The more slowly trees grow first, the sounder they are at the core and I think the same is true for human beings.
Henry David Thoreau
This month's Spirit of Ma'at
, in addition to examining alternative educational philosophies and learning technologies, has chosen to present two K-12 alternative school systems in some depth. One of these is the curriculum-free Sudbury model (refer to the Table of Contents
for several articles on Sudbury). The other, the Waldorf school, while heavily committed to providing a rounded curriculum, is as refreshingly radical as Sudbury in its approach to education and its commitment to nurturing freedom and creativity.
Our staff reporter Suzan Patrick received the assignment to provide us an up-close-and-personal view of this educational model. She was pleasantly overwhelmed with what she learned. Here are her findings, and her first-hand account of a day in the life of Waldorf School.
History of Waldorf Schools
Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist (1861-1925) had the vision that man was a threefold being body, mind, and spirit. According to Steiner's beliefs, each aspect of the self unfolds in stages, from early to middle childhood, and then adolescence. The Waldorf Schools are based on this philosophy.
The first Waldorf School opened, tuition free, in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, after the German defeat in World War I when the nation was on the brink of social and economic destruction. Steiner had made a speech with a plea to the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory for social and political renewal. As a result of this rally, he was asked by the owner of the factory to begin a school for the children of the factory employees.
Steiner agreed under the following conditions, all of which were practically unheard-of concepts in his own time:
- The school would be open to all students;
- The school would be co-educational;
- It would be a unified a 12-year school; and
- Primary control of the school would be in the hands of the teachers, not the state.
Unbelievably, Steiner's conditions were all accepted, and on September 7, 1919, Die Freie Waldorfschule opened its doors.
Today there are over 800 Waldorf schools worldwide in over 40 countries, about 150 in North America alone. And even many public schools have adopted portions of the Waldorf philosophy.
Waldorf School Structure
The school is designed down to the colors of paint used on the walls. It is divided into three sectors, one for those in early childhood, one for those in middle childhood, and the third for adolescents.
The curriculum is compared to an ascending spiral of knowledge. As the students progress, they expand into higher levels of complexity with the subject matter. One fascinating and unique point is that the teacher is assigned to a class very early on, and the teacher moves through each grade with that group of students until they reach adolescence. The bond is very strong from the beginning between parents, teachers, and students, and is key to assisting the child in succeeding.
A new teacher is assigned once the child reaches adolescence. The ascending spiral of the curriculum offers a ''vertical integration'' from year to year, and an equally important ''horizontal integration'' enables students to engage the full range of their faculties at every stage of the educational process.
Lessons are taught in main ''lesson blocks,'' and that is the primary focus of each morning, with varying learning techniques interwoven into the time period. The afternoons are for shorter lesson blocks. As the child progresses and the material becomes more complex, the learning styles change. The child not only learns ''about'' something, but also experiences it in a multitude of ways.
One can observe how the lessons are taught from the perspective of the whole by breaking it down into pieces. From these ''pieces,'' children are able to weave together a tapestry that makes sense to them. They can interrelate what they've learned, and understand it in much the same way one understands a picture puzzle as more and more pieces are assembled.
And speaking of picture puzzles at Waldorf School, play is not considered a luxury. It is fundamental.
Some of the more interesting subjects studied in different levels are nature stories, housebuilding, gardening (primary grades 1-3), Norse myths, comparative zoology, botany, elementary physics (middle grades 4-6), Medieval history, astronomy, toymaking, pentatonic flute, beeswax and clay modeling, eurythmy (upper grades 7-8), orchestra, calligraphy, Japanese, weaving, health, first aid, life drawing, bookbinding, carpentry, woodworking, graphic design, and metalwork (highschool grades 9-12). Foreign languages are taught from first grade on.
The lessons are set up so that they are built upon in many different ways, all carefully arranged so that the day has a rhythm that will help overcome fatigue and enhance the learning process. (For a more complete listing of the actual cirriculum, see curriculum entry page This site is under construction but will be more fully functional in the near future.)
Perhaps as exciting as the curriculum itself is the way in which Waldorf Schools absolutely embrace the wholeness of each student. Students are not thought of as numbers or brains. They are seen and honored for the entirety of their beings. Role-playing is encouraged so that learning is experiential instead of being by rote memory. The variety of classes offered nurtures emotional well-being as well as mental capabilities. By the time children finish Waldorf School they will have worked in a garden, worked with different elements, participated in many art forms, and been given a safe place to express themselves verbally and emotionally.
It is believed that when the Waldorf education is completed, the entire student heart, hands and head has been educated. Their websites and publications do not hold back words like spiritual, mind-body, and wholeness. They seem really to understand that spirituality is not something to be put aside for Sunday mornings, but belongs in every part of every day!
