Let me start by saying that you can take the girl out of Waldorf, but you cannot take the Waldorf fully out of the girl.
My elementary school teachers would, undoubtedly, be thrilled to hear this.
For my readers who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Waldorf’, you’re not alone. It’s an educational philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner and focuses on the ‘whole’ child — a holistic, creative, interactive approach to education. Waldorf education at the early childhood level involves a lot of free play, circle time, singing, outdoor exploration, and practical tasks, like simple cooking and gardening. At the elementary level, there is a ‘main lesson’, which can be on a range of subjects from language arts to physics to mythology. Often there is daily singing, poetry recitals, special activities like foreign languages, visual and dramatic arts, music, and movement lessons. Of course, Waldorf education is not without controversy. (You can find out more about the lawsuits and other issues that schools in the US face, in particular, if you do a simple Google search.) I myself had — and still do — my doubts about certain practices.
There are quite a few Waldorf-inspired public (meaning state-funded) magnet or charter schools, especially across California…one of which I attended for elementary school (grades 1-6). Because my elementary school was public, there was a mandate that students take and maintain average scores on state standardised tests to continue receiving their funding. But more on that later. At school, I learned to cook, assemble a full-size wooden toolbox, take care of a garden, paint with watercolours, sing in a choir, perform on stage, speak Spanish, write basic Japanese calligraphy, how to do eurythmy (a sort of cross between dancing, yoga, and Tai Chi, I guess?), play two instruments…you name it, my sisters, our classmates, and I probably did it.
While this is unnecessary to understand the point of this post, I want to mention that I was a teacher’s pet, goodie-two-shoes all through elementary and middle school. Because I was, I memorised all my own and everyone’s else lines for the class plays. My portrayals include Loki the Norse God (that was particularly fun, I had a good ‘Trickster’ laugh); Isis (to my best friend’s Osiris, he spent a lot of the play in a ‘coffin’); a main character from the 1001 Arabian Nights; and my personal favourite performance, as Moses (I wore a white sheet tied like a robe and sandals, so they could be easily taken off when I walked up the ‘mountain’. ‘LET MY PEOPLE GOOOOO’…. yes, third-grade-me actually sang that on stage in front of 75 parents, teachers, friends, and relatives. It was glorious).
Homework, textbooks, and tests, as a rule, were not introduced until at least 3rd grade. And even then they were used minimally. We were never taught to the test. Honestly, I didn’t even realise we were learning a lot of the concepts on the tests until it came time to take them. Learning about photosynthesis? Done outside in the garden. Learning about China? Done through engaged storytelling. Reading? Well…this is a tricky one and brings me to the main point of this post.
I didn’t learn to read until the third grade. That would have made me…8? Nine years old? Of course, I knew my alphabet and what sounds the letters made. I just wasn’t pressured to read until I was ready to do so. Once I got the hang of the concept, i jumped two grade-levels in reading and never looked back. It just clicked. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Hobbit by 5th grade. Pride and Prejudice became my favourite book in 8th grade. My advantage — and to my everlasting gratefulness — was that I was read to a lot at home and at school. When I got grounded, my reading-for-fun privileges were taken away. Even when money was tight (and it was, I just didn’t know it) there was always money for books. My dad read us a bedtime story every single night without fail; if we had messed up epically that day, that was the punishment for me and my sisters. We went from picture books to chapter books as we got older. My dad actually read the first four Harry Potter novels out loud to us. (By the time Goblet of Fire came out, we were old enough to read by ourselves, but didn’t want to. So Dad continued. Order of the Phoenix we were on our own for.) When my parents divorced and my youngest sister wanted to read them, I read them out loud to her, sitting on the bathroom counter while she brushed her teeth or in her bed before she fell asleep. It took us about two years to get through them all and those few minutes every night are some of my favourite memories with her.
But because I wasn’t pushed, I didn’t read a word until I was nine, which in today’s terms, is incredibly, worryingly late. I would be far below basic in literacy skills if I was a typical, non-Waldorf elementary school student today. If I was lucky, there would be interventions and tutoring and any number of parent-teacher conferences where my teachers and tutors would emphasise the need to read with me every day and practice site words, etc.
If I was lucky. If I was lucky.
Most of my students, so far, have not been lucky. They certainly do not have the advantages I did, either as a Waldorf student or as a child in general. That is due to a number of factors — socioeconomic circumstances sum up most of them. They have pretty much everything working against them…except teachers who want them to learn and be successful. Teachers and tutors who work every single day to give them a solid foundation so they do not become part of the approximately 80% of students in the DC metro area who read below grade level.
That is my job and will continue to be for the next 8 months. And I have had to make my peace with the way I think education should unfold versus the way my students’ education is taking shape.
My kids don’t have the advantage of an alternative educational philosophy. They have the neighbourhood school that is probably underfunded and uses Tools of the Mind and Common Core. This is the system I am working in. It’s about early predictors and benchmarking and meeting targets. Standardised testing reduces a student to quantifiable numbers and nothing more. It does not gauge their artistic skills or their capacity for empathy or their hatred of science but love of music. That is damaging on levels even I don’t know about. And while it is proven through research that the students who are on track to read at grade level by the time they are eight years old will graduate from high school, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to educate them to get them to be happy, productive members of society.
I can rant about having to give my kids standardised benchmarking assessments three times a year all I want but that won’t change the fact that they need the skills I teach them based on their results. As I have reflected on the personal conflict I have come across in this area, I have realised that, for me, it’s not about changing the system right now. It’s about helping my 20 students get the literacy foundation they deserve — that they have a right to — to help them survive in the educational and economic system they live in.
The bigger picture — my rant against standardised testing and curriculum and how to get a whole generation of kids to read because they love it, not just because it’s a vital skill to have — can wait. It can stay in the back of my mind as I give hugs and high-fives and stickers after another completed rhyming assessment.
It can wait. But just for now.