Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Young Adults Really Need: A Peek into a Waldorf High School Humanities Class

By Kristin Agudelo: High School Humanities Teacher

As my 12th grade students file into the classroom, they are loudly complaining about all the work they have to do. Fall of senior year is a busy time: they’re in the middle of writing their college applications, visiting schools, and in some cases, re-taking the SATs. Despite being inundated with thoughts and anxieties related to education and schooling, the last thing on their minds is actual classroom schoolwork.

Now I’ve just handed them a copy of Goethe’s Faust, a dense, incredibly long poem-play that is so challenging it is not usually taught in any American (non-Waldorf ) high school classroom. A few kids pick up the books and drop them just to hear the thud on the table. “Do we really have to read all this?” one student asks. Another flips through the pages and picks a random verse out and reads it: “The greatest glory ever mind received,/By alien stuff becloyed, is choked and flawed,/When what this earth calls good has been achieved,/The better is accounted dream or fraud.” He breaks off and addresses the class: “What the..? Is ‘becloyed’ even a word?” Then he looks up at me, grimacing: “Do we really have to read 300 pages of this stuff?"  The answer, I tell him, is “yes.” And not only that, I can guarantee that not only will he come to understand the challenging text, but he will come away from the book having had some of the best, most philosophically challenging conversations in his life. A few eyes roll, but some kids are already intrigued. “One of the main characters is the devil,” I add, and I get a few more interested looks. “We’re going to be talking a lot about evil in this class—what it is, if it’s possible to define it, and how we encounter it in our everyday lives.” I continue, “We’re going to get pretty dark at times. I don’t know…,” I add, looking at the skeptical student with a little smirk on my face, “it might be too much for you to handle…” and with that pedagogically strategic dose of trash talk, even he is fully with me.

And so opens yet another high school Waldorf humanities class. I could point to any number of things from this brief real-life encounter that encapsulate the Waldorf language arts curriculum: the fact that we are teaching a book so challenging that it far outstrips the pace set even by public school AP English classes; or the fact that much of our classroom conversation will involve not just a close reading of the text, but philosophical discussions that range widely over topics not directly related to Goethe’s German Romanticism; or the fact that the playful, slightly mischievous, personal tone used by both student and teacher is indicative of a warm, trusting relationship between us, fostered over many years of interactions both in and outside the classroom. Each of these things--challenging academics, attention to students’ moral development, and long-term nurturing of interpersonal relationships and skills—is fundamental to how we teach humanities (both language arts and social studies) in the Waldorf high school.

Let’s take each of these aspects briefly in turn. Academically, we expect a great deal from our students—not only those who, in public school, would be deemed “honors-level,” but each and every kid who walks through our doors. All are believed to be capable of grappling with complex, difficult challenges: from reading Moby Dick in 9th grade to Faust in 12th; from talking about the sexual division of labor in early hominid cultures in 10th grade to unpacking Hobbes, Locke, Keynes, and Marx in 12th grade economics. This is not to say that we don’t teach to a diverse range of abilities. On the contrary, we work very hard to meet each student’s needs. Certain students who have different learning abilities or challenges may receive reduced workloads, more time on tests, or any other number of differentiated learning strategies. However, even students who need what would be considered “special ed” services in a public school are believed to be capable, on a fundamental level, of wrestling with and benefitting from the presentation of challenging ideas and texts. Instead of “weeding out” kids into higher and lower abilities and giving only the top achievers access to higher order discussions of texts like Hamlet, Dante’s Inferno, and Faust, we assume that all human beings benefit from exposure to great works of literature, and therefore make it possible for each student to encounter them in a manner that suits his or her individual learning style. The fact that all our 12th graders are expected to take on a book like Faust, then, can ultimately be traced to: 1) our overall expectation that every student can, and does, benefit from engaging deeply with challenging texts, and 2) the fact that we have prepared them gradually, over four years, for a text as dense and potentially rewarding as this one.

