A little over a month ago (I cannot believe that much time has passed already!) I wrote about how I integrate Charlotte Mason and the Waldorf philosophy, focusing on how I choose the right resources. I promised another post on how I teach lessons, and I want to make good on that, so here goes :)
Learning is a Work of Heart
Before I say what I have been doing, I want to add that as an educator, I am actively engaged in learning and growing myself, and my understanding of this is constantly evolving. I learned something new today that has already changed how I think about the main lesson.
I was invited to speak at a local homeschool panel this morning, and it was absolutely wonderful to be able to connect with different mothers who are at different stages of their journey and coming to this path from different perspectives and backgrounds. I learned so much and felt so strengthened. It really impressed me once again how important community is, especially in the world of homeschooling and ESPECIALLY for introverts like me who don't seek it out enough.
So as one of the other speakers was sharing about her educational philosophy she started talking about how all learning is the work of the hearts, hands, and head. After the panel discussion we were talking, I told her how what she said reminded me of the Waldorf Philosophy. She began telling me how her homeschool approach is inspired by Pestalozzi, whose work inspired both Rudolph Steiner and Charlotte Mason. I was fascinated, as so much of what she said really resonated with me, and I already love the work of both Steiner and Charlotte mason so much! My key takeaway from what I learned this morning, and the reading I did afterward about Pestalozzi, is that learning really begins in the heart. This rings true with what I already believe and helped me formulate how and why teaching living lessons is so important.
I genuinely believe as human beings, we learn within the context of what is meaningful to us and that learning happens all the time. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read both part one of this post, and my last post on integrating interest-based learning into your homeschool, as a lot of what I have to say in this post builds on them.
What is A Living Lesson?
Before I get too far into this post I want to add a little disclaimer about the words "lesson." I feel in our current world, this word has come to have a negative connotation in some settings.
Because of this, I want to be really clear about what I mean by lessons. To me, it simply is a time that I set aside to work with my child with an objective in mind. An objective can be straightforward, something like, "I want my child to develop their large muscles." So we are going to the park to swing on the monkey bars. Honestly, every time I try to sit down and define what "school" or "learning time" really are, the definition kind of slips through my fingers. In reality, we are teaching them every time we interact with our children or do anything in front of them (or not in front of them in some cases). A lesson is just a word that reminds us to be intentional.
Why I Teach Structured Lessons in my Homeschool
Sitting down for a more structured lesson allows me as an educator to do a few key things; one, I can introduce my child to something or facilitate them interacting with an idea or concept that I feel is important for them to be aware of. The other is to guide and facilitate a deep dive into something that is meaningful to them. So in many ways, my best advice for teaching a homeschool lesson is to not overthink it too much. You don't need to be at a chalkboard (though it's ok if you use one) or follow a set curriculum. Living lessons should not cause tears, or yelling, or need punishments or treats to get your child to be present and learning. They are like a delicious meal; everyone wants to be there, and there is something for everyone to enjoy.
A Little Story With a Helpful Reminder
Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the preacher who came to church one day and there was only one man, a cowhand. The preacher asked the cowhand what he thought the preacher should do, to which the cowhand replied, "I'm just a cowhand, and I don't know much, but when I go out to feed my cows, and only one shows up, I feed him." Hearing the cowhand's words, the preacher became inspired; he preached with passion, led the morning prayers, and sang the entire repertoire of hymns. He then asked the cowhand how he liked the sermon, to which the cowhand replied, "I'm just a cowhand, and I don't know much, but when I go out to feed my cows, and only one shows up, I feed him, but I don't feed him the whole load!"
I think this story is apt for homeschoolers for two reasons. Children learning one-on-one or in small groups need a different approach than children learning in the classroom with 20-30 others. I think this first part is especially apt for families who are trying to implement a Waldorf or Waldorf-inspired curriculum at home. Many guides and books we draw from are written with a much larger class in mind and must be adapted, and while the main lesson typically takes two hours, at home it may work better to shorten it. Secondly, when our children "show up" to learn, we need to meet them where they are. We may have a "whole load" prepared, but they may not be ready for it.
