Why I love Waldorf

 

By Donna Hemmert, PCWS Parent

I love Waldorf education for many reasons.  If I had to articulate an overall reason, I guess I could sum it up by saying Waldorf education is optimistic.  What is not optimistic about being reverent?  Or simplicity, beauty, nature, imagination, ritual and magic (the magic of childhood)?  That is what my family has found at Waldorf.

I struggle with all the “screen staring” we do these days and I think it disconnects us from each other as much as it connects us.  I find that the first thing Waldorf does is cut out the noise and provide an atmosphere of calm beauty. And the focus on nature and being outside is also a part of that simplicity and beauty.

Waldorf also focuses on the whole child, not just academics.  It allows the child to be a child, not a mini-adult.   And to be outside, using his body and imagination. My husband and I both spent many of our childhood hours outside making toys out of sticks, rocks and anything we could find.  We have such fond memories of that.  And even though we weren’t learning academics at a young age, we both did very well in school – so we don’t believe early academics is the answer.  By choosing Waldorf, this helps us allow our child to play, be physical and spend time in his imagination.  There will be plenty of time for him to learn to read.

But at the end of the day, we wanted more for our child than just the academics in his academic career. We wanted an environment that supported our goal of instilling reverence and respect in this world…..to see the beauty while learning to be a good person.  We feel Waldorf supports that vision.

Overprotecting Our Children

Currently, in our society, we are much better at protecting our children than we are at allowing them to develop independence and a little daring. With all of the best intentions we have sequestered our children in our homes. Fear of automobiles, pedophiles, injuries, and lawsuits has denied our children the opportunities we had growing up. We roller-skated without knee pads and helmets, walked to school, to our friends’ houses, and to stores without supervision. We played in the schoolyard, climbed trees and fences, and stayed out after dark. So few children do the same today.

In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Traditions to Raise Self-Reliant Children, Wendy Mogel notes that it is also a parent’s job to teach children to manage risks. Mogel contends that if young people today were faced with the opportunity to do something dramatic and life-changing, like the Exodus from Egypt, most would decline, enslaved more by fear than by Pharaoh.

During the second half of childhood, parents need to help children manage risks as a counter balance to the protective home environment we have developed during their early years.

For ten years my wife and I worked at a summer institute in Maine. This was a fine arrangement for our family as it allowed us to leave the heat and humidity of Washington in the summer and to spend six weeks in northern New England. From the time our daughter was four, we all headed north in July and our daughter took part in the program that was provided for the children. In many ways the environment there was ideal. The Steiner Institute was housed on a small college campus and my daughter and her summer friends could walk anywhere without restriction.

Just prior to her fourteenth birthday, our daughter began voicing reservations about returning to Maine. She complained that there was nothing to do. We reminded her that there were art classes, kayaking trips, beach excursions, swimming, innumerable opportunities provided by the program, but she was adamant. So we began to explore other options. My wife did some research to find alternatives and discovered a wilderness canoe trip solely for teenage girls led by young women guides. This trip would be vigorous and rugged. The group would head off for a ten-day adventure with extensive paddling and extended portages. They would have to camp out, cook their own food, make do without the comforts of home (no showers, no toilets), and be at the mercy of the bugs and the weather. We thought for sure that our daughter would express no interest whatsoever. We were wrong. She wanted to go.

Sending her on this trip was a huge step for us. We had to leave her with her brother in Boston and know that she was getting on a plane for Canada and that when she got off one of the tour leaders, whom we had never met, would be there to meet her and a few other girls and take them six hours north of Toronto to the base camp where they would join the group to begin their trip. The only communication that we would have during the two weeks that she was away was a phone message that she had arrived in Toronto safely and two email messages—one when they left the base-camp for their canoe trip and one when they returned.

At the end of the two weeks, my wife and I drove back to Boston eager to pick her up at the airport. When she came through customs with the stewardess, she flew as an unaccompanied minor, we were there waiting. She looked so pleased with herself, self confident and mature. She was strong from the canoeing and portaging, healthy from the days outdoors, and different, not just because of the hair rinse that the girls had shared on their adventure, but because she had been through a rite of passage and was so pleased with herself.

