Report verses. The most proper form of temptation since the existence of self-knowledge

Till von Grotthuss

The teacher of a class 2 was very surprised one day when a number of children asked him to be allowed to recite the report verse of a classmate as well. As usual after the summer holidays, he had divided the 37 pupils over the five school days of the week – thus there were the Monday to Friday children – but now, two weeks before Christmas, a couple of crafty sanguine types suggested also introducing the groups of Saturday and Sunday children. Soon the pupils looked forward with mischievous pleasure to rushing out on the words “Today it is the turn of the Saturday children” in order then suddenly with great seriousness to recite the verse of another child. It seemed important to them not to reveal in any form for whom the verse had originally been written. The selected report verses had indeed found an echo and “disputes” started over them.

The report verses scrapbook

In order not to let this positive energy sustained over the whole of the school year dissipate, and in order happily and also a bit proudly to maintain and channel it, the teacher introduced a “report verse scrapbook” in the class. The collection mania, massively fuelled through the football world cup which was taking place at the time, was thus – almost as a side effect – raised to a literarily more productive level.

Every child was given the starting capital of an empty main lesson book. As soon as they had recited someone else’s report verse without mistakes (two minor slips of the tongue were generously tolerated by the class), they were allowed to paste a printed version of the verse into their book.

Only two weeks later a pupil showed the class her “scrapbook”. She had coloured the texts she had won and cut them out in various shapes. If a butterfly occurred in the verse it was naturally cut out in the shape of a butterfly. When the content of the verse was abstract, she still herself found the corresponding image for that – an achievement at which the teacher could only marvel. This idea was emulated by several others.

In order to maintain the excitement, the “rules” were varied and developed. If at the beginning the teacher merely asked: “Who knows Paul’s verse by heart?”, he gradually turned each new challenge into a riddle. “I am looking for the report verse in which the word ‘courage’ occurs twice!” or “This verse is about the art of listening, who can discover which one it is?” or “I will now read only the vowels in the first line out aloud: a, ei, e, a, i, e, e. Which verse is that?” or “This verse is good for clapping. Listen!” or “I will now act the verse for you without words. Like charades. Who knows it?” or “I will draw the verse on the blackboard to be best of my ability. You might recognise it!” When visitors joined the class the teacher liked to claim: “I wager that the whole class knows all the report verses so well that you may choose five children. Simply point to them and the corresponding verse will be spoken in unison!”

We can easily imagine the delight with which the class responded to each “wager” the teacher won. Dealing with these small poems turned into a real “poetry hour” which for lack of time and because the pupils did not want to stop often overran into break time. Thus it was possible without having to say anything or any schoolmasterly motivating to create the basis for and practice an understanding of rhythm, verse, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor and simile.

These former pupils have meanwhile all turned into well-known writers. No, nonsense – of course they haven’t! But who knows? At the end of the school year five children had actually pasted in all 37 verses. The large centre ground managed between 20 and 30 texts. A few “only” managed seven – not that this bothered anybody. They had good-naturedly submitted to the process. For them it was an achievement, recognised by the class, to have clearly recited the seven verses from other pupils; the remaining 30 they will take with them like dormant seeds through their remaining time in school.

Now of course we can take matters to extremes. That is not always necessary! Nevertheless this example shows clearly the potential which is contained in report verses if we can create the enthusiasm in the class. Although such a poem is in the best case an initial impulse for a deeper look at our own weaknesses and strengths, it will only work if the pupil joyfully connects with it.

But the relatively short verse which the children and young people are given to accompany them through the new school year nevertheless in its approach fulfils the two basic elements of self-knowledge – the spirited look at what has developed and the inkling of a future purpose – something which can only be done at one and the same time in the poem.

Air, whisper and rustle,
but do not prompt me!
I know for myself what I want to say!

Wind, blow and ruffle,
but do not drive me away!
I know for myself where I am going!

Storm, jostle and snarl,
but do not show off!
I know for myself the strength I need
to be myself!

