Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Review Essay

Is There a Waldorf Approach to Handwriting?

Soul Development through Handwriting – The Waldorf Approach to the Vimala Alphabet by Jennifer Crebbin

The general claim made by Soul Development through Handwriting is a lofty one that Waldorf teachers may feel drawn to. While the book does not directly state that it presents a “Waldorf approach” to teaching handwriting, its implicit claims are strong. The book appears under the imprint of Steiner Books, which is part of Anthroposophic Press, & there are references to Rudolf Steiner & Waldorf education in buckets-full. The book opens with six quotations from Steiner’s lectures on education & the author describes her experience as one of a Waldorf home-schooler, some-time school administrator & wife of a “speciality teacher” in a Waldorf school in North America. Her stated aim is to bring about a “marriage” between Steiner pedagogy & the Vimala handwriting system.

The book has a great deal to say about the benefits of the Vimala alphabet & there is no doubting Jennifer Crebbin’s enthusiasm. At one point she describes it as “sacred technology”; she says she has made the teaching of it her life career. But we must add that the author does not write as a practicing class teacher, presently or formerly. As she puts it, she is someone with “a passion for introducing this work to the Waldorf movement” & the book includes an appreciative note from a former teacher of the Brightwater School in Seattle.

I have observed this script in use in two classes & in both cases the teachers concerned had come to it because of its implied Waldorf credentials. We should thus examine what Vimala offers, to what extent it meets the needs of modern children, fulfilling its claim to help to “remove hindrances to the full expression of one’s unique Self by supporting soul development”.

The origins of Vimala script are recent, having been “first made public in 1995 by Dr Vimala Rodgers, an Alphabetician & educator”. Dr Rodgers’ own book, Change Your Handwriting, Change Your Life (Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA, 1993) contains a more detailed account of the origin & aims of the alphabet, which are ones that would seem compatible with Waldorf education. Readers who have encountered Helen Drinklage’s Therapy through Handwriting (Mercury Press, Spring Valley, NY, 1978) will recognise some of the letter forms found in Vimala among those preferred by Helen Drinklage (the open “e” & ampersand “g” for example, though, notably, Drinklage recommends a “g” without lower loop):

[See full script below]

Readers will also notice the use of some forms, such as the rolled “r” that are characteristic of North American & some Continental handwriting styles, though less commonly used here:

[See full script below]
The full script looks like this:
As a class teacher &, more recently, adviser, I have taken a great deal of interest in the question of the introduction of cursive script & the necessary qualities for a foundation hand. The principles involved here include finding a method that can serve to provide young people with a satisfactory basis for the development of each child’s developing personal style. Waldorf class teachers have the task to establish such a foundation hand with their children. That foundation script is likely to be – should be, I believe - very different to the teacher’s own adult & personalised handwriting, scrawl or otherwise (!) As for every topic, the key question is, “How can I best teach the child using the medium of the discipline or topic?” I may, for example, love the music of Stravinsky, but will probably recognise the value of working with melodic, pentatonic modes in the youngest class. Like ancient prophets, the teachers task is to “make strait the way” between the child & the each one’s highest potential. For adults the question is different, although it is helpful to remember how often Rudolf Steiner indicated the beneficial effects of changing one’s own handwriting, especially in the direction of making it more artistic, something he consider important for children too. Where adults are concerned the single lecture printed under the title, Overcoming Nervousness is apposite. He alludes here to the way habits live within the formative-life body & the enlivening effect of making even a small change to habituated patterns. However, Steiner said little about particular forms of script or children’s hand-writing after the initial introductory stages.

Audrey McAllen’s book, Teaching Children Handwriting (Rudolf Steiner College Press, 2002) remains the only comprehensive guide to the subject from pictures or pictograms to cursive hand, but the indications as to styles of cursive script in that book are rather slight. The author of Soul Development... wishes to fill this gap. Having observed Class Two & Three children using Vimala, & having taken time to practice Vimala writing myself, I would feel concerned if it were to become orthodoxy in our schools. The book itself contains a potentially confusing, & in my view inaccurate, description of the link between shapes of letters (graphemes) & their sounds (phonemes). There are some useful hints as to other technical matters, margins, page orientation & writing position; & the guidelines on letter formation could be adapted to help diagnose characteristic handwriting problems, provided the teacher is wary of using Vimala as an ideal against which the children’s efforts are to be evaluated. The evaluation of handwriting is probably one of the most unrecognised (& untaught) skills in the education of teachers, Waldorf or otherwise, so it is valuable to be reminded of this.