A Day in Waldorf School
From the moment I first contacted the Denver Waldorf to the time I concluded my visit there, the people I encountered were warm, enthusiastic, wonderful. I spent the better part of my first morning at the school with an administrator who offered insight into what a day at Waldorf School was like.
In traditional Waldorf fashion, the administrator showed me around first, so I could actually experience many of the classrooms. After that, we spent a brief time talking together.
I had the immediate feeling when I arrived at the school with its lovely old brick buildings that it was a special place. The children were all outside playing and working with wood when I approached. They appeared to be making some sort of A-frame structure. Later on, I found out that this was the third-grade woodworking project. They were making dog houses, which they would then sell, donating all proceeds to the local humane society!
There are actually two buildings on the main campus, housing kindergarten through eighth grade. The high school is two blocks away. As we toured from room to room, I saw a very eclectic classroom environment. All of the walls were sponge-painted in light, pastel colors. Bright, shimmery scarves and twinkle lights adorned the walls.
As I was waiting in the hall, several robust little thespians ran past, all dressed in Shakespearean attire. There was an air of lightness that is difficult to express in words. Suffice it to say, it felt like no other school I've ever visited. The children were not worrying about being in the halls without a pass. The younger children were busy at work on their May Day crowns, made with long pieces of colorful ribbons clustered on a twig crown and decorated with flowers. May Day, like the Harvest Festival in Autumn, is one of the bigger alternative celebrations recognized at Waldorf School.
As we observed one second-grade class, I was taken particularly with their math lesson. The entire class was grouped in a large circle with one student in the middle. A ball of string was passed around as they counted by twos. Then another color ball of yarn was similarly passed, and the students counted by threes. They were learning, quite visually, multiplication tables, yet more impressively, they were observing and understanding quite elaborate geometry, as well. The thought I had at that moment was about how much I wished I had been able to ''see'' math when I was a child. To have such an amazing visual display of mathematics was indeed powerful.
There were geometric figures displayed all over the buildings. Even the design of the building seemed to be geometrical. I spent a few extra moments in the woodworking class and was amazed at the handiwork of these students. Each class had a display shelf of projects, and the progression of intricacy was obvious. For instance, first-graders worked on wooden spoons, older students worked on animals, and high-school students worked on human forms. In fact, much of the furniture in the buildings, I was told, had been handcrafted by the students themselves.
There are no computers in the younger classes. The thought behind this is that the younger child is still in more of a dreamy state and is better served by being allowed to experience interaction. Everything is taught via multiple learning styles, so that one may argue it would be impossible for anyone to ''fail.'' The focus is not on accelerating strengths, but on allowing each child to experience every aspect of the model.
Music, for instance, is integral to the curriculum. Each child has an opportunity to learn music in many different forms. The student who may be more inclined to visual arts than music is given a ''can do'' setting in which to learn music and rhythm.
When studying for a play, the entire class memorizes all of the parts. Roles are not assigned until very close to the actual performance time.
One seventh-grade class was studying world geography. The teacher had drawn the continent of Africa on the board with pastel chalk, and much of the classroom was decorated with African artifacts and pictures. There were no textbooks in sight! The students make their own textbooks as they go, at all grade levels, and these are quite extraordinary, indeed.
It was plain to see that the Waldorf staff are much more than teachers. They are part of a family community. The light in their eyes was apparent. The eagerness to supply me with information and experience was amazing.
When I left the school, I was happy and excited. Excited to see spiritual principles alive in a school, unburdened by dogma of any kind. Excited to know that there are people out there who understand the deeper needs of our children.
Who is to say what the educational system will look like in five years or twenty-five? The need to link our children with a healthy learning environment is painfully clear. It's nice to realize that something as seemingly off-the-wall as Waldorf School is actually the largest private-school movement in the world. Nice to know that the future of our planet may someday be turned over to adults who, as children, have had the opportunity to learn not only with their minds, but with their hands and their hearts.
- Steiner, Rudolf. Education for Adolescents: Eight Lectures Given to the Teachers of the Stuttgart Waldorf School, Herndon, Virginia: Anthroposophic Press, 1996.
- Schaefer, Christopher and Voors, Tijno. Vision in Action: A Practical Guide for the Cooperative Management of Small Organizations, Herndon, Virginia: Lindisfarne Books, 1996.
- Fenners, Pamela J. (Editor) Waldorf Education: a Family Guide, Amesbury, Massachusetts: Michaelmas Press, 1999.
- Querido, Rene M. Creativity in Education: The Waldorf Approach, San Francisco, California: H.S. Dakin Company, 1983.
- Pusch, Ruth (Editor) Waldorf Schools: Kindergarten to Early Years Volume 1, Toronto, Canada: Mercury Press, 1993.
- Pusch, Ruth (Editor) Waldorf Schools: Upper Grades & High School Volume 2, Toronto, Canada: Mercury Press, 1996.
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