This year she was eager to return. She saved her babysitting money and spent nineteen days in the wilderness braving mosquitoes, whitewater, and the SARS epidemic. Protecting our children is essential, but not protecting them can be just as important.

Why I Chose Waldorf Education

By Dave Schilling, PCWS Parent

I had not heard of Waldorf education until we lived in Monterey, CA, about six years ago, where I was attending the Naval Postgraduate School. We met another military couple there who had a son the same age as our daughter.  The father was a Navy officer also attending the school and our wives became friends and met frequently for play dates with the kids. The mother was very much into Waldorf education and often spoke of it. The thing that struck me was the artistic and holistic approach to education as well as the idea of learning through play and exploration.

In my own experience I started out in a parochial Lutheran school until 6th grade, which was less than a positive experience. In 7th grade I was moved to an independent private school for middle and high school, but struggled to catch up from what I had missed from the previous school. However, I felt very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to attend the school I did and I knew that I wanted to provide the same opportunity to my children. To discover Waldorf education was an added bonus.

So, when it came time for us to move to D.C., one of the first things we did was research where the Waldorf schools were, and were thrilled when we found PCWS, and enrolled our daughter immediately.

That was the reason we chose Waldorf education, but there is much more to the story of why we stay and will continue as long as possible.

For my own part, Waldorf education is everything I wished my educational experience would have been, especially in my elementary years. The manner and care that is put into the curriculum is exquisite.  The way in which the children are taught in a manner that is much better suited to their learning style is priceless. There has never been a day when either of my children was not absolutely excited about going to school.  For them, it is not a tedious workplace where they must suffer through hours of lecture and memorization of dates and facts, but it truly is a place of wonder and discovery where the children learn according to their nature. This approach promotes a much greater retention of knowledge than any conventional academic process.

Somewhere along the way, the U.S. academic system got off track and the art of learning was lost and gave way to a system of training children to take tests. This is neither beneficial for the child nor beneficial for society as a whole, for that child will lack the life skills that are so desperately needed in adulthood.

I am excited to see my children excited about school and learning and am consistently amazed at the things they learn and accomplish. From writing to painting to handwork, there has not been one instance where I wasn’t absolutely thrilled with what my children were doing. And I am even more excited about the future and what is coming next. There is no doubt in my mind that the skills they are learning today will allow them to be productive and fruitful adults. There will be no limit to what they can accomplish because they have learned from the very start to imagine the possibilities and not be constrained by conventional walls.

Parents as Providers

By Jack Petrash

Providing for our children is another of parenting’s paradoxes. Because our children start out in life depending on us for everything, it is vital that we live fully into our role as providers. Food, clothing, and meaningful experiences are all a part of what parents work hard to provide. The more thought and care we put into providing for our children at an early age, the more they benefit. Providing healthy food, warm clothing, and good medical care are just the kind of assignments that good parents take seriously. It is our job to provide the very best for our children and over time these decisions will involve schools, camps, after school lessons, and all sorts of teams. But here too, Emerson’s words apply: “Every excess has its defect… Every sweet hath its sour.”

In his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, Dan Kindlon points out that providing too much for our children for too long, impedes character development. When Kindlon did a survey on “too good to be true teenagers,” the kinds of healthy children parents hope to raise, he found that there were certain characteristics that these young people had in common. They cleaned their own rooms. They did not have a phone in their room (I assume that also means a cell phone). And they did some kind of community service. What the parents provided was very simple; these children ate dinner regularly as a family.

What is clear from this study is that we should always provide our children with opportunities to give as well as receive. This can mean different things in different families. It can mean that children make their own beds or do the dishes. It can mean that adolescents do their own laundry or clean the bathroom. And with teenagers it can mean that they work outside of the home on weekends or in the summer to earn their own spending money, keeping in mind that independence fosters responsibility and that leads to self-esteem.

A number of years ago, the state of California offered a work program for young people modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federally funded program during the Depression. The California program promised “hard work, long hours, and low pay.” It had a waiting list, mostly with young people from well-to-do families who wanted to find out what they were really worth.

