Network of Waldorf Schools Grows
Though independently run, they share child-development philosophy and global awareness
BEVERLY, MASS. — IN Elizabeth Trocki's second-grade class at the Cape Ann Waldorf School in Beverly, Mass., every student is greeted with a friendly handshake. Several girls and boys patiently crochet, waiting for roll call, which begins with Ms. Trocki singing each child's name. The children sing in reply, "Here I am." Soon they form a circle and recite their multiplication tables in rap-like fashion, waving their arms, clapping, singing, and quite obviously having a good time. In the next-door classroom, first-grade language teacher Kati Manning enters to the kind of enthusiastic welcome normally reserved for clowns or magicians. "Can we speak German today?" one child exclaims. "No, today is Spanish," says Ms. Manning, who acts out a series of poems, songs, and skits all in Spanish, with every child in the class excitedly singing along.
If all this seems somewhat removed from mainstream education, it is. It's called Waldorf education, and it's one of the largest independent school movements in the world, with more than 500 schools worldwide.
"In linking their curriculum and schooling toward children's developmental stages, Waldorf schools seem to have a unique sense of what children are ready for," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which hosted an early education seminar last month that included Waldorf education.
At a Waldorf school, every elementary student learns to play an instrument, speak two languages, and crochet. When a child is assigned a teacher in first grade, he or she will have that same teacher for eight years, for all subjects except languages. And since Waldorf children are discouraged from watching TV, they are more likely to talk about a turtle from "Aesop's Fables" than one in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video.
"In spite of not having received grades for the first eight years of their education, I would hazard to guess that Waldorf High School graduates score among the top percentiles in the country when it comes to SAT scores," says George McWilliam, director of the Cape Ann School.
Colleges accepting seniors from last year's graduating classes at Sacramento Waldorf School in California and Mowing Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, N.H., include Brown, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.
Founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, artist, and scientist, the first Waldorf school opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. The school was underwritten by Emil Molt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, hence the name "Waldorf." Consistent with his philosophy of man and the world called Anthroposophy, Mr. Steiner designed a curriculum to enhance the developmental phases in childhood and nurture children's imaginations.
While there is no centralized administrative structure, many countries have established associations for providing resources, publishing materials, sponsoring conferences, and promoting the movement.
"The thing that connects Waldorf schools is the philosophy and pedagogy more than belonging to any kind of organization," says David Alsop, chairman of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.
Today the movement is still strongest in Germany, where, according to the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif., approximately 65,000 children are enrolled in Waldorf schools.
"With the democratization of Eastern Europe, the movement has become very popular there as well," says David Mitchell, East Coast regional chairman of the North American school association. "When a Waldorf school recently opened in Budapest, 30 places for the first grade were filled in seven minutes.... Poland has four schools. Romania is opening at least two new schools. And in the USSR, schools will soon open in Estonia and Moscow."
In the United States, the number of Waldorf schools has grown in the past two decades. "When I returned from Europe in 1971, there were only six schools, now there are 121," says Mr. Mitchell.
Along with this growth, however, has come the problem of too few teachers to keep up with the demand. Waldorf teacher training is rigorous and normally requires two years of full-time postgraduate study, with considerable time spent developing skills in music, painting, drama, and language. The first year is oriented toward studying the philosophy of Steiner, while the second year focuses on curriculum and practical teaching experience.
Compounding this is the relatively small number of teacher training centers - one in Keene, N.H., one in Spring Valley, N.Y., and two in California, in Fair Oaks and Northridge.
"Among all of the institutes, there are about 70 new teachers trained each year, and there's a need for about 120 or 130," says Mr. Alsop, who expects this lack of teachers to change once the awareness of Waldorf is raised among the educational establishment and education departments in universities.
Evidence that this is already happening includes a December decision by the Milwaukee School Board to open a Waldorf school within the public school system. The Urban Waldorf School will be attended by approximately 375 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, and will open its doors this fall.
"Waldorf schools instill a real joy of learning," says Mary Bills, director of the Milwaukee School Board. "They promote creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking in a cross-disciplinary fashion, which is exactly the direction public education needs to move in."
THE Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching seminar brought together Waldorf educators and planners of elementary curriculum in public schools. Dr. Boyer says, "Those in the public school reform movement have some important things to learn from what Waldorf educators have been doing for many years. It's an enormously impressive effort toward quality education, and schools would be well advised to familiarize themselves with the basic assumptions that undergird the Waldorf movement."
Those assumptions include an integrated curriculum and special emphasis on the teacher/student relationship in the early grades - textbooks and electronic aids are not used because they are thought to interfere with this relationship. Art, creativity, and aesthetics also play a central role in a Waldorf education.
"Waldorf schools include powerfully the arts as a teaching tool. Art as it helps to reveal the use of language, art as it can be revealed in numbers, and certainly in nature," Boyer says.
At the Cape Ann school, walls are emblazoned with vivid, colorful drawings. Toys and desks are made of wood, not plastic, and every child learns Eurythmy, a form of human movement pioneered by Steiner. Children create their own workbooks with brightly colored crayons, often learning to write by transcribing fairy tales, Norse myths, and passages from the Old Testament.
While Waldorf teaching methods generally receive favorable reviews, some educators say that Steiner's theories can be applied in ways that aren't completely positive.
"There is a kind of dogmatism about the [Steiner] theory," says Donald Oliver, professor of education at the Harvard University School of Education, in Cambridge, Mass. "The question is how seriously the teacher takes the theory versus whether they attempt to apply the pedagogy to the kids in a more pragmatic way." But Dr. Oliver goes on to say, "In general, Waldorf is a great leap forward from most conventional education."