that adolescents do their own laundry or clean the bathroom. And with teenagers it can mean that they work outside of the home on weekends or in the summer to earn their own spending money, keeping in mind that independence fosters responsibility and that leads to self-esteem.

A number of years ago, the state of California offered a work program for young people modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federally funded program during the Depression. The California program promised “hard work, long hours, and low pay.” It had a waiting list, mostly with young people from well-to-do families who wanted to find out what they were really worth.

In the end children must provide for themselves. How many kids today pay for their own car insurance, their gasoline, their cell phones, or their credit card bills in college? What message do we send our children when we give them so much, other than the message of privilege or entitlement?

Parenting has to be a bi-polar undertaking. We are called on to protect our children, but not over-protect them, to provide for them, but not indulge them. These are the challenges that parenting sets before us; and as with any art form, there are no easy answers. We simply have to be present in the moment and move between the opposites to achieve the right balance. Sometimes this work seems overwhelming and I must say there are nights when I get down. It is then that I look for a little help with this work and this quotation by E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful, helps.

“Through all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled… How can one reconcile the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended – the power of love.”

These words remind me that I am just a struggling artist who really loves his work.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Waldorf Education–A Luxury or a Necessity?

I love the Waldorf School, but sometimes I worry that by having my children attend a private school, I am sending them the wrong message, one that implies that they are privileged or entitled. How do I prevent this?

This is an important question for a Waldorf School, one that touches on the understanding that any school’s strength can also become its weakness if we are not mindful. One of the significant aspects of our school, one that I have always appreciated, is that we are an independent school. Because of this independence, our school has autonomy, and this allows our teachers, administrators, and trustees to shape the school’s program and to make timely decisions that influence the children’s educational experience without needing outside approval from a board of education or a school board and without having to navigate the convoluted terrain of such a bureaucracy. This independence makes it possible for the teachers who are immediately involved with the students to make decisions in the best interest of those very children who sit before them each day.  Having begun my teaching career in the New York City public schools, where I could not even have my own key to the school so that I could work in my classroom on the weekend, I truly value the creative possibilities that autonomy offers.

However, I also know that the independence that I value comes at a price. The Waldorf School is a private school, and the word private has the same root as the word privilege. As both a parent and a teacher, I have not wanted my children or my students to be left with the impression that they are privileged–fortunate, yes–but not privileged, and certainly not entitled. A former colleague of mine believed that gratitude is a barometer for soul health in children. I believe this as well, and because of this, I have observed the children carefully over the years to see whether they are able to appreciate the benefits that their education provides with gratitude and not take for granted the sacrifices that their parents and teachers make to provide them with a Waldorf Education.

One important factor that determines whether feelings of privilege arise is whether parents see Waldorf Education as a luxury or as a necessity. When our education is perceived as one more enriching experience in a child’s life–in addition to ballet, soccer, horseback riding, drama camps, and more–the notion of privilege can arise. But for most parents, a different sentiment is present, which is the sense that Waldorf Education is a must.

As parents, we work hard to insure that the values we hold as important are conveyed to our children. We want our children to be empathetic, trustworthy, responsible, kind, considerate, and more. We also want these values to extend to others, not just to family and friends but also within a broader community and even throughout the whole Earth.  If we hold out hope that our children will grow up to be respectful and considerate, we need to counteract the prevalent cultural models of disrespect and irreverence that are commonly portrayed in the media where children often are depicted as smart, sassy, and outspoken. What many parents find is that as our children grow older, the external cultural influences increase, and it becomes harder to preserve the values that we believe are important. For parents who look for support in maintaining sound, healthy values in their children, the Waldorf School becomes a necessity. In a culture that promotes the notion that power, wealth, self-interest, and sexual appeal are the keys to happiness and fulfillment, many parents long for a countervailing force, one that encourages children to look deeper for lasting notions of what truly matters. These families seek support for the simple values that they hold dear–eating dinner together, uninterrupted family time, time in nature, time to worship, and time to play and to share stories–and they appreciate the support that a Waldorf School community provides.  For these families, the Waldorf School is not a luxury: it is an essential need.

