Tag Archives: Education

Pride

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about SillyBilly’s classroom. About how I was unhappy with certain aspects of the pedagogy and curriculum, and how I was worried about competitiveness at such an early age.

Some of those concerns have died down or disappeared. SillyBilly is now fine with D’Nealian handwriting. He still loves school, and the competitiveness is not at all directed at besting others but rather at achieving goals. I volunteer in the class twice a month, and have gotten to know and love the teacher and the children.

But I’ve noticed something. Parents are expected to read books to the kids at home and then the kids have comprehension (and now, vocabulary as well) tests in the classroom. SillyBilly has exceeded the goals (number of tests taken and passing scores) in each scoring period. This trimester his average book level was at third grade, and he has correctly defined words solidly in the third- to fourth-grade range on up to seventh grade!

I was like this as a child, too. I learned to read at age four, and was always at a much higher grade level in reading. I clearly remember in fourth grade going to reading class with the sixth graders, and being bored there, too.

Clearly verbal skills have been a strength for me, and they are for SillyBilly, too. And I’m noticing myself being very proud of him (justifiably so) and not necessarily looking at the big picture. Maybe this kind of pedagogy is fine for him, as it is playing to his strengths. But am I not really paying attention? What are his weaknesses that need to be brought into balance? Am I providing enough physical and artistic activity to offset the intellectual emphasis?

These are hard questions, as Anthropapa and I both tend to be intellectual (in anthroposophical-speak, we emphasize the nerve-sense pole) at the expense of physical activity. Art is somewhere in the middle with us.

It’s always been a question for me: Is it more important to meet the child where he or she is in terms of strengths, or to provide balancing activities? I think the key is to observe, observe, observe — is the child blossoming in areas of strength, or are deleterious effects arising from overemphasis on a certain aspect?

Have you experienced this, either with children or yourself — this need for balance and the need for playing to strengths? What was your answer?

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School Days

I volunteered in SillyBilly’s classroom this last Wednesday, but I wanted to let it percolate a while before writing about it. It is just so not Waldorf, that I hesitate to write about all of this, for fear of alienating my loyal readers!

One big impression was that the classroom was really, really full. Full of stuff, visual stimuli everywhere. The walls were covered with posters and words and letters and bright colors. There really isn’t a lot of room to move around–there’s an open space in front of the blackboard (though I think it’s actually a white board, with pens instead of chalk–peeuw!) where the kids sit for stories and working with the teacher, but otherwise it’s all tables and chairs and toys and cubbies and cabinets.

The curriculum is mostly focused on reading and writing skills. The school has bought into a reading program where the kids read a book (or in this case, are read to) and then they take a reading comprehension test, which is all recorded on a computer that stores and prints out the results. The kids do this in class with their teacher, but they are also expected to read at home and then be tested on those books too. I wasn’t aware that the home reading portion had a targeted level of achievement; I thought it was just for extra credit, but no, we are already behind!

The kids practice writing letters using the D’Nealian form of writing. SillyBilly is a bit confused, because we had shown him block printing capitals before when he expressed interest in writing. I know he’ll get the hang of it because he has very good fine motor skills, but right now he’s kind of frustrated. The teacher said it’s a problem with choosing D’Nealian, because though they think it makes it easier to learn cursive later, all the kids tend to learn block printing in preschool.

One thing I helped with was giving a few of the kids a short assessment test. The paper had groups of three objects in a line of three groups, and the question would be something like, “Which group includes only things that fly?” And one group would have just birds and airplanes, but another might have one bird, one lightbulb, and one sea turtle (which kind of looks like it’s flying). I guess this was testing their comprehension of groups, kind of like the old Sesame Street “One of these things is not like the others” song.

