After hearing about it for years and researching extensively through books and online, I was finally able to visit a Waldorf school. One of the directors of the school was offering a tour of the school and all classes during a morning session, so I signed up a few weeks ago to visit. Fortunately, the only other person on the tour was a nice lady who was interested in enrolling her four year old. So I was able to ask as many questions as I wanted : )
We started out by discussing the philosophy and methodology behind Waldorf education. Rather than spend a ton of time writing down what others have already written, I’ll just include a few quotes here from their website (check it out!) that summarize what we talked about:
“Waldorf students cultivate a lifelong love of learning as well as the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world.”
“Waldorf teachers believe that the human being is not just a brain – but a being with heart and limbs – a being of will and feeling, as well as of intellect.”
“All students participate in all basic subjects regardless of their special aptitudes. The purpose of studying a subject is not to make a student into a professional mathematician, historian, or biologist, but to awaken and educate capacities that every human being needs. Naturally, one student is more gifted in math and another in science or history, but the mathematician needs the humanities, and the historian needs math and science. The choice of a vocation is left to the free decision of the adult, but one’s early education should give one a palette of experience from which to choose the particular colors that one’s interests, capacities, and life circumstances allow.”
This is why the Waldorf founders believe that their method of educating children is so important:
“Education in our materialistic, Western society focuses on the intellectual aspect of the human being and has chosen largely to ignore the several other parts that are essential to our well-being. These include our life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity), our willpower (the ability to get things done), and our moral nature (being clear about right and wrong). Without having these developed, we are incomplete—a fact that may become obvious in our later years, when a feeling of emptiness begins to set in. That is why in a Waldorf school, the practical and artistic subjects play as important a role as the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects that the school offers. The practical and artistic are essential in achieving a preparation for life in the “real” world.”
We visited all the classrooms. Here are my thoughts on each one:
First Grade– The seven children were participating in an art lesson/experiment. The teacher dripped several globules of thick black ink onto paper, and the children used straws to blow the ink gently across the page to create designs. This challenged them in some interesting ways, because seven year olds are not usually the most adept at blowing gently! One little boy even got up from his desk and blew in several different directions onto the ink; I noticed that even though he was was not sitting at his desk, nobody seemed to mind. The children were all intently focused on their craft. “This is my first time doing something like this,” a girl remarked gleefully to the teacher.
Kindergarten– This large class, comprised of over a dozen children, was participating in eurythmics (defined on the website as “artistically guided movement to music and speech”, like poetry and dance and song and story mixed together). All the children were clearly enjoying themselves thoroughly. Their favorite part was when they pretended to be rabbits, imitating floppy bunny ears with their hands on their heads. There were small movements like this incorporated with large body gestures; the teacher used his wonderfully melodic voice to speak-sing the words, describing the seasons and the day and night and different animals, which were familiar enough to the children for them to join in occasionally.
Children were not discouraged from speaking, yet most were so involved in the scene that their entire attention was on the teacher. One boy made a few funny comments intended to make the others notice him and laugh; the other teachers in the room did nothing to stop him, yet when he began acting silly and distracting too many of the children, a teacher calmly patted him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear, which directed him to refocus on the activity at hand. When the teacher had finished, there was a moment of silence as the children sat in their final position on the ground. Then one by one they said, “Thank you, teacher,” or “We really liked that, teacher”. The boy who had interrupted the class earlier got up and gave his teacher a hug.
Preschool– The fourteen children here were having snack time. They sat around a low wooden table that accommodated the entire group comfortably with two teachers. Every child had a place mat, a wooden bowl, cup and spoon, and cloth napkin. The food was cut-up fruit and berry cobbler; all snack time food at the Waldorf school is provided for the children (they bring their own lunch), cooked or prepared sometimes by the students, but most often by the assistants. The children are learning manners. One tiny tot said “this boy here, he’s kicking me!” A teacher replied, “Ask him politely to stop kicking you and keep his feet to himself.” When a student asked for more fruit, she was corrected to ask for more fruit “please”.
Each child had to ask to be excused from the table. They took their dishes to a low sink and used a washcloth to rinse and scrub them clean (as well as they could) before putting them on a towel to dry. A little boy on his way to the sink with his dishes blew a kiss to my tour guide. “That’s my son”, she whispered to me as she blew him a kiss back. She also told me that at this age, the children are learning other practical work to help out with cleaning and keeping order in their classrooms. Since cloth aprons, napkins, mats, etc. are used so often at the school, they do laundry on site and begin teaching the preschoolers to fold laundry and put it away neatly as part of their chores. “My son has loved folding clean clothes so much at school that when we’re at home, he wants to fold all our laundry too,” the guide told me. “And I’m okay with that! He thinks it’s fun.”