In the end children must provide for themselves. How many kids today pay for their own car insurance, their gasoline, their cell phones, or their credit card bills in college? What message do we send our children when we give them so much, other than the message of privilege or entitlement?

Parenting has to be a bi-polar undertaking. We are called on to protect our children, but not over-protect them, to provide for them, but not indulge them. These are the challenges that parenting sets before us; and as with any art form, there are no easy answers. We simply have to be present in the moment and move between the opposites to achieve the right balance. Sometimes this work seems overwhelming and I must say there are nights when I get down. It is then that I look for a little help with this work and this quotation by E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful, helps.

“Through all our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled… How can one reconcile the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended – the power of love.”

These words remind me that I am just a struggling artist who really loves his work.

Supporting Music in the Home

Sheila Johns spoke at PCWS on Wednesday, February 15th on supporting music at home. Sheila is the music teacher for the grades and a music therapist also. The talk started with a discussion of the role of music in childhood; the notes below are our attempt to capture the talk.

The decline in the relationship of people to real music is alarming, since children come into this world endowed with music. I teach at WWS also, and ask the same question in every 11th grade class: how important is music to your life? I’ve been doing this for years, and without exception, every hand goes up. How many academic subjects do you suppose high school students would say has a direct relationship to their lives? Yet as adults, our experience of music calcifies mostly to consumption (instead of production).

Pythagoras used the phrase ‘the music of the spheres’ and there is plenty to support the idea that music does have a relationship to planetary and astral movements. Music also has a strong healing power; in modern life we see this in both positive and negative aspects. (much modern music contributes to alienation of the self)

Steiner said, “Musical experience is the experience of the whole human being.” One fundamental problem of our time is the narrowing of the aural space. Think back 100 years – people didn’t have the sounds of traffic in their ears, dishwashers, mechanical sounds filling the space, so-called music piped in stores and elevators everywhere.

Be mindful that as adults we have mechanisms to filter those sounds out; children don’t. Be mindful of the stimuli they are exposed to. Our eyes have lids. If we want to keep out some unwanted image, we can close our eyes. What about unwanted sounds? Our ears have no lids to shut.

Steiner also thought of the child as one large sense organ. In that regard, think of nourishing all your child’s senses. We often thinking of nourishment in terms of food, but children, especially under the age of seven, are affected by sound through their whole body. Are we nourishing their spirits, their musical senses? There is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening gives meaning to what we hear. Sheila gave the example of a second grader in her class some years ago who appeared to be hearing her, but asked her to repeat the instructions. Gently, Sheila asked her, “Did you not hear me, dear?” The child responded, “Of course I heard you, I just wasn’t listening.”

If the aural space is too crowded, what does the child shut down, since we don’t have ear lids?

Silence is nourishing. Noise pulls us out of our bodies, silence allows children to self-integrate. How does one’s own voice arise, if there is no silence? Listening is also a fundamental human capacity. Think of neighbors, coworkers, spouses, nations who can’t listen to each other properly. The process of creating comes out of inner listening.

How to make time and space for a child to experience silence?

Be mindful of our own talking. Sheila gave the example of seeing a mother in a grocery store with a young child sitting up in the cart. The mother, frequently, will chit-chat with the infant through the entire store, discussing menus, whether to buy asparagus or artichokes, etc. By incessantly filling the sounding space with our own voices, we prevent our children from experiencing the silence which is so important in their development.

Make organic, acoustic sounds available. When was the last time you heard a bird singing? In one of her pregnancies, Sheila spent seven months in a hospital, surrounded by the quiet hush of hospital sounds. On Mother’s Day, one staffer went to great lengths to get her outside, even on a gurney. Sheila recounted how, when the doors opened and she went outside for the first time in so long, she was greeted by a riot of sound: birds, squirrels, leaves. How often do we allow for silence to be filled by nature?

Expose your children to live musical sounds, instrumental or vocal. Who is it that should be singing? You. Us. Everyone of us. Don’t worry about ability, don’t worry about how long it’s been since you did any singing or whether you can hold a tune. Your voice is a gift to your child.