Other parents seek a Waldorf education because they believe that school should encourage children to become lifelong, creative learners. They sense that Waldorf’s unique approach to teaching the whole child through a program that is infused with art, music, and movement, will help a child’s mind develop in a unique way, one that fosters the very kind of creative thinking that is becoming endangered in an era of high stakes testing. They believe that life is too precious to be weighed down with the leaden approach to learning that is commonly found in traditional textbooks and in multiple-choice exams. 

In addition, there are also committed parents for whom the notion of privilege is negated by their earnest search for a school that recognizes and nurtures the spiritual nature of the child. When a school is based on a spiritual understanding of the human being, its educational program is fundamentally different, not simply because of the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that are encouraged in the students but also because the very way in which the curriculum is presented to the children is fundamentally different. The natural world is presented as a place of wonder, mystery, and wisdom through the spiritually sensitive educational lens. Human events, both personal and historical, are seen as being rich with meaning and message. For this to be conveyed to children, the spiritual lessons cannot be compartmentalized and limited to one period a day. Rather, the spiritual values of a school must become what Ted Sizer, from the Coalition of Essential Schools, referred to as the surround, the implicit atmosphere of a school that becomes the air the children breathe.

When parents look closely at these issues while exploring their educational choices, they often come to feel that what a Waldorf School offers their child is essential on so many levels. The Waldorf School then becomes a necessity because it is a choice that shapes who our children are going to become. When this occurs, the Waldorf School can no longer be seen as a luxury. Instead, like a good pediatrician, healthy food, and a safe place to play, it is simply part of what we feel we must provide.

Jack Petrash


Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Call for Questions

Dear Readers,

We would welcome your questions as well and would invite you to email them to us at jpetrash@washingtonwaldorf.org or post them as comments in reply to this blog.

Jack Petrash

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What influence does the Waldorf Curriculum have on the modern child’s brain?

This question has intrigued me for the last ten years, since neurological research began to shed light on how the educational experience manifests in the brain of a child. I would like to address this question by posting a piece that speaks about this and other related issues. This piece that I wrote was published in Renewal several years ago, but I believe it is still current today.


Each morning when I open the door and step into my first-grade room, I immediately feel at home. I like my classroom—the plants by the windows, the children’s watercolor paintings brightening the walls, the wooden desks and chairs all ordered and arranged to face the blackboard. I like to think that this classroom is lovelier than the ones I entered as a child, but the truth is that there are strong similarities between this room and the classrooms of my past. Many of today’s young teachers would say that my classroom is old-fashioned. It is noticeably lacking the modern accoutrements. There are no laptops, no white boards, no markers, no active board, no CD or DVD player, not even an intercom speaker. My classroom is a low-tech environment—one seemingly behind the times. Perhaps I should be worried that I am a dinosaur, some relic from another educational era when teachers stood at the front of the room and when pencils and paper, chalk and erasers were essential ingredients in a school experience. And yet, when I read what is being written today about education, brain development, and the dramatically changed world that awaits our children, I am absolutely convinced that my Waldorf classroom is leading my students back to the future.

Two years ago, Thomas Friedman, New York Times reporter and author of The World is Flat, spoke to a group of students at a highly respected prep school. The students wanted to know what they should do to prepare themselves for tomorrow’s workplace. Friedman’s answer was striking. He told these students that their education had primarily developed the left side of their brains and that if they wanted to be prepared for the future they needed to develop the right side of their brains as well. He told them “to think art, to think green, to think connectedness.”

As it turns out, Friedman’s ideas were influenced by what he was seeing in our rapidly changing global economy, in which American jobs are continually being outsourced to countries like India, China, and the Philippines, and by what he had read in a book by Daniel Pink, called A Whole New Mind.

In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink makes it clear that our standard approach to education utilizes only the left side of the brain. This is the education that we are currently promoting with No Child Left Behind, and what Pink states very clearly is that it will not prepare our children for the future. If we educate only the cognitive capacities of children, only capacities that can be tested, we are going to make them economically obsolete. If young people are schooled in a traditional manner, using only the left side of their brain, someone in a developing country is going to do what they are trained to do more cheaply. Pink cites research which indicates that by 2015 at least 3.3 million white collar jobs and 136 billion dollars in wages will shift from the United States to low-cost countries like India, China, and Russia.

