Curriculum Highlight- High School Literature

If you’re like me, your high school English classes were organized by subject. As a sophomore I was treated to World Literature. During the following two years we swept through American and British Literature, respectively. 

Waldorf education may use the same texts, but they are organized differently. I will try to describe this pedagogy, with the following caveats. I need to be brief, and therefore cannot go into much depth. I have asked high school teachers (especially Amy Kortus, who teaches literature) to make sure I have not made any egregious errors. But Ms. Kortus and her colleagues know a lot more than I do about Waldorf educational theory, and you should ask the teachers to really fill you in. In any case, you should know either what your children are experiencing or what they have to look forward to.

What may look like a random assortment of novels, poems, and short stories is offered to students according to an understanding of childhood development. In the progress from 9th through 12th grades, a young person’s abilities and views of the world get increasingly complex. Each grade assumes that the class will be interested in answering certain kinds of questions and will have specific abilities with which to encounter texts. According to childhood development theory, the 9th grader tends to ask “what?” Powers of observation are emphasized. Furthermore, there is a tendency to see the world in black and white polarities: good versus evil, justice versus injustice. Students begin to form an identity based on their relationship with the world. Accordingly, Ms. Kortus teaches a unit on comedy and tragedy, using Oedipus and Twelfth Night as examples. To Kill a Mockingbird offers binary oppositions concerning race and justice. Students see cultural differences, among other things, in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

10th grade answers the question “how?” It is a year to exercise the compare-contrast muscle, and to look at transitions and transformations. Students explore their identities as they exist in relation to others. And there is a closer look into character. The Odyssey is explored this year, and recently Ms. Kortus introduced Inanna, the female counterpart to GilgmeshBeowulf and some of the Canterbury Tales offer a variety of genres, language, and adventures.

“Why?” is the central question in 11th grade, when students explore the darker and more inward aspects of identity. Analysis can now supersede observation, as students examine subterranean forces, both cultural and psychological. They are mature enough to consider the ways the self can fall apart, excruciatingly difficult decisions, and punishments. They undergo the trials of the Inferno and Parsifal. Shakespeare’s Tempest, Romantic poetry, and Adichi’s Purple Hibiscus fill out the curriculum, as well as African-American texts by Douglass, Chesnutt, and Toomer.

12th graders focus on the question “who?”  Students move from analysis mode to synthesis. Identity, a common thread throughout these years, now focuses on rebuilding the self with respect to the outside world. The hero of this year’s literature looks outward now, and the quest for freedom is a major focus. So is building inner strength through suffering. Faust has traditionally been taught in this year, and Russian literature enters the curriculum with fairy tales, Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. 

This has been a brief Cook’s tour through the high school student’s journey by way of literature. Childhood development is the traditional Waldorf way of constructing curriculum. I think there are also other instructive ways to look at this sweep of magnificent texts. You can see it as following the scientific method, from observation to asking questions and forming a hypothesis to experiment and analysis to synthesis and conclusion. I also see a progression through the four Aristotelian causes: material (observation), efficient (“who”), formal (analysis), and final (synthesis). In any case, Ms. Kortus delivers a world class curriculum that is enriched by canonical works along with cultural, racial, and gender diversity and that underwrites the adolescent struggle to create an identity and engage the world.

Harry Kavros

Director of Administration