With no principal or traditional grading system, Waldorf offers a curriculum that includes conventional subjects such as history and chemistry, but with a mix of the unconventional: knitting, fairy tales and a class dedicated to body movement.
There are more than 100 Waldorf campuses in the country; the Cincinnati school, one of two in Ohio, opened in 1972. Students travel from as far as Dayton to the campus in Winton Place.
"Waldorf education is holistic," says Jodi Harris, faculty chair. "It doesn't focus on the head but deals with the components of the head while teaching through the whole body."
The school is administered by a three-person team including Harris, the administrative chair and the board president. With more than 160 students in grades one through seven, Waldorf is in the process of adding an eighth grade curriculum. The school focuses on integrating arts and nature to enforce learning.
Waldorf begins early, offering a Parents & Tots class, which gives a "gentle and safe introduction to what school is all about," Harris says. Parents can discuss parenting issues during this time as well, she says.
"While mainstream education is just preparing you for the next level -- whether it's high school, college or a career -- we are really thinking about what an adult needs and what kinds of capacities they need so they can be a functioning and productive member of society," Harris says.
'Living it inside'
Waldorf employs a variety of learning styles while providing students with a sense of social unity. They're expected to balance each other's weaknesses and learn to work closely, says Rees Storm, whose son attends the school.
"Teachers develop a sense of class community and respect for each other so that we don't have a lot of cliques and fights and things that plague other schools," Harris says. "At Waldorf, the students are being taught to look at the strengths of other children."
Storm's older son, who attended Waldorf before going to a public school, got in trouble while taking his first test there because he tried to help another student. Waldorf students are accustomed to working as a social unit, Storm says.
Teachers advance through the grades each year with their students.
"What's really nice about having the same teacher is that they get to know the child as a whole person, as I do as a parent, and see their strengths and weaknesses," Storm says.
Instead of a grading system with report cards and an A through F scale, teachers write a 12-page, end-of-the-year report for parents. Parent-teacher conferences at Waldorf occur three times per year and can last up to 30 minutes, compared to 10 minutes at most public schools.
In addition to traditional subjects, Waldorf offers classes that teach students to knit, do woodwork and eurythmy -- body movements to the rhythm of spoken words.
"Similar to how dance makes music visible, eurythmy makes spoken words visible," Harris says.
The students get plenty of time for "movement" throughout the day, but instead of building specifically on athletic abilities Waldorf education dictates that students play games that help develop a social consciousness.
"The curriculum is designed so that the child going from grade one to eight recapitulates the experience of humanity," Harris says.
In their early years, students listen to fairy and folk tales, learning an archetypal aspect of history. By third grade they begin to focus on history by using Hebrew scriptures to learn stories that are familiar to the Judeo-Christian culture they live in, according to Harris.
When the children are beginning to learn to self-govern in fourth and fifth grades, they learn about ancient civilizations, including the Roman Empire, and are exposed to the development of legal systems, she says. By seventh grade they learn about the Renaissance, right about the time in their lives when they're getting excited about the outside world, Harris says.
"They get the course of history as they are sort of living it inside," she says.
Learning to knit, crochet and do woodwork helps develop motor skills.
"We use the realm of the heart, nature and the realm of actually doing things with our hands and bodies like knitting and crocheting and woodworking," Harris says. "We want our students to become doers as well as thinkers in the world."
Letting kids discover
One of the criticisms of the Waldorf education movement is that many think the students learn to read too late, Harris says. But by being exposed as first graders to the rich language and complex story lines of folk tales, Waldorf students develop stronger language skills when they begin to learn to read in second grade, she says.
"Our fourth graders are reading Little Women, and by seventh grade the students are reading Shakespeare," Harris says.
Another criticism of Waldorf is that the school doesn't focus enough on academics.
"The early grades don't have a lot of worksheets and textbooks," Harris says. "But all of these other things they are doing lays such a foundation that, when they get to the upper grades, they have such a powerful, rich repertoire of learning to draw from that we can present very high level and sophisticated material to them and they just eat it up."
By sixth grade, Waldorf students are learning physics, but Harris says the material is presented in a way that a 12-year-old can grasp.
"We focus on what's in front of you, not atoms and molecules," she says.
Storm's older son had no difficulty adjusting to the traditional education offered at public schools, she says.
"The most obvious difference is the curriculum," she says. "At traditional public schools, it is very broad and superficial. At Waldorf, the curriculum is deep -- what you learn, you learn very well."
Arts are integrated in every subject, so that even math and science have an aesthetically beautiful component, compared to the Xeroxed worksheets that Storm's son brings home from a public school.
Rather than provide dry facts to regurgitate on standardized tests, Waldorf students gain skills that will teach them precision in thinking no matter what field they're in, Harris says.
"Waldorf keeps the love of learning alive because we present things for children to discover, rather than presenting it for them to take in and spit back out," she says.
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