There are a lot of “incentives”. Finish 10 homework sheets (again, I thought they were extra, but they seem to be expected/required) and get a gift certificate for a cheeseburger. Didn’t have any incidents of bad behavior? You get to choose something from the treasure box on Friday. Pass enough reading tests and you get to buy a book from the school store. Now, one day SillyBilly told us that he thought he just wanted to do the homework and reading tests so that he could learn stuff, not to get stuff. We were amazed at this pronouncement and praised his maturity. But I’m not sure if that sentiment will stand in the face of all the goodies.

There is, of course, time for play. They play outside several times a day (even more in the afternoon daycare portion), have snacks, play inside with play dough and toys, have formal PE twice a week, art and music once a week each. The teacher is a very nice person, who is clearly committed to being the best teacher she can.

But…I wish it were more beautiful there. I wish there was more time for free play. I wish it weren’t so academic. I worry that it’s overstimulating and breathless for SillyBilly.

I wish there weren’t already elements of competition in kindergarten, though I am just as guilty of this: the homework star chart is prominently displayed, and I noticed that SillyBilly and another child were tied for last. He’s only done two reading tests, and has scored 80%. I realized that I was having an inner dialogue about how I almost always got straight A’s and how I know he’s smart enough to do the same, and how I seem to be slacking on making sure he does his reading tests and homework…. And it’s just kindergarten, for heaven’s sake!

In general, I feel like if we are going to make the choice to send SillyBilly to a mainstream school, then this is a good choice. The school does try to provide a safe, child-centered environment, and within the paradigm of mainstream academics, they are very successful. The staff there are very personable (I am always greeted by name by the principal, even though it’s not a small school) and I have trust in them to keep my child’s best interests at heart.

If only it were a Waldorf school….

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A Reply to Nana

In yesterday’s post, Nana left a comment responding to my anxieties about sending my kids to private schools that are not Waldorf:

hokay! I’m an outsider here and will probably cause some apoplexy for some of you. Does anyone think it odd that a system (and don’t try to deny that it is, indeed, a system) such as Waldorf would become established in a country (Germany) which is known for its regimentation and by-the-rule-book attitude? This has been a highly organized and orderly country for a very, very long time. Let’s not forget the German propensity for rich food!

Now let’s apply this phenomenon to every day life, but in reverse. If you give your children the kind of nurturing environment which the Waldorf method encourages, it will be instilled in them and carried with them wherever they are.

If Waldorf could bloom in Germany, then Waldorf raised children can bloom anywhere. Kids need to be introduced to a variety of controlled experiences. Otherwise how can they learn to make intelligent, well thought out, decisions for themselves when they leave the nest?

Henitsirk needs to stop beating herself up over this because it’s not healthy for her and her family. She needs to put a more positive light on the challenge which life has given her at this time and remember – it’s not forever, but it is for now.

I started to write a response comment, and then realized that it was too long and might as well be its own post.

Yes, Waldorf sprang from the Germanic culture, with all its wonderful regimentation and paternalism and nationalism. Now, Steiner actually spoke and worked vigorously against those tendencies. In fact, his ideal for Waldorf schools was different in many ways, but he had to compromise with the state in order to manifest the schools in such a way that they would be not private but available to all. (See this PDF from the Research Bulletin on some of the ways in which Waldorf school methods might be a result of either Steiner working with necessities of his time and place or of our misinterpretations of his teachings.) Sort of the way Waldorf charter schools have done in California and other places. (Something good to remember for those who feel charters aren’t “real” Waldorf!)

Steiner also felt that younger children needed what you could call “regimentation”, though not in an authoritarian way, but rather an authoritative way. For the exact reason that you describe in your second-to-last paragraph: so that children are given a firm, secure foundation to later, when they are ready, make their own way. So, the Waldorf curriculum is highly structured in a sense: certain things are only taught to certain grades, painting for young children is not free expression but rather painting a certain motif modeled after the teacher, etc. This is an interesting article on young children in particular, and how strict discipline is not useful and in fact might be harmful (warning: published in 1963, very un-PC references to “primitive” cultures!).

