Thursday, February 26, 2009

Elvis is in the building

I have been in many a lively online discussion about Waldorf schools as of late. I would like to say that I am full of infinite wisdom on the subject, but I'm just not. My daughter Kyra just started attending Desert Marigold, a Waldorf "inspired" school, this year (DMS is "inspired" because they don't make us pay tuition and therefore don't have the complete Waldorf stamp. Yipee for no ginormous tuition!). I've been hesitant to throw myself into the school community, just because I need a break from being super involved and I want her to get her own sense of who she is. This was a big deal for her this year. She had been at one school, with one class for 5 years and I could not have asked for a better beginning. But I digress, back to my Waldorfness.

I think I have come up with some randomly brilliant answers to some questions and concerns that have been raised about Waldorf schools and Waldorf philosophy. It must be my alter ego playing out or something like lack of sleep makes me smarter, especially since one of my replies was done at 1 in the morning. I feel a bit like Elvis: fabulous right now, but it won't last. Hopefully my momentarily brilliant legacy will follow me beyond the grave. Here goes...

A question was raised at the DMS open house: "What does the school do about gifted kids or kids who are struggling? (They didn't quite know how to answer her.) She then clarified and said 'well, what do you do with a kid in kindergarten or 1st grade who can already read?'" This is an excellent question and one that most parents want answered. It is also a question that Waldorfy people won't comment on because they don't label kids as gifted or challenged. Here's my answer: As far as the reader in Kindergarten... that's a mute point. They won't be doing any reading in Kindergarten so there is no way that they would need to be challenged in that area. The challenge will be in storytelling and memory recall. When they start learning letters in 1st grade it is done through art. So again, the challenge will be in art, not the knowledge of the letters which a child may already know. Numbers are done through chants, rhythms and rhymes. The challenges for "gifted" students might very well be in the artistic medium that the factual knowledge is being presented in.

OK, that wasn't as brilliant as I thought it was but I'm going to keep it in because it touches a little on the reading. I could (and probably should) do an entire post on the reading. Maybe later. Last night Rachel sent me this link:

Gnomes and Critics of Waldorf Schools

I must have been in a bizarro funk last night because I didn't get upset at the stupidity of the article, nor did I feel like I had to blast the author. I actually got a "yowsa" and a "that's the most amazing response ever" from 2 pretty amazing women that I respect. So now I'm glowing, bragging, and posting it for the world. (Seriously though, my head has become less and less inflated as I have typed words like "bizarro", "ginormous", and "Waldorfy". Clearly I've lost my Elvisness.)

Here are my thoughts from the article (Italics are quotes from the article, the rest is me):

“How many parents even know that Waldorf teachers study Steiner’s occultism in order to teach at a Waldorf?” Well, I think any parent that has seriously looked into Waldorf education understands that it is based on Steiner's teachings. I wouldn't call his teachings "occultism", but yes, any teacher at a Waldorf school would be very well versed in his views on child development and education. Waldorf schools follow what Steiner created as the best teaching model for children.

“I’ve encountered a claim once that Steiner’s writings are troubling...I examined it, and found the concern to be without merit.” Are some of the things that Steiner suggest outdated? Yes, I think they are and I think that the way people thought back then is drastically different than we think now in our politically correct society. He wrote and lectured in 1904. I am impressed with how much he knew at the time and how very accurate he is when looking at child development, but of course his language is going to be off because his teachings are over a hundred years old! I would say that his philosophies on teaching in the classroom could and should hold up, even in this modern day. The things that are lacking in Waldorf schools are things that can and should be supplemented at home (i.e. computer technology).

Another aspect of the Waldorf approach is its rejection of traditional medicine in favour of the Anthroposophical herbal remedies that are often sold in the schools. I think a lot of people these days are shying away from traditional medicine, but that isn't really my point. The more you involve a teacher in your child's ailments, the more input and influence they will have on how you treat your child. Some parents are going to turn to the Waldorf teacher for their Anthroposophical wisdom, but others are going to treat their child on their own. It is just like any other school, how much influence the teachers and staff have on your child is exactly how much you give them.

While Waldorf supporters see delayed reading as a positive step in a child’s development; others are not as impressed. As a reading teacher, I could go on and on on this subject, but I won't. I can say that Sweden doesn't start teaching reading until age 8 and their country is full of bright people, with a very low illiteracy rate. I can say that many students are not ready to learn to read until age 8, while others are completely competent by 3 or 4. What do you want a school to do, teach to the younger crowd and leave the rest to fend for themselves, or wait until everyone is ready? I will say that the way in which Waldorf teaches the early letters and numbers encourages the "bright" student (or the one that may already know these things) to use senses that might not be as fine tuned as their rote memory is. (i.e. while learning the letter "m", students will create a picture of a mountain with the 2 bumps of the letter. They use paint as a medium and skills that are often less fine-tuned in a child that reads and writes at a young age.) I see delayed reading and writing, with the inclusion of artistic, musical, and rhythmic expression to be an advantage to any student.

As far as the school is concerned, I don't know anything about alchemy, secret societies (they must be really secret!), or reincarnation. Eurythmy is beautiful. If their hand gestures are speaking to another spirit world, I imagine they are saying something nice, because it is very peaceful and calm during their performances and no lightning has ever struck that I know of. OK, I'm getting a little sarcastic here now so I better quit. I will say that I have had a few concerns about some of the celebrations that they hold, but nothing drastic. I would just say that sometimes it feels like they have replaced God the Father with Mother Nature and that is more sad to me than upsetting. No worries from my end.

Good luck to your friend in her school search. I would encourage her to visit the schools she looks into and go more by how she feels than anything else. I knew, and my fifth grade daughter knew, when we drove onto Desert Marigold campus that this was the right place for her. Ten years earlier I had been convinced that a Montessori school was right for her, until I toured the school and met her teacher. (I found a different school for her for K-4) I really believe that you can know what is right for your child, and it might even be different for each of your children.


April said...

I am going to be laughing about this article for weeks. I was flabbergasted when I read it last night. I couldn't stop talking about it at handwork. I also couldn't help but think about it as I stared at tree stumps looking for gnomes while invoking the spirits and saying incantations to the rythm of the eurythmy dancer's handmovements that told the faeries which evil non-aryan child had said the word 'spiderman' so that they could peck out his eyes and eat his brains.

Ahhh, Waldorfy good times...

Rachel said...

You really are Elvis H., I love my friends so much!!!

I thought I could post Davey's response to the article too for the sake of sharing with the bloggernacle.

"That was a crazy article. When I was reading it some things stood out to me though, this passage caught my eye "daily incantations about spirits and rhythms in nature." Incantations isn't a word that is used by anybody to refer to anything that happens in modern times. Except fundamentalist evangelical anti-cult ministries. Which is who writes this blog of course. Go ahead and read the articles on mormonism, I'm certain you'll find that your beliefs have been mischaracterized. Especially the emphasis on what's "really" going on. It sounds so nefarious when you put it that way. Just take it with a grain of salt I guess.

That said, I don't know anything about the school at all. I'm encouraged by the claim in that article that most parents experience the school as totally normative, despite the conspiracy theory sound of things in the article my guess is that if most parents don't notice crazy things going on it's because there's no crazy things going on. I would want to learn more about the delayed reading issue. It sounds like they teach reading and writing at around 7, Rachel told me Waldorf kids tend to test worse than regular schooled kids at young ages then surpass them later on. Probably because of the reading thing.

I just read the wikipedia article which I found very informative, it talks about all the stuff from this article without making it sound wierder than it needs to be and there's plenty of references to outcome studies and stuff."