Charlotte Mason talked about a "gentle feast," but we must remember the gentle part of that phrase, and before we get to the feast, we may want to start with the appetizers.
Two Kinds of Lessons
I mentioned above how lessons serve two purposes in our homeschool. I wanted to continue that by talking about the two kinds of lessons I use and how they relate to the Charlotte Mason and Waldorf philosophies. These are the main lesson and practice lessons.
The Main Lesson
If you are familiar at all with the Waldorf Philosophy, you have probably heard of the main lesson. The main lesson gets referred to a lot, but it can seem kind of mysterious. What is so unique about this one lesson that makes it so well, main? Some people seem to think the main lesson is the only lesson that happens in Waldorf schools, and while I am not a trained Waldorf teacher myself, I have read extensively on it, and have found this is a misconception. Waldorf teachers do always begin their day with the main lesson, but they continue with other classes throughout the day (more on that later). If you are looking for a guide on how to do a strictly Waldorf-style main lesson from a trained Waldorf teacher is not what this post is. For that, I highly recommend this blog post by A Waldorf Journey (who is probably my favorite Waldorf blogger).
What I am referring to in this post as the main lesson is my own take on it, and how it has shaped the way we learn. For me, it represents the heart of our homeschool experience. As you probably know the word heart and the word hearth have a shared root. When I think of the ideal main lesson, I think of a family gathered around their hearth sharing stories, enjoying one another's company, and spending time focusing on a topic they love together.
What I Teach in Main Lesson
First off I want to say that many of us tend to think of learning in terms of subjects (such as language arts, math, and history). However, the main lesson, which is presented in block format (the same topic being explored every day for 3-6 weeks) kind of defies this structure. On the surface, the topics covered in the main lesson block may seem like they fit into one subject, but the goal is to look at the material holistically. So you would look at the material through the lenses of different disciplines.
Because I structure so much of our learning around my children's interests, and because I really believe this is the only way anyone does in fact learn, I try I build our main lesson block around what my children are wanting to learn and what is happening in the world around us (the season, family events, etc.). If you want more information on that, see the section in part one of this post on choosing what to teach. You can also download my three-year content rotation to better understand what topics we cover in our main lesson blocks.
If you want to follow the more traditional Waldorf prescribed main lesson order, you can find it here (Jaime York is a phenomenal resource for any aspiring Waldorf Homeschooler).
When I Teach the Main Lesson
I also tend to do our main lesson a little later in the day, which makes it literally and figuratively the center of our homeschool day. Many Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschoolers seem to use the morning time, table time, and tea time rhythm, and I have to say I really love this way of structuring our day.
Now you may know that typically in Waldorf schools, the main lesson is divided into four parts:
Warm-up or circle time which includes rhythm and movement
Review and recall of the previous day's material
Presenting new content
In our homeschool, we divide these parts throughout the morning. We usually do the warm-up and circle time activities as part of our morning time, and then we do the review and recall as a part of morning time or save that for table time. "Table time" is the part of the day I think of as our main lesson. This is when I present new content and when we do bookwork.
So What does Teaching the Main Lesson Look Like?
As I mentioned before, I divide up the traditional Waldorf circle time into two segments. I do this because I want to get outside early in the day, but I want to bring us together to begin our focused learning before we leave the house. I also want our nature exploration and study to be an integral part of our learning and not seen as something we do as a break from it. However, since movement is integral to circle time, if you follow this order, you could also consider outdoor time as your movement and warm-up period.
Once we do come back inside, we do try to refocus with another short rhythmic activity, such as saying a short verse or poem. This takes no more than five minutes. We follow a modified version of the three-day lesson rhythm, so we say the same poem or do a similar warm-up activity for a few days.
Review and Recall
Now again, this is something that has morphed and migrated to different parts of our day as we gone through different seasons of both my children's lives and the literal seasons of each year (in the warmer months we tend to go outside almost immediately after we wake up, so review and recall happens after we come back inside).
In the Waldorf literature I have read, review and recall often consists of discussing the material, and the teacher dictating some sentences summarizing it. Typically I write down a couple questions for discussion, and a few dictation sentences about what we learned the previous day. I often start by asking my children to tell me about their picture from the previous day and asking them the questions. Then I dictate the sentences for them to write down in a practice notebook. We do not always do all three of these everyday. Somedays we do only discussion, other days we do only dictation or questions.