Pink also notes that if we educate children in this conventional way, using only the left side of their brains, the computer is going to do what they are trained to do more quickly. If we truly wish to prepare our students for the future, Pink proposes that we help them develop new capacities in art, storytelling, play, empathy, finding meaning, and symphonic thinking.

What I find reassuring is that these are the very capacities that are being developed in children at a Waldorf school. Art and storytelling are essential parts of the Waldorf experience right from the start of school. When children are taught their letters in grade one, they are introduced to the sounds and shapes of these letters through a story. A fairy tale about an enchanted snake can be told in a lively, expressive manner. In that telling, the students will hear the sound of the snake hissing as it slithers and slides through the softly stirring grass. On the blackboard they will see a large, colored-chalk picture of this sinuous serpent shaped exactly like the letter S, which they will draw in the books they create. They will run the letter S, paint it, even shape it in modeling wax, all so that they will have a multisensory experience. But, most importantly, they will be developing their whole mind.

In her book Endangered Minds, Jane Healy underscores the value of this approach to teaching letters.

 All thinking, even language processing, calls upon both hemispheres at the same time. . . . Since the hemispheres carry on a continual and rapid communication over the bridge of fibers (corpus callosum) that connects them, their ability to interact is probably the ultimate key to higher level reasoning of all kinds. (p. 125)

Healy goes on to say that communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain occurs when language instruction includes picture letters.

People who learn to read both a letter-type and a picture-type script, as in Japan, tend to process language more equally between the two sides of the brain than do people who read only letter-type scripts. (p.212)

But it is not just in the Waldorf elementary school where children are heading back to the future. The Waldorf preschool provides a similar mix of tradition and innovation that is truly in tune with our times. Americans are an intuitive people, and there are certain assumptions that we innately embrace. One of these is that youthfulness is a desirable trait. Sometimes we go about pursuing youthfulness in puzzling ways, spending millions of dollars on cosmetic surgery and on drugs like Cialis and Viagra. And yet, even when our response is misguided and shortsighted, we clearly sense that when older individuals retain a lively, adventurous spirit, it is a sign of health.

In their book Geeks and Geezers, authors Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas note that this quality, which they call neoteny—the ability of a species to maintain youthfulness in old age—is often a characteristic of our creative leaders. For instance, the architect Frank Gehry is close to eighty years old, and yet he says that some of his best ideas come to him on the ice when he skates. What we see is that his playful, youthful nature is an important part of what makes him so creative.

Several years ago, the Smithsonian Institution held a conference on the role of play in the lives of geniuses. The conference underscored the formative influence of play in the lives of innovative individuals whose discoveries impacted our society in dramatic and positive ways. One of the unique capacities of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming, and Barbara McClintock was imagination. What was clear at the conference was that playfulness and imagination are characteristics of genius.

The wooden sinks and stoves, the natural building materials, the dolls, and the wooden toys that are still part of a Waldorf preschool classroom allow young children the creative play experiences that will enhance their problem-solving ability by fostering divergent and imaginative thinking. This stands in sharp contrast to most contemporary schools, where children are required to do less imaginative assignments at tables with workbooks and pencil and paper.

In the Waldorf high school, we are also working to lead students back to the future. Waldorf high schools are small schools with a required curriculum that is both diverse and integrated. Requiring students to take choral music, or to play an instrument, or to be on a sports team may seem restrictive to some, but these activities are a valuable preparation for the future.

In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes about the educational rebirth that occurred at Georgia Tech in the 1990s. The school’s president, G.Wayne Clough, knew that the country needed more good scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. He began rethinking Georgia Tech’s approach by reflecting on his own experiences as a working engineer. Some of the best engineers he had collaborated with over the years had not been the best engineering students. However, they were able to communicate well, relate to others, think creatively, and tie things together from different fields and disciplines. On campus, Clough encountered students with these same characteristics and realized that they tended to be persons with varied interests and activities. They sang in a choir, played a musical instrument, were on an athletic team. Clough encouraged the admissions office to recruit and admit good engineering students who had artistic and extracurricular interests (see Friedman, pp. 310–312).

