Mountain Phoenix Community School offers a dynamic curriculum for the middle school years — grades 6 through 8. Students begin the day at 8:00 a.m. with homeroom and move quickly to active classes such as band, orchestra, physical education, art, or Spanish. This is followed by main lesson, the heart of the instructional day, which is filled with in-depth learning in the areas of math, literature, language arts, history, science, and geography. Each two-hour main lesson topic continues for 3 to 4 weeks. Every lesson integrates a balance of thinking, feeling, and willing activities so that students are actively engaged in learning. Music, poetry/speech, drama, and art are integrated into the main lesson where possible to enrich the learning experience.
The child entering into sixth grade is in the final third of the second seven-year stage of development, and there is a significant change in how he views the world and himself. The grace and fluidity of the fifth grader are supplanted by the influence of gravity as he begins to experience an increasing body mass and hormonal changes. He may feel earth-bound, and has a keen interest in the physical nature of life. The sixth grader also becomes increasingly capable of causal thinking and the curriculum expands to meet and engage this emerging capacity. The history curriculum encompasses the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the birth of Christianity and Islam, the descent into the Dark Ages, and the dawning expansion of the Middle Ages. The rather matter of fact, material approach to life that was the hallmark of Rome is a perfect mirror of the developing sixth grader who is interested in mastery of the physical and is less willing to engage in the fanciful or emotional aspects of life – at least externally. The child’s inner life may become both deeper and less accessible; the light, sanguine quality of the younger child has now receded as new forces begin to appear. This turning inward, the foreshadowing of adolescence, is mirrored historically by the European Dark Ages, when knowledge and civilization seemed to disappear. It is reassuring for teacher and parent alike to recall that knowledge and culture had not vanished but were hidden for protection and deepening, waiting to reappear in a flurry of learning and progress in the High Middle Ages. By the end of sixth grade, we see greater mastery of critical thinking or formal operations; the child’s world is expanding again.
In addition to history, a range of subjects supports the child’s development at this age. Through all of them, she is encouraged to develop living concepts through direct experience. For example, physics is introduced and through an experiential approach, the laws of optics, acoustics, magnetism, static electricity, heat and cold, are explored. In the Waldorf curriculum, physics is an active process of listening, observing, discovering, and exploring that leads to the formation of concepts. The educational impact of this is very different than beginning with a definition or concept, which may be remembered but is likely to remain undigested within the child. The experiential path is very much the approach of the artist, one in which the child initially perceives, wonders, questions, and only conceptualizes fully at the end. Perception and experience unite in ideas and give rise to a range of feelings; the resulting concepts are alive for the child and can live and grow as she develops. This provides a basis for true scientific thinking and discovery and has been identified by many as an essential twenty-first century skill.
The study of geography expands further into the world perhaps to Europe. The sixth grade child feels solidly on the earth; therefor, the curriculum includes a study of geology, exploring the formation of the earth’s surface. This is balanced with an upward perspective through the study of naked eye astronomy, the astronomy of the Middle Ages. Once again, the child is encouraged to carefully and accurately observe phenomena. Grammar studies are linked to causal thinking with an exploration of the conditional and subjunctive moods. The practical nature of the sixth grader is met through a study of business math; its emphasis on transactions, profit and loss, and interest establish the foundation for algebra that will soon come. It is linked to the historical period of the grade with its rise of towns, trade, and guilds. Practicality is balanced with artistry; the sixth grade child is challenged to complete a series of precise geometric forms using instruments and beautifying with carefully applied color. By the end of sixth grade, we see a greater mastery of critical thinking and formal operations. The child is ready once again to encounter new challenges.
The seventh grade year is one of remarkable growth – for the child and therefore in the curriculum. As the child enters early adolescence, there are increasing signs that the end of the second stage of development is in sight. This transition signals the beginning of a period of intense exploration and new discovery for the young person – in thinking, beliefs, feelings, and relationships. The Waldorf curriculum responds by introducing the Age of Discovery, the Reformation, and the Renaissance. Each of these mirrors aspects of the student’s experience. Like explorers of old, the seventh grade student must inch away from the familiar shores of family and childhood and set out for lands unknown. Traditional beliefs will be challenged and tested and the young person must learn to stand firmly in her own thoughts. Perspectives will change dramatically, just as they did for the artists of the Renaissance. Seventh grade teachers often marvel at the flowering of learning, understanding, and artistic abilities; this can truly be a joyful time of new birth for the student’s artistic and thinking capacities.
