A language arts curriculum generally focuses on words—reading words, writing words, speaking words and listening to words. Words are powerful, mystical, and musical. They evoke strong feelings and can paint beautiful pictures. Rudolf Steiner says that “our task is to educate the human being in such a way that he or she can bring to expression in the right way that which is living in the whole human being, and on the other side that which puts him/her into the world in the right way.” At Waldorf School at Moraine Farm, the eighth grade language arts class focuses on teaching language to engage the whole student and to prepare her for the next part of her journey, high school.
When reading or listening to stories, students begin making meaning through the sounds they hear and the pictures they imagine. In language arts, the eighth graders read and hear a wide and varied selection of traditional and contemporary literature. The literature includes short stories by authors such as Amy Tan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Sandra Cisneros, poems by William Blake, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and William Shakespeare, to name a few, and a longer work of prose, usually a novel. This year students read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Through class discussion students find deeper meaning in the literature by connecting the stories to their own lives and the world they live in. A developing vocabulary of literary terms such as plot, point of view, characterization, and theme helps them to see the many different parts of stories that make up the whole, multi-faceted picture. At times it’s almost a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. Often, during this time of beginning analysis, students move from making observations about a piece of literature—That tiger is scary in the poem!—to discovering how the author creates that effect—The fire imagery and trochaic meter make the tiger seem scary.
In the middle school years, as students’ feelings and thoughts grow more complex, it is important for students to have the writing skills necessary to engage in the greater world they live in, and to express themselves with clarity, confidence and creativity. Equally important is that students experience writing as a process and not as a finished product. The eighth graders practice the writing process by brainstorming, then moving to drafting, and finally to editing and revising. They write their own short stories and poems while learning about the connotation and denotation of words, the difference between concrete, abstract and precise language, as well as the difference between details that show and details that tell. Students write paragraphs with topic sentences, supporting evidence and concluding statements, and they learn how to cite evidence from a work of literature by integrating a quotation into their writing. They also review the template of the five-paragraph essay—introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion.
Steiner recommends “word teaching” or teaching the parts of speech to children under twelve years and teaching syntax, the arrangement of words and phrases, to children older than twelve years.1 The eighth graders review the parts of speech before moving on to noun functions, clauses, phrases and sentence types. A confidence often begins to emerge and grow as middle school students, beginning to understand and play with syntax, see the flexibility and fluidity of language.
A culminating writing project in the eighth grade year in language arts is the independent research paper. Students choose their own American history topic to research and write about. They generate an essential question to guide their research, and, after doing research, they answer that essential question in the form of a thesis statement. Some of this year’s essential questions were What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke? What made the Underground Railroad so strong for so many years? What factors led to Frederick Law Olmsted’s unique style of landscape design? Could the British Petroleum oil spill disaster have been prevented? During the research stage students learn how to find sources, both online and off, and how to differentiate good sources from bad sources. The digital literacy skills they learn in CyberCivics, an integral part of the middle school curriculum at Waldorf School at Moraine Farm, help them become better and more efficient researchers online. During this unit, eighth graders become burgeoning experts on something they are deeply interested in, and they derive great satisfaction from that feeling of expertise. They experience the rhythm of research—questioning, answering, and questioning some more—and that experience nurtures curiosity and fosters life-long learning.
Writing graduation speeches is the culminating unit in eighth grade language arts. This is a wonderful time for students to reflect on their journeys as Waldorf students, both individually and collectively, before moving on to high school. After many years at Waldorf at Moraine Farm, students graduate having experienced a rich curriculum immersed in legends, fairy tales, stories from the Hebrew scriptures, Greek myths, Norse mythology, Shakespeare, and so much more. The music and pictures of the words Waldorf students have been hearing, reading or speaking for many years have built a strong foundation in all aspects of the language arts. The eighth grade language arts curriculum finishes that strong foundation. Students are ready and eager to continue exploring the world of language and literature with confidence and wonderment in high school.
1 Harrer, Dorothy. An English Manual for the Elementary School. Association of Waldorf Schools, 2004.
Written by Amanda Wiederhold, Middle School Language Arts Teacher