Sacramento Homeschool Math By Hand

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A Teacher’s Tale: A Lesson In the Dark

June 25th, 2012 · No Comments · Homeschool Math Curriculum

Norman Davidson was a journalist, a Waldorf high school teacher, and the Director of the Waldorf Teacher Training at the Sunbridge Institute in Spring Valley, NY.  He inspired so many to teach in a way that reached beyond the everyday to the deepest heart and soul.  Above all, he taught that the teacher must convey a heartfelt, vital interest in the student(s) and in the subject at hand.

When asked where the Waldorf teacher might find sources for what is to be taught he replied, “Go to the library, find books on the subject, and enLIVEN it.”  No need to plumb the depths of esoteric books or sources, but rather ground the teaching in everyday reality, then find the magic within that lies sleeping in all things.  And teach that!

One of Rudolf Steiner’s best pieces of advice to teachers was something to the effect of “Good teaching is like being caught in the rain without an umbrella.”  A willingness to be vulnerable, to go out on a limb, to show the children that you are striving right there along with them, are all the hallmarks of a good teacher.  A wonderful, well-thought-out lesson plan is not always the be-all / end-all.  Sometimes something else comes along that not only circumvents your lovely plan, but allows you and your child(ren) a glimpse into a greater reality, and an opportunity to learn the most valuable lesson, life itself.

This is just what happened to Norman Davidson one day in one of his high school classes.  He tells the tale here:

Description of a classroom experience in a Waldorf school
By Norman Davidson

I walked across the school playground towards the classroom thinking about Ernest Hemingway. It was a fresh, sunny day in late autumn, but inwardly I was transporting myself to the seas around Cuba where big fish are caught, and to the sun drenched arenas of Spain where the ritual of killing the bull is enacted. In both, the human being relates to nature in a strange and contradictory way—predatory yet awe filled in the presence of death; hunting for challenge, yet really hunting after oneself. Similar contradictions, translated into social relationships must surely lie, I thought, somewhere in the feeling life of many a young teenager, and wait to be solved.

Many things go through the mind of a teacher on his way to the classroom, especially if he is new to the school as I was. Had I prepared the lesson properly? Would it be received well? Would it relate to the young people before me? I was sure that Hemingway related sooner or later to the class of thirty or so boys and girls around the age of fifteen towards whom I now walked in this British Waldorf school. But nevertheless the night before I had wondered about presenting Hemingway just at that time in these literature and English lessons. I entered the school and walked down the corridor. It was too late now to change.

When I arrived outside the door it was shut. On opening it there was a double shock. Firstly, I stepped from a bright, sunny atmosphere into complete darkness. The window blinds were tightly down, and I could hardly see my way to the teacher’s desk. Secondly, although I could sense a lot of people in my presence, there was hardly any sound. I had to think quickly. This was not a particularly easy class in some ways. A few days before, a group of them had sat in the playground in a circle after the school bell, protesting against something. So now they were testing me. Instinctively I knew why they were doing it.  “Who are you?” they were saying. “Throw away your book and your briefcase. What are you going to do now?”

I walked towards the window where light showed, but quick hands closed up the chink. The first impulse was to admonish them strongly for being so silly, switch on the light and demand that they immediately pull up the blinds. After all, my lesson was being infringed, and time was being wasted. But the hush in the class made me hesitate. I could hear them breathing and listening and occasionally whispering— all thirty of them. The air was full of expectancy. I stopped myself from reacting as a conventional ‘teacher’ and wondered what I could do as an unconventional one.

Reversed mime
I felt my way round to the front of the teacher’s desk and stood staring into darkness. Boy, could these children wreck a lesson! So I thought that the best thing would be to say the first meaningful thing that came to me and take it from there. I heard myself say, “For today’s lesson you are going to have to use somewhat more imagination than usual.” (There was a ripple of conceding laughter. Well, that was something.)  “You will have to listen to my voice today without the help of seeing my movements, gestures and facial expressions. A kind of reversed mime. So you’ll have to listen more carefully. (Sounds of “Shh.”)

“When you don’t see someone’s face who is talking, you can more easily be led astray as to shades of meaning. I might, for instance, be saying all this to you in a serious voice, but without you knowing it could be grinning like an ape.” (I grimaced crazily into the darkness and, sensing it, the class rippled with laughter again, then fell silent, waiting.)