Sheila gave the example of a friend of hers who told a story to her children every night at bedtime. At one point she found a marvelous tape of stories that she thought quite good. She began turning on the tape player for her children every night so they could hear these stories, which the mother thought to be far superior to her own. The fourth night, as she turned on the tape player, her son began to cry. “Why?” the mother asked. “Don’t you like the stories?” The child confirmed that the stories were good, but said, “That thing doesn’t have a lap.”

It is a gift of you to sing to and with your children, and connects them to another part of their heritage. Steiner wrote, “Song is the earthly means of recalling pre-earthly existence.” Our song connects them to the spirituality of the other realm from which they have come.

When can you sing? On long drives in the car, at bedtime, and while doing chores. Tone bridges this world and the next.

How do we sing? Sheila played two songs, and participants observed the differences. One, sounded very staccato, straight up and down, orderly. The second had bigger intervals, sounded more irregular and a bit dreamy. Sheila built on those observations by indicating that for the youngest children, we try to avoid beat or rhythm. In children’s own spontaneous songs the music follows the words – they sing what they say.

Suggestions for starting to sing: pick one tone, one note, and sing the whole song at that tone. Try to choose a tone that isn’t your normal speaking voice; children use a much higher voice for singing than they do for speaking. Sheila played several intervals for the group; children are comfortable with a fifth, the interval found at the beginning of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It has a mood of balance, equanimity. If you are comfortable with a single tone, try adding this interval occasionally.

Sheila closed with a verse said by Washington Waldorf’s fourth grade class as they begin and end their music class ;

Music speaks what cannot be expressed
Soothes the mind and gives it a rest
Heals the heart and makes it whole
Flows from heaven to the soul

Authority in Teaching and Parenting

By Wendy Jackson

As a parent, I can accept on a certain level the idea that I have authority
over my child and the corresponding responsibility for the welfare of my
child. Unless given up or taken away legally, this idea of parent as the
first kind of authority is a widely accepted fact, although this occurs in
the context of a varied and complex society. On an individual level, am I
the authority for my child? Do I give commands, enforce obedience, take
actions and make final decisions? Many parents do. If one considers
mealtime, a parent makes the decisions about what is being served and at
what time, tells the child to come to the table for dinner, helps the
process along in some fashion if the child doesn’t come (enforces obedience
and takes action). How this happens could look different at different stages
of development, but more or less, many parents I know act as the authority
in their home when it comes to mealtime.

Now consider a situation in which a parent handles the matter of mealtime
differently. A parent may ask a child if he is hungry and ready to eat or
leave the matter entirely up to the child. In this case, the child makes the
decision about what they will eat for dinner, what time they are ready to
eat, whether or not to eat dinner at all. I can imagine teenagers being
capable of managing mealtime themselves but not a three year old. The stage
of development is a factor in how much we assume the role of the authority
for our child.

If we ask these questions about many aspects of our young children’s lives,
we can see that in many ways, we do assume the role of authority in our
children’s lives. We have the right to do this because we have the
responsibility for our young. Being the authority for our child is practical
in this light, because we have more information and experience regarding
matters like nutrition and health, safety, amount of sleep needed at
different ages. Our life experience and actively seeking out information can
help us to be authorities in terms of expertise, as well. Finally, we often
care more about nutrition, health, safety and sleep. Our children
necessarily are focused on their primary and immediate need to grow and
become through play and learning.

As an educator, I accept a position of authority in the classroom and school
by agreeing to be a teacher. As a teacher, I give commands, enforce
obedience, take action, and make final decisions. I am in charge of the
children, and I have the responsibility to educate both the class and the
individual children. I desire to be an authority (defined as an expert
having a lot of knowledge) in educating the children in my care and do
certain things to become more of an authority in this respect. Put in
another way, each school day, I have the joy of helping children learn about
the world so they can take their place in it. While my primary task is to
bring the Waldorf curriculum to the children in a lively way that stimulates
a true love for work and learning, I am well aware that a key part of my
work is to create an environment that invites learning.

In order to learn, children need a space that is predictable, calm and
orderly enough that they can focus on the work at hand. Of equal importance
to learning is the room to move freely and vigorously, and to speak, laugh
and sing. There has to be quiet and calm, balanced with freedom for
energetic expression.

