Waldorf Education aims to educate the native potential of every student.
Because human beings from ages seven through fourteen digest their experiences of the world primarily through their feelings, learning through the medium of artistic expression is crucial to the attainment of comprehensive and profound understanding of the concepts presented throughout our curriculum. One of the most significant methods used to achieve this end is through repeated exercise within the dramatic arts.
[Our drama program] offers a safe experimental arena in which students are given the opportunity to develop all-important social skills through artistic collaboration, the building of empathy and the strengthening of self-confidence.
In middle school, this work becomes particularly important as students begin to awaken to a new sense of personal identity and simultaneously arrive at a stage in which they begin to assume responsibility for their actions in the world. Our drama curriculum not only teaches practical performance skills while fortifying and enhancing aspects of the morning lesson curriculum, but it also offers a safe experimental arena in which students are given the opportunity to develop all-important social skills through artistic collaboration, the building of empathy and the strengthening of self-confidence.
Each year, every grades class prepares a play or similar performance, which is then offered to the school community. All students in every class are expected to carry a role, which includes memorizing lines and learning music and blocking. In addition, most students will have begun to participate in the visual aspect of these productions by creating props, sets and costumes. In this way, they engage the practical work of their hands toward a communal artistic enterprise. By the time the students have reached middle school age, they have become used to performing in front of an audience and have internalized many of the aspects of stagecraft.
The middle school work with the dramatic arts, therefore, rests firmly on the efforts that have come beforehand in the early grades, but in these three important years, as the students begin to experience a new sense of self, they require opportunities to re-orient themselves to themselves and to the world. Middle school students not only work to produce a single class performance, but they also engage in role-playing activities, debates, and individual oral presentations, which all provide such opportunities.
As students enter their teens, they incline toward self-involvement, which can widen the gulf between what is of immediate importance to them (themselves and their social life) and the substance of the curriculum. As educators, our work is to narrow and eliminate this gap as much as possible.
Dramatic work invites students to imaginatively step out of themselves into the experiences of others and to expand their sense of empathy in a very real and immediate way. Very often, historical themes are chosen as the content of middle school class plays. Students investigate the historic figures they play not only for their emotional content, but for their motivational content.
[Drama allows students] to practice and learn through immediate experience what might be desirable and what might be less desirable ways of approaching, working through and resolving various social difficulties.
This is the golden age of researching and inhabiting the “back story.” Students at this age are far more able to fully enter into their characters, and are more likely to feel safe doing so because performing has been part of “what they do” from first grade on. In addition to providing the students with opportunities to try on and experience various personalities, dramatic work also enables students to experiment safely within entirely new social dynamics. In other words, they get to practice and learn through immediate experience what might be desirable and what might be less desirable ways of approaching, working through and resolving various social difficulties.
Through their dramatic work with historical themes, then, students gain a personal experience of and appreciation for significant past events and people whose actions have influenced our current times. They begin to directly experience how it can be that a person’s actions in the world will have consequences in the scheme of history. This constitutes education not only of the students’ intellect and their life of feeling, but also of their moral life at a time when they begin to bear personal responsibility for the individual choices and actions they make.
As important as it is for students to be able to successfully enter into and empathize with the characters they play and to work through various social knots through the medium of dramatic play, it is equally essential that students gain a visceral experience of their own individual self. They must be able to “knock against themselves” as it were, to re-establish boundaries between themselves and the world in a newly conscious way. In effect, dramatic work is the work of balancing the self with the other, and in this balancing act we find a perfect reflection of the circumstances of real life. What is more powerful than the sense of self-command a person acquires when she must be able to discipline herself to overcome personal anxiety, fear, lethargy, or the “mood of the moment” in order to play a role and do what must be done for the sake of the group? Repeated dramatic exercise expands and strengthens the students’ sense of self and through this activity, true confidence grows.
Viewed superficially, one could conclude that regular dramatic work is a nice bonus for Waldorf students to carry off with them to high school, where they will be able to audition for and win parts in their high school productions. Of course, that is always an option, but it tells nothing of the reasons why a Waldorf student, having completed eight years of work in drama, will have an advantage in high school, even if they never attend a single audition.
A person who has worked through the medium of dramatic arts will be able to deeply listen to peers and adults and to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other. This capacity is essential for the construction of strong social bonds and it is a characteristic of all who would undertake to change the world for the better.
A person who has been educated through the medium of drama will be able to respond flexibly in the moment, having practiced exercising such mobility in play for years and years. When action is required, these are the students who will take initiative and follow through on their actions.
Students who have been schooled through drama will have developed a sense of self that will enable them to more clearly know what they need to do to accomplish what they want to achieve and to accept the temporary price that must be paid for such self-discipline.
Furthermore, students who have been used to pouring themselves into a character while simultaneously adhering to the discipline of their inner voice will be prepared to engage a well-balanced intellect toward academic pursuits. The living aspects of knowledge offered by their high school curriculum will be sought after, experienced fully, observed carefully and then measured against the individual accumulation of experience each student has previously gained.
Through the alternation of sympathetic identification with the other and antipathetic interest in their own sense of self, these students educated through the dramatic arts, will have gained the tools they will need to shape and refine their sense of judgment, so that by the time they become young adults, they will be able to stride confidently onto the stage of the world and play the part they have come here to play.
Written by Cynthia Way, Lead Teacher, Classes 2009, 2018, and 2027.