I got to observe in eight classrooms at a Waldorf Charter School this week and then sit down with the principal and ask questions for about an hour. I was not in any classroom more than twenty minutes. For those who know me they know it is hard for a public school to impress me, but I was impressed. I have been in a few charter schools that are supposed to be following a specific method and for the most part I have found them to be poor quality compared to private schools that follow specific methods. I have not visited the private Waldorf school in the area, but I plan to observe there soon. I have, however, read their curriculum, philosophy and seen videos of their teachers teaching specific lessons. These schools are very different from your regular school. They have different goals, methods, curriculum, and hopes for the children. This charter school has an exemption from the district, so the only rule is that they have to meet all of the standards by the end of eighth grade, but not in any particular order, and the kids have to test yearly from second through eighth grade. This frees them to follow the traditional Waldorf curriculum, which makes the school look much more like a private school.
The first class I walked into was a first grade room. The students were sitting at their desks with their five note recorders in hand (at least they looked like recorders to me, though the teacher had flute written on the board). The teacher would tell the kids a song and they would play it in unison. She alternated these with vocal songs. Every child had a small wooden basket on his or her desk for the flute and for handwork of felt, beeswax and finger knitting. A beautiful chalk drawing was on the board and the students single color watercolors were on one wall.
The chalk drawings and watercolors are characteristic of this method of education and were found in every room. All of the chalk drawings were beautiful and done by the teachers to accompany some lesson. A sample of a full board one is here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBAi29Fy6yg. The students do a guided watercolor painting every month from first grade through eighth. The younger students do paintings of only one color, then as they grow they add another and another until they have finally built up to painting with the whole palette.
In a third grade class I went into all of the desks had been shoved to the side of the room and the children were doing a walking dance in two circles. The inner circle went one way while the outer went the other. They then recited a very long poem/lesson about the history of the Jews. Then they did a math lesson in which they made their circles again and with their steps created all of the ways to make 9. They went forward 9 and back 0, then forward 8 and back 1 etc. When they went forward they counted and when they went back they stepped silently. After they were done with this the eurythmy teacher came in and the children put on dance shoes and acted out a story from Jewish history with their bodies.
I then observed a class at recess. This school has a typical jungle gym and then a garden. All of the kids were in the garden, playing tag, digging or sitting and talking. These students are never stopped in their outdoor play. If it is pouring they still go outside and they dig in the mud if they want to. Rubber boots are provided for each child.
I then went into a 3rd/4th combo class where the students were just talking with the teacher. The conversation meandered. A couple of the boys were finger knitting during this time. Apparently the children had recently gone on a field trip to Sutter’s fort and this was part of the conversation. There was a beautiful chalk drawing of California on the board along with a willow tree. After awhile, a boy asked if they could go run now. The teacher said okay lets go take a run. They asked if they should do the obstacle course or the run first and the teacher said run and then obstacle course and then the students were off. There was an amazing amount of respect for what the teacher said. The relationship was very different and you could feel it.
These teachers start with a group of kids in first grade and then move up with the kids all the way to eighth grade, so the kids and teacher get to know each other very well and in some of the older classes an underlying playfulness, like siblings might have permeated the classroom. For instance, the eighth grade class was on the blacktop practicing a sword fight dance. It got rough at one point and then everyone started laughing. They then went on to a circle tag game, which looked a little like duck-duck-goose, but way more vigorous. This was played enthusiastically by all and often rang with laughter.
I went into a 5th grade room which was doing a math lesson. The teacher was using a Saxon book, but she was reading different problems out loud to different groups of students. These students were writing the problems in their mainlesson book. None of the students have or use textbooks through sixth grade in this school. Instead, the teacher orally delivers all of the material, often in a whimsical manner to the students, who then create beautiful beeswax drawings in their mainlesson books, which is usually just a blank book of some sort. They then write about what they have learned.
I then went in to the sixth grade room. This one was talking about explorers and the teacher was giving the students a very typical public school assignment-make an advertisement as if you were looking for young boys to take on an exploring expedition. This is the only room that I didn’t see a marked difference between the traditional methods and the Waldorf methods. As I watched I could almost tick off the traditional seven steps of “Essential Elements of Instruction” that traditional teachers use.
I then went and talked to the principal and a Kindergarten teacher. The kindergartens were not open to guests that day, but she explained how everything was taught through play and storytelling. They did not usually read to the students instead the teachers told very long, up to a half hour story with expression, whimsy and body movements and then they let the children respond to the stories. They also did handwork and movements, interspersed with play with hand made objects. I also learned that it takes about 2.25 years past the teaching credential to get Waldorf certified and takes about another $20,000.
I now want to go back and observe the kindergarten and I want to see the private school, also. I also ordered a few ideas online and have begun reading some more of the method. I don’t think I could give up reading tons of books to my children, but I do want to learn how to tell them stories from myself also. I think we are also going to dabble with water coloring, felt work and form drawings this summer. I’d love to teach some music in this way, but that would require that I learn how to sing, so that will be awhile. We can do the recorder more though. Did I mention I really enjoy guiding my children to try so many things in their education? It’s so fun for me.