Second grade– The nine children at first appeared to be in an art lesson. A teacher at the front was demonstrating, step by step, how to create a colored frame on paper with chalk squares, as the children followed her directions. They added a brown hill, which the teacher told them was a cave for bears. Then she began talking about hibernation, both for bears and other creatures, addressing why they hibernate, and what happens when they hibernate. “Do you remember me telling you that I have a pond in my backyard?” the teacher asked. All the children nodded. “Well, I found out that the fish in my pond hibernate too. Let me tell you about that…” The teacher continued the subject as she taught them how to draw a bear in their cave. It was a science lesson, but given in the form of a personal story. The teacher was not reading from a manual; she was telling it from her own understanding and previous study. The children were captivated.
Third grade– The five kids were absorbed in a math/science experiment as we entered the tiny classroom. They had built several bridges from variations of folded paper and were seeing how many pennies each bridge would hold before collapsing. They counted the pennies carefully, correcting each other if they missed a number, and talked aloud about their theories of which bridge would be the strongest. Details of construction materials, design, and placement of the pennies were discussed and argued. The teacher facilitated but let the children focus on their own. A girl lounged on her desk as she passed pennies to another student. One boy accidentally spilled a cup of pennies all over the floor, yet there was no alarm; the boy simply crawled around picking them up. As the bridges began to collapse, the teacher re-entered the scene, teaching the students how to record their data. A lesson in roman numerals also seemed to be unfolding, as well as instruction on graphs.
Fourth grade– When we came into this classroom, the eight students were finishing up some sort of reading time. Each had a fiction book that they were putting away. I’m pretty sure “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was one of them. The teacher began to lead the group in a mental math game. “What is thirteen plus five minus eight?” he asked. A girl raised her hand: “Ten?” The teacher looked at the other students and said, “How many of you agree that the answer is ten?” A few children raised their hands. “That is the correct answer,” he said, “so those who said yes may move up a level.” Those children stepped up from the floor onto their chairs. Evidently the right answer moved the student from the floor to the chair to standing on their desks, then back to the chair and to the floor. This kept the students active so that they wouldn’t squirm around in their chairs while trying to concentrate on arithmetic. Smart idea.
In all the classrooms there was evidence of beauty, creativity, learning, and life. Living plants graced shelves and windows. Artwork lined the walls, portraying historical scenes, abstract Celtic knots, math problems, and nature. Hand-made projects could be seen in various stages of completion. Toys that encouraged imaginative play were everywhere. Books and musical instruments tempted me closer. The teachers sang songs as they escorted their students between classrooms. Flowers in vases sat on the tables, and a candle is lit as a centerpiece for every meal.
Each child writes their own book for every class instead of using a textbook. No matter what the subject is, the teacher will instruct the class on the lesson and guide them through the work until they know it well, so that the children can write their lessons in a notebook that explains everything in their own words. Not only are the children taught to write in cursive (instead of typing everything on a computer), but each page of every notebook is illustrated, whether with pictures that accompany the subject or diagrams for a math problem or just a patterned design around the edges of the page. By doing this, each notebook becomes a unique, beautiful, and functional work of art.
After the tour, the guide and the other visiting lady and I stood outside in the lovely spring weather. The school’s play area was about an acre or more of ground with a few ropes hung from trees, many logs piled for children to climb, sand piles, and a small play set with swings for the preschoolers. Despite the lack of formal playground equipment, all the children were easily occupied at recess. The youngest children chased each other or dug in the dirt with shovels. A group of girls played a circle game. Some of the older boys ran past brandishing sticks like guns; I heard one of them shouting about a battle of the Civil War. Several children sat quietly by themselves, deep in thought or observing the others, yet they did not seem to show any signs of feeling lonely or left out. The guide showed us a half-acre garden, a flower bed, and an herb garden, tended by the different grades of children with the aid of the teachers and two professional farmers who taught the students horticulture and agriculture.
The guide told me that there were sometimes children who misbehaved, as there always will be, and that many of their children were “spirited”. Discipline consisted of removing the child from the group to simply observe instead of participating until the child could control themselves, often with a teacher or assistant actively helping them work through their problem. If the misbehavior continued, the student was taken to the main office with a teacher, and allowed to stay there quietly drawing or resting until they could resolve things with the teacher and return to class.
The energy was good in that place. I didn’t see a single student who appeared lethargic or hostile. Not every student was totally attentive in every class, but those whose attention was distracted for a moment were not instantly jolted back to the task at hand by the teacher; rather, they were allowed to stare out the window and dream a little until the interest of the lesson being taught brought them back to the present.
If I could use a few words to describe the Waldorf school as a whole, they would be “peaceful”, “purposeful”, “engaging”, and “powerful”. The entire atmosphere radiated a sense of calm… not the kind of calm that induces languor, but one that produces mindfulness and awareness . Even the smells of the rooms were amazing. It was like a combination of the herbs I grow every summer, my grandmother’s home, my mother’s bread baking, cedar wood, sheep’s wool, and the tea I drank every day in Germany, as well as many other subtle scents that sang of home and love. The attitude of the teachers and students alike was one of mutual respect for each other and for everything they learned, shared, and owned at the school.