The second feature intrinsic to the Waldorf humanities curriculum that I’ve outlined—attention to students’ moral development—goes hand-in-hand with the first. If we expect each student to engage deeply with the great works of literature (as well as with complex story lines from history and the social sciences), it is because we believe it furthers students’ moral and ethical development. And in fact, we have carefully chosen the progression of texts and historical material in the curriculum precisely because it meets a distinct developmental need in each age of student we encounter. For instance, we teach 9th graders about world revolutions (whether the French revolution, the Iranian revolution, or Gandhi’s peaceful Indian Independence movement) because 9th graders typically think in very idealistic, black and white terms. By looking closely at the history of revolutionary movements, we both meet their need to have idealistic role models, and nuance their tendency to think in stark opposites of good/bad. A quick example: Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which did achieve independence from England, didn’t, in the end, prevent the incredibly bloody partition of India and Pakistan. What, we might ask the students, can we learn from such a historical narrative? What lessons might we take going forward as we try to make changes in our own lives?

In the 11th grade, we teach Dante’s Inferno because it strikes a chord with the dark, questing sensibilities of the 16-17 year old: Does intention matter when committing a “sin?” Who defines “sin” anyway? Is it something you can define only for yourself, or does there need to be some sort of accountability to society when defining what does and doesn’t count as “sinful?” And how is “sin” different from “crime”? Waldorf education isn’t afraid to introduce such deep, potentially incendiary questions into the classroom. In fact, we believe that doing so is essential to our goal of forming upright, thoughtful, creative human beings.

And finally, there’s that element of personal connection and fun that I find unique to Waldorf teaching. I should probably make a caveat here: it’s not that there are never fun moments in non-Waldorf settings, or that there isn’t the occasional deep connection with a teacher in public schools. I’m a product of public schools myself, and I certainly had such a connection with one or two of my teachers. However, on the whole, because Waldorf education is built around a community of people actively striving towards shared ethical and developmental goals, I believe the chances that students and teachers will develop deep, lasting connections is much greater. Some of it, of course, has to do with practicals: we generally teach relatively small classes, and over a period of years, rather than the one teacher/one grade mode employed in many other school settings. I will teach multiple classes in all four grades of the high school this year, for instance, so that by the time the students graduate, I will know each and every one of them quite well. But there’s a deeper level to this teacher-student connection as well. Because my ultimate goal as a teacher is not simply to teach my students academic content, but also to help mold them as moral actors engaged in the world, I bring to each encounter an awareness of and sensitivity to them as individuals. For student A, I may realize that though he is gifted in classroom conversation, he needs to be able to articulate his thoughts more clearly on paper. This is a pretty typical educational goal—one shared by teachers in almost any classroom setting. But what might not be so typical are my goals for student B, who is a high academic achiever, but tends not to notice that she talks over her classmates, or that she can’t make eye contact with her teachers. Or for student C, who interacts well with others, achieves high marks, but consistently makes poor ethical choices outside the classroom. In both these cases, by mainstream educational standards, the student is “performing well,” i.e. receiving good grades. But for the Waldorf high school teacher, students are more than the sum of their academic work. Because we aim to train not only the head, but also hands and heart, we look not only at students’ academic performance, but their social and moral development as well. This intentional social/moral engagement leads us to actively try to foster deep, trust-based relationships with our students, which, in turn, is reflected in the informal, friendly banter (both between students and between students and teachers) that often characterizes a Waldorf high school classroom. Being in a Waldorf classroom is (at least on most days) really fun.


So what is the “take-home” about the Waldorf high school humanities curriculum? I’d say it’s this: because teachers start with the premise that students need help developing not only their academic skills, but also their social and ethical beings, we structure everything—from the contents of our curriculum to our daily interactions with kids—around the goal of fostering a three-fold evolution in each student. We teach to their head by providing academically challenging work to all students, regardless of their individual learning styles. We teach to their “hands” (understood metaphorically as a symbol of their ethical development and ability to serve others) by engaging them in lively, philosophically challenging classroom discussions and activities. And we teach to their hearts by encouraging the development of long-term, trust-based relationships both with their peers and with their teachers. Such an education moves far beyond the concept, so prevalent in mainstream educational circles right now, of “workforce readiness.” Our students certainly are prepared for the workforce, and our college admissions record proves it. But they are ready for college and beyond not because we’ve foisted a set of defined “workplace-ready” skills on them, but because they’ve engaged deeply with challenging material in a variety of settings, and with small groups of people with whom they have long-term relationships. They are likely to encounter these two situations--needing to think creatively about challenging problems, and needing to negotiate relationships among small groups of peers and superiors--repeatedly throughout their adult careers, whatever their job circumstances. And because we’ve addressed not only their academic skills, but also their social and ethical capacities, they’re quite likely not only to succeed at whatever challenges they encounter, but also to continue growing and evolving as human beings as they do it.

