School Experiences, Part 2: Waldorf

I am going to write this on a professional blog space knowing full well that I am not going to be able to artificially separate my professional and personal opinions and impressions. I am both education professor/researcher and mom simultaneously. Sorry if you were hoping for one perspective without the other.

This morning I visited a Waldorf school. The Waldorf school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located on a quiet street. It’s located in an old brick two-story schoolhouse that used to be owned by the public school district in which it is located. A large majority of the students were white.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week would cost twice what we are currently paying at your average run of the mill church-based preschool. We could probably swing that financially. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $350 more a month than our mortgage payment, which unless/until my spouse transitions from stay-at-home dad to the workforce (and we want to spend half that income on education), isn’t happening.

Walking up to the main doors, I could see through the glass and look directly at a woman sitting at a large wooden desk located up half a flight of stairs. I pushed the buzzer and she waved me in. I was a bit taken by the large abstract painting hanging behind her, lit by an appropriately-placed spotlight. The admissions director met me in the lobby and we proceeded to observe three classes (8th grade, 3rd grade, and Kindergarten).

The twelve 8th graders present in the class (and their teacher) had their desks in a circle facing each other. They were reading their own pieces of writing aloud to the class. I was surprised by the sophisticated nature of the writing prompt that challenged the students to write about one place from two perspectives: one person having a positive experience and one having a negative experience in the exact same space. I noticed that one student offered some helpful feedback to another student who voiced concern about her ability to complete part of the writing task, which indicated to me that students’ ideas were valued among their peers and teacher. The student offered feedback before the teacher. Immediately after reading their writings, the teacher passed out charcoal and they began working on drawings that would represent these pieces of writing.

The twelve students in the 3rd grade were reading words out loud as their teacher pointed to single words written on the board. The teacher asked students how many syllables were in each word, and asked if it was true that the number of syllables correlated with the number of vowels in the word. Students described to her why that is not always the case, using words like book and tree (included in the list on the board) to come to the conclusion that two of the same vowels often work together as one sound. I noticed the schedule on the day included “Games” and “Chores.” They continued some work on time-telling using clocks with moveable hands they had made out of construction paper and brads, and in the last part of the lesson I saw, were working in their notebooks to describe a measurement activity they had completed outside the previous day. The notebooks, which I had seen in the 8th grade as well, were student-created illustrated textbooks, and a summative record of the things they had already learned in various subjects. While I was in the third grade classroom, the sound of a piano being played (quite well) in the room next door became a soundtrack for what the students were doing. I later learned they had a eurhythmicist that visits for 6 weeks each year, and it was she who was playing the piano.

Finally, I saw 14 students in a mixed-aged kindergarten class. They were engaged in play, with fabric, fantasies, and a complicated storyline that involved a freestanding piece of equipment in the room as the “castle.” There were a number of play areas or stations. A few of the students had made a tent and were sitting underneath it in their created world. Bread was rising in the room and the assistant teacher was making snack for the day. The entire room smelled heavenly. When a few of the students struggled to negotiate their diverse perspectives on who should and should not be allowed to use the sliding board, one upset student approached the teacher to taddle-tale. The teacher casually asked her if she would like to join her and two other students in what they were doing, and began humming and singing as a means to calm and redirect the student. I asked permission to take a picture of the classroom because it was so stunning. I saw special attention to the lighting in multiple rooms and common areas throughout the school.

Also during my visit, I found out the mixed aged kindergarten teachers and assistants teach kindergarten continuously, while other teachers move up the grade levels with their students (grades 1-8). That helped me make sense of the deep relationships the 8th grade teacher seemed to have with his students…after all, it was their 8th year together.

There were a number of things I really appreciated about the school, some of which aren’t different from most private schools: small class sizes, curricular and budgetary freedom, teachers that look like they love what they do. There were a few things that I wondered about, mostly because I don’t know much about the philosophy that undergirds Waldorf Education. It certainly has it’s critics, both in the scholarship and among my parent friends. One friend recently said to me “yes, my friend sends her kids there, and they can’t read.” Well, they can’t read YET. Waldorf doesn’t put pressure on students to become literate in the same ways and on the same pace as public schools. So among parents of same-aged children it looks like public school kids outperform these students, yet the priorities for what these students should know when are fundamentally different in the two settings. The 8th graders I saw were completing a writing activity that I might struggle with rather easily. So apparently they can read and write quite well, and the way they were integrating a number of subjects together, easily floating from one to the other, was impressive.

Most importantly, the students at the Waldorf school looked happy. In contrast, both of my friends who have high achieving students in another great local public school have first born children that stay up late every night with their noses buried in a book. However, both parents have told me that these children don’t like school. Isn’t that interesting that yes, they are young readers (and I assume, love learning through reading), but hate school? They aren’t happy there.

How can we make public schools a place where students want to go? And like it? And are happy? Because not all families can pay anything, let alone more than their mortgage payment, to send their kids to a different type of school. These are the issues I am wrestling with.