Question F: A Roadmap Reader Asks to Play Devil’s Advocate Part One

Note: These questions were submitted by a Waldorf teacher who encountered resistance when using Roadmap in her school. She asked if she could play devil’s advocate. I responded to the request as follows:

I want to take a stab at answering your questions: I like straight answers, so I'll shoot from the hip. I may seem a little glib–that's the point. Read these answers as if they were humorous answers in an education magazine or an advice column. They are meant to be slightly humorous and tongue-in-cheek. I hope the style does not offend!

1. Why is it so needed that we teach some phonic rules straight in Class 1—why can't vowel teams be delayed till Class 2?

Vowel teams CAN wait until Class 2!  Teach to your class's phase, not to its grade (in this case, Class!). Some classes will be ready at the end of first grade–others won't. It doesn't matter which, as long as you teach to the phase of the average student in the class (and work with small groups of students who are behind to help them catch up). 

1.5 I meant consonant teams but ended up writing vowel teams. I was told that teaching consonant teams make no sense in Class 1. It's too advanced teaching, mental, the children don't need it.

Teaching consonant teams makes total sense in class 1 because they are essentially letters of the alphabet and they appear in the most common words: THE, WHAT, SHE, etc. They also appear in one of the most common suffixes: -ing.  If you want students to make the association between letters and sounds and realize that writing is a code, they need to understand why the T in the word THE does not make the sound /t/, etc. 

I can’t tell you how many second grade Waldorf students I have assessed who do not realize that consonant teams (consonant digraphs) exist—and this was in February of second grade! These students try to sound out words by saying one sound for every letter. The word shop becomes s-hop. They do not have the basic tools they need to figure out the code. Some parents choose to take their students to the public Waldorf schools (charter schools) or their local public schools because the children are failing to learn to read. Colleagues from several of these schools have expressed exasperation to me with the number of students coming from Waldorf schools who need remedial reading instruction. This situation is part of what inspired me to write The Roadmap to Literacy (Langley and Militzer-Kopperl, 2018).

2. Does it make sense the idea of not to correct spelling for the sake of not stopping children from wanting to write and if it does, until when?

It makes sense if you are the parent of said child and the child is writing at home for fun. 

If you are the teacher and the child is writing in school, do your job. Correct away! Not to do so is to be derelict in duty. (How are the kids going to learn to spell better if no one points out their mistakes and makes them fix them?)

That said, be tactful. If you have a melancholic student, be even more tactful.

You don't need to correct every spelling error in every bit of student writing. Figure out which assignments need to have every spelling error fixed (e.g., main lesson book entries or final drafts of Kid Writing) and which do not. Some assignments can just be for fun, and spelling may not be corrected per se.

3. Why not delaying kid writing until the summer term in Class 1? (I was really asked this.)

Short answer: ‘Cuz Steiner said so. Read First Lecture on the Curriculum. Steiner says, “If we proceed rationally, we will get far enough in the first grade so that the children will be able to write simple things that we say to them or that they compose themselves.”

For teachers who are not satisfied acting out of Steiner's authority (which should be all Waldorf teachers), it is because Kid Writing is an excellent way to develop phonemic awareness and letter recognition. It practices spelling of sight words and encoding. It builds the neural capacities children need for decoding. It is fun for the children (once they get over their hang ups and perfectionism). It allows them to see the benefit of learning these tricky and/or boring letters. It is a way to practice every literacy skill you have taught them. It goes from the Whole to the Parts. I could go on . . .

4. When you use graphite pencils to write you are overseeing the importance of the artistic element in writing or not necessarily so?

I don't know what this means, but I'll take a stab at it. 

You use graphite pencils because they allow the students to form their letters beautifully and with ease. They also allow for erasing. 

You do not use colored pencils because they do not. Colored pencils require more pressure, which leads to writer's cramp. Their tips dull faster, which makes the letters harder to form and forces the children to write larger than they would if they used graphite. Students cannot erase their answers.

You don't use crayons because crayons are right out. They are for coloring.

(If you rephrase this question, I'll expand upon this answer.)

4a. Where can you apply the artistic/aesthetic element in handwriting apart from a beautiful letter formation when writing with graphite?

