Profile: Waldorf Charter Schools

Wednesday, August, 1, 12 § Leave a comment

An inside look at the holistic alternative educational model that has survived the test of time, and is now spreading into the public school system in the United States.

Place: There are over 1000 Waldorf Schools across the world. In the United States there are around 160 private Waldorf schools, and over 50 publicly funded schools, many of them in northern California, close to the Rudolf Steiner College near Sacramento. I visited five of these publicly funded schools in northern California.

History: First Waldorf school opened in 1919 in Germany. First publicly-funded Waldorf schools appeared in the US in the 1990’s.

The Skinny: Based in the esoteric but sometimes spot-on theories of Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf education treats children as sacred, spiritual beings whose gifts must be nurtured. Artistic and emotional development are essential in the early years.

What Matters: Children are like seeds. Teachers must help them flourish.

More info:

www.allianceforpublicwaldorfeducation.org (for the public school movement in the US)

www.whywaldorfworks.org (for private US Waldorf  schools and Waldorf resources in general)

www.rudolfsteinerweb.com (for access to original texts by Steiner)

NOTE: A different version of this narrative by Seth Biderman was first published in the Santa Fe Reporter as “The Maybe Not-So-Wild-World of Waldorf Education” on April 11, 2012. A lively and sometimes inappropriate online debate ensued, when a man well-versed in Steiner, and adamantly opposed to his model of schooling, chimed in from California.

In early 2012, I visited a little charter school in Sebastopol, California, wine and Prius country. The pedagogical director, a friendly and savvy woman who’d once worked for Sesame Street, led me into a sunny third-grade classroom where 30 or so children wrote quietly at wooden desks while a schoolmarmish teacher stood at the chalkboard. Then I was led into a sunny fourth-grade classroom where 30 or so children wrote quietly at wooden desks while a schoolmasterly teacher stood at the chalkboard. In both classrooms, there were lovely colored chalk drawings on the board and ceramic drinking mugs hanging from wooden pegs above the sink.

I rapped on a wall to make sure I wasn’t on the set of Little House on the Prairie.

I wasn’t. I’d just entered the world of Waldorf education.

It was Aaron Stern had suggested I look into the emerging national trend of Waldorf-inspired public charter schools, now 14,500 students strong. I knew almost nothing about Waldorf at that time: Like most of my public school chums, I had vague associations with an artsy, Dungeons-and-Dragons-type place for the overprivileged.

To prepare for my visit, I read hundred-year-old lectures by the Austrian fellow who founded Waldorf, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher, architect, social reformer and clairvoyant who believed with startling certainty in reincarnation. Combining boundless intellectual energy with his esoteric spiritual understandings, he conjectured theories about nearly every field of human activity, from farming to medicine to art.

In 1919, as Europe groped forward from World War I, he put his theories on education to the test by founding a school for the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Steiner instructed his teachers to treat the students as if they were seeds, each carrying a unique karmic destiny. Teachers were to nurture the individual temperaments and talents of the children, and attempt to solve the riddle of why each had come to this world at this time.

This fascinating approach to education may be the main reason why there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide today, including some 50 publicly funded charters in the US. As modern research has revealed that children have multiple intelligences and are “hard-wired” to learn, Steiner’s “see the child” pedagogy has become increasingly relevant, and the “one-size-fits-all” pedagogy of mainstream schools increasingly obsolete.

Those of us who work in non-Waldorf schools, of course, do everything we can to develop individual talents. But unlike our Waldorf colleagues, we’re working against the historical grain of our institution, which is why public school teachers, students, administrators and parents often find ourselves having to do things we don’t feel are right.

Not so at the five Bay Area charter schools I visited in January. They were classic Waldorf: teacher-centered, wooden materials, student-made lesson books, a de-emphasis on reading and computers in the early years, and singing and story-telling galore. Arts education—usually in the form of knitting or blacksmithing—was not an add-on, but as essential to the curricula as any academic subject.

But the main thing that distinguished these schools from traditional public schools was not so much what they were doing, but the atmosphere in which they were doing it. There was a shared sense of purpose, an overwhelming sense that everyone was on the same pedagogical quest.

Waldorf schools are often criticized for their dogmatic allegiance to the lectures and teachings of Steiner, who apparently had strong opinions on everything down to the colors of clothing a teacher ought to wear. The pedagogy is also not open to parent involvement, as bringing out a child’s calling has more to do with the spiritual being she has reincarnated than with traits inherited through DNA. (I heard a story of a parent calling the school to inquire about her child’s black eye. Don’t worry, was the reply, your child was simply working out some bad karma on the playground.)

I don’t know if Waldorf-inspired charter schools are the right model to lead us into a more just, sustainable future. The model offers many ideas of obvious value, including having one teacher follow a group of students over several years, to build a true learning relationship, and paying close attention to the emotional and artistic development of young children.

Perhaps the best lesson that the Waldorf school movement offers is that it is possible to create, sustain, and spread a new model of education, based in a different theory of learning—even, it seems, within the public sphere. Which suggests that the outdated models dominating our schools are not as impenetrable as we might believe.

Seth Biderman | Based on January 2012 site visits to schools listed below:

Sebastopol Independent Charter, Sebastopol, CA

Credo High School, Sonoma County, CA

Stone Bridge School, Napa, CA

Woodland Star Charter School, Sonoma, CA

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