Looking into Waldorf Education

 An Interview With Caroline Ostheimer

The Waldorf School movement, begun in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919, is a fascinating forerunner of today’s “whole brain” education. The movement was founded by the Austrian philosopher and mystic, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), whose work touched virtually every area of human inquiry and activity – the arts, education, medicine, science, history, religion, agriculture (BioDynamic Method), and architecture. For education, he sensed intuitively that the whole person: mind, body and spirit, must be touched and integrated into the educational process, as well as into life. An example of this is his Eurhythmy, a type of movement/dance which integrates movement, sound, and color, thereby becoming a full expression of the human being, like a kind of visible speech. It is used in the school program for the expression of ideas, relationships, and for the development of the will and the general intelligence.


Steiner’s approach also took into account stages in the child’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development, and much of his basic understanding of human development is now being validated by the current brain/mind research.


Steiner divided childhood into three main phases. He believed that children from birth through age 7 were inner directed and literal. External abstractions such as numbers and letters had little meaning unless they were personally experienced, as in: 1 nose, 2 ears, 5 fingers, etc. He felt that young children, like a pure sense organ, absorb the examples around them, and thus it is important for the influential adults in their lives to be aware of their powerful role as models. If you want to pass ideals on to your children, you need to BE your ideal.


Waldorf programs for this age group, beginning as young as age 3, focus primarily on the arts, movement, songs, stories, gardening and other seasonal activities.


The transition to the next phase is signaled by the change of teeth, about age 7. Current research has demonstrated that this is the time when the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain, is completed. From this time until puberty, about age 14, Steiner saw as a period of awakening fantasy and imagination when all of the children’s education should be directed artistically. Waldorf Schools thus begin writing through drawing and painting, the observation of nature for the sciences is enhanced through drawing, and arithmetic is begun through similar means. All of these subjects are related to each other and connected experientially through this focus on the arts.


The final period, after age 14, continues with the arts, but also moves more directly into intellectual and abstract pursuits.


The largest, and one of the oldest, Waldorf Schools is the Green Meadow School in Spring Valley, New York, with 300 students in twelve grades. We were able to get a personal perspective on this school, and the students’ participation in the larger community it is part of, from Caroline Ostheimer, a recent member of that community.


Robert: What was your connection with the Green Meadow School?


Caroline: I was a co-worker for about 2 years at the Rudolf Steiner Fellowship Community in Spring Valley, New York. This community was started in the 20s and became the center of Anthroposophy [the movement based on Steiner’s work] on this continent. The focus of the work is caring, in the context of community, for old people who are dying. The co-workers, their families, and those being cared for are all part of this community of over 100 people. The main house is the care unit for the people who really need round the clock care. That house is surrounded by gardens where most of the vegetables and herbs are grown for the community. There are also two other big houses at the Fellowship Community for older people who have their own apartments. If they need round the clock care, they can come over to the main house.


Down the hill from the Fellowship Community is the Three Fold Educational Foundation of which the Green Meadow Waldorf School and the Eurhythmy School are a part. It is also somewhat of a community, although not as tightly knit as the Fellowship Community. There is also a conference center, a big guest house and an auditorium for artistic performances and lectures. Most of the children that go to the school live locally. Many of their parents are involved in Anthroposophy and are involved directly in the community as co-workers of the Fellowship Community. There are also a lot of children who come from families who aren’t necessarily involved in Anthroposophy, but who are concerned that their children have a good education.


One nice thing about the school is that classes can go for a walk up the hill where they are in the context of the Fellowship Community. Here there are sheep, chickens and gardening all year round as well as old people. Often the children would come and do little singing performances, little puppet shows, recorder music performances or just walk through and say hello. It was beautiful with all these little children sitting like flowers around and amongst these old people that were dying. The older children often performed musically in quartets and quintets. Music starts at first and second grade with playing recorders and violins.


The Fellowship Community also has 7 or 8 handicapped adults working in it. Some of these people live there and some come from families who live in the broader community. They walk to work every day and are integrated into the work. The children who came up to work with us also worked with them, as well as working with the older people.


Robert: What kind of contact did you have with the school and the kids during the school year?


Caroline: I would eat breakfast with the children in the community and then they would go off to school. After school they would often come running out into the field to play, and they would share with me what they were working on in school. Many times their teachers would bring them up to the Fellowship to share what they were working on musically or poetically.


Robert: How did the children that worked with you come?


