Seek the truly practical material life,
but seek it in such a way that it does not numb you
to the spirit active within it.
Seek the spirit,
But do not seek it in supersensible lust,
Out of supersensible egotism,
But seek it,
Because you want to apply it selflessly
in practical life, in the material world.
Apply the old rule:
“Spirit never is without matter, matter never without spirit!”
in such a way, that you say:
We want to do everything material in the light of the spirit,
And we want to seek the light of the spirit in that way that it will develop warmth for our practical deeds.
The spirit, which is led by us into the material,
The material, which is molded by us until it reveals itself,
whereby it drives out the spirit from within;
The material which receives from us revealed spirit-
The spirit, which we chase into the material,
They form the kind of living existence,
which can bring mankind to real progress.
This will be the progress, which by the worthiest yearnings
In the deepest layers of the souls of our time
can only be longed for.
Rudolf Steiner, September 24, 1919
Translation by Atta Turck
In a conversation on a transcontinental flight lately, I mentioned that I was a Waldorf teacher and was asked what distinguishes the Waldorf approach, say for example, from the public school approach. I answered something like: “One of the main differences would be for me that Waldorf schools shape their methods and the content and timing of their curriculums such that they are appropriate for the developmental stages of the growing children, and that Waldorf teachers are trained to think about this in a specific way, that of antroposophy.” Reflecting on our conversation later, I tried, for myself, to get a firmer grasp on what characteristics of development in the children are particularly important for me as a woodwork teacher, at the moment of grades five to eight, and how I should appropriately work with these.
Following Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical indications, in a nutshell I have the following picture of the soul disposition of the children * coming to woodworking between fifth and eighth grade. Parents and early childhood teachers have helped the children during the first part of childhood to shape their physical bodies. This occurred mainly by means of creating myriad varied opportunities worthy of imitation. When the children entered first grade, work began supporting them in enlivening their souls, employing music, rhythm, art, movement, story-telling, games, speech, play-acting, counting, and more. For most children in third grade the “nine-year-change” occurred, which started a usually quiet, but deeply felt crisis. The experience of their individual being as separate from the world took the natural security of connectedness and unity away and brought a deeply felt need for assurance. This need is usually met by parents and teachers. Through interest in the children and love for them, they are able to instill trust that the adults in the children’s lives are doing the right things for them and will keep them safe. This frees the children to stay involved with their soul life, which soon, with the onset of puberty, occupies them strongly until the end of childhood. All children need to find their own specific way (with our support as a safe backdrop) beyond the physical and hormonal changes they go through and the impact these have on their feeling life and their social relationships. This, varyingly, takes until about the age of fourteen.
Following this picture, for me the job of a woodwork teacher in middle school is to grab the children’s interest in the physical world intensely enough that they get distracted away from their inner life and away from the important relationships to their peers, and they allow a different dimension of their relationship to the world come to the fore; one that is mediated by their will. This is a will, if things go right, that the children over time discover they control. Many of the changes in fifth grade children take place on a subconscious level and are just confusing for them. The children experience themselves as passive (sometimes suffering) onlookers to what physical growth and puberty bring about. Now, instead of acting instinctively or impulsively, with the exploration of the conscious will the children can discover an area in their lives where they can begin to consciously exercise their transformative capabilities. These are the capabilities that at some point will shape their future, and will create their life for them. And I am not talking about using a chisel or a saw here. I am talking about this exceptional opportunity for the children to have during puberty, the experience of creating something or transforming something “at will”: to be in control. For the children to experience this will as a tool, which they can learn to develop into something at their disposal, allows them to experience a profound quality of humanity. At the same time as they experience the transformative biological forces at work, that are independent of their conscious will, and come with the inescapable quality of nature that takes its course, they also are given the opportunity to strengthen their most human powers and experience them in a positive way in the form of the creative will. These can be experienced as personal, individual powers that come with the attribute of freedom, resting upon the shoulders of a long historical development, representing the cultural powers of humanity. Waldorf pedagogy works with the creative will in many forms and in many subjects. Woodworking is one of the more physical and more conscious forms. It appears to me that the experience of these personal powers through a physical relationship to the world is particularly suited for the middle school children since their feeling life, being in turmoil and transition, gives them little to hold on to, the intellectual capacities that could guide them are just starting to develop, and their relationship to the adults who they could turn to at this time begins to move into a highly volatile state.