Presenting New Content
If the main lesson is the heart of our day, for me this is the heart of the main lesson. This is when I pass something on from my heart to theirs. Storytelling is a wonderful way to do this. When you tell stories to your children, you are taking something and internalizing it, and then sharing a piece of yourself with them. Storytelling has been a way for one generation to share their memories with the next for thousands of years. Folktales and fairytales are such a great place to begin with storytelling. You can find a wealth of collected wisdom and insight that has been told over and over again in every culture in different versions throughout time. If you are looking for a place to get started with them, check out the Rainbow Fairy Books by Andrew Lang which you can read for free here.
As our children grow up, we are going to want to explore more in depth concepts and ideas, and we are going to move on to more technical subjects such as chemistry, and physics. These topics can still be explored through story, but there are likely to be aspects of them that we will want to delve into further after that. This is where living lecture can be just the thing! Like the word lesson, lecture can be a loaded word, but its really just a way of saying that you are going to talk about a subject, again bringing it from your heart to theirs. Take the facts and concepts about the topic, and think about them and how they are meaningful to you and then bring them in an interesting and engaging way to your children. Charles Kovacs' books are great examples of this; containing collections of these types of inspired talks, which he wrote down. They are not written to be read aloud to children, but rather for you to read, internalize and pass on in your own words.
Quality Books and Resources
A central value of the Charlotte Mason Philosophy is living books. Much like living lectures, living books are inspired, bringing quality content from the heart of the writer right to you children. There is no one set definition for what a living book is, rather Charlotte Mason challenges parents and educators to ask themselves a series a questions about a book, and decide for themselves. You can read more about that here, but I also agree with writer of that post that the best way to understand this or any part of the Charlotte Mason philosophy is to read Charlotte Mason's own writings. Kind of a side note, but a lot of homeschool moms find her words a bit hard to understand, and I was reminded recently that Ambleside has put together a set of Charlotte Mason's writings in modern english, you can check them out here.
In our homeschool, we often use living books on day one or two of our lesson. Living picture books are an engaging way to get all your children together and share something with everyone. Older siblings can even read to the younger ones. Even if you do not have younger children, picture books still have a lot to offer older children. Read about that here. I am a grown-up and I absolutely love reading picture books!
One final resource we use is reference books. There are many different reference books you can use including textbooks. There is a really great article about using textbooks from Quidnam Press. In our homeschool I use textbooks as a resource for ME to help me understand a topic better before teaching it to my children. I also use reference books for this purpose, as well as for my children to use to lookup answers to their questions. My absolute favorite reference book set is the DK Eyewitness Books. What I love about these books is you can pick any topic you and your children are interested in and they have a book for it! They are full of pictures, interesting facts, and really work well as a "spine"to build living lessons around or refer to while doing projects or just when you get curious about something.
Hands on Activities and Experiences
A living lesson does not have to be you talking or reading. Doing a hands on science experiment, building a Model of the Great wall of China, or taking a field trip to the museum, are all ways you can present new content to your children.
Many Waldorf teachers have their students do some work in their books after the main lesson. Charlotte Mason directs teachers to have their child narrate or tell back to them what they learned (out-loud or for younger children, in writing for older children).
I have combined elements of both philosophies into our bookwork time. For us, this usually consists of art time and writing time. Because I have been teaching older grades for the past few years, we do a combination of Waldorf style dictation on the subject and I also have them write some of their own original work to add to the dictation.
Sometimes this is a graphic, like a chart showing how mountains form, or a picture of a science experiment, and sometimes it is a short original composition (how long varies based on the child's age and ability). After this work is edited and workshopped and my child is satisfied that it is their best, we copy it into the Main Lesson book. This an example of a finished main lesson book page by my daughter when she was in sixth grade.
A Note About the Three-Day-Rhythm
I mentioned above that we follow a sort of the three-day lesson rhythm, but we modify it (which according to the article a lot of Waldorf teachers do to). Because we follow a four day "school week" our rhythm is often two to four days.
