What is Waldorf education all about?
Waldorf education is based on the insight that to reach his or her potential, a child must be educated not only through the intellect, but also through feelings, imagination, and the body. The Waldorf curriculum provides an academically rigorous, classical education infused with visual and dramatic arts, music, movement, and storytelling. Waldorf teachers view their job as not simply to impart information and facts, but to motivate and inspire students to pursue their own passions in life with strength and perseverance, and to think for themselves. They hold the development of a child’s social and moral character of utmost importance, and the curriculum reflects this value.
Where does Waldorf curriculum come from?
Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861, was an Austrian philosopher and scientist whose insights into the development of human consciousness inspired the Waldorf school movement. Steiner called this new field of study Anthroposophy or ‘the wisdom of the human being.’ A central tenet is that every human being has three aspects—a body, a soul, and a spirit—and that each of these aspects is crucial to a person’s growth and development.
In the increasingly mechanized society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Steiner valued the dignity of each individual. He held that each person had an obligation to use his or her endowed gifts in the service of others. Steiner applied this philosophy to many fields, including medicine, agriculture, economics, architecture, and ultimately education.
The first “Steiner school” was opened in 1919, just after the First World War, at the request of Emil Molt, who owned the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. This school enrolled the children of factory employees and was considered revolutionary for its time. Unlike other schools, it was co-ed, socially and economically diverse, and featured a developmental curriculum—long before that term became the cliché it is today. The school quickly grew from 126 to more than 1,000 students. Other Waldorf (or Steiner) schools soon sprang up in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Great Britain, and on the Upper East Side of New York. Today, there are nearly 1,200 Waldorf schools and an additional 1,200 early childhood centers on six continents. In a strong endorsement of the education, Waldorf schools are particularly popular among parents working in Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry.
Is WSL a religious school?
No. Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and unaffiliated with any particular religion. We do, however, honor the religious and cultural traditions of many races and faiths. The celebration of seasonal festivals, whether school-wide or within a given class, is a centerpiece of the Waldorf curriculum.
The Waldorf humanities curriculum encompasses world cultures and faiths. A key goal is to develop students’ respect for the many religious and cultural traditions that comprise human history and contemporary society.
How diverse is your student population?
Our student body reflects the diversity of the greater Boston region. Many students (as well as some teachers) speak English as a second language. Languages spoken at home by families at the school have included Cantonese, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Tibetan, Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Czech, Lithuanian, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Urdu, Gujrati, and Farsi. We strive to attract students who reflect the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of our hometown, Lexington, and surrounding towns.
Why do elementary teachers stay with a class for 8 years?
A fundamental tenet of Waldorf education is that in order for children to grow into self-confident adults, they must be exposed in childhood to the loving guidance of a respected authority, in this case the class teacher. Waldorf first graders typically view their teacher as an all-knowing presence. Eighth graders view that same teacher as a mentor. In all cases, students learn that their class teacher will stick with them through thick and thin. The class teacher greets each student in the morning, teaches the first two-hour lesson block of the day, supervises transitions and lunch, and takes charge of students’ academic, moral, and social development.
Waldorf teachers are expected to be authorities on their subject matter, as well as storytellers, musicians, artists, and actors. Most of them take summer courses that prepare them to teach the next grade’s curriculum in September.
Another benefit of the Waldorf approach is that it eliminates the “ramp-up” time at the start of each school year, during which students and teachers at other schools spend weeks getting to know each other. Waldorf teachers know each student well enough to keep them academically challenged at a level that is appropriate to each child from the first week in September through the final week in June.
What if there is a mismatch between student and teacher?
This sometimes happens. There are many different personalities in the world, and some get along more easily than others. Yet Waldorf teachers are extraordinarily motivated to find a way to work with children whom they initially may find challenging. Like a parent, they can't just “put up with” a child for one year and then pass him or her on to another teacher the following September. This is true of the parent-teacher relationship, too. Remarkable things happen when everyone understands that this is a multi-year commitment. Waldorf class teachers meditate on each of their students every night, and parents are often surprised to find that a teacher understands their child as well as they do.
Parents are encouraged to communicate regularly with their child’s teacher, not only during parent-teacher conferences, but anytime they have questions or concerns. Parents receive written student assessments in essay form from their children’s teachers, one to three times per year, depending on the grade.
How large are your classes?
Class size varies by grade. Our youngest nursery classes enroll 10 children, and our older nursery has no more than 14 children per day (with parents opting to send their children two, three, or five days per week). Kindergartens have approximately 18 students each, while elementary classes average 19-20 and may be as large as 25. The Waldorf instructional method is very dynamic and has proven effective with larger class sizes.