I was at sea, but it was less and less Hemingway’s Caribbean. The big fish and the bulls were receding into the dim distances   in my mind. I was brought intensely to the here and now of thirty young people who needed something and were teaching me how to teach it. So I plunged into this new sea and into the uncanny experience of having to imagine the young people to whom I was talking, even though I knew them. Gradually, the lesson was drawn out of me. The following are paraphrases of parts of it.

Pure thoughts
“You’ll have to see today with your thoughts. For someone like the great philosopher Plato, to think was to see. Even in English we say ‘I see’ when we understand something with our thoughts. Some people can see with their thoughts very well. Being without sight is a help. During the last war there was a blind resistance fighter in the French underground movement to whom all recruits for the resistance were brought. He could tell  by the tone of the person’s voice in answer to questions whether he was a spy or not. It is  also known that blind people dream in pictures…

“Now take a subject which involves pure thoughts which you can see inwardly. This is geometry. Next year I shall be taking you for a Main Lesson in this subject. At the beginning of the century a  famous geometrician called Klein deliberately gave a lecture with the lights switched off.   He asked his audience to imagine the geometry he was talking about in clear thought, without distraction, showing that mathematics lives in the realm of pure thought. So, imagine now what I shall be asking you next year. Picture two points in space. Now through these you can draw one straight line. But what about three points? Three lines. And what else goes through any three points in space? One plane. And what about any four points in space? How many lines and planes can pass through them…?

“In two years’ time we shall be together again for a Main Lesson in the history of language. We shall first study speech. Speech reveals the whole human being. A whole human being is expressed in its sickness or health, balance or unbalance, in the expression of the voice…

Darkness. What is it? Is it merely an absence of light? Or has it another content? We look for the dark when we want to do something we are ashamed of.  (Giggles) What, then, is shame? Why is one ashamed? Should we do things we are  ashamed of…? “We also seek darkness to meditate. We shut out the outside world  and step into an inner one. Homer was a blind poet…

“Why does darkness sometimes bring fear if we are alone? What are we really  frightened of…? “Yet in darkness a certain intimacy can grow which is not so easy in broad daylight. I feel your presence stronger, I think, than if I could see you. One can feel more awake in the dark, more sensitive. There is a grand old lady teacher at my previous school who is now blind. The little children run to take her hands and guide her when she appears. Her hands are beautifully soft and one knows that she can see with them when she touches things. And her mind is as clear as a bell…

“In Class 12 we are studying astronomy at the moment and today we discussed eclipses.  An eclipse is an absence of the sun’s light when normally it should be there. It is an intervention in life. It brings effects which would not normally arise. For instance, the sun’s corona (or surrounding halo of light) becomes visible which is normally invisible.  The activity around the periphery of the sun can be seen against the darkened sky during a sun eclipse. This lesson does the same! I am not teaching what I prepared, but a completely new subject has become visible to us today. It is the question of light, darkness and inner life of the human being. This will lead us on to further work in other lessons. “At least I think it will lead to further work with you. I am assuming that you are my English class, although I can’t see that you are! In any case, its been interesting talking to you. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss something unusual. Whoever you are good morning.”

Inner Polarities
I made my way to the door, went out and closed it behind me. Next day not a word was said by myself or the class about the  lesson. There was a warmth in the air, but nothing was said. Something was living inwardly. It was like a secret between us. It would have seemed empty and superficial to have talked ‘about’ it. The incident opened up for me in a special way what I had often thought about concerning the puberty age group and had discussed with my colleagues: the question of inner polarities experienced at this time, of subjective and objective, freedom and authority, inner and outer, light and darkness, etc. Something was drawing inward in the young person, and the darkness had given it space to work. And behind it was an imaginative, inventive call from young people for new life from their environment, a justifiable call on entering the realm of secondary education. The dry book of instruction had been left unopened, the briefcase left on the floor, and even the sight of the teacher had been dispensed with. So, in the clear daylight of the lesson which followed the next day, I worked, much to their interest, on the life of Helen Keller who was deaf and blind from a young age.

The original of this article appeared in “Child and Man: A Journal for Contemporary Education” (Steiner Schools Fellowship, England, Summer-Autumn 1978).

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