During this time the children also become aware of another side of their will forces, more instinctual and impulsive in nature. It shows itself in the form of desires. Most visibly acknowledged today, as the children’s sexuality matures, are those desires that have, or can be made to have, sexual roots. Commercialization and sensationalization of sexuality are known to target teenagers and children of an ever younger age, exploiting their subconscious desires for financial gain. For a balance our societies have little healthy orientation and guidance to offer to a teenager. Meaningful traditional organizational, cultural, or religious rites of passage have all but disappeared. The experience of self-control, respect of oneself and of the other, and moral judgment have to enter in other ways into the children’s lives. Other desires, equally powerful but less in the public’s eye, that develop during this time in the children’s soul life are idealism and the strong will to do good in the world. To move them out of the realm of the virtual, the imagined, and the “childish dreams” it takes the experience of real creative power that can manifest in the world.
The exercise of a craft in a class brings with it the necessity for self-discipline, self-control, increasing knowledge of ones strengths and limits, experience of other’s struggles and successes and the value of mutual support, striving for and valuing of beauty in all work, and the experience of the possibility for improvement that points into the future. In a multi-year process with many deepening repetitions each child will experience the creative will in a profound way.
The value of taking hold of the conscious creative will between the ages of ten/eleven and twenty one cannot be stressed highly enough, because that is when our soul forces, much of our physical body, our intellect, and our relationship to the spiritual world take their basic shape for the rest of our lives. Our conscious will forces are able to bring morality and harmony into this development to form a solid basis for our future activities in life. **
In a parent meeting some years back I said provocatively that I am not really teaching the children woodworking at all, that this is just a pretense. What I am really teaching are extremely helpful basic human qualities. For example: In fifth grade carving I am teaching the children attention to detail, but mainly patience. In sixth grade I teach them to find joy in repetitive movement: with a gouge, with a plane. (For years now my family has had a note on our fridge: “We are, in fact, the result of what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is a habit not an event.” A translated quote from Aristotle.) Over all four grades I teach them breathing, rhythm, balance, right posture, standing firmly on the ground. Goals I try for all grades to adopt for themselves are also to complete projects, to value beauty over expediency, to stay within time frames. Eighth grade in particular I teach to share and to help others. The “project”, the product, completely steps back for me as a teacher behind the qualities I want to teach and learning goals I want to achieve.
Early on in my teaching I rejected the notion of working with power tools with the students. This was first a less conscious choice but consolidated later as supporting the pedagogical purpose of woodworking in a Waldorf school. More and more I have found value in working with the primitive tools of the trade like wedge and mallet, hatchets, and drawknives. Their lack of sophistication allows for experiences that are archetypal in nature, and I found that students typically respond with enthusiasm and joy to working with them. I think of it as a re-living of historic stages of humanity’s cultural developments of eras gone by, which led to the technologies and skills forming these tools. They are still easy to understand. This touches the students in some profound way. Because many of these tools are extremely sharp, I also teach the students a certain reverence for these tools that prompts them to treat the tools with care and awakens the wish to learn to sharpen them, which then acts as some kind of learning spiral.