Caroline: There were special children who didn’t quite fit into school. There was one boy who was 12 or 13 who was so full of energy and life that he could not be in school, so his teacher, who had been with him since the 1st grade, felt that he needed to be doing something physical, putting his energy out into the world rather than keeping it in his head and trying to sit still. So he came to us. He was pretty rowdy, so we had him shoveling manure for about a week and doing a lot of digging which he really loved. He was so great, everybody loved him so much, even though he was kind of bad and liked to get in trouble and tease. But the physical work was good for him because he could get all of that rowdiness out without being bad because the people were good natured and kept him within bounds a bit.


The next year he came again. His teacher felt that it had been a very good experience for him. At first, he was coming for just a half a morning. He would go and do orchestra, and come back the second half of the morning or he’d do his block on math and come back. Then he started coming all day long for quite awhile learning eventually how to drive the tractor, usurping my job as tractor driver. This was great because I could step out and do other things. One of the people with primary influence in the garden took him under his wing and worked together with his teacher. The teacher, this person and a person from the Fellowship Educational Circle would meet once a week to see what they could do to help out. The Fellowship has an educational circle primarily to help out the handicapped people; however, they have also started to concern themselves with the children in the school.


Robert: What happens to the kids whose interests are not in line with the school classes, and what kind of flexibility is there?


Caroline: Total. The teachers are very sensitive to the children because they are with the children from the time they are about seven years old, all the way through, so they really know that child. They have taken a sense of responsibility to help guide that child and help them move through their life. I think especially in high school there seem to be children who are so creative, and have so much energy and interest for life, that school just isn’t enough. There are often children in the high school years who go on exchanges to Europe. They switch with Waldorf Schools in Europe, and kids from there come here. It is really good for them and they thrive on the experience. There are also students who come specifically to work in the pottery or at the Fellowship because they have a specific interest in that area. It depends on what the teacher, the parent and the child work out.


Robert: What is the high school structure like?


Caroline: They no longer have a class teacher, but have many teachers for the different subjects and an advisor. The teenagers are now becoming more intellectual. They start to do black and white drawing for the first time and line drawings. The younger grades focus on color and drawing the essence rather than a realistic rendition of something. A lot of the kids from Green Meadow School were going onto Harvard, Yale and Princeton. They don’t have any trouble getting into the very competitive universities.


Robert: What about tests?


Caroline: Waldorf students don’t take tests until they are pretty old. Testing, where you have to hold all of the information in your head, was something that Steiner felt was a hardening, sort of a death process. They do have some means of letting the teacher know how the student is doing, but it is different than the general use of tests. Grading is unique. It is more of an evaluation as to how well the child is growing and meeting new things that are being presented to him. It is really more an education of the whole being and whole person rather than just the intellect.


Robert: What is your impression of the various students that you knew?


Caroline: They are so flexible, adaptable and resourceful. They can be in any kind of situation and go gracefully through it. I know several Waldorf students who are in their 20s now. They speak several languages fluently, they are very artistic, either musically or graphically, often both. I think that we are probably all inherently very artistic, it is probably just not allowed to emerge.


Robert: How about the scientific side of things?


Caroline: I know one Waldorf student who is an engineer, another who is an architect, one a doctor, another a gynecologist and a nurse soon to become a specialist as a massage therapist. A lot of them go into therapeutics and healing work. They develop the artistic side, but don’t often go into the arts professionally. I only know of one who is becoming a Eurythmist.


Robert: What is it in the Waldorf Education that encourages this direction of service?


Caroline: It is permeated with the essence of selflessness, with following the will of God in a way that enables you to be a vessel to help make the world a better place and to help people. I think the reason this quality succeeds in getting through to the students is that it is not spoken but carried profoundly in the souls and hearts of the teachers. Steiner felt that what a child receives from his teacher is not what his teacher is teaching him, but what the teacher him/herself has gone through in order to be able to teach. This gift from the teacher is what educates and nourishes the child. I think Waldorf teachers are exceptional people. They have devoted their lives to 20 students for their first 8 years of schooling.


Robert: What kind of training and selection do the teachers go through?


Caroline: There is a Waldorf teacher training available at several places in this country and in Europe. The length of training depends a great deal on the person’s background and life experience. Many Waldorf teachers have been working in other areas such as working with handicapped people or with the Fellowship, or have gone through an educational program in a regular college or university. It’s the kind of work that one is called to do from within. Some people go through with just one class for the 8 years while others have 3 or 4 classes of 8 year periods. If a teacher cannot continue for one reason or another for the full 8 years, another teacher will be found to take over.


For more information, contact The Anthroposophic Press, 258 Hungry Hollow Road, Spring Valley, New York 10977.video.