The Waldorf method

Drawings inspired by Renaissance paintings, detailed etchings and multicolored woven wool scarves decorate the halls of the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda. Surely, this must be an arts school.

No, but the arts play an important role in Waldorf education, the teachers say.

“We make a dedicated effort to make arts part of the mainstream education,” says Linda Sawers, a high school humanities teacher and chairman of the high school.

Mrs. Sawers goes on to say that visual art, music and dance, as well as wood and textile work, are taught not just for the sake of the arts, but as a way to teach subjects ranging from math to history at this kindergarten-through-12th-grade Waldorf school.

“The first- and second-graders learn to knit,” says handwork teacher Barbara Buchman. “It teaches eye-hand coordination, and the eye movement that it requires is a good preparation for reading.”

These children also stamp and clap their hands to learn their multiplication tables in the first grade, and in fourth grade, they learn to cross-stitch different patterns, which ultimately teaches them about geometry.

Throughout their education, Waldorf students create their own textbooks. They take notes while the teacher talks about a certain subject and later compose their own text, adding their own illustrations.

“It’s designed to get children deeply involved,” says Jack Petrash, author of “Understanding Waldorf Education — Teaching From the Inside Out.”

There are 140 Waldorf schools in the nation, all based on the education ideas of Rudolph Steiner, an early-20th-century Austrian philosopher. According to Waldorf pedagogy, education has to cater to and nurture a child physically, emotionally and mentally.

Another staple of Waldorf education is identifying “age-appropriate” education, says Cynthia Bennett, chairman of the teachers’ collegium, which replaces the principal as the school’s governing body.

It’s important not to push skills and knowledge before children are mentally and emotionally ready, Ms. Bennett says.

Greg Simon, a parent who has 11- and 13-year-old children in the school, says he likes the emphasis on age-appropriate education.

“You can teach a 4-year-old to read, but a 4-year-old’s body and nervous system [are] not ready for it,” Mr. Simon says. “You literally exhaust them. It’s like using up all the RAM on a computer.”

A 4-year-old would rather play and experience things than read, he says.

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