By Kristin Agudelo: High School Humanities Teacher

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Drama: At the Heart of the Arts

By David Sloan: High School Humanities and Drama teacher 


From the puppet shows in nursery/kindergarten to sophisticated twelfth grade productions of contemporary plays such as John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, drama occupies a central place in Waldorf schools worldwide. In nearly every year of their Waldorf education, all children, theatrically gifted or not, take part in a play. So why is drama considered one of the most vital and indispensable experiences in the Waldorf program?

Our children live in the age of the internet and the mobile phone. Of course these technologies have improved the way we gather information, entertain ourselves, communicate. However, in terms of education, our screen-dominated culture has also contributed to three unhealthy tendencies in our children:

  1. They rely less and less on their own inner resources—no surprise when animated, larger-than-life, external images are provided for them.

  1. Children are spending less and less “face time” with actual people. Interacting with a machine is more convenient and less frustrating than having to deal with classmates to resolve disagreements. Never has instant gratification been more possible, or more dangerous.

  1. Children are losing their sense of what is real and what is not. As they grow up on a steady diet of simulated games and shows, the line between illusion and reality blurs significantly. What’s true?

Drama is also based on a kind of illusion, but the process of engaging in a play can serve as an antidote to each of these tendencies:

  1. First and foremost, acting requires activating one’s imagination. Whether the children are playing elves in a first grade fairy tale or one of Shakespeare’s immortal lovers in a high school production, they must imagine their way into their characters, the setting, the atmosphere of the play.

  1. Drama is inherently collaborative, the most social of arts. The process of mounting a play requires constant interaction between actors, technicians and directors. Working on a play becomes not just an artistic endeavor, but a social training in community building. Every child must learn the value of submerging his or her own wishes or vanities to create a meaningful theatrical experience for all.

  1. Finally, there are the truths that can be discovered through the illusion of drama. Consider two scenes that depend upon simulation. In the first, a young girl sits alone, transfixed by her iPhone screen. She is oblivious to the environment around her—to the rising wind or the dog barking across the street. Her whole world has contracted into this small screen; she is mesmerized, reading and sending texts.

Now consider a girl sitting onstage in the Community Hall, playing Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town. She sits on a stool, sipping an imaginary strawberry ice cream soda on an imaginary counter in an imaginary soda shop. She sits next to George, her bumbling but earnest next-door neighbor who is about to become her sweetheart. He says,
“Listen Emily, I think that once you’ve found a person that you’re very fond of. . .I mean, a person who’s fond of you too. . . Well, I think that’s just as important as college is. . .”
             Emily replies, “I think it’s awfully important too.”
             George: “’Emily, if I do improve and make a big change. . .would you be. .               I mean, could you be. . .?”
             Emily: I. . .am now. I always have been.”

Like the girl with her iPhone, this couple is also mesmerized, but by each other. They lean toward one another, their lips almost brushing, when George suddenly bails out and, to cover his desire and embarrassment, blurts out, “So I guess this is an important talk we’ve been having.” They both turn away in awe, transformed by the enormity of their mutual disclosures.

The iPhone may exert a magnetic pull, but it demands very little inner activity of the girl. By contrast, the Our Town scene requires of audience and actors alike so much more of what is the core of being human. Nearly everything in the scene is left to the imagination. Yet somehow, if the actors are skilled, they can create an indelible impression, a “true” moment, recognizable to any person who recalls the first flush of young love.

