New Life for the Language Arts: A Review of Continuing the Journey to Literacy
Reviewed by Eugene Schwartz
Continuing the Journey to Literacy: A Guide to Teaching Language Arts in Waldorf Schools Grades 4 through 8. (Militzer-Kopperl, 2020). Sequel to The Roadmap to Literacy: A Guide to Teaching Language Arts in Waldorf School Grades 1 through 3 (Langlely and Militzer-Kopperl, 2018). $89.95. Available at renewalofliteracy.com.
Our times present insuperable challenges to the cultivation of the spoken and the written word. The dismissal of handwriting as a worthwhile subject, the denigration of speech, spelling, and punctuation through digital modes of communication and acronyms-as-words, and the flaunting of horrendous grammar and profanity in public and political discourse have wrought a rapid and alarming deterioration to the English language.
There are many reasons to expect that Waldorf schools, which have been educating children for over a century, would be forceful advocates on behalf of the “Language Arts”: speaking, reading, writing, and the grammatical rules that underpin them. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, lectured often and earnestly about the centrality of speech — the Creative Word — as a quintessentially human endowment.
Surprisingly, this is not the case. Experienced teachers have produced an abundance of “tour guides” to Waldorf education, but no Language Arts volume could be considered a genuine instructional manual for the Waldorf practitioner, a user's guide that offers deeply researched, systematic, and actionable advice. With this in mind, Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl's new book, Continuing the Journey to Literacy: A Guide to Teaching Language Arts in Waldorf Schools Grades 4 through 8 is likely to be an invaluable guide for teachers in independent and public Waldorf schools.
In her first book, The Roadmap to Literacy, Militzer-Kopperl and her collaborator Janet Langley provided new insights concerning the important first steps in writing and reading that are often glossed over in most descriptions of the Waldorf primary school.
In Continuing the Journey, Militzer-Kopperl’s impeccable research focuses on the copious indications that Rudolf Steiner has given about the teaching of language arts in general and grammar in particular. In addition, this is a book not only concerned with those domains, but one that touches on virtually every aspect of Waldorf education in grades one through eight.
The author’s approach makes manifest the fact that, like our upright stance and fully opposable thumb, our ability to speak and write makes us fully human. She recognizes that the teaching of literacy in the Waldorf school -- and the cultivation of respect for the rules of grammar -- support and dynamically interact with every subject that is taught in the primary and middle school years.
This book consistently shares the time, place, and even the circumstances under which Steiner gave his advice and indications, recognizing how often those factors led him to give markedly different, even contradictory, advice from one day to the next. The author is frank about the apparent lack of organization in many of Steiner’s lectures to teachers, and the often-confusing amalgamation of topics that makes it hard for the reader to focus on one particular subject of interest. In spite of the inherent challenges facing anyone attempting to “systematize” Steiner’s teachings, she persists and finds remarkable links and confluences. When necessary, she does not hesitate to take the occasional quantum leap, announcing a “bold innovation” that her readers are challenged to utilize in their curricular planning.
One of Militzer-Kopperl's most salient contributions to the modern Waldorf classroom is defining vital distinction between skills and subjects. Although this might seem to be an obvious partition, the skills/subject divide is mostly blurred or completely ignored in contemporary Waldorf classrooms.
She boldly asserts that over the years class teachers have elevated the “main lesson block approach” to learning, often assuming that literacy and writing skills will spontaneously arise out of students’ enthusiasm for classroom content. The reverential attitude concerning the importance of subjects such as history, natural science, and geography, has inevitably demoted skills like reading, and grammar to the point where they are usually taught infrequently and with a cursory focus. Steiner is quoted extensively by way of proving that this offhanded approach was not what he intended, and Militzer-Kopperl points the way to a clearly thought-out, systematic, and developmentally appropriate path to mastery of those skills.