This ability to integrate knowledge and see connections in seemingly unrelated areas has been an emphasis in Waldorf schools since their inception. It is the reason the curriculum is integrated, so that music is taught in conjunction with history, so that art is part of all science studies, and so that writing is used to enhance the teaching of mathematics. Daniel Pink calls this symphonic thinking—thinking that asks us to recognize patterns and motifs, to synthesize information, to see the big picture, and to make connections in surprising new ways. Frans Johannson, in a recent article in the journal The Urbanite, calls this capacity the Medici effect, referring to the Renaissance family that supported a remarkable burst of wide-ranging creativity in the fifteenth century.

It is this innovative thinking—the ability to connect the seemingly unconnected to create new solutions—that is at the heart of the kind of problem solving that we need for the future. It is this ability that led the architect Mick Pearce to design an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, that does not need air conditioning. To do this he incorporated into his architectural design an understanding of the way in which termites cool their mounds in the hot, African sun.

Writing in The Urbanite (March 2007, p. 56), Frans Johannson describes the project:

Pearce’s passion for understanding natural ecosystems allowed him to combine the fields of architecture and termite ecology and to bring this combination of concepts to fruition. The office complex, called Eastgate, opened in 1996 and is the largest commercial/retail complex in Zimbabwe. It maintains a steady temperature of 73 to 76 degrees and uses less than ten percent of the energy consumed by other buildings its size. And it saved 3.5 million dollars immediately because [an air conditioning plant didn’t have to be installed].

Clearly, in our era of global warming with the heightened need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, Pearce’s creative problem solving is in demand. If we are truly preparing our children for tomorrow, we should be educating them as Thomas Friedman said, “to think art, to think green, to think connectedness.” And this requires that they use both sides of their brain.

So when I enter my seemingly old-fashioned classroom each morning, these are the understandings that reassure me. When I taught my first graders their letters through art and storytelling, I did so with confidence that I was stimulating the kind of brain activity that will give rise to higher-order, creative thinking. And in fourth grade, when I will watch each of these same children begin to play violin, viola, or cello, I will rest assured that their ability to think creatively and to work collaboratively is being strengthened through music.

When these same students, in grades six, seven, and eight, encounter the synthesis of art and science and the love of nature that lived in individuals like Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington Carver, and Rachel Carson, I will hope that these same qualities will have been cultivated in them and that these students will be multidimensional individuals, accustomed to using their whole mind in surprisingly new and innovative ways.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What is really at the heart of a Waldorf School?


Sometimes it feels better to circle in on the answer to a question through a story.  I would like to answer this question by describing a fourth grade science lesson that I taught last year.  Only the names have been changed to protect the fleet of foot.

It seemed like the perfect fourth grade question: “Who is the fastest runner in the class?”
The hands shot up. I knew they would. Fourth graders divide their classes like fractions into a wide array of categories, the fastest runner being just one of them.

“Matthew” was the first answer that came from the students, and there were nods of agreement throughout the classroom.

“Who’s second?” I asked.

“Lydia is the second fastest.” Again there were nods of agreement – no dissension.

“Third?” I continued.

“Ben,” they said.

“Okay,” I said, “if I were to ask Matthew to stand by the window of our classroom and when I said, “Go” to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and turn around and run back, how long do you think it would take him?”

The students thought for a few seconds, and then the hands went up again.
“Sixty-five seconds one student suggested.”

“No, that’s too long,” came an immediate reply, “forty seconds.”

“Twenty-seven seconds,” another exacting student offered.

I wrote all of the times up on the board, and then I said something that I knew would make this lesson memorable.

“Matthew, stand up. I want you to climb out of the classroom window; and when I say go, you are to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and run all the way back. But first, who has a watch with a timer?” (There is always a fourth grade boy with one of these!)

Matthew climbed out the window while envious classmates looked on. He waited for his signal and raced across the playground and was back in 32 seconds. Lydia went next. Her time was 35 seconds. Ben was third, and his time was 37 seconds.

Of course, there were more students who wanted a turn, both to run and to climb out the window, but we needed to move on. I had a lesson in mind, and all of this was just the beginning.

I started my Waldorf teaching career nearly forty years ago, and I haven’t always been able to remember where I get my ideas for lessons. So many conversations have faded in my memory that I have started to think that these ideas are mine. However, the lesson I wanted to impart on this day, I knew originated with Dorothy Harrer.