Or its three days, with an extra "find out more day.
In the book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, the author introduced me to The Three Period Lesson, which is actually a Montessori concept (the more you learn about these philosophies the more you find they are all very similar in a lot of ways, and thus the harder it gets to box yourself in!). Here's my understanding of it, period one you show and tell your child something, period two you ask them which one, or basically give them a chance to review without having to directly tell you without any prompts or support, and then during period three, they tell or show you what they internalized. This can really work well with the three day rhythm, and you can even use parts of each period in the same day (though Steiner does really emphasize sleeping on the material before reviewing it).
For example, I might present new material on day one, on day two review it in the morning with dictation and discussion, and then continue with an original composition on day three, which we then edit and copy into their books on day four. I also sometimes think of day four as "And then" day. So for example, we learned about three three states of matter, "and then" my daughter was interested in what state of matter snow is so she did her own experiment. In other words can day four can be a day to finish up and let your child take it a little further according to their own interest and curiosity.
The Practice Lessons or the "Other" Lessons
This post turned out to be way longer than I thought it was going to be, and I feel like anyone reading this is going to have limited mental energy to take in more information at this point (so good for you if you're still reading!). Anyway I am going to try to keep this really brief, but I don't want to completely leave it out. I also plan to make this its own post sometime later and go into more depth about this topic, because I think its really important. I think a lot of Waldorf inspired homeschoolers tend to really focus on the main lesson and the practice lessons kind of get pushed into the background.
We usually do at least two additional practice lessons throughout the day. One focuses on reviewing and practicing language arts, spelling, or handwriting concepts, and one focuses on math. We integrate a good bit of those "subjects" into our main lesson blocks, but I want to make sure we practice those core skills everyday. However, I don't want to feel pressure to cover everything because it gets tedious and I am not a fan of those clearly made-up assignments to try to connect something that really doesn't relate; like counting how many feet a builder had to climb to build one of Egyptian Pyramids (Unless of course your child is genuinely curious about that).
Some examples of what we include in our practice lessons are:
Math or grammar practice workbooks (kind of a last resort, but great if your short on time or child likes that kind. of thing, and they can be especially helpful for math- we pretty much do math practice everyday no matter what)
More creative writing time
Personal projects such as reports, math focused projects, or hand crafts
Nature study and journaling
More copy-work and dictation (I really love the idea of having a commonplace book, and letting the child choose meaningful quotes or other bits of writing to copy into each day)
Poetry study, art study, and composer study
In traditional Waldorf school the practice lessons are always after the main lesson, but We tend to do one practice lesson before, and one after. They sort of piggyback onto our morning time and tea time the same way the main lesson happens during table time in the middle of the day.
If you want to read more about how one Waldorf teacher does the practice lessons check out this blog post.
For the most part, I've stuck with content rich material for our main lessons and haven't done much with strictly grammar or math focused main lesson blocks, but I really want to try shifting to doing main lessons that include these areas in a more central way. I plan to do one grammar and writing practice lesson if the main lesson block is math focused, and one math practice lesson if. the main lesson in language arts based, then do project based learning, or short Charlotte Mason style lessons based on interest for the second practice lesson.
If you want to check out a modern-day educator who is inspired by Pestalozzi, check out Libraries of Hope, which is the work of Marlene Peterson a veteran homeschool mother who has put together a very thorough collection of vintage books and other resources. There are several other resources I wanted to talk about, but this post is already really long, so I added them to a new guide I just finished! I sincerely hope this guide and the resources help you teach inspired lessons to your children this year!
Get my New Living Lessons Guide, and this Week only, and Get the Rhythm and Planning Guide FREE!!!
As a special "back to school" offer, I am bundling my living lessons guide with the Rhythm and Planning Guide. This guide includes tons of practical tips on teaching living lessons that your children WANT to participate in, and tons of bonus items like panning templates and my original main lesson page checklist. Combining these two resources will give you a huge jumpstart on planning and teaching for an inspired year! I believe this lesson guide is one of the most valuable resources I have ever created, because it really walks you through how to create and build engaging lessons and learning units for your children for every topic and season, making it something you will use for years to come!