I asked Donna Simmons of Christopherus Homeschool Resources if she would be willing to write a post for this blog and here is a thought-provoking piece about bringing and adapting Waldorf Education to the homeschooling environment. I hope you all enjoy this, and I encourage you to leave your comments in the comment box!
Bringing Waldorf to Homeschooling – by Donna Simmons
One of the interesting challenges in being a provider of Waldorf curriculum materials for homeschoolers is figuring out how to make it both understandable and applicable to homeschoolers. Waldorf education is, of course, something created for the school situation. There are many things which do not work at home in the way they have developed in the classroom.
One example of this is the recall activity which is part of the 2 or 3 day teaching rhythm. One asks one’s child to recall the story material from the previous day. Several years ago I decided to rename this “revisiting” so as to distance it from the Charlotte Mason use of the term recall. In Charlotte Mason the child is describing exactly what happened in a lesson – and it is done right after the lesson. In Waldorf, this is not an exercise in memory, of exact picturing. It is about looking afresh at what transpired in the last day’s lessons and is an opportunity for the child to share what she has let sleep in her. This is about deepening the child’s experience of her lessons, letting her “digest” it overnight. And as Waldorf education rests firmly on knowledge of the human being as a spiritual being, this is also an opportunity to allow the child to take what she has learned into the spiritual worlds. The wisdom of the saying “let me sleep on it” comes from a recognition of the importance of this gesture.
But in terms of school and homeschool, the point about revisiting is that is does not work at home in the same way it works in the classroom. In the classroom revisiting is a shared activity, a group activity. The teacher leads the class through yesterday’s work, gradually building up a picture of what was done as well as acknowledging the opinions and questions of the children. And not all children participate on every day. This is something that has value over time – it is not a drill for everyday. At home one-on-one revisiting can deteriorate into cross examination. And as not all children are completely invigorated by revisiting, it can also become painfully awkward, with lots of shrugged shoulders and “dunno’s” leaving a parent feeling like a failure!
So at home we must ask ourselves the question “what is important about revisiting” and then see what suitable form might be best. My opinion is that conversation is the best vehicle for the benefits of revisiting and is a more natural way to teach a child at home. We are, after all, homeschoolers and it can be a grave mistake to try to create a little Waldorf school at home. I am constantly getting feedback from burned-out parents who tried just this and who exhausted themselves trying to follow programs which were based on the forms of Waldorf and not its essence as expressed outside the classroom.
Anyone can look at a chart laying out the progress of the Waldorf curriculum and then create a schedule of lessons based on it. But….unless they have taken the time to study what underlies the progression of the curriculum, all they will be working with is a bare skeleton. As unschoolers rightly point out, why should one work with a curriculum which is arbitrary, based on the whims of adult ideas on education? But….the thing about Waldorf education is that this is not the case. The Waldorf curriculum rests on profound observations of the developmental needs of children, on the spiritual foundations of human development. It is never, in any way, arbitrary.
So it does behoove one to try to understand what lies behind the progression of the curriculum. Why is history not taught until fifth grade? Why are all four math processes taught together? What is the importance of the animal legends block in second grade?
Then one has the freedom to choose how to fashion one’s curriculum and to not do things just because “it says so here”. Further, one can teach very different blocks than might usually appear in a Waldorf school but still be true to Waldorf education’s basis. One is understanding what the education rests upon and so can work with it, co-creating an education for one’s child, instead of merely receiving material from others.
But much of this is subtle. On the one hand one can easily “lose the wood for the trees” and cling to main lesson blocks because “that is what they do in Waldorf schools”. But on the other hand one might have missed the importance of certain aspects of the curriculum or methodology.
One wants to have good reasons for doing things differently. One wants to understand the essence of Waldorf education so that one can then make it one’s own. One needs to be able to truly understand what developmental need each aspect of the curriculum speaks to so that one can then see how it might or might not be applicable.
For example: Steiner said that grammar should be introduced in second grade. Why? Because it brings an inner form to the child, mirroring his developmental need to move from an all-encompassing consciousness to a more pointed, analytical consciousness (but only very slowly!!). Fine. But…..Steiner was referring to German grammar as he was speaking to the teachers at the Waldorfschule in Stuttgart. This makes sense in the German language – nouns, for instance, are capitalized and thus a German child can easily start to get a feel for grammar as he observes this. But in English – in unruly multi-sourced English – this is not the case. Like spelling, English grammar is plagued by rules which only hold in a rather narrow set of circumstances. Thus to learn English grammar, one must be old enough to appreciate the complexities of our language and be able to be flexible. A very young child does not have this capacity and thus learning grammar would necessitate only memorization. By memorizing grammar rules one might “know” something about grammar but not in a deep sense. One has not “made it one’s own”. This is not the way Waldorf pedagogy works.
Similarly in math, confusion seems to have arisen over the years as to how to use stories. Steiner clearly indicated that young children need to be introduced to mathematical concepts via pictures (thus the advent of the math gnomes, created by my old teacher Mrs. Harrer many years ago and which has becomes almost institutionalized – something Steiner would have been most unhappy about!). Why use stories to introduce math? Because that is what speaks to the consciousness of the young child. Seven year olds have not yet developed the kind of analytical abstract ways of thinking that adults (and teens) have. To teach them holistically, to speak to the reality of their experience, one needs to meet them in their picture consciousness. But…that is for young children. Somehow this has spread amongst Waldorf schools (and some curriculum providers) to mean that math lessons continue to be carried by stories well into the middle grades! To me this is shocking! By 4th grade a child must start to deal with numbers as numbers – not as kings and queens and other story figures! Could it be that the sad reality of Waldorf schools being very weak in math is related to this? And is all of this a problem just because I say so? No! It is problematic because what is being done is out of sync with the developmental needs of children.
Why is all of this important? It is important because if a parent understands why she is doing something with her child, then she is freer to choose and create what her child needs. And that might actually, on the surface, look very little like the usual Waldorf curriculum. Steiner said there were three requirements to being a Waldorf teacher: that they base their work on an anthroposophical understanding of child development; that they understand the needs of the particular children before them; and that they be willing to unceasingly work on their own personal/spiritual development. He didn’t say anything about adhering to the Waldorf curriculum come hell or high water!
And all of this is especially relevant to homeschooling parents as Waldorf education was, of course, designed for the school situation. But an anthroposophical understanding of children is about children, full stop. Children in school, children at home, children of all races, religions, and backgrounds. So it is more than a little useful to work to understand something of the foundations of Waldorf education!
In all our Christopherus publications I try very hard to help parents understand both why and how things are done. Then they are free to see what is or is not relevant to their child and to their family situation. That then is true education.
I also occasionally lead in depth studies of anthroposophical and Waldorf writings on my on-line discussion forum. I have been an anthroposophist for almost 20 years and involved in Waldorf as a student ( k – 12), parent, teacher (all levels), parent educator and homeschooling parent. So I’m in a pretty good position to offer a hand to those seeking to understand more about Waldorf education.
Starting this September, I will be leading a study of The Kingdom of Childhood by Rudolf Steiner on my forum. You can read it online or you can purchase it from the Christopherus Bookstore. This book is a foundational part of Waldorf teacher training and is one of Steiner’s more accessible lecture series. Here is a link to my forum where I describe this study a bit more and what will follow after. Scroll over to the Christopherus News section (which is open to non members) for details
Hope you join us!
Thank you so much, Donna. And much love and many blessings to my readers!