“I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.”
It’s not everyday that you see teenagers bouncing up and down with excitement as the next lesson at school is announced, who volunteer to babysit for free on a Friday night to help out another family ..or happily invite much younger children to join in their outdoor games. And these same kids easily cast aside their video games and cell phones to have an open, present conversation with an adult. These are normal occurrences with the teens at the White Mountain Waldorf School (WMWS) in Albany. There, both a love of learning and being kind, helpful, and self-confident are interwoven into the carefully thought-out curriculum.
Two years ago, my husband and I were contemplating moving to the Mt. Washington Valley. Finding the right school for our ‘about to be a’ kindergartner was a big factor in our decision-making process. As a former Teacher For America public school teacher, I highly value education and wanted to find a school that was a good fit for our family. When I toured the WMWS and met several of the 8th grade students, I was immediately sold. Contrary to most stereotypical teenagers, the students were excited about school and cheerful about keeping an eye on my son while I explored their campus. I had found our school community.
Like many people, I had thought of a Waldorf School as being ‘hippie,’ with little reading, math or science. Yet my misconception was quickly dispelled when I entered the elementary and middle school classrooms. I discovered that in many ways, Waldorf Schools are a classic education. The goal is to educate the whole child – their hearts, hands, and head, with an emphasis on nurturing strong values such as being cooperative, responsible, and caring.
The WMWS in Albany is part of a worldwide movement that was founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1919 in Germany. Waldorf Schools have spread around the world to over 60 countries, with more than 1,000 independent schools and 2,000 kindergartens. Known for creative play with lots of movement, color, song, and story designed to appeal to the early childhood years, with an increasing importance on deep exploration, problem solving, and independent thinking in the upper grades. When you enter a Waldorf kindergarten classroom, you find a warm, welcoming, calm environment with soft pretty colors, lots of wooden toys, and a feeling of creative whimsy. Knitted mice can be found tucked into moss gardens, and fairies and gnomes hovering over nature displays. Exactly the kind of space I’d want my little guy to be when he was away from home.
While in the early years of Waldorf schooling, free play, creativity and imagination, and time in nature are stressed, in the upper grades, students dive deeply into lessons on everything from Greek and Roman history to geology and Shakespeare. As students move into the elementary and middle school classrooms, you’ll discover gorgeously illustrated and detailed textbooks that are handmade by the students on their science, math, history and literature lessons, as well as an array of evidence of their wood-working, handcrafting, musical, and sports activities and skills.
By writing their own textbooks, the students demonstrate that they deeply understand the material presented. And let me tell you, they certainly do.
While leafing through one 8th grader’s textbook on my first tour, I skimmed their beautifully handwritten article on an Eastern European country with highly detailed facts on the population, history, culture and food with perfect grammar and punctuation. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “This sounds like it was copied off an article on the internet. Strange! I didn’t think Waldorf encouraged middle school children to go online and reprint info verbatim.” When I turned and asked Denice Tepe, the Outreach Director, about the source of the information, what she told me amazed me. The material did not come off the internet, but was rather presented to the students orally by their teacher the day before. The lesson then was given time to “sink in” overnight and the next day, the students were expected to recall the lesson and write a report on it. I could not have been more impressed!
Still, even after seeing the evidence of high-level learning in the upper grades, I was concerned about when my son would start reading if the school’s curriculum did not emphasize this in the younger years. Karen Albert, the Director of WMWS explained the school’s philosophy, “In today’s fast-paced, goal-oriented society, Waldorf is unique in making sure that each lesson is introduced when a child has reached a developmental level where they can more easily and quickly absorb the information. We intentionally ‘hold back’ on overtly teaching reading and writing to 4 and 5 years olds so that by the time they are in first and second grade they are ready, eager learners who can quickly and easily read, write and spell. By the time our students are in middle and high school, we can hardly get them to put their books down. And the time spent in the younger years developing their fine motor skills through activities such as knitting, or when we instill a curiosity about nature during extensive outdoor playtime really pays off when our students can effortlessly hold a pencil to write in first grade or who have consistently entered and won regional science fairs in middle school.”
Since becoming a parent at the WMWS, I am repeatedly delighted with the amount of thought that goes into how lessons are presented and how a love of learning is fostered. After being a part of the school for two years, I’ve realized that I didn’t mind that my 6 year old wasn’t fully reading or writing yet. I did, and still do, deeply care that he is a kind, caring person who is curious about the world. Being a creative problem-solver who knows how to play cooperatively with others will be life-long skills that will ultimately serve him well in life – more so than at what age he read his first book. Now as a first grader, he’s well on his way to fluent reading.
The benefits of a Waldorf education go beyond the academics, as I’ve seen firsthand with my own child. Within a few months of attending WMWS’s kindergarten, my son was noticeably calmer, more cooperative and helpful, and more excited about going to school. He also showed more interest in reading and writing than at his previous nursery school where he regularly expressed frustration over being drilled with worksheets. WMWS most definitely re-kindled my child’s love of learning.
And although I was, and continue to be impressed by the school’s amazing teachers and welcoming administration, it’s really the 8th graders who I have to thank for my son’s education. From the first tour of the school to the time when one of them offered to babysit for free on a Friday night to help us out as a new family in the Valley, these teens are living evidence that this way of schooling works in nurturing the next generation intellectually, socially, and spiritually.
So if you decide to take a tour of the campus like I did a few years ago, don’t be surprised if you see students gleefully skipping – backwards no less - around their classroom, led by their passionate teachers, while chanting multiplication tables. Or a bunch of 13-year-olds bounding to the front of the room to act out a play that illustrates a literature lesson that they just learned. I can’t wait to see my son as an 8th grade Waldorf student - still curious about the world around him and kind to the people he meets in it.