I found a wonderful passage (see p. 45) from a lecture by Steiner on the healing effects of education. It seems like a gift for me in my questioning and anxieties right now:

[A]s grown-ups we do not find such great value in what we ourselves have become through our own education. We do not look back with deep gratitude on what we received through instruction and education. Ask your own heart whether this gratitude is always alive….

Advice to self: Breathe. Observe. Find gratitude in your heart. Be conscious of motives coming from fear or anxiety, as they will mislead you. Have faith.

***************

Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

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Education and Hierarchies

I’ve been enjoying reading a lot of homeschooling blogs lately, both Waldorf inspired and others. I’ve always tried to hold the possibility of homeschooling my children, at the same time that I have major doubts. I believe these thoughts started a few years ago when a close friend and Waldorf-inspired daycare provider chose to take her son out of Waldorf school. She felt that he was being pressured to read in an unhealthy way–which is not really indicative of the Waldorf curriculum in general, but more likely of his particular teacher.

She chose to unschool him, meaning they did not use any particular curriculum. They had ample opportunities for informal learning: for example, they had farm animals, Dad was an engineer and loved to build things and tinker, Mom was an accomplished singer, and the boy was old enough to go fishing on the river by himself.

Around that same time, Anthropapa became intrigued by the work of John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning teacher from New York City who had come to believe that American public schools were unhealthy in their methods and in fact did not teach children what they need. He’s quite adamant that most modern educational methods and compulsory education work against the goal of educating children to be healthy and well-rounded human beings. But the part that was astonishing to read was what he said about the roots of compulsory public education in the US:

From the beginning, there was purpose behind forced schooling, purpose which had nothing to do with what parents, kids, or communities wanted. Instead, this grand purpose was forged out of what a highly centralized corporate economy and system of finance bent on internationalizing itself was thought to need; that, and what a strong, centralized political state needed, too. School was looked upon from the first decade of the twentieth century as a branch of industry and a tool of governance. For a considerable time, probably provoked by a climate of official anger and contempt directed against immigrants in the greatest displacement of people in history, social managers of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were doing. In a speech he gave before businessmen prior to the First World War, [US President] Woodrow Wilson made this unabashed disclosure:

“We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

I just finished editing a book about how the private and public education hierarchies in Istanbul interrelate with social hierarchies and economic class transformation. Many of the authors’ assertions about Turkish schools echo what Gatto says out about the US system:

A hierarchical system of attained levels of education is conducive not only to the reproduction of a social hierarchy but also attuned to economic hierarchies related to expertise and manpower needs for a developing division of labor in an emerging industrial economy. Together these features function to satisfy the role that the education system plays in socializing individuals to become loyal citizens and disciplined workers in modern nation-states. Just as the state legitimizes the education hierarchy, the education hierarchy lends legitimacy to the state and other hierarchies—political, economic, social, and cultural. (emphasis mine)

This also reminds me of what ElsieDeluxe has written about how she homeschools her sons:

[In schools] they’re just learning that somebody out there has a notion about what they should be doing all day, and they must sit still for it.

I’ll never forget how one day after reading some of Gatto’s writing, Anthropapa mentioned to me how he realized that despite the wonderful qualities of Waldorf school, it still involves a lot of sitting at a desk with the teacher as the authority figure at the front — the Prussian model of school as socialization.Now, I’m not completely knocking socialization here. I’d like my kids to be honest, and generous, and kind to others. I’d also like them to learn the rules of the road, how to be polite to strangers, and to learn compassion for other living things. All of this is part of socialization in my view.

But I’m not sure that learning to sit quietly for many hours at a desk is what some or even most kids really need. Certainly it fit my temperament as a child; I loved school, loved to sit still and read, and even played school at home. But I’d like my kids to be a little more involved with the world at large, to be physically active, to be artistic and musical, and to love not only book learning but life learning.

With at least of bit of the old “Question Authority” mentality mixed in, if only to free up their mental patterns (at this point I’m not quite ready for them to question my authority yet, thanks!)

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