In the grade school, a teacher brings about this balance of control and
freedom in part by observing what particular subject needs to find
expression in the children, as well as how the environmental needs of a
particular activity can and should shift as the child develops. Being
properly situated in a chair, at a desk, is supremely important for the
careful work required to write beautifully. When the focus shifts to include
composition of one’s own writing, a bit more freedom is needed. By the time
the children are composing their own sentences about a story they’ve heard,
they have enough skill with the act of writing that that they need less
cuing from the teacher about position, and more guidance in terms of edits
and encouragement. Painting, with its water, paints, brushes, sponges,
cloths, paper and boards, needs a quiet space at first (especially for the
teacher!). Then, as cleaning up begins, a need for communication arises.
“Could you help me empty the basin?”, “I’ll hang up the towels today; you
did it last week,” “Watch it—you have to be careful with that painting
board!” By the third grade, the logistics of painting have been established
and the children need to discover how to work effectively together to
coordinate the cleaning up. Space for them to communicate and get along with
each other is necessary and I discovered it very quickly this year when I
tried to have a quiet cleaning up time of painting.

As the teacher having the role of authority, how do I handle classroom
activities like writing and painting? I establish routines and rhythms
appropriate to the child’s development. I teach the routines and rhythms
right away and then adapt them as the children reach different developmental
stages. Thus I find support for my goal and responsibility to educate
children. My role as the authority is helped by these routines and rhythms
that are well known, greatly lessening the need to actually give any command
or enforce obedience. The children know that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, we
paint. They know how and who sets it up. They do all that is required for
painting out of habit. In essence, the authority during painting is the
habits established the first time we painted in the first grade.

Routines and habits of the classroom vary greatly depending on the activity,
time of day, and developmental stage of the children. Breathing in and out,
the day progresses from more quiet focused times, to more active and outward
times.

Mealtimes at school have a routine taught on the first day of school in the
first grade. This routine has changed with developmental changes in the
children. In the third grade, we still wait for everyone before we say the
blessing and, much to some of the children’s dismay, we still use place
mats. However, because the children have new social needs in the third
grade, mealtime reflects this. They are more free to sit where they want to
sit. At this time, the children have a certain mastery of the logistics of
eating together and are extremely social. They will discuss a topic for
longer and in more depth. They really know each other in deeper ways and
their interactions reflect this. Some of them are now looking at me as their
teacher in a new way, checking in subtle ways to verify that I’m aware that
they are changing and growing. My focus shifts from creating the container
of manners and habits to watching the deepening social nature of the class.
The children at this stage of development are looking out into the world
more and as the teacher, I must be aware of shifts that happen with this new
orientation to the world, and adapt the routine and my expectations to
reflect the new reality. How do I support this social nature without getting
in the way of their healthy social development? One way is to use my
position of authority to teach them to disagree respectfully while at the
same time allowing them to see that they don’t need me to help them resolve
their conflicts in the same way they did before.

A picture emerges that a large part of creating the breathing environment
conducive to learning can and should come from the rhythm of the day and the
particular activity, as well as from the children’s  developmental stage.
The role of the teacher and adult as the authority figure responsible for
establishing this environment in the classroom becomes evident in
considering how too little preparation of routines can lead to disorder and
confusion, and too much can cause the children to become stagnant or
inflexible because of a rhythm or routine that is too constrictive or too
tightly held by a teacher.

In order to effectively establish a place of learning, the teacher steps
into the role of authority, much as the parent naturally does when they
receive a child into their lives. Like the parents at home, the teacher is
constantly presented with the opportunity to “author” the habits and
routines with careful consideration of the children’s developmental stage.

This environment in which our children learn and grow is significant
regardless of the degree that it’s consciously prepared. This can come as an
unpleasant surprise when in my role as a teacher or parent, I realize that
my child acting out or a bumpy painting time at school is tied to the work
I’ve done in preparing and maintaining rhythms and routines. Interestingly,
the solution to this difficulty of realizing our part in the misbehavior of
children is clear seeing. With careful observation of the children and
ourselves in the challenging situation, we can begin to sense what they
really need from us at each stage of development.