Dorothy Harrer was a master teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.  When I took my first grade one, back in the early 70’s, the woman who was my unofficial mentor (we did not designate mentors back in the “old” days) was a friend of Dorothy Harrer’s. Every holiday season she would receive hand written notes on yellow legal pad paper with poems and verses and stories, all original pieces written by Ms. Harrer herself. Eventually, someone realized that all of these “gems” should be collected in books and that led to the publication of “Math Lessons,” “English Lessons,” and “Nature Studies.” The lesson that I was planning to use in our fourth grade study of the eagle came from Dorothy Harrer’s book on nature.

Continuing on then with the lesson, I was ready to ask my students the next question. “Can anyone think of a way to get to the fence and back more quickly?”  I scanned the faces of my students, and I could see by the look on one student’s face that I had not been precise enough with my question.

“But you cannot use a machine, I added.”

The student in question sighed with exasperation. He had been thinking “motorcycle.” However, his spirits revived instantly.

“Bicycle,” he said.

He was disappointed when I informed him that the bicycle is also a machine even though it doesn’t have a motor and now the rest of the class was puzzled as well.

Then a quiet girl, who sat in the back of the room, calmly raised her hand. When she answered, I realized again how perceptive and thoughtful these quiet children can be.

“With my eyes,” she said. “I can look at the fence and look back to the school instantly.”

I smiled and then said to her,

“But what if I had asked Matthew to run all the way down the hill to where the first grade plays at recess? What if I had asked him to go to a place that you couldn’t see, how could you get there more quickly?”

Another thoughtful child in the back of the room raised her hand.

“In my imagination,” she said. “In my imagination I could go to the first grade playground and back in an instant.”

Now we were at the place where we could really begin Dorothy Harrer’s lesson. I asked the children to close their eyes and to imagine that they were all outside the classroom as Matthew and Lydia and Ben had been. Then I asked them to imagine themselves in the air above the school as they had done when they made their map of the school (also part of the fourth grade curriculum).

“And now,” I said, “imagine yourself flying west above the blacktop. Look down; there are the basketball courts and the trees by the first grade playground. Let’s cross the Potomac River. We are over the state of Virginia. Look up; you see the mountains in the distance. Those are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Let’s keep going.”

I continued to describe our imaginative journey across West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (states that I told the students we would study in fifth grade). We crossed the Mississippi and looked down on the Great Plains. Finally, we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. From this point on, the lesson was pure Dorothy Harrer.

“Let’s let our quick, wakeful thought make its way, now, in this instant, to the high mountain cliff that rises up above the prairie, way off to the west, farther than the eye can see or legs can run. Let’s go to the rocky ledge, like a platform, where the storms have made the rock break away. Far below us, lies the prairie. Far up above, rises the top of the cliff. Here on the ledge, we find that a bird has its dwelling which looks like a giant robin’s nest. Sitting in the nest, are three strange looking young birds, already bigger than any robin. We hear the sound of wings beating in the air.  As we are only here in thought, we are invisible, and the great bird that soars down to the nest doesn’t even see us. And life goes on as if we weren’t there at all. The big bird has a body that is almost as long as Neal is tall. Its wings spread out so far on each side that we could lay a yardstick down three times from one wing tip to the other. Now we know that it is an eagle.

In its great, hooked claws the eagle carries a fat, but lifeless jackrabbit. This it lays before the young birds who crouch and spread their half grown wings and utter squeals of excitement, but they do not approach the rabbit. The mother bird then stands on the dead rabbit and with her strong hooked beak begins to tear it into pieces, some of which she swallows herself while others she passes over with her beak to the beaks of her children. Each one of them patiently awaits his turn. It isn’t long before the rabbit has disappeared entirely.

Just as the meal is over, the father eagle soars down from the blue sky, carrying in one foot a dead mole which he soon disposes of with a few sharp strokes of his beak.

Then as the mother settles down and draws her eaglets under her great wings, the father perches on the rim of the ledge. He scans the sky as if on the lookout for any enemy that might sail down upon them. He peers downward toward the prairie as if to spy out another meal moving among the grasses far below.”