Nowhere. Apart from beautiful letter formation (which includes spacing, height, shape, straight line, etc.), there is no further artistic/aesthetic element when writing with graphite.

However, this is as it should be. There is no further need for an artistic/aesthetic element in handwriting because language itself is the artistic element. You don’t need to ask students to jazz up their handwriting to bring an artistic element into writing a composition into their main lesson books—that artistic element is already there in the language. The artistic element is found in the students’ growing mastery of style, vocabulary, sentence structure, and use of literary elements such as alliteration and assonance, simile and metaphor, etc.

The beauty comes from the language itself, not the form of the writing on the page. Handwriting in main lesson books should be largely a utilitarian thing. The students should use their neatest printing or cursive, but that’s it.

The exceptions include the following:

  1. When you are teaching medieval decorative manuscripts such as The Book of Kells, then it would be appropriate to ask the students to decorate their main lesson books as the monks used to do and to create elaborate forms for certain letters.
  2. If you choose to teach calligraphy, then you can ask the students to copy a poem or some other work using a special font in calligraphy. (Note: As a rule of thumb, lessons in calligraphy should not be scheduled in main lesson—main lesson classes are for academic work.)

The whole idea that students need to decorate their main lesson books is a sacred nothing that I address in depth in Continuing the Journey to Literacy.

5. Is there any chance that the spelling of children who were never taught spelling actively or strategically will in fact improve by magic from Class 4 onwards?

It is possible but not probable. I see two ways:

  1. If the children have phenomenal symbol imagery and read a lot, their spelling will improve. It wouldn't necessarily occur from Class 4 onwards. You'd probably see signs of it by Class 3 if it were going to happen organically.
  2. If the children are hit on the head (e.g., horrible traffic accident or concussion) and develop savant-like abilities in symbol imagery, then yes, their spelling will improve.

The better way to develop spelling is to teach the children the spelling of common sight words and to teach them to encode using phonics rules. It is also healthier. Steiner is clear that fixed concepts are useful for the children's development. (Concepts can be fixed or living. Both are necessary.) Spelling, grammar, and math facts are some of the fixed concepts Waldorf schools could be doing a better job teaching. They also would help with child development. Teaching these fixed concepts is truly win-win. The kids learn more, and it helps with their development.

If teachers also teach symbol imagery skills while they teach sight words and phonics rules, it'd speed up the process immeasurably for most of the students. 

5a. Would you say more about fixed concepts?

Certainly. The following comes from my book Continuing the Journey to Literacy:

Concepts that can change and grow are living concepts. These concepts are characterized. Teachers should not give students a fixed definition of a living concept, but instead work with characterization so the concept can change over time. In The Foundations of Human Experience, Steiner says, “You must teach the children concepts that can evolve throughout their lives…. continual defining is the death of living instruction” (1996, 153–154).

However, some concepts are fixed. Fixed concepts do not change. Fixed concepts are defined. They remain the same throughout life. It is just as important to work with these concepts. Steiner says, “When you teach children, you must carefully differentiate between concepts that are flexible and those (and they do exist) that do not need to change. The latter concepts can give children a kind of framework in their souls” (1996, 154). (Militzer-Kopperl 2020, 87).

Fixed concepts include spelling rules, phonics rules, the multiplication table, etc. Living concepts include what a lion is, etc. It is necessary to work with both types of concepts in the classroom.

6. Is assessment so necessary in lower grades?

Yes!  You can't (necessarily) tell which sensory-cognitive functions the children have just by observing the students and their work (i.e., informal assessment).

You should assess three times a year to make sure everything is progressing as it should. These assessment are in addition to the observing you do in class. Use the results to inform your teaching. If you do both, you can get 95% of your students to grade-level. If you don't assess, some of them will fall through the cracks. 

For example, children with good symbol imagery look like above-average readers in grades 1-2. They will fool you into thinking they have developed phonemic awareness when they have not. In grades 3-5, these precocious readers often stop progressing, get frustrated, and struggle. If they are lucky, someone will assess, spot the problem(s), provide remedial education, and get them back into the game before their self esteem plummets, and they give up on education because reading is too hard.