This period of history is well depicted through the biographies of leading historical figures; these replace the stories of earlier years, but are related with equal care and with rich details that allow the students to have a living experience of the time. The world is viewed anew captured in the study of perspective drawing, which can be a wonderful anchor for a child at a time in life when inner perspective may be shaky. Bodily changes are marked; this fact is reflected and supported through the study of human physiology, health, and nutrition. The study of physics becomes more complex, extending sixth grade studies and including an examination of mechanics (levers and pulleys), usually linked to the growing adolescent body. The science curriculum expands to include inorganic chemistry: the processes of combustion; the role of acids and bases; and the lime cycle. Scientific study continues to emphasize the careful objective observation of phenomena before reverence for the natural world is thereby maintained. The study of geography continues to explore an expanding world, and may include South America. In line with the historical period, the naked eye astronomy of the sixth grade expands to encompass a heliocentric view, with an examination of the conviction and courage of the pioneering Renaissance astronomers. The student’s inner life is now deepening, a process that is supported through creative writing, giving further opportunities for the development of perspective and individual voice through an exploration of wish, wonder, and surprise. Thinking is further supported and challenged through the formal introduction of algebra.
Eighth grade signifies the end of the class teacher years. Reflecting the value placed on the continuity of relationships, the student may have had the same core teacher for many years, possibly since first grade. This relationship and the curriculum of the lower school will be brought to a culmination over the course of this final year. A new stage of development is beginning, one in which critical thinking will be the primary learning mode and where the generalist teacher of the grades will give way to the specialized instruction required by the high school student. In many ways eighth grade is a bridge, completing the second seven-year stage and establishing a foundation for the third seven-year stage. Our task with the eighth grade student in this process of completion is therefore nothing less than bringing historical studies right into the modern age and ensuring that we have encompassed the entire globe through a study of such world patterns as weather, ocean currents, and trade.
Eighth grade history begins with a study of revolutions, very much echoing the restless, questioning nature of the adolescent. This leads to a study of the founding of the United States with its high ideals of equality and freedom. Students compare the American and French revolutions, examine the worldwide impact of the Industrial Revolution, and study the great historical events of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Biographies continue to provide a wealth of historical insight and to allow the young person to connect in a lively way with events of earlier times. Science in the eighth grade includes a study of hydraulics, aerodynamics, and motors, reflecting developments of the industrial and post-industrial ages. Meteorology offers another chance to look up at the skies and to examine world patterns. Organic chemistry is introduced with a primary focus on the chemistry of food and manufacturing processes. The seventh grade study of physiology is expanded to a study of anatomy providing a framework for understanding the impressive increase in height and muscle seen at this age. We continue to help the student to develop perspective, voice, point of view, and style through a study of American literature and a study of the short story.
The end of the grade school years is generally marked by a series of culminating events that may include individual project reports, a significant drama production, and a class trip. The young person able to stand before others as a confident individual with independent thoughts and opinions to offer. There are opportunities to review the path that has been traveled over the years. By the end of eighth grade, a stage of growth has come fully to an end. The physical changes of puberty have been accompanied by significant changes in thinking. The young person is now more conscious of herself, of her relationships with others, and of the surrounding world. The process of imitation and education through the will of the first seven years led to learning through imagination and images in the second seven years. Now education must appeal to the increasingly strong capacity to reason, think, analyze, and evaluate. The generalist approach of the grades teacher gives way to the specialized subject knowledge required in the high school. The young person embarks on a search for truth, a journey to find a valued individual pathway for herself and to discover ways to contribute meaningfully to the world she lives in.
The text above is adapted from the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, with revisions that reflect the MPCS curriculum.