The classes I have observed using Vimala have exhibited some similar problems with it. First, less dexterous children find the interior loops on some letters confusing. In some cases this leads to what appear to be extra letters being added to a word that is being copied:

On one occasion, I found a child writing the letter “b” as something like an “l” with a “∂” shape next to it as if they were separate letters. “Alphabet” also demonstrates an inconsistency in the script with regard to loops (“h” has a loop, “b” does not in spite of the common confusion between “b” & “d”, which a loop can help alleviate – an open “b” form is an alternative way to cue the distinction). Of course, not all children will make the sort of error I observed, but it is worth considering those (with dyslexia/dyspraxia-like challenges) for whom some of the fussier aspects of the script may add to likely difficulties. The other feature of Vimala which is evident from the word, “alphabet” is that it is discontinuous. The gaps between letters in a single word, characterised as, leaving “room for something new to enter”, means that writing with Vimala is semi, rather than fully, cursive. We are told that “a string of six or more letters [should not be] connected”, on the grounds that “the connections can be fixed & stagnant” without substantiation or recognition for the value of whole word cursive connectivity especially in the initial stages of writing. Unfortunately, some children “see” the space as the start of a new word & breaks within words undermine the kinaesthetic flow that helps to support a “feel” for spelling & generally promotes good rhythm. The passage from Rosicrucianism & Modern Initiation, quoted at the beginning of Soul Education, provides one of the key aims of the Waldorf approach to writing: “the human being becomes unfettered when he writes in the way he paints & draws”. I do not think this alphabet fits with that intention. I am also concerned that certain preferred letter forms in Vimala are associated by most graphologists with negative tendencies. That odd, high barred letter “t”, for example, is usually viewed as being linked to qualities such domination, vanity & a dreamy lack of realism . The claim that Steiner wrote with a similar high “t” as that which is given as an ideal in Vimala is quickly disproved by studying facsimiles of his of his hand-writing (e.g. in the most recent edition of Towards a Deepening of Waldorf Education); the exaggerated, quasi-upper case, form used in the script bears no resemblance to his hand-writing in which the letter retains its more usual modest proportions.

Muscle memory achieved through thorough practice, artistic satisfaction so that the eye “lovingly” follows the hand in forming the letters, a good style that encourages meaning to be readily transferred to paper, are the important qualities to build the foundations of literacy. But, in addition to writing, children need to get to grips with linking symbols to sounds. Rudolf Steiner was very specific about the different quality of vowel & consonant & drew attention to the soul-spiritual nature of sounds of speech, both in helping to develop the art of eurythmy &, in his seminars & speech exercises for teachers of the first Waldorf School. An excellent account of consonants can be found in Audrey McAllen’s The Listening Ear. Soul Development also provides a very brief account of the quality of the alphabet, but it does so from the point of view of the letter forms. Thus we have a very serious confusion from the outset where Crebbin writes, “When we write the letter “A”, it expresses the human being at the “highest perfection, expressing something that is felt in the depths of the human soul...”

The text goes on to link this letter shape to the sound eurythmy sound, “Ah”, ignoring that this is a relatively rare occurrence in Standard English where the open, “Ay” or medial “Ᾰ” predominate. This is no small problem, not least because it adds to an occasional if persistent problem arising from applying what Steiner had to say about the German vowels to English, something Audrey McAllen deals with in Teaching Children Handwriting (see above) where she recommends introducing the names of the vowels through pictures. While speech sounds embody elements of the creative “Word” which brought about & sustains life, writing is an earthly (even “earthing”) process that embodies human conventions & history. The former comes most fully to expression in Eurythmy; the latter corresponds to the essence of sounds much as the richly varied forms of chess pieces relate to the rules of the game. Understanding this helps greatly in planning the development of literacy in the first two or three classes.

According to Crebbin’s account, Vimala arose in part in reaction to the standard, Palmer script, used in many schools in North America. The question of whether & in what way national characteristics reveal themselves in the styles of foundation hand-writing taught in schools or used as a standard clerical hand during the nineteenth & early twentieth centuries would be an interesting study in its own right. However, Vimala claims to be far more than a foundation script - one that is of dubious value in my view – attempting to sell itself as a process for “soul development”. Hand-writing is a practical & utilitarian art: emphasise the practical & there you find the every-day scrawl most people utilise; emphasise art & there arises calligraphy, with its specialising aesthetic. In introducing writing to children, we need to find a way between these. We are tasked to help children experience handwriting as practical every-day craftsmanship. Where craftsmanship is concerned it is useful to remember that Steiner was concerned that objects made in these lessons should be designed according to purpose. For example, he pointed out that when embroidering a cushion cover, the embroidery should create a partial “frame” that invites the head to rest upon it; embroidering the centre of the cover would be antithetical to the object. Where handwriting is concerned, it seems to me that a good foundation should provide easily repeatable movement patterns, be clear, lucid & open to change as individual children realise their unique individualities. In other words, it needs to be a starting point for a process that will involve strong habits, yet leave open the way for flexibility & change.

Is Vimala the style of writing for Waldorf schools? Readers will almost certainly understand that I do not think so. Its unsuitability, as explained above, for children with some types of additional need, reduces its value in an education that aspires to have a therapeutic quality. However, Soul Development does have value in raising questions about the way we approach hand-writing, something that becomes more urgent as “real”, handwritten, messages become rarer, replaced by an array of computer fonts. Steiner presented teachers with high values & a powerful spiritual impulse. These are what make Waldorf education unique, but they also present us with a certain danger: that of assuming that the ideals can be reached via a formula. We need to be awake & our thinking keen in turning ideals into reality: “Not of the letter, but of the spirit; the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” . In Soul Development the Vimala alphabet gives letters enough, but the practical spirit seems to me to be, unfortunately, absent.

Kevin Avison October 2009

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