Although the sheer 960-page length of this book can be intimidating, its author’s scrupulous and consistent organization encourage the reader to take this long journey one step at a time. The careful cross-referencing and alternation between the specifics of any one lesson and the big picture of Waldorf education in its entirety embody the principle of pars pro toto. Not only does is the content brought to life, but the book's structure allows that living content to breathe, as well.
Continuing the Journey to Literacy takes time to read, it takes time to digest, and it demands that the teacher provides sufficient time to bring its contents to the students. Opening this book to any page, even an experienced Waldorf practitioner will likely realize that, for the most part, not enough effort has been devoted to teaching language skills along with language arts. This book is not only about teaching grammar; it is also a compendium of exercises that may lead the reader to an encounter with Grammatica herself. For the Waldorf teacher and student alike, that is a journey worth taking.
Artwork: Jo Grundy
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Overcoming Division through Encounter
By Cornelie Unger-Leistner
The interreligious Peace Exercise Week was held in Galilee for the sixth time last autumn. A special experience, as NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner discovered.
How can people from a great variety of backgrounds and beliefs engage in dialogue, learn more about one another and encounter one another in peace? This key question of our time informs the work of the “Tor zur Welt”, the German sponsor of the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan meeting centre in Galilee where the interreligious Peace Exercise Weeks have been held since 2009. NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner spoke with the organiser of the Weeks, the Christian Community priest Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur from Überlingen, and met participants of this year’s Peace Exercise Week in Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM/ÜBERLINGEN (NNA) – The Peace Exercise Weeks go back to the 1980s, a time in which peace and disarmament occupied the minds of people in Europe. NATO’s so-called Dual Track decision – to offer the then Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium and intermediate range missiles combined with the threat that in case of disagreement NATO would deploy more middle-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe – and the continuing arms build up on both sides of the Iron Curtain brought hundreds and thousands of people out on to the streets.
As a result, an initiative came about in the Christian Community which aimed to work for peace in the world on a more inward path through prayer, knowledge of self and the world, as well as practical work in concrete projects. More recently, this initiative has translated into Peace Exercise Weeks which have taken place in the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan House of Devotion in Galilee every two years since 2009 – an initiative of lay people in the Christian Community which is organised each year in various other places as well.
One of the places in which these Exercise Weeks originally started was the Oberlin House in the Vosges mountains. “The participants read holy texts throughout the night but it was also about developing a sense of the surrounding area. There are parallels, after all, with Galilee because the Vosges mountains were the scene of major battles in the First World War. Those attending wanted to let the Eternal Light burn in such a place,” explains Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur.
The idea to take the Peace Exercise Weeks to the Holy Land was born in Estonia a short time after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “It came from Jewish participants from the former Soviet Union who had emigrated to Israel and wanted to contribute something of the impulse of the Peace Exercise Weeks there.”
Galilee offered a suitable location for such a meeting place. As early as 1998, an impulse arising from the youth camps of the Harduf kibbutz led to the foundation of the “Tor zur Welt” (Gateway to the World) association in Germany which wanted to support a local initiative between Jews and Arabs and be involved in the foundation of a meeting place for different cultures. In 2002, the project managed to acquire a plot of land near the kibbutz where a whole series of anthroposophical establishments were already located, including a Waldorf school, a special needs school and various artistic and social therapy initiatives. The founders of the project came from there and the neighbouring Bedouin village of Sawa’ed El-Homeira. This created the opportunity to work on overcoming the division in Israel between the Arab and Jewish communities, at least in this location.
House of Devotion at its heart
Today the initiative is in the process of building a House of Devotion and possesses an open-air stage, various residential buildings and a tent village which houses most of the students on the anthroposophical training courses. The festivals of the different cultures are celebrated together, seminars on various subjects are organised and young people from all over the world come to do voluntary service. Cultural projects with an interreligious character have an influence far beyond the location itself. The initiative took a major step forward through hosting intercultural and ecological vounteer programmes of the Jewish Agency which also enabled it to start building the accommodation. There is also a joint orientation semester for Arabic and Jewish school-leavers and volunteers from Europe also regularly attend.
