By the time they reach grade 12 most of the students are 18 years old. Some are approaching the end of their school career and will be going directly into paid employment, others will soon be entering the year of preparation for their state examinations [In Germany, Waldorf schools often include a 13th year], which is dominated by methods, material and activities strictly geared to this purpose. In grade 12, however, the subject of home language and literature has the task of reviewing what has been learned in previous years and of rounding off the whole process. This can take the form of a reflective survey, but not in any encyclopaedic sense. Rather it should be reflective in the sense of a consideration of the whole, taking into account philosophical perspectives, aspects of the history of consciousness and the question of the epistemological basis of particular views the students might hold. The imminent step into the first phase of life beyond school and the decisions associated with it mean that certain fundamental ethical questions – such as, what makes for a humane world order and how do I contribute to it? – are no longer “academic”, but existentially concrete. Having the right to vote requires that one is capable of forming considered, independent and responsible judgments.
Lesson content needs to take these questions into account. For instance: how does “academic” knowledge become relevant to real life? What are the central problems and tasks of the present and future? What models are prevalent in scientific understanding, and what assumptions lie behind my own views? Are there limits to science and technology? What is the basis of moral norms and how are they justified?
Suggested lesson content
First main lesson
Ideally, the centrepiece here should be a work of universal stature which exemplifies to a large extent the concerns of this age-group. A prime example of such a work is Goethe’s drama Faust. In his struggle for knowledge its protagonist demonstrates, to an extraordinary degree, the characteristics of a modern human being, while at the same time bringing to expression the social problems attendant upon the process of individuation.
Through in-depth study of both parts of the tragedy as well as the background literature (the literary and historical precursors in folk-tales, puppet plays, Marlowe etc., certain “relatives”, such as Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, successors, such as Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and an account of the almost life-long creative process on Goethe’s part that went into the making of the work) a host of connections to themes of relevance to both present and future can be opened up: the problems associated with scientific research and its moral and ethical limits, the confrontation with evil, the question of human freedom and responsibility, the themes of love, egoism and guilt, the human being’s concern with the limits of consciousness, with transcendence and the polarity between the ideal and the sensual – all these can provide material for discussion in class. Taking a look at Faust’s performance history can also be a concise way of presenting a history of the modern theatre. [See also: Why Faust for High School Seniors? by Wendy Bruneau. In: Renewal, Volume 19, number 1. For a nuanced and up-to-date discussion on the pros and cons of teaching certain books, see David Sloan, Life Lessons, AWSNA publications]
Second main lesson
Whereas the first main lesson entailed the study of one complete work, the second one opens up the possibility of giving a survey of world literature featuring several outstanding works. They can be presented singly or compared on the basis of selected motifs, or kinships of style and structure. Even though the emphasis here is on modern literature, it is a good idea to consider the historical context with a view to illuminating the genesis of literary works. This can involve viewing them not only as characteristic expressions of a particular epoch, class, mentality etc., i.e. as symptoms of evolving consciousness, but also as autonomous testimonials of individual creativity. The participation of the reader can also be considered as a means of arriving at the insight that aesthetic judgments can change over the course of centuries. Such insight may encourage the students to be more tolerant towards modern cultural products they might otherwise have rejected.
Instead of providing the students with an “official” poetic canon, the teacher should enable the students to work out and further develop their own methods of evaluating poetic quality.
[In many American schools, Faust continues to be taught. Moreover, Faust , part 2 is forward-looking and opens surprising vistas with its final emphasis on redemption, granted as long as we never cease to strive. In some schools, Russian novels of the 19th century are taught (e.g. “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky), also offering a future perspective, this time from an angle rarely provided by our Western outlook. Russian literature opens this other ‘window’, because it makes sense of suffering and anticipates a future global awareness and brotherhood. However, the most profound literary main lesson of this year, for most students, deals with the Transcendentalists. Through the voices of Emerson, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and others, seniors are given wings, especially when they get an opportunity to write their own “Song of Myself”, like Whitman, deliver their own Lyceum lecture, like Emerson, or journal about their solitary experiences in the woods, like Thoreau*. Cherrie Latuner has done this for years at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, MA, to great acclaim. ]
Writing and other language work
The refining of writing skills continues and this serves the purposes of a range of exercises in text analysis and interpretation. These include writing essays on specific questions, answering which involves the ability to discern those features of a poetic or literary text which are typical of its time and of its genre, and to comment upon them argumentatively. The exercises mentioned in connection with classes 9 to 11 are continued and modified along these lines.
The students should now be increasingly capable of organising lessons themselves, in that they approach the process of inquiry into a particular text, say, by preparing historical presentations and setting their own assignments.
The class 12 play
The public performance of a play is one of the highpoints of the whole 12 years of school. The play will have been chosen by the students and the preparations for its performance integrate the work of several different departments. The students are also intensely involved in all aspects of the production from the dramaturgy, music, poster-, costume- and stage-design to the directing and staging. Both for the understanding of a play and for the biography of each of the young people involved, as well as for the class community, a project like this can be highly significant. The chance to extend oneself, and in so doing give expression to inklings of one’s future personality is something which normally only comes into effect in grade 12. [For examples and very helpful synopses of plays, see: David Sloan: Stages of Imagination, Working Dramatically with Adolescents, AWSNA publications]