Early childhood classes have one head teacher and one assistant in each room. The first and second grade teachers also have an assistant. Third and fourth grade teachers may request assistants as needed.
Why do you begin formal reading instruction in first grade?
The Waldorf approach goes against the current tide in the U.S. of teaching academic subjects at increasingly younger ages. Many European countries with successful schools, most notably Finland, wait to teach reading until age seven. As American school children have begun to show the effects of a high-pressure approach to kindergarten, countries like Finland have gotten greater recognition for their successful approach to early childhood education.
In the Waldorf view, before the age of seven years, a child’s time is best spent in developing the physical body in a healthy way, which is the foundation for academic learning. Children who are encouraged to be active, playful, and creative in early childhood usually turn out to be the most enthusiastic learners during the elementary years. Waldorf early childhood teachers concentrate on developing the children’s physical coordination (which affects the development of neural pathways in the brain), listening skills (which later improve their facility with the written word), ability to relate socially in a group (which is critical to success in any endeavor), finger dexterity (which helps the child to think more nimbly), and initiative. Because Waldorf kindergartners create their own games and fantasy play scenarios, they grow accustomed to making things happen rather than waiting for something or somebody else to entertain them. There are no books in a Waldorf kindergarten classroom, but there are plenty of stories—both oral and dramatic.
In the elementary grades, children are taught to write before they learn to read. (This instruction actually begins in the nursery classrooms, where children learn the proper way to hold a paintbrush. This is the same way they will later learn to hold a crayon, a pencil, and a fountain pen.) The letters of the alphabet are introduced in first grade, initially in picture form. In conjunction with a story told by the teacher, the children may draw a picture that becomes a letter (e.g., a snake that becomes the letter S). This, of course, is the way written letters evolved in classical times. Later, the children begin to write down the stories told by their teacher (by copying the words), and subsequently are amazed to discover that they can read what they have written.
Of course, there are some children who seem to pick up reading skills before the age of six or seven, with no apparent help from anyone. We don’t discourage this, but we try always to be sure that a child is growing in a balanced way and not becoming a specialist in any one area too soon.
How well do your students make the transition to high school?
Our students tend to manage the transition quite well. Keyboarding and internet research skills are taught in seventh and eighth grades, and our students often find themselves ahead of their peers in the areas of history, natural sciences, creative writing, public speaking, visual arts, music, movement, and social skills. More importantly, they bring with them an unusual passion for learning; a respect for other people, cultures, and points of view; and a desire to make a meaningful difference in the world.
High school teachers from public and independent schools have told us that our graduates raise the intellectual bar in their classrooms, that they are naturally curious and respectful, and that they know how to use their many talents to advance the common goals of the group.
How are WSL students assessed?
Families receive a detailed written assessment of their child’s progress in every subject area between one and three times per year. Reports for grades 1–3 are mailed once a year, and grade 4–8 reports are mailed twice a year. Students in grades 6–8 receive an additional mid-semester progress report in the fall. Students in the upper grades are evaluated based on tests, quizzes, homework, assigned papers, and class participation.
All elementary students keep a main lesson book of writings and drawings—essentially a self-created textbook of the work that has been covered during the academic year. These books can be reviewed by parents at regular parent evenings or during parent/teacher conferences. The books are sent home in June as a permanent record of what the child has accomplished in that school year.
We do not administer or require standardized tests, although many of our eighth graders take SSATs before applying to high school.
What are your guidelines for electronic media?
Media exposure in early childhood is associated with poor cognitive development and behavioral challenges. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association for the Education of Young Children have established guidelines for media exposure that are very similar to those found in most Waldorf schools.
At WSL, we have found that mass media works against a child’s healthy development. Students accustomed to passively receiving impressions have difficulty making the inner effort necessary to sustain an imaginative train of thought or to follow a complicated mathematical process.
Media exposure is particularly detrimental because it prevents the student from fully developing the creative thinking capacities that are central to our educational goals. We would like our students to view the world through their own eyes, rather than through the lens of someone else’s camera. By delaying a child’s exposure to electronic media until the student’s will and feeling life have reached a certain level of maturity, we hope to encourage an enlightened, inquiry-based relationship to technology.
We ask, therefore, that before fourth grade, electronic media be eliminated from the child’s life. After fourth grade, this exposure should be kept to a minimum. With older children, it is important to review movies beforehand and discuss the content afterwards. We sincerely wish to support your family’s efforts in this regard. Eliminating television, internet, and handheld apps from a child’s life may seem like a radical step at first, but families who do it say that it significantly improves the child’s attitude at home as well as at school.
