Waldorf schools take a different path

A child’s head, heart and hands are engaged in this educational philosophy


Merry Mayer

A ninth-grader in a Rogers Park school knits as her teacher lectures. If she were in a traditional school, she might be punished. Certainly, she would be told to put away her knitting. After all, the thinking goes, you can’t be listening to the teacher if you are knitting.

But this student attends Chicago Waldorf School, where handwork is part of the curriculum. First-graders learn to knit; second-graders learn to sew and crochet.

The Waldorf educational philosophy is based upon the ideas of the late Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian educator and philosopher who believed the whole child must be addressed through education—the head, heart and hands. Subjects are taught with artistic and practical activities. This philosophy is diametrically opposed to the traditional methods used to teach the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithematic.

Currently there are 177 Waldorf schools in North America, says Patrice Maynard, leader for outreach and development for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. The Chicago area has four: the Chicago Waldorf School, Four Winds Waldorf School in Warrenville, Water’s Edge School in Wauconda, and Singing Winds in River Grove.

Alternative approach to reading, the arts

One of the more controversial parts of Steiner’s educational philosophy is that children aren’t pushed to read as early as in traditional schools. Kindergartners don’t do any pencil or paper work, says Carol Triggiano, who has taught for 12 years at the Chicago Waldorf School. First-graders learn to write first. They don’t get down to the business of reading until second and third grades.

The Waldorf philosophy believes pushing a child to read before he is ready results in a frustrated reader—not a happy one. And once they do learn to read, usually between second and third grades, they tend to become voracious readers, says Triggiano.

But working with your hands and the slow introduction to reading does not mean academics are unimportant at Waldorf schools, proponents say.

"The Waldorf educational philosophy is not more or less academic, but a different approach," says Maynard. For instance, in 10th grade, Waldorf students build a model bridge. The students then test the bridges to see which can hold the most weight. It’s an active project that uses math as well as artistic skills, Maynard says.

Across the curriculum, Waldorf schools use the arts. At the Rogers Park school, each day begins with movement, music and verse. That is followed by a two-hour academic period, during which students study one subject over three to four weeks. Older students might study the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, while younger kids might study about food or clothing production as a social studies lesson. The teacher uses music, poetry, painting, drawing, drama and even the domestic arts to enliven the subject.

Storytelling is also important. An eighth-grade class learning about World War II might begin with the teacher spending 45 minutes telling the story of D-Day, says Triggiano. In later lessons, students will review the story orally, take notes, make a map and then write down the story. In the end, the students will have created their own textbooks.

This leads to the next big difference between Waldorf and other schools: Waldorf schools don’t use textbooks.

Instead, teachers use storytelling to introduce a subject and engage kids, says Triggiano. Waldorf students may learn about King Noun and Queen Verb in a grammar lesson. Or for math class, they may meet Tina Times, who turns cartwheels and gathers things.

What parents say

When Dru Muskovin of Chicago was looking at schools for her two daughters, she says she made the decision based on research and gut instinct.

"It felt very healthy, nourishing their spirits as well as their intellect," she says about the school her daughters, now in seventh and ninth grades, have attended since preschool.

Muskovin says the curriculum gives her daughters "the ability to look at a problem, a question, a subject, and approach it from a variety of aspects."

Judy Lubin, mom of a third-grade boy and a first-grade girl, agrees. An economist, Lubin says she thinks that of all the teaching methods available, the Waldorf method helps children to become independent thinkers, a necessary requirement for a free society.

"Most schools use what I call scientific management. The teacher says there is a right answer and I have it," says Lubin. At Waldorf, kids aren’t told that two plus two is four, she says, but are allowed to find it out for themselves. But, Lubin says, Waldorf provides something far greater. "The strong emphasis on what it means to be a human being [produces] good, solid, likable kids with good moral fortitude."

The Bible and mythology

Although Waldorf Schools are not religious, Steiner’s emphasis on teaching the whole child means kids study the Bible and other religious texts.

According to the Waldorf philosophy, children begin to yearn for spiritual information about third grade. "[It’s] known as the nine-year change. It is sad for them, though they may not know why," says Rebecca Moskowitz, a Chicago Waldorf School teacher. This is because children begin to realize that much of the magic in the world is made up. "A rock is now just a rock to them," says Moskowitz.

The remedy for this is Old Testament stories, such as the one about Adam and Eve.

The school’s Web site explains it this way: "Just as Adam and Eve perceived their nakedness after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, so the children in the ninth year [of life] begin to ‘see’ differently. Adults may notice the children becoming more critical and beginning to question and test everyone and everything. The stories of the Hebrew testament serve as a metaphor for the children’s inner experience at this age.

"At this point, children also begin to realize that they will one day grow up and leave their parents, just as Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. A child may feel sad and isolated at this time. To counteract this feeling, Waldorf students learn about the practical experiences of life—building, farming and gardening."

In fourth grade, Waldorf students move on to the Norse myths, to see the good and bad in everyone. Fifth grade marks the transition from mythology to history. The year culminates with the study of ancient Greece, the Greek city-states and the life of Alexander the Great as a first step into history.

In sixth grade, students are introduced to the Roman era, which "epitomizes historically what the children are experiencing in their bodies [with the onset of puberty]. Of all the ancient cultures, the Romans most strongly dominated and transformed the physical world," the school’s Web site reads.

The Waldorf classroom

Unlike other private schools, classes aren’t necessarily small at Waldorf. Waldorf schools don’t necessarily believe smaller is better. This year’s first grade at Chicago Waldorf is 32—a number to rival many public schools. The number depends on enrollment, but the average class size is 26.

"It’s purposeful that we tend to run bigger classes," says Triggiano. Bigger classes allows the children to encounter a wider variety of personalities, she says. And that helps them appreciate similarities and differences, Triggiano adds.

Human relationships are key in a Waldorf education. Teachers generally move with their students up through eighth grade, meaning a child’s first-grade teacher will also be teaching them in eighth.

"It isn’t just a benefit for kids, but keeps the teachers sharp, learning along with the kids," says Triggiano. It also gives the teachers more sympathy for the kids when tackling a new subject. "They don’t get comfortable," she says.

In elementary levels, children have no grades or traditional tests. Rather, teachers gauge how well a child understands a subject through oral presentations and other activities appropriate to the subject and age of the child. Iowa testing starts in seventh grade, but for practical purposes only. Most high schools, other than Waldorf’s own, require the tests, says Triggiano.

Merry Mayer is a mom and writer living in Chicago.

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