As I described the eagle lifting up and rising on the warm air currents, I told the children how the eagle is a kin of the air, how its feathers have air within them, as do its bones and how it even has small air filled sacs within its body. As the eagle rises higher above the land and I described how with its keen vision, it spies its prey hundreds of feet below. “The eagle,” I said to the children, “has remarkable eyesight. I have been told that if an eagle could read, it could read a newspaper from a quarter of a mile away.” When I finish saying this, the eagle is drawing in its wings and plummeting toward the earth like lightning, descending to strike its prey with its talons and carry it away. Finally I said to the class, “ Do you know children, where you are like an eagle? It is in your thinking that you can see so clearly. It is in your thinking and your imagination that you can soar to such heights and move from one place to another in an instant. It is in your thought-filled, wide awake mind that you are like eagles.”

And that was my “aha” moment, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to understand. In a Waldorf School we are continually helping the children know what it means to be a human being. Yes, we teach many other subjects and develop a wide array of capacities, but this was the underlying assignment. And I had to ask myself, “What else would a school based on Anthroposophy (the wisdom of the human being) offer its students?” At that moment I felt that above our school entrance there was a sign, written in invisible letters, just like the one at Plato’s Academy, “human being, know thyself.”

What better lesson could I bring to the children? How wonderful that I could let them know that within their thinking is the power and the strength of this magnificent bird. It seemed like the same understanding that the Native American people had, that the spirit of an animal they revered could empower and inspire. I had started out to teach my class about the eagle, but in the end we had both learned so much more.

Jack Petrash

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Four Temperaments and their Role in Waldorf Education

Can you explain the temperaments and how understanding a child’s temperament is important in instruction—and in parenting?


Waldorf class teachers often imagine their class as an orchestra with four different sections. Up at the front of the room, eager and ready, are the horns. These students are strong, dynamic, forceful, and sometimes a little brassy. Toward the windows we might find the winds—light, lyrical, and lilting. The sounds they make are more light filled and gentle, like the flute, a melodic sound that easily drifts off. In the back of the room are the strings. Some, like the violins are intricate and a little high-strung. The strings are knowledgeable, thoughtful, observant, and capable. They carry the music along. In the fourth section we might find the timpani drums, waiting patiently for their turn. They may not contribute as often, but when they do, everyone notices how much richer the orchestra sounds.

These sections are like the temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It was Rudolf Steiner’s intention that the first Waldorf teachers would understand the temperaments and know how to apply this understanding for the benefit of their students. He spoke about this understanding in his teacher training course for the first teachers (See Discussions with Teachers).

An understanding of the temperaments definitely predates Waldorf education. It was originally referred to by Hippocrates back in ancient Greece and related to the four humors (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) that gave rise to the four temperaments. The choleric temperament is forceful, powerful and at times given to anger. It is the opposite of the phlegmatic temperament which is relaxed and sedentary—interested in comfort, leisure, people, and a good meal. The melancholic is the brooding temperament—introspective, complex, and philosophical—quite the opposite of the sanguine, who is light-hearted, social, carefree, and at times flighty. This understanding of the temperaments was also present throughout the writings of William Shakespeare. Characters like Hamlet (melancholic), Falstaf (phlegmatic), Puck (sanguine), and Lady Macbeth (choleric) embodied, for better or worse, the characteristics of these temperaments.

“When I am dull with care and melancholy, [He] Lightens my humor with his merry jests.” — The Comedy of Errors

“I tell thee, Kate…
I expressly am forbid to touch it;
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And ‘twere better that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric.”— The Taming of the Shrew

In a Waldorf School, the role of the temperaments applies most appropriately to the grade school child. High school teachers have a different paradigm for understanding their students, as do the preschool teachers. But in the second phase of childhood, from grade one until the end of middle school, a student’s temperament becomes apparent and important. Steiner hoped that the temperaments would help teachers better understand their students by providing a window into the hidden inner world of the child.