       The vitalizing power of imagination, the collaborative nature of putting on a play, the striving to portray truth onstage—these are key reasons why drama is at the heart of every Waldorf program. Ultimately, drama is an “incarnating” experience, just as the gradual unfolding of individuality through childhood and adolescence is an incarnating process. If, as teachers and parents, it is our highest task to help children become themselves in the fullest possible sense, drama can be one of our most dynamic means of assisting in that unfolding.


Parts of this post were previously published in David's book: Stages of Imagination: Working Dramatically with Adolescents published by AWSNA Publications 2001

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Forest Fridays in Our Kindergartens



September 19th marked the second week that the Merriconeag Kindergarten ventured into the woods for "Forest Friday".   Wagons full of sand, stones, and tools in tow, we marched up the path towards the clearing that is our home base.   Last year's senior class cleared the trail and built the story circle, put to good use already as a stop on the return journey. 

Once there, we continued our work clearing a space for circle and developing the area, while kindergartners rode on the magic dragon (a fallen tree), built forts out of fallen logs and fairy houses from pine cones, and hunted among the dirt for salamanders. The hum of activity has a freer form in the forest, children split into groups to dig into new tasks and rich projects. The forest offers a sense of boundless play and creativity, and the children take advantage of it. The calls are quieted by reminders to listen for blue jays and not to scare away the forest fairies.

Forest energy is a different sort of energy than one we find in our everyday classrooms. The focus turns outward to what we can see and hear, and as we spin and sing the last verse - the cheese stands alone - we can see the swirl of color from rain boots blending with the green and brown of the forest - twirling and singing, creating and finding rhythm in the woods.

By Clare Stansberry, Kindergarten Assistant 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning to Read: By David Beringer

There is a common myth that Waldorf Schools do not teach reading, or that we teach reading much later than public schools.  It is true that we do not expect students to “read to learn” until 3rd or 4th grade, which is considered late by most American schools. This obscures the fact that we actually start teaching “reading” much earlier, and we take our task very seriously. The myth persists because the way we teach reading looks different; we work in the opposite direction of many of our peers.

What we call reading is actually made up of several different skills. Decoding, which involves phonemic awareness, orthographic symbol recognition, sound-symbol correlation, visual tracking across the vertical midline, sequencing and a left-to-right orientation, and working memory that can hold more than 3 pieces of information at once, is only a part of the process. This is where many schools begin.

Fluency and comprehension are equally important, and, like the elements of decoding, have their foundations in activities that precede anything done with written language. In our school, the foundations of comprehension, fluency, imagination, enthusiasm are addressed first, alongside the movement activities that support the development of capacities necessary to learning to decode.

In our nursery and kindergarten classrooms, we focus heavily on these early skills. Nursery rhymes and songs build phonemic awareness and predictability as children discover the patterns of language. Circle activities bring movement, accompanied by rhymes and songs, that build sequencing, visual ability, dexterity, laterality, listening skills, and sensory-motor fluency. The daily stories are rich in meaning and are repeated over a series of days, reinforcing the child’s comprehension. Social “free-play” immerses each child in a pragmatic language-rich environment that an “early reader” book (think Dick and Jane) would never approach. Lastly, the close connection to the natural world, both inside and outside, promotes the observational and imaginative skills of the child that tend to close up once actual reading has begun.

If you know a young reader, you can witness for yourself how attentiveness to the outside world can decline in the face of the rich inner world offered by a book. I would argue that keeping students engaged in lively, healthy social interactions and in discovering the mysteries of their surroundings is essential to their later success in life. Explanations in print tend to reduce these rich experiences to a series of dry facts.

In first grade, the activities from the kindergarten are continued and intensified. Now a great deal of attention is paid to the orthographic elements of language and to the sounds associated with each letter. No other educational system that I know of spends this much time on sound-symbol correlation. The students “collect” words with the same starting sound and make up alliterative sentences to emphasize the sounds of the language. They learn the alphabet both forwards and backwards and begin to write and read beautiful poems and verses. Each day the children are asked to retell the story content from the previous day, a practice that continues throughout their Waldorf education. The creation of meaning through written language is emphasized rather than solely the mechanical skill of decoding, but the essential teaching of phonics is not lost.

