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.
“Waldorf education honors the developmental stages of life,” Mr. Simon says.
The emphasis on the arts and on age-appropriate education does not slow down or take away from the academic portion of the curriculum, Mrs. Sawers says.
In fact, Washington Waldorf School students perform well on the SATs, “above the national average,” she says.
Eleventh-grader Anabella Aspiras, 17, says she spent sixth grade in a public school for financial reasons — one year’s tuition at Washington Waldorf costs between $13,450 and $14,100 depending on the grade, although tuition assistance is available in certain cases — and found that in most subjects she wasn’t behind at all.
“I was ahead in science and social studies and a little behind in math,” Anabella says.
Switching schools was an adjustment not only academically, but also socially.
“I went from a class of 24 students to a class of 360,” she says.
The entire 13-level Washington Waldorf School has 330 students.
Also, as is the case with many Waldorf students, Anabella was not allowed to watch much television and sometimes had a hard time relating to teen pop culture.
“I had a radio, and that’s how I related to the other kids,” she says.
The smallness of the school — something generally lauded by teachers and parents — is a problem for some students.
“If you don’t like your class, you have nowhere to go,” Anabella says. Her older sister, Lena, wanted more racial diversity and left for a public school after 11th grade.
“Our dad is Filipino, and our mom is white, and Lena just ached for diversity,” she says.
The younger sister, however, calls herself a “Waldorfian advocate.” She loves her school. She is also a “lifetime Waldorfian,” having gone through kindergarten, referred to as the “children’s garden” in Waldorf schools.
At the Washington Waldorf School, students can attend the children’s garden from age 3 to 7. Some children are held back and start first grade at age 7, when they are considered mature enough for the curriculum. On a recent morning, the students of the children’s garden were baking, helping their teachers prepare an apple-crisp treat.
The toys used in the children’s garden often are made from natural materials, wood and natural fibers, Ms. Buchman says.
“The ‘toys’ are as nondescript as possible so you can leave it up to their imagination,” she adds.
A block of wood could be a car or a boat, or anything the child wants. A pink cotton curtain can be a tent or a veil.
Another essential part of the Waldorf pedagogy is to keep the same “class teacher,” or main instructor, for each class from first through eighth grades. This is referred to as “looping” by Waldorf teachers and is considered to help build a strong relationship between the students and their teacher.
“We believe that if you know the students well, you can get down to the teaching,” Ms. Bennett says. “It provides children with a continuity and community that is often missing in our lives today.”
Anabella says she missed that sense of community and warmth during her one year in public school. She also missed learning through art.
On a recent morning, her class recited “Beat! Beat! Drums!” a Walt Whitman poem. This, however, was no American literature class. It was history, specifically the Civil War.
Why not learn about war through poetry?
After the poem, teacher Karl Shurman initiated a class discussion on objectivity and who writes history.
This type of teaching is appealing to adolescents, Mrs. Sawers says, because they want the truth and they want to talk about such topics as how an individual’s conscience and rights might be pitted against the state.
“Our way of teaching has to connect with where they are right now in their lives; otherwise it’s meaningless education,” she says.
Waldorf teachers and advocates say this pedagogy is an education for the whole person, involving the physical and emotional as well as the mental.
In their way of thinking, it makes sense to teach history through poetry and math through music because life is like that.
“Life is connected. If we went back to a historical era to experience it, you would experience more than the “historical facts.” You would experience the climate, the food, the music of the time,” Mr. Petrash says. “That’s what Waldorf education is all about; it involves children actively, thoughtfully and emotionally.”