No moral remonstrating

A report verse is all the more successful the more the pupil concerned senses the stage of development which they are at. Externally this moment should not be laid down pedantically or, worse still, accusingly. Am I, the pupil, on my way to an inwardly determined goal or am I still in the initial decision-making process? Does the past still dominate or do I express a newly awoken longing for the transformed future as a result of the verse? Signposting these “unasked” questions not in an obvious moral simile but leaving it to the intuition of the respective pupil is part of the subtle process of using report verses. One of the great achievements of Waldorf education is that moral goals should only be “proposed” in freedom.

Seen in this light, a verse should never degenerate into the superficial wish for improvement. It is not I, the teacher, who determines through a linguistic metaphor the direction in which the pupil should as far as possible try and develop in the coming school year, but I make them a fair offer: “From out of the rich treasure of human weaknesses and their corresponding metamorphosis into a general human ideal I give you just those impulses to take along with you which are connected with you. Consider them for a year.

“Feel the responsibility to reflect on them inwardly and gradually identify them. And then decide what you want to make of them. I do not in all honesty want anything from you but you should have the opportunity to want something yourself out of a felt understanding.”

Anyone who composes or selects report verses with such an attitude is not a preacher of morality but someone who offers morality. And in that way they undertake what is the preeminent task of the teacher.

My heart is big
and lets the world enter
however it prevails.

My heart is strong
and changes the world
in what requires change.

Turn inquisitive eyes
into a loving look.
Turn timid gestures
into a helping hand.
Transform grief and reserve
into consoling power.

From heart nature to heart cultivation

How uplifting it is when we feel the urge always to approach the world in an open and uninhibited way. There are people whose heart well and truly commands them to allow other opinions and expectantly take in new things. Such cheerful souls are driven by a loving curiosity. They open doors and windows in good faith but are then quickly overwhelmed by the impressions that flood in.

This classic Parsifal motif can increasingly be observed among young people today. They are prepared to be understanding, indeed empathetic, but then notice in a way which almost paralyses them that true empathy which leads to action does not just set in by itself. Because for this to happen requires that the natural, admirable greatness of heart is supplemented by another strength which can only be acquired with a great deal of work.

Greatness alone is not enough, strength alone would not help either. Here the metamorphosis from the happy disposition of a soul configuration into a way of handling matters socially or indeed a social technique is important. It lies completely within the freedom of the young person as to how they are able to accomplish such a transition. But they should be clearly shown that it is possible to turn a naturally tempered into a cultivated heart.

Cultivating the temperament

A basic educational question arises when we want to understand the motives out of which a more or less conscious human being is actually moved to act in freedom. If external reasons prompt me to do something, I cannot really talk about freedom.

Yet inner stimuli are not necessarily a guarantor of independence either. What does my temperament want and what do I want myself? Often, particularly in childhood and adolescence, these two inner spheres are lumped together or confused with one another. If I have a fiery temperament, I like nothing better than to believe that it is I myself who has just reacted with such anger or aggression. If my natural state of mind tends to be contemplative I just as quickly ascribe a well-though out action to myself.

In order to obtain a sense of this and gradually begin to differentiate, the theory of the temperaments is not just a blessing for teachers and parents but also for the pupils themselves. Anyone who as a creative speech artist or class teacher has performed The House of Temperaments by Johann Nestroy with a class 7 or 8 knows the extent to which such an intensive study of the temperaments can bring about peace and widen horizons.

Even a report verse for the younger classes can already lay the foundation for a sense of the fundamental difference between our temperament and our I. The former is refashioned by the latter but the I in turn can only properly develop and grow strong if it comes to terms with our own temperament. What we adults already experience as an inner breach of peace, an inner antagonism, is still for the child a confrontation between inner and outer, between steadfastness and stormy weather for example.

Alongside metamorphosis, the superlative is another artistic means which can have a good effect particularly in report verses. When a formulation, a thought complex, is transformed from one verse to the next, we can feel the touch of something that is alive, we grow with it. If it is then additionally enhanced from one stage to the next, we merge more profoundly with the living element and flourish.

About the author: Till von Grotthuss has been a class teacher at the Gröbenzell Rudolf Steiner School for 34 years. Current “by-products”: a novel, a book with report verses and two theatre adaptations.