In second grade, the year begins with an introduction to word-families and sight words. Often children are given “clue books” in which they try to find and write down all the words within a particular phonic grouping. They are led to “discover” the rules by which written language takes shape and delve more deeply into letter combinations. In their writing they begin to develop sentences on their own and write them into their handmade text books. Often reading groups are begun. By the end of the year we conduct a screening that looks for reading difficulties and make recommendations for remedial help, when needed, before students move into the third grade tasks of sentence structure and grammar.

But, the teaching of reading does not stop when the students are able to demonstrate grade-level reading skills. I was recently in a seventh grade classroom where the students were dissecting poems and newspaper articles to see how the writers put together language in different ways to serve their different purposes. Our goal is for our students to become engaged, critical, creative readers and writers, without losing their enthusiasm and curiosity for life and its mysteries. How they go from here into the world speaks for itself as testament to the success of Waldorf Education.

By David Beringer:  Educational Support Teacher Elementary School

Our Blog is Expanding!

We are excited to be expanding our blog this year to encompass our entire school.  Every two weeks or so, you will see a new post by one of our teachers or administrators.  Everyone will contribute based on their particular area of focus.  We hope, by writing our blog through many voices, to paint a fuller, deeper picture of what goes on here every day.  We will continue to write about topics relevant to parenting and the needs of children at various developmental phases.  In addition, you will find posts about how we teach.  We'll write about topics such as reading and writing, math, science, foreign language, and movement and how we address them in early childhood, elementary and high school.

To receive an email update every time a new post appears, enter your email address in the "subscribe" space on the upper left corner of our blog homepage.

Coming next... Learning to Read by David Beringer

Friday, September 12, 2014

Steve Jobs was a Low-Tech Parent- Link to NY Times Article

Follow this link to a great New York Times Article about Steve Jobs and other parents working in the field of technology development, who choose to keep their family life low-tech.  Find out why!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sleep

For parents of young children, sleep can be an all-consuming topic.  Some parents find it difficult to get enough; some children may struggle with falling and staying asleep.  Every family must make an individual decision regarding how best to handle and resolve the challenges that arise around sleep.   But it is essential to hold sleep as a main priority throughout childhood.

During sleep, we process and integrate our daily experiences.  We grow while we sleep.  Children need more sleep than adults because they are growing so much more than we are.  But sleep is not just a rest and rejuvenation for our bodies, it is also a time of nourishment for the soul and spirit.  During sleep we reconnect with our source, both personally and in a wider sense.

In our school, we consider sleep an important part of our teaching.  When we introduce a new idea or concept to our students, we give them a night or two to 'sleep on it' before we ask them to make sense of it on their own.  During those nights of sleep, students have been processing their experiences on an unconscious level and they are able to contribute more to the conversation.  It takes two, three, or even four times of encountering a new concept for it to become a deeper part of a child's understanding.  This is why we teach rhythmically, letting subjects rest and then revisiting them in cycles.  The learning is then more efficient, deeper, and more conducive to retention.

For very young children, learning is happening constantly throughout the day.  In sleep, they have a host of new experiences and burgeoning understanding to process.  Parents can help their children to feel more confident and prepared for all the world has to offer, if they ensure a good night sleep.

The most important contributor to a good night's sleep is a regular schedule.  In a busy world, this can be hard to maintain. The stress and pace of modern life can make it harder to unwind and find a deep sleep.  The beginning of a new school year is a good time to reassess family habits and schedules to make sure that everyone's needs are being met.  The list below offers some helpful ideas how to support a healthy night of rest.  Sweet Dreams!

Recipe for Good Sleep:

  • Enough movement and physical activity
  • Time in nature
  • Some time to focus on something larger than the mundane.  Even a minute or two sitting in meditation is enough. 
  • Some peace during the day
  • Resolution: whenever possible, try to resolve arguments and frustrations before sleep.  Make your repairs.
  • Healthy, regular meals
  • Structure around bedtime
  • Strong daily routine 
  • Going to bed at roughly the same time every night
  • Time to unwind before bed