Choleric
In general—and of course generalizations have their limitations—teachers find the choleric students like action. If there is something to do—nails to hammer, boards to carry, a hole to be dug—they are ready. Like Tom Sawyer, they do not lack confidence and are often fearless and ready to lead.  They are great supporters of fairness, yet they can be hard on things—particularly shoes and clothing—and yes, on people. They tend to walk with a heavy foot and seem to take up more personal space than some of the other children, which can quickly make a room feel small. The cholerics have an intensity similar to the color red and they can burn with the heat of high summer.

Sanguine
The sanguine children are ever so interested in their classmates. In grade one, they are the first to learn the names of the other students. They notice who is absent, who has had a haircut, and who has a new coat. They live strongly in their sense impressions, noticing and delighting in change. Remembering their homework or their jacket or lunch box can be challenging, however. They are like the spring, light, breezy, and carefree. They are like sunshine in the morning.  They are like the color yellow.

Phlegmatic
The phlegmatic children are the most consistent. They arrive each morning in a similar way—quiet, well-mannered, deliberate, and orderly. They like their world to be predictable—particularly at meal times—and they do not like to be pressured or rushed. Like the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” they can be slow, but steady, and they are usually loyal friends and pleasant classmates. The phlegmatic children take care of their things. Unlike the choleric child, whose crayon case often looks like it has been in a battle and some of the crayons have been wounded or taken prisoner, the phlegmatic child’s crayon case generally looks like it is brand new. These children can be as still and peaceful as a cold winter’s night. Their favorite color is often green.

Melancholic
The melancholic students learn quickly. They have a good memory for facts and details, particularly in a story, and often write long, informative compositions. They are very observant and reflective. It is not an exaggeration to say that the melancholic child experiences pain deeply. Blisters, cuts, colds, bruises, sore throats, and scrapes seem to burden them more deeply and more often than the other students. Melancholic children are like the autumn; a hint of sadness is in the air. Their favorite colors are often blue and purple.

The four temperaments provide teachers with insights into a student’s behavior they may not have gained otherwise. Years ago, a student entered my fifth grade class because of the difficulties that he had finishing his assignments at his previous school. His parents had spent well over a thousand dollars having him evaluated, but neither the evaluators nor his teachers at the previous school could find a way to help him overcome his difficulties. When he joined our class he still had the same challenge; his assignments took him longer than the other children. But one morning in main lesson, as I watched this student prepare to work, I noticed something that was very helpful. When the class began their work and opened their main lesson books and started to write, this young fellow took out his pencil case and opened it slowly. He then carefully took out his main lesson book and his pencil sharpener and placed everything neatly on his desk in their accustomed places. Then he began to sharpen the pencils that were a little dull, first the red, then the green, and, while he was at it, also the gold. Then he organized all of his pencils so they were back in rainbow order. When everything was perfectly ordered, he finally began to work on the title. Unfortunately, by this time, most of the students were nearly half done with their assignment. And that was when the light went on for me. This young fellow was extremely methodical, a characteristic of a good phlegmatic child. This was a deeply phlegmatic boy working in a deeply phlegmatic way. Add to this the understanding that phlegmatic children do not like to be pressured or rushed, and it was easy to see why this student had been unhappy at his previous school. My work was to help him to be true to his temperament and keep his world neat and orderly, but also complete his assignments in a timely way. This became a project that we undertook together. I encouraged him to sharpen his pencils while he ate his snack, so they were ready for the next day, and when we had research assignments in the later grades, I would always check in to make sure that he did not procrastinate in starting his work. “Slow and steady,” became the guiding principle, and each year he became more capable. 

The temperaments have been a “working idea” for me over the years, and there have been instances when new insights have helped my understanding grow. Sometimes this occurred through a special moment in the classroom or at recess—seeing a child’s drawing or painting or watching how a child walked (cholerics can be heavy footed and walk on their heels, while melancholic children can drag their feet.) At other times it came through a colleague’s remarks. I remember a colleague asking another Waldorf educator the following question. “I am a choleric mother, but my daughter is phlegmatic. I worry that I don’t understand her temperament. What can I do to support her?” The answer surprised me, and I have never forgotten it. “Clean your cupboards.” The person went on to add that the phlegmatic child loves when everything is in order, and they love the feeling of ordered abundance. A well-stocked cupboard, with all of the cereal boxes neatly lined up, as well as the soup cans and the jars of dried fruit and nuts in a row, provides the phlegmatic child with a sense of wellbeing.