The House of Devotion is at the heart of the initiative although it is still under construction. “It can already be used and we have held services in it, although windows and doors are still missing,” explains Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur. During her last stay in Galilee, part of an Arab wedding was held in the House of Devotion – with Arabic, Jewish and international guests. “It was a wonderful festival with music and speeches which would not have been possible in this way twenty-five years ago. A very mixed group came togehter: people from the Harduf kibbutz, present and past volunteers from all over the world, inhabitants of the Bedouin villages and the Arab towns nearby.”
Thus the House of Devotion turns into reality what the initiators wanted from the beginning: just being human beyond all group or religious affiliations. This is particularly important in the Holy Land because life in the various ethnic groups makes contact between the different population groups difficult.
Sunset over Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan with the House of Devotion in the foreground.
Overcoming blinkered thinking
In the view of its founders, the work of the initiative can also reflect back to Europe: “In the Peace Exercise Weeks it is possible to experience through the variety of lifestyles the extent to which we are all shaped by our family origins and tradition. We can sense our own cultural preconceptions. But such blinkered thinking does not get us anywhere today, we have to work at a higher level on the universal aspects of what makes us human,” Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur emphasises. Anthroposophy provided a good basis for this which in this context was also easily accepted by participants who had not previously come into contact with its founder Rudolf Steiner.
But the priest, who is responsible in the Christian Community for work in the Middle East, among other things, is reluctant to use the term “peace work” for the initiative. That was in a different league and too ambitious: “What has grown here between people in Galilee has come about through steadfast relationships between individual people – that is the only way to practise humanity and it supports real encounters rather than ready-made solutions.” The Middle East with its complex problems and interrelationships showed, above all, that there are no simple solutions today. “The problems with which the rest of the world also has to struggle are concentrated here in the Holy Land like in a nutshell. All of us can learn from it – primarily how to deal with diversity and complexity.”
How, then, did the participants at this years Exercise Weeks experience their stay in Galilee? The group started its visit with a two-day stay in Jerusalem which began with a visit to the city museum in the David Tower. A tour along the Via Dolorosa, through the Kidron Valley, to the garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives and the Wailing Wall gave the participants a picture of the diversity and complexity of Jerusalem. From the Jaffa Gate the group then took a minibus to Galilee.
Rianne is a Waldorf biology teacher from near Utrecht in the Netherlands. She was attending the Peace Exercise Week in Galilee for the second time. Looking back to 2017, she recalls that at that time little more existed of the House of Devotion in Sha'ar la Adam - Bab l'il Insan than the foundations. Young people from the kibbutz had built a sukkah on it. “We celebrated the act of consecration each morning in the sukkah, that was something quite special.”
People stayed, although it began to rain heavily on the second but last day. Sukkahs are part of the Sukkot festival in Israel and are even built on the balconies of flats and people eat and celebrate in them. It commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt when the people lived in provisional shelters. “They are actually made of organic material and leaves, which means that they don’t keep the water out. But the intention is to be able to see the stars in the sky,” explains Rianne. For the teacher, the joint celebration of the festivals of the three religions is a reason why she keeps returning for the Peace Exercise Week. She was all the more pleased to see how much progress there had been in the construction of the House of Devotion this year.
“We were only a small group this time round, but a strong one! We agreed on what we wanted to do. We also tried the night reading but since we were not that many people we could not read throughout the whole of the night.”
Language of the heart
Visits to the Bedouin villages led to an invitation to an Arab family with grandmother and three following generations of women. A lasting impression was also left by a joint discussion session in the House of Devotion at which the sheikh from a local village also spoke. “There was translation but it could be felt how much the sheikh spoke from the heart.” The Waldorf teacher was already familiar with Israel beyond the Peace Exercise Week and has visited the country with her class. Now she intends to engage herself in setting up a sponsoring association for the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan project also in the Netherlands. She is certain that she wants to be there in two years’ time: “It is the encounter between people, heart to heart, which you take home with you and which continues to work here among us as well.”