Over the last few years I have begun to understand why in teaching woodworking in middle school it is very important for the woodwork teacher to be able to rely just on his/her authority (a person-specific moral quality) as an adult and teacher. If children and parents alike trust me, and my instructions in class are being followed more or less unquestioned, this will allow me to predominantly focus on developing the conscious will forces in the children as the counterbalance to the soul forces. No distracting conversations and arguments about the “why”, choices, or alternatives are necessary, and plain, satisfying, productive work can be done, for which most middle school children are very grateful. For them this makes for easy relationships during woodshop class and straightforward goals. If the conditions are right children cherish the time, when they can live just in the physical world and can forget about their inner life. Healthy authority is still an important vehicle of learning for children in the later part of childhood. It relieves the children of the burden of responsibility and the stress of failure. They will be fine, if they just try hard to follow my instructions. If something goes wrong then, it is my fault and I have to come up with ideas to fix it. If they don’t follow my instructions, the students easily understand the connection. No blame; no harm; try again; an easy relationship. Authority as an acceptable basis for the relationship between teacher and student is ideally only later replaced by expertise (a more objective quality) in adolescence, around the age of fifteen. (The switching from authority to expertise has been experienced as painful both, by me and my students, because for someone in the class the focus and content of the lesson for some time is always more about their relationship to me than about woodworking, and the bystanders who are not at this point in their development suffer.) ***
However, I cannot say that in most of my classes I am able to draw the children fully into a process of working just on the material level. During the last decade it has been my experience that it became more and more difficult to create these ideal opportunities for the children, where they gladly let go of the noise inside of them and revel in the experience of the moment, where they can feel their conscious will power and enjoy it. Children come with a higher level of fear and skepticism, with less trust in the adults, and to me they appear to be more alone than they used to. They also come with the expectation of being given choices or to dream up their own tasks without being prepared for these choices or tasks with experience or valid criteria and the intellectual ability to weigh the pros and cons. Children also seem to have a more complicated relationship to the physical world. They have less experience with it, they don’t start out from a point of feeling safe in it, rather a point of wariness, and they are more reluctant to experiment with it. Patience, tolerance for repetition, and a high threshold for frustration I find in less and less students. ****Also the level of cynicism I have met in middle school children has surprised me. For me as a teacher this means that my effectiveness in helping the children in middle school to a balanced development has slowly decreased and the moments of joyous satisfaction for the children and me with it.
I am now at a point where I am starting to look at woodworking’s curative aspects. While I have occasionally worked successfully one-on-one with children suffering of ADD, ADHD, OCD, or just a high level of anxiety, I still have to master the art of meeting the needs of a class of children all over the spectrum from highly motivated and ready to work to actively defiant or cynical.
Woodworking in American Waldorf schools has often been an optional program or one that was taught by woodworking parents or class teachers on the side. Until recently, there has not been a training for woodwork teachers at any Waldorf teacher training institute in America. Unquestioningly the typical Waldorf school curriculum offers many places in many subjects where redundantly and in different contexts, with different methods and tools the same will and soul qualities are addressed. However, with my article I have tried to show that woodworking, taught as a craft ( that is: as much more than how to make specific products ) has a unique potential to enrich our students’ lives for the future in ways that are sorely needed today.
For help and clarification:
* I use the word childhood for the period between birth and the end of puberty, or roughly 14/15 years of age; also about the age of graduation from middle school/eighth grade. The actual development may vary from child to child by several years in either direction. Where it seems that scientists have observed a tendency for the physical changes to occur earlier and the psychological changes and the forming of the self later, even much later.
For a brief, structured look at this: Developmental Signposts of Adolescence by David Mitchell;
**On the Real Nature of Will in the Childby Caroline von Heydebrand
Arts and Their Relationship to Adolescent Development by Van James
*** Christof Wiechert: Research into Resilience, 2011.
**** Nature Deficit Disorderby David Mitchell http://www.waldorflibrary.org/Journal_Articles/RB20062.pdf
Or: Richard Louv, Last child in the woods, NY 2005
About the author:
With ten years of teaching woodworking in Waldorf schools Atta Turck is, in Waldorf circles, a relatively new teacher. However, he felt fortunate to come to it quite late in life. Woodworking apprentice, student and teacher of economics, world traveler, contractor, craftsman, farmer, manager, and entrepreneur were his stages before. His life experience helped him to reflect on his teaching from various angles and learn intensely and rapidly from his work with the children. The opportunity to regularly meet hundreds of master woodwork teachers from Waldorf schools in Europe at the yearly “Werkstattgespraech”was tremendously enriching to him. He is currently teaching woodworking at the Eugene Waldorf School.