In Waldorf schools the beginning of formal language learning, reading, etc. is marked by the introduction of the letters of the alphabet. You might say, “Yes, and what else is new?” But the in-depth treatment of the letters, or sounds, goes far beyond children learning to identify, shape and use the letters for reading and writing. The goal is, through an artistic approach, to touch the children and to have them participate deeply in the experiencing of language.
Each letter becomes like a book in itself. Typically the teacher tells a story in which a certain image within the story, in the form of the particular letter, emerges. On the board there is a colored drawing of, for eg. a MOUNTAIN, a TOWER, a SNAKE, a BEAR or a BUTTERFLY etc., in which the shape of the given letter may be highlighted and identified, within the drawing. Attention is given to the sound of the letter, not its name. We can see the confusion caused by b,c,d,g,t, etc., which really do not ‘rhyme’ except in their name ending. (Bye, bye alphabet song.) Each letter/sound has a distinct quality which the teacher brings out. Contrast a T and an S, for example. Interesting, too, about the neighbors M and N. Bringing the letters through storytelling and the various art forms provides a wonderful impetus for the child to connect with the world of language through their imagination.
It was out of this experience as a teacher that I eventually came to write LMNOP and All the Letters A to Z. I wanted to give children a poetic grounding at the outset of their education. It was so much fun writing LMNOP and there were so many new insights into language to be had from teaching in this way that I wanted to pay it forward.
B suggested a bear to me, so the simple story I made up was
Big Belly the Brown Bear
Big Belly awoke. The brawny, brown bear sniffed the air. It was heavy with the smell of berries, yet Big Belly was not happy. He lumbered down to the bay to find that his favorite bushes had not a single berry left on them. Instead, before him lay bowls of berries, bags of berries, baskets of berries, and even bins full of berries. Big Belly gorged himself on berries until, finally, he lumbered away, leaving the beach strewn with berries and overturned bowls, bags, baskets and bins. Meanwhile, a group of boys who had been swimming in the bay returned. They were horrified to see what had happened. Earlier that day they had boated out to Barnaby Island to pick berries. They had done a great job, but they had forgotten one thing.
As he sits upright Big Belly’s chest and belly forms a big B in the drawing. After we’d found all the Bs in the story and recognized the B “hidden” in the picture, the children colored the picture in their art books. Then we simply wrote BEAR, even though many could not yet read. We had begun to read through writing. More on that later. A poem arose from the story:
B is in bowl, bag, basket and bin;
All manner of places to keep berries in.
A brawny brown bear called Big Belly
Beholds a bee buzzing,
Oh our busy bee.
Afterward I drew the bear on a piece of manila card stock as the beginning of a set of alphabet cards which started to line up over the blackboard.
Several years later after I had written 26 poems, my colleague, Bruce Bischof, took on the challenge of illustrating them. He did a tremendous job despite the fact that his experience as an artist had been very limited up to that point.
I learned a lot through my own experience illustrating the letters, however. What I learned above all is that the chalk and the other materials are responsible for at least half the work. More importantly, I learned that it is not what you have done, or even how well, but rather that you have done it which is of foremost value.