Kajo, a retired Waldorf class and upper school teacher from the lower Rhine had often visited Israel before but this was his first time at the Peace Exercise Week. Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur’s book Am Kreuz der Erde had drawn his attention to it. “It fascinated me so much that I read it twice and then absolutely wanted to join in,” he explains. His visit to Galilee had then been even more impressive than could have been predicted from the book: “The kibbutz, all the people, that there are so many Waldorf schools in Israel – all of that came as a surprise to me although I have often been in Israel.”
For Kajo, too, the human encounters were the most impressive experience of the Peace Exercise Week – the meeting with the various communities, for example, at the inauguration of the House of Devotion: “As the sheikh from the neighoubring village told us, they speak five languages in his village. Those are citizens of the world …” Kajo was also surprised to discover how many people he met in and around the kibbutz who were already familiar with the subject of anthroposophy.
Alongside the prayers, nighttime reading and discussion groups, the programme of the Peace Exercise Week also includes excursions. This time it was a visit to the ancient port of Akko, then Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee and also Mount Tabor. Kajo found that these places led to special experiences: “It is an interesting feeling in these places, out in the open, where – unlike in Jerusalem – not everything is built up. It’s not just nature but a sense of the whole of the geological foundation.” He had been particularly moved by the visit to the Eremos Grotto above Tabgha which, as the story has it, was the place to which Jesus is said to have gone to pray. There had been much prayer in these Biblical locations and the corresponding passages had been read there. But: “We were also silent together for a lot of the time.”
One experience which the Waldorf teacher likes to remember is the music and drama festival in the old town of Akko: “Without a drop of alcohol – that was a real contrast with our festivals here in Germany.” Kajo, too, wants to return to Galilee for the next Exercise Week, health permitting. At the end he still mentions his accommodation in the kibbutz – a reflection that attending the Exercise Week in this location also requires some courage: since the other rooms were already fully booked, Kajo stayed in the air raid shelter. “I slept well and felt absolutely safe,” he says in conclusion.
This article appeared in News Network Anthroposopy
NNA is an international news agency covering news and events from a perspective which incorporates the spirit and spiritual understanding as they relate to the development of new paradigms in every area of life – be it current affairs, politics and society, civil society, ecology, education, economics, agriculture, the arts or the sciences.
Sha’ar LaAdam-Bab L’ilInsan is a spiritual centre located in the lower Galilee region of Israel, between Kibbutz Harduf and the Arab village of Ka’abiyye. The centre was founded in 2002 to promote the joint participation of Jews and Arabs from the surrounding communities, with the goal of creating stronger ties between both groups based on mutual acquaintance and solidarity. The Sha’ar LaAdam-Bab L’ilInsan forest functions as an ecological coexistence centre for seminars, agricultural work, communal living, and volunteer activities, in addition to the organization of events and seminars for the wider community.
Central to our vision is the engagement in coexistence efforts to bridge the gap between local Jewish and Arab communities, and ultimately bring people together from all cultures to learn, grow, and build both intercultural and interpersonal relationships. Through meeting culturally diverse people, individuals spending time in this setting are confronted with questions like "Who am I?", "Who is she/he?", "What are our path as a human beings?". Central to our vision is bridging the gap between individuals and groups in striving for a community beyond cultural divides. This striving is an initiative sorely needed in Israel, especially in the lower Galilee region where Jewish and Arab communities live side by side but rarely cross paths, live, or work together. This is the central goal of our centre here at Sha’ar LaAdam-Bab L’ilInsan - to promote intercultural living and interpersonal relationships through our different projects and initiatives.
Find out more about the Sha'ar LaAdam - Bab l'ilInsan Spiritual-Ecological Center for Coexistence here