Teaching World Languages

Language learning in a Waldorf high school is an experience which nourishes head, heart, and hand.  During a typical lesson, Waldorf students engage in one or more real world activities -- conversing with their peers in the target language, interpreting music, illustrating a poem, reading news articles, comics, tweets, short stories, folk tales, plays or classics of literature -- and deepen their connection with the universal human condition.  Engagement with authentic resources, those designed for and used by speakers of the target language, ignites enthusiasm and reinforces the appreciation of socio-cultural nuances for language learners. Adolescents in a Waldorf school are met with an education that supports individual interests and initiative, and directly promotes the social gesture of inclusion. Building linguistic and cultural literacy in world languages is a fundamental 21st century skill with boundless opportunities for practical and personal applications. So, how do educators in a Waldorf high school prepare students for authentic communication in the new century?

Language learning at San Francisco Waldorf High School is an organic process informed by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and by the Standards for Foreign Language Learning outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  In our school, each grade level is the training ground for a unique task.  Grade 9 focuses on the powers of observation through the question “What?” as a fundamental developmental step for students of this age and stage.  In Grade 10, the question “How?” helps students extend their powers of comparison.  Students in Grade 11 are asked to analyze phenomena in the immediate community and the global world with the guiding question “Why?” which eventually culminates in “Who?” in Grade 12, the year of synthesis.  It is no wonder that the wisdom of these guiding pedagogical questions are echoed in the national dialogue on language learning.  Focusing on What?  How? Why? To Whom? (And When?) as the basis for all human-to-human interaction may seem overly simplistic to the untrained observer, but Waldorf educators have put these guiding questions into practice even before ACTFL began to promote them as official benchmarks for language teaching.  ACTFL also outlines the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages commonly known among language educators as “The 5 C’s": 

  1. Communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational)
  2. Cultures (Relating Cultural Practices and Products to Perspectives)
  3. Connections (Making Connections, Acquiring Information and Diverse Perspectives) 
  4. Comparisons (Language Comparisons, Cultural Comparisons)
  5. Communities (School and Global Communities, Lifelong Learning)

Every topic of study (and in turn, each lesson) is carefully crafted in our lesson planning to address the standards of Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities at varying degrees of depth.  We believe that these five areas work interdependently and cannot be realized in isolation from the guiding questions What? How? Why? Who? as held across the curriculum in a Waldorf high school. 

It is also my firm belief that language learning cannot develop in a vacuum, independently of real world applications. When high school students “look into the world,” as echoed by the morning verse, it will unfold before their eyes and reveal multiple perspectives, each valuable within their unique contexts. Consider the unit learning objectives that I developed in the El Norte unit for the Spanish Level IV Elective:

  • Students will be able to discuss the Spanish language film (El Norte) in the target language.
  • Students will be able to deepen their reading comprehension skills in Spanish while exploring and responding to questions based on the film’s content.
  • Students will be able to improve their aural capacities and verbal communication skills in Spanish through discussion of the film’s content.
  • Students will be able to express themselves through narrative description.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast their personal experiences of adolescence with those of the characters portrayed in the film.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast their personal experiences of family life and community with those of Guatemalan civil rights activist Rigoberta Menchu.
  • Students will be able to explore the historical implications of the Guatemalan Civil War within the contexts of immigration, internal and external migration, global citizenship, leaderships, politics, and legislation. 
  • Students will be able to present a formal writing sample that provides evidence of an exploration of race, ethnicity, gender, and politics as they relate to the immigrant experience.As a Waldorf educator, I have a great deal of freedom in selecting authentic materials to meet the needs of the developing adolescent.  Rather than relying solely on an illustrated textbook or grammar workbook, I incorporate resources -- written, auditory, and visual -- that are created by native speakers of the target language for native speakers.  

Using authentic resources means I must adapt the task, not the text, for the language learner. When I prepared the immigration unit based on the film El Norte described above;, I had to create level appropriate questions and writing tasks in the target language so that my students could deeply internalize the connections they made from discussions and written responses.  They will forever remember the story of two siblings, Rosa and Enrique, who fled to the United States from their small Guatemalan village in the early 1980s as victims of ethnic and political persecution.  Reading a dry text of immigration statistics would not have made nearly the same impact as exploring the identity question Who? in Grade 12.  Learning language and its resulting cultural connection stems from real life experience, both internal and external.     

For our students who are truly “touched by the creative genius of language itself” as described by Steiner, we offer the opportunity for studies abroad in our international exchange program. This program supports reciprocal exchanges for students within the international Waldorf school community for those who make the commitment to host students from abroad.  For students learning a world language, a linguistic and cultural immersion opens the door to first-hand, authentic experiences beyond what the traditional classroom setting can provide. Study abroad is a catalyst for increased maturity and self-confidence as students strengthen their language skills, make new friends within the international Waldorf community, travel, and expand their worldview.  Most importantly, a study abroad experience invites students to learn about themselves.  

The advantage of a Waldorf education is that students have world language experience in the elementary grades and upon entering the high school already understand and produce the target language without from discussions and written responses knowledge of its internal structure. At the high school level, students increase proficiency in building sentences and paragraphs for both oral and written communication.  By the time students explore the Who? question they understand and produce cohesive texts of considerable length in the target language.  Waldorf graduates truly internalize the necessity of speaking a language other than English because they appreciate linguistic diversity and value their role as global citizens of the 21st century.

Zoe Gressel joined the San Francisco Waldorf High School faculty in 2008.  Ms. Gressel received her B.A. in Spanish and Secondary Education from Cornell College in 2006 and earned her Waldorf Teaching Certification from the Center for Anthroposophy in 2011.  She is currently working toward her M.A. in Spanish through California State University, Sacramento.