Javelins and arrows, surcoats and swords, ropes and catapults, mud and mayhem – welcome to sixth grade in a Waldorf school. In the fifth grade, Waldorf students explore the development of human enlightenment and culture through the study of ancient civilizations. They typically begin the year in Mesopotamia and travel through India, Egypt, ending the year in Ancient Greece. The pinnacle of the fifth grade year is the Pentathlon. Modeled after the ancient Greek games, the Pentathlon emphasizes form, achievement, and reaching above oneself to perfect ‘beauty, grace, and style.’
If fifth grade is a stage of enlightenment, sixth is a year of contrasts. Fifth graders mirror the “Golden Age” of Greece, inhabiting their own golden age between developmental changes. According to Steiner’s philosophy of Anthroposophy, significant spiritual, mental, and physical changes manifest in the grade-school aged child at approximately three year intervals. Note to future parents: this is a good reason not to space your children three years apart. In our house, we are currently enduring simultaneous manifestations of the six year change (increasing independence coupled with commensurate rebellion), the nine year change (an awakening from the dream-self of the child into the frightening isolation of the real world – comes with shorter temper, smarter mouth, anxiety, and, in boys at least, an ever increasing delight in inappropriate language and humor), and the twelve year change.
My mother, a former sixth grade teacher, swears that regardless of physiological development, all kids hit puberty in the spring of sixth grade. The twelve year change provides a sneak peek for both children and parents into the teen years. Mentally, sixth graders seem to fluctuate from incredible independence, responsibility, and sharpness of wit to astounding forgetfulness, sloth, and sheer boneheadedness. Caitlin – after 4 or 5 years of competent can-opener use and generally excellent cooking skills – last Monday morning “forgot that tin can lids are sharp.” She has also ‘forgotten’ any number of other things this year: homework, a report, the location of myriad critical items, and how to clean her room. Yet, she remembers how to argue. There is no statement that can be made by a sibling or adult that Caitlin will not contradict. Walking, however, is a bit iffy. Like her mother, Caitlin has never been the most coordinated person, but the level of tripping and spilling has increased recently to toddler level.
These are the moments in which the parents of adolescents whimper and quietly bang our heads against walls. And, these are the moments that make the study of the Middle Ages perfect for sixth graders. The age that brought Europe the construction of the cathedrals and the code of chivalry also brought the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Black Plague. Every time I open my mouth to harangue my formerly hyper-responsible child about her sudden and incomprehensible loss of brain-cells, I remember another adolescent accused of “spaciness”. A discussion the other morning went something like this:
Me: “Will you quit arguing. This is how it is.”
Caitlin: “I’m not arguing. I’m protesting.”
Me: hysterical laughter.
Thirty years ago, I was on the other end of the same debate. Sorry, Mom.
Honor, courage, empire-building, empire collapse, centuries-long feats of masonry, bloody war, intolerance, intricate tapestry, and catastrophic epidemic: the Middle Ages were a distillation of the extremes of human nature. Independence, intelligence, reason, rebellion, growth, hormones, moodiness, helpfulness: sixth grade is a distillation of the extremes of human development.
If the Pentathlon emphasized enlightenment in the form of beauty, grace, and style, the Medieval Games was something more primal. Set deep in a dark forest rather than a sunlit stadium, these were challenges of courage, physicality, and individual achievement. Though the ‘knights to be’ travelled in shires comprised of students from each school, and though a couple of the events such as scaling the wall and the tug-o-war were cooperative, the emphasis was less on competition or team than the efforts of the individual to overcome his or her dragons. While remnants of the fifth-grade form lingered in the javelin toss, for the most part, these newly adolescent bodies were no longer capable of the innate coordination of youth. Some of them are entering the arms-and –legs stage, moving through life like mutant octopi. Some of them, particularly the girls, have experience a shift in center of balance.
Rather than compete against one another in events that require precise form, the sixth graders faced challenges such as crossing a bridge of floating (and tipping) platforms, or scaling a rope ladder to a beam high among the trees and traversing a rope foot over foot. In these events, the style was that of the individual. Some struggled against the fear of heights, others ran the narrow rope, or clowned around, walking backward or hanging from the rope rails. Some gave the deliberately impossible moat (a mud filled long jump pit) their best effort while others recognized the futility and wallowed in delighted porcine glory.
Yet, there is a reason sixth graders study the Roman Empire with its emphasis on military discipline and rule, and the Middle Ages with the code of chivalry. As Peter Parker’s uncle says (Spiderman reference, pay attention), “With great power comes great responsibility.” The churning forces within the twelve (or almost twelve) year old body require a structured channel for release. Side note: sixth graders begin the year’s science studies with geology, exploring the fire that twists and shapes the earth’s crust.
Our current sixth grade has never been a passive class. As a group, they are energetic, creative, intelligent, active, and contentious. “Discipline” and “Teamwork” are words that have been muttered on occasion when the deficits of the class were raised. “Manners” is another. This year, the class has been blessed with a teacher possessed of quick wit, (slightly sarcastic) humor, and a strength of personality to match the kids’ own. Without yelling, threats or Draconian rule, he has managed to instill discipline within the class simply by challenging them at every turn to produce their best, and to work together.
At the Medieval Games, each school presents a performance for the pleasure of the “King and Queen.” Standard offerings include sword dances and recorder performances. This year, our class produced something different. Written and choreographed by Dr. Tan, and executed to the beat of his drum, the DWS 6th grade presented “The Warrior’s Creed.” In regimented order, they performed a martial-arts inspired set of movements accompanying a recitation of the knightly virtues. They weren’t perfect; there were the slight asynchronies one would expect from a group of eleven and twelve year olds, but one thing was clear. Each child understood the expectation of the drumbeat and of the orders of their leader. And each child did his or her level best to meet the expectations of their teacher and of the group.
Next year, as they adapt to the turmoil of change within their own bodies and minds, our children will move out of the Dark Ages into the light of the Renaissance. Re-naissance, a re-birth. Entering their teens, our kids will go through their own renaissance, as they experience this re-birth into the beginnings of adulthood.
For now, however, they shift from the mayhem of a mud-fight to the reverence of a knighting ceremony: surcoats donned over clay-encrusted T-shirts, the perfect symbols of the tumult of early adolescence.
The Warrior's Creed (below)
Surcoats over mud. Warriors kneeling to be knighted