Another bit of advice about bedtime, that I happened to hear about, was given to a parent of a melancholic ten-year old boy. The mother was told to physically comfort her son at bedtime while he was still young enough to allow it. “Warm his pajamas and his towel in the dryer and then make him a cup of tea with honey. Something sweet will help him feel that life is not so hard.”

These stories, and others, helped me to understand the needs of each temperament. We often have insights into the temperament we had as a child, but understanding the needs of all four temperaments is essential for the teacher. It is for this reason that the do’s and don’ts of the temperaments are of the greatest help.

  • Never speak to cholerics in anger, and do not try to reprimand them when they are angry. It is better to let them know that you disapprove of what they have done and that you will speak to them later. Let them have their “time out.” And be consequent with cholerics. It doesn’t help them to get away with things.

  • Melancholic children are inclined to believe that no one understands how hard their situation is. Never tell a melancholic to “get over it” or to “cheer up, it’s not so bad.” Rather allow them some time to speak about everything that hurts, remembering that the melancholic is often happy to be unhappy. And keep in mind that melancholic children do not like surprises.

  • The phlegmatic children love to be comfortable. Find a cozy place for them to sit with something good to eat, with family nearby or a good friend, and all should go well. Remember that phlegmatic children do not like to be hurried—not at bedtime, and especially not in the morning. But they thrive in a predictable routine.

  • Do not expect sanguine children to stay focused for very long. They have a carefree temperament and are easily distracted. It can be hard for the sanguine to stay on task, and yet the best way to keep them on task is to divert them. When we interrupt sanguine children in the middle of work, it often creates in them a longing to get back on task.

Perhaps Steiner’s best advice to teachers (and parents) was to meet the child’s temperament with a therapeutic dose of more of the same. When a melancholic child sees
someone who truly suffers, someone whose daily life involves real pain, they understand how hard life can really be and their melancholy diminishes. When a phlegmatic child encounters someone who moves at an even slower pace, they want to hurry up. And it is the same for the sanguine and the choleric.

It is also important to keep in mind that it is not always easy to discern a child’s temperament. Much is at play, including what is inherited from the parents. In addition, temperaments usually occur in combinations. At school we see sanguine-phlegmatic children, melancholic-choleric children, sanguine-choleric children, and more. So it helps to observe patiently and to read more. A.C. Harwood’s classic, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, has an informative chapter on the temperaments, and Rene Querido’s book, Creativity in Education, also has an excellent section. In fact, I would like to end this blog entry with an excerpt from Querido’s book that I find to be a delightful characterization of the temperaments.
“I became aware of the differences of temperaments in a very dramatic way. I had a large class of over thirty, fifth or sixth grade children. We had a little ritual for the art block; some children handed out the paper, while others dipped it in the water and put it on the boards and sponged it. Some children gave out the brushes and the paint. Everything was going pretty well. A large bucket of water stood in the middle of the room and an empty bucket stood next to it. The idea was to paint in silence and to exchange dirty water with clean water whenever it was necessary. One Friday, there was an accident, and a huge bucket of water got kicked over everything. What did the melancholics do? They got up and stood in it. The sanguines were immediately standing on their chairs shouting, “Ooh what is that?” The cholerics rushed out after mops and buckets. What did the phlegmatics do? You may not believe it, but they sat in their chairs and lifted their legs up above the water. I got the best lesson in my life.

This story has a sequel. I didn’t think the cholerics and sanguines would be able to coordinate cleaning up the water, so I took them outside in the courtyard and played a game with them. I asked the phlegmatics to clean up the mess and they did. It took twenty minutes, but they cleaned up thoroughly. They have a wonderfully practical quality. The melancholics stood around for a while and then joined the game; they felt more comfortable playing than cleaning up. The variety of responses to this common situation was really enlightening.”
                                                   Rene M. Querido, Creativity in Education

 Jack Petrash

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TED talk with Sir Ken Robinson

Here is a great video of a TED talk with Sir Ken Robinson. It has been around awhile, but it is still relevant to our educational discussion, and if you want to know more, take a look at his book, The Element.

The Youtube link:


Or, the direct URL at the TED talks website:

www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html