How do you include art, handwork, music, and foreign languages in the curriculum?
At WSL, art is not a separate class, but an integral part of the day’s lessons. Students in every grade are expected to illustrate their books and papers with free-hand drawings. Students in an anatomy class, for instance, may be asked to make life-size charcoal drawings of a human skull, while students in a geometry class may make origami-like sculptures out of paper. All students do watercolor painting once a week and attend handwork class twice a week.
Music instruction begins in first grade with singing and simple flute playing. By third grade, all students are playing recorder and continue to do so through eighth grade. In third grade, students begin formal twice-a-week instruction and weekly private lessons with instrumental music teachers. They begin with a string instrument and may choose to switch to a wind instrument in fifth grade. Students who enter the school in seventh grade and do not yet play an instrument participate in a musical ensemble. All students in fifth through eighth grade learn to sight-read music and sing in a chorus.
Woodworking classes commence in fifth grade and culminate in eighth grade with construction of small furniture.
The study of German and Spanish starts in first grade. Instruction is almost exclusively oral until fourth grade. In eighth grade the students focus in-depth on one or the other of these languages. They are expected to be able to write short papers in both languages. Those with no previous experience in Spanish or German are given the opportunity to have catch-up tutoring outside of school.
What is your music curriculum like?
Music is an integral part of the WSL curriculum. Nursery and kindergarten children sing with their teachers at circle time and during most transition periods. Nearly all teachers play musical instruments of one kind or another.
From first through eighth grade, children play the recorder in class, and in third grade they begin to learn a string instrument. In fifth grade, some students switch to wind instruments. Fifth and sixth graders take part in string and wind ensembles, and seventh and eighth graders participate in a full orchestra or wind ensemble.
All students in fifth grade and above participate in a chorus class twice a week. There are multiple opportunities for performance at school festivals and assemblies. In addition, eighth graders may perform in a class musical.
Do you have after-school programs?
WSL’s Aftercare program, which runs from noon–3:00, serves students in nursery and kindergarten and includes a snack, rest time, and playtime both indoors and out. Our Extended Day program runs from 3:00–6:00 and serves students in nursery through grade 6. An after-school homework club and music lessons are offered on the premises. We also offer seasonal soccer and basketball teams and spring conditioning for girls and boys in grades 6–8.
What athletic programs does WSL offer?
We believe that healthy development requires healthy physical activity. Our early childhood classes spend a significant amount of time outdoors—in all kinds of weather—gardening, sledding, digging, climbing on rocks, and walking in the woods. Elementary students have two recess periods daily in addition to two periods per week of games or gym class, which may include activities such as sledding, skating, kickball, archery, basketball, juggling, tumbling, and group games of all kinds. We have a small gym, an auditorium with basketball nets, a soccer field, an outdoor basketball court, and a skating pond available for student use. Students in grades 6–8 may enroll in after-school soccer, basketball and spring conditioning programs.
In addition, we host a Fifth Grade Olympics every year, in which students from regional Waldorf schools compete in javelin, discus, long jump, wrestling, long run, and the 50-yard dash. Awards are given for grace and form, as well as strength and speed.
Does the school provide transportation?
The school provides transportation to and from after-school sporting events. WSL families, who come from many different towns, arrange their own carpools for daily trips to and from school.
Public transportation is also available. Two MBTA buses stop right in front of the school. Some older students and parents with young children commute by bicycle via the Minuteman Bikeway, which is immediately adjacent to the WSL campus.
What financial aid is available?
We strive to make Waldorf education available to as many families as possible by keeping our tuition lower than that of many independent schools in the region. Still, there are some for whom our tuition is out of reach. The school has financial aid available for families that need it. Awards are generally in the range of 10 to 30 percent and are made to families with children in our nursery program and above. Maximum awards are 50 percent. A 10 percent sibling discount is given to any family that requests it. Higher sibling discounts may be given to families with three or more children in the school.
What role do parents play at the school?
Waldorf schools thrive with the active support of the parents in different capacities depending on parents’ interests, skills, and availability. At WSL, parents have the opportunity to serve on the Board of Trustees, participate in committees, act as chaperones on field trips, organize annual events such as the Holiday Fair and the Spring Party & Auction, volunteer in the school store and kitchen, plan educational lecture series, coach the soccer and basketball teams, or make handcrafts for various events. WSL has a vibrant Parent Community Association that serves many important functions at the school.
Waldorf parents also support the work of the classroom teachers by creating a home life conducive to healthy growth. Monthly or bi-monthly parent evenings with the class teachers help to create a caring network of support for each child and for the class as a whole. Friendships between Waldorf families often continue for decades after the children graduate.