Does my advice contradict what Steiner said? Absolutely. However, Steiner was not right in this instance. It is common knowledge in the world of remedial education: you can't tell just be looking. That's why you assess. Assessment is like looking with a microscope–it allows you to see what cannot be observed with the naked eye.

6a. Was it because times were different back then and they could do without assessment? Or he simply didn’t have time to consider the topic/talk about it? Or was he really against it?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. The following is just my opinion:

Steiner frequently uses hyperbole, especially when he is denouncing something. Steiner denounced final examinations because they are stressful for students. He included all examination in the crossfire. The following comes from my book, Continuing the Journey to Literacy:

Final Exams

Steiner is not in favor of final exams. He makes some blanket statements about all exams in his condemnation of final exams. (For more about Steiner’s use of blanket statements, see Steiner’s Style in chapter 1.1 #1):

  • “It is best and most in line with the ideal of education to let the congested learning that precedes final examinations fall by the wayside—that is, drop final examinations all together…. As teachers, we might ask ourselves why we should test children at all, because we have them in front of us and know very well what they do or do not know” (1996c, 203).
  • “Ideally we should have no examinations at all. The final exams are a compromise with the authorities. Prior to puberty, dread of examinations can become the driving impulse of the whole physiological and psychological constitution of the child. The best thing would be to get rid of all examinations” (1997a, 25–26). (Militzer-Kopperl 2020, 801)

From context, it is apparent that Steiner’s objection with exams is centered around the harm certain types of examinations can inflict upon students (e.g., cramming is not healthy; dread of final examinations is not healthy, etc.). Does this mean Steiner was truly against ALL examinations? Or is this just an example of hyperbole?

On a certain level, what does it matter? Even if Steiner is truly against all assessments, would he be right? I would argue that assessment is necessary for teachers to know how well or poorly their students are learning and is a necessary part of a healthy education.

It is common knowledge in the world of remedial education: you can't tell just be looking. That is why you assess. Assessment is like looking with a microscope–it allows you to see what cannot be observed with the naked eye.

7. In tracking progress do we really need to use a specific rubric or the use of this will “kill” the overall view that a teacher should have over his/her student and so narrative evaluation is the thing to rely on?

Use the right tool for the right job. Some things work better with rubrics, and some with narrative evaluation. Decide which sheds more light on the matter. (Note: If your objective is to hide poor results, use the narrative!) The best approach is often both/and. Use a rubric to make the results clear (e.g., below average), but then use narrative to paint a full picture. Table 1.1.1 is from Continuing the Journey to Literacy. It illustrates the point.

Table 1.1.1: A Sample of a Balanced Report for Spelling Skills

Leticia Hernandez

Date

Spelling: Grade C-

The spelling program consisted of weekly spelling words designed to review grade-appropriate spelling principles.

Benchmark: Students can spell grade-level words in context using the following strategies:

 

 

Exceeds

Benchmark

Meets

Benchmark

Below Benchmark

Well Below Benchmark

Memorizing weekly spelling words

 

X

 

 

Recalling correct spelling from weekly spelling lists 

 

 

X

 

Encoding unfamiliar words with spelling principles / phonics rules

 

 

 

X

 

Leticia has shown much personal growth in spelling this past year. She now studies hard for her weekly spelling tests and makes a good effort to memorize the words. However, she is not yet able to remember the spellings consistently when she is composing. Furthermore, she cannot apply the spelling principles to words she has not memorized.

Note how either the rubric or the narrative alone would have painted a false picture–either too pessimistic or too optimistic. It is only by providing both that you can give the full truth.

8. Finally and on a totally different note, I would love to hear your views on teaching Norse Myths in Grade 4. In a nutshell, why is it questionable?

In a nutshell–it is not at all what Steiner recommends, and his recommendation is, well, better! I cover this topic in exhaustive depth in Continuing the Journey to Literacy. I show Steiner's recommendation for Class 4, explain where Norse mythology comes from, and show options–including teaching Steiner's indication, Norse mythology, or both! There is so much to say on this topic, I’ll direct you to Continuing the Journey to Literacy.

Thank you for the questions! This blog was fun to write! I hope I did not offend. I just meant to have some fun after a long, exhausting week.

It didn’t offend and I’ve loved the fun tone!

 

 

About the Author Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl