Send them to the farm – the earlier the better!

Markus von Schwanenflügel

The situation in school escalated. The fire brigade arrived. Pedro had once again been excused lessons and sent to help the janitor and was just in that frame of mind when he passed the fire alarm … In the end it was Pedro himself who decided to embark on an adventure in Estonia: he probably felt “somehow” that he was heading down a dead end.

There are three typical images by which I remember his stay on our farm: Pedro’s bicycle, broken through the thin ice one evening and half submerged in the lake, no sign of Pedro. He was already tucked up in his bed. Then, Pedro straining to pull a heavily laden cart across a field while it was snowing. The wood for his hut had to be transported to the building site right then.

Finally, Pedro lying in the hay holding Nooli in his arms. He had taken on caring for the calf even while it was still being born.

Pedro did not do a work placement with us in the conventional sense. He lived with us in our small multi-generational project for almost six months. He helped where it made sense. He had lessons for two hours a day and otherwise had no problem keeping himself occupied. Homesickness was not an issue.

When I met Pedro again a year ago shortly before his final exams, he thought he was doing well in school since Naatsaku. He had become much calmer; after all, he had been able to get rid of all his excess energy in Estonia.

“But I am listening!”

I had to think of Pedro again as I was leafing through the main lesson books a few days ago which were created in my last geometry main lesson at the Windrather Talschule. This school has been an inclusive Waldorf school since it was founded 20 years ago in which in the main lessons all children are in principle taught together by two teachers. I remembered the many conversations I had had with my colleagues about a particular group of pupils. I believe there are such pupils in almost every class 9. They draw attention to themselves in that they

• are the last to have unpacked their (mostly incomplete) drawing instruments,

• are the last to be quiet when the class falls silent,

• have developed great professionalism in convincing themselves and others that they are paying attention when in reality they are almost always concerned with something else,

• can very rarely start working on a task without having it explained a second time,

• do homework with minimal effort – if any at all.

In short, they behave as if they did not want to learn. Which is not, of course, true. They want to learn but are so caught up in the behavioural pattern described above that they do not learn without pressure – and this is the case irrespective of the subject and the methods used by the teacher. We asked ourselves whether we could not have predicted the behaviour of these pupils and done something for them at an earlier stage. Because we noted that it was these children in particular who had never really become familiar with active, targeted learning in lower school. They had never experienced for themselves that it is hard work to practise – but neither that it can be fun.

When, for example, I had once again gently pointed out to Clarissa that she was not really paying attention, and she responded indignantly “But I am listening”, then this was true from her perspective. After all, she could even – annoyingly– repeat my last sentence. And when on top of that I then attempted to communicate to her that there is a difference between hearing and listening or, indeed, understanding, I had really dug myself into a hole because the fact that she had not understood anything, something she was quite happy to admit, could only be due to my complete failure to explain anything properly.

Exit from the learning process – what now?

Until about the age of 12 these children do not particularly attract attention in experientially and artistically oriented lessons. They do learn something but more as if by accident. They have difficulty from an early age in repeating something to practice it. They cannot, for example, listen attentively to a story if they have heard it before. While their fellow pupils become wrapped up in drawing ever longer braiding patterns, they become bored after the third “loop”. But they drift along, supported by the overall positive learning atmosphere, and benefit from lessons to the extent that the teacher does not yet get a bad conscience.

But with the onset of puberty these pupils show clearly that they are no longer really involved, that they cannot concentrate. And then, often at the start of class 9, they become detached from the majority of the class, sometimes in a matter of weeks, as far as learning is concerned. They are reprimanded with every greater frequency and can be praised less and less – and that often happens in almost all subjects.

These young people show us in a diffuse yet typical phenomenon the effects of the complex changes in the world we live in. It is pointless to search for the detailed reasons. There are no specific, well-defined causes for their difficulties – which are, after all, not just learning difficulties – just as there are no simple ways to liberate them from their problems.

And yet we have to ask as early as possible, as soon as we become aware of the first symptoms that they are exiting from the learning process of the group, what can we do now? Because we know how things are likely to develop. And we also know that everything we can do in school and the family environment is only dealing with the symptoms. We are unable to change anything in the basic conditions either in the former or the latter. Anything we might try does not go deep enough when measured against the depth to which the difficulties have meanwhile become fixed in their life.

And this is where the farm comes into play once again: the farm, life on the land, is no panacea but it is a very universal aid in supporting the child to develop the forces which can enable them to deal more successfully with the problematic influences of our “civilisation”. And this applies – of that I am sure – to every child, every adolescent, indeed also to us adults as long as the people who work the farm, who live there and look after the land, are caring in the way they deal with stones, plants and animals. Then the farm is a source of health for every person.

Learning myself what is good for me

It has been our experience over many years on our farm here in Estonia that the children, if given enough time, turn towards the things which are good for them, which help them in their development, which help them to balance their existing deficits. I am certain that after some time Clarissa, the girl mentioned earlier, would have been found in precisely the stable with the animal which would have had a therapeutic effect on her. And she would have helped precisely in the place where her abilities could have developed in the best possible way.

Whereas children with other disabilities can often practise very intensely and influence the climate of learning positively, those who cannot or do not want to practice disrupt the learning of their fellow pupils unconsciously but “specifically”. They draw so much attention to themselves, absorb so much energy that dealing in a differentiated way with the requirements of the children who are willing to learn becomes more difficult. This means, as the public debate shows, that there are limits to the acceptance of inclusion – and possibly in fact its further development within schools.

Thus there is a further reason for my appeal to seek places in the country for children: the hope of making the establishment of many inclusive houses of learning easier.

As many pupils as possible should be given the opportunity in the sixth or seventh year of school of having “farm time” precisely to prevent later exclusion. Of course there are legal and financial questions to be considered here and in each individual case thought will certainly also have to be given as to how some lessons can be organised. But all of these things are doable if the matter in itself has been recognised as correct and necessary. Parents and teachers could develop a network, a small organisation which looks for such farms, offers and organises such stays in the country, and maybe even accompanies them.

I would be prepared, perhaps in cooperation with an existing facility, to be involved in an initiative which wishes to develop the provision of “farm time”.

About the author: Dr. Markus von Schwanenflügel has been an upper school teacher for 37 years, first in the Bochum Waldorf school, then in the Windrather Talschule; “besides” developing the Naatsaku youth farm in Estonia for the last 18 years.