Tag Archives: waldorf education

Worthy Role Models?

In elevating to a level of demiworship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation. We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring.

–Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of philosophy of law at Yeshiva University, on the downfall of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff (quoted in the New York Times).

What role models does Western culture give us, especially to our children?

Sports stars.
TV and film celebrities.
Rich people.
Skinny, pretty people.

What values do these role models typically display?

The importance of making money.
Obsessive focus on physical beauty.
Fame at any cost.
Physical prowess not necessarily accompanied by good sportsmanship.
Manipulative public relations.

Now, of course there are rich and famous people who do good works and display honorable morals and ethics. Some celebrities stay in committed, healthy marriages for many years (Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, married for twenty years, come to mind) and others, like Bill and Melinda Gates, give massive amounts of their personal wealth away to charitable works or live in such a way that they embody more noble ideals (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for example, is an environmental activist and built an eco-friendly, energy-efficient home).

In Waldorf education the children are given examples from history and legend of those who are worthy of imitation. In second grade, they learn of the saints and hear fables and animal stories that speak to their growing sense of morality. In third grade, Old Testament stories further their internal explorations into right and wrong. In fourth grade, the Norse myths speak in yet a different way of the fables of the mighty and the low. Throughout all the grades, a progression of study of ancient and modern cultures and “heroes” such as Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi deepens the understanding of both the human condition, and what is noble and what is not.

I would hazard the comment that there are two roots to the problem of poor role models in Western culture: materialism and the cult of individual personality. We have lost sight of the importance of the soul/spiritual world in favor of acquisition of material goods, and we have forsaken the higher social purpose of our labors for the fool’s gold of propping up our astrality and lower ego forces. And so what do we hold up as precious? The glitter of fame and wealth and the passing fancy of surface beauty.

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Bleh

Feeling bleh.

Worked a lot today.

Didn’t do such a good job parenting the Waldorf way: I watched couple of videos on the computer with SillyBilly today, cooked a huge slab o’meat for dinner, lost my temper.

Worrying about money, worrying that the kids are getting another cold, worrying how I’m going to get enough work done next week when SillyBilly has three days off and Napoleona two.

I did three loads of laundry and only one-and-a-half of them dried properly.

Bedtime sucked, frankly. I think the kids were overtired, and Anthropapa was at a rehearsal.

I’m going to eat some (more) chocolate now and cheer myself up by reading all of your blogs.

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Saturday Steiner

So, I spent the morning doing wet-on-wet painting with a roomful of other Waldorf mamas at Melisa‘s house. It was so great to meet people on this path, learning as we go. We nibbled yummy snacks, did some beautiful paintings (Sorry, I left my camera at home and left the wet paintings there! Photos next time, or check the link above.), and talked about Waldorfy stuff.

This inspired me to make good on my idea to post about one or another of the Steiner books I recently unpacked. I couldn’t find the one I really wanted, but I did find Study of Man, a series of lectures also known as the “General Education Course” that is a fundamental book for Waldorf teacher trainees.

Oh man — how can I do this? In the first five pages of the first lecture, Steiner mentions the epochs of human development, reincarnation, egoism in modern religion, and the various bodies of the human being in the transition from the spiritual world to incarnation!

Uh, yeah, let me just summarize that for ya.

Nope . . . can’t. So I’ll just revert to something we used to do during Foundation Year: find the gems. The sentences or paragraphs that just speak loud and clear, that take you by the scruff, that glimmer and sparkle with new meaning.

[A]lthough from his birth onwards we may only look upon the child with physical eyes, we will all the time be conscious of the fact–“this too is a continuation.” And we will not only look to what human existence experiences after death, i.e., to the spiritual continuation of the physical; but we will be conscious that physical existence here is a continuation of the spiritual, and that we, through education, have to carry on what has hitherto been done by higher beings without our participation.

[In reference to “pre-natal education”] If until birth the mother behaves in such a way that she brings to expression in herself what is morally and intellectually right, in the true sense of the word, then of its own accord what the mother achieves in this continuous self-education will pass over to the child. The less we think of beginning to educate the child before it sees the light of the world and the more we think of leading a right and proper life ourselves, the better will it be for the child.

So: Steiner taught that we reincarnate. We live multiple lives on earth, with (typically) long periods of time in the spiritual world in between. During the time before birth, we are in the company of higher spiritual beings (angels, archangels, etc.) as well as other human spirits, and there we learn and grow and plan for the next life.

He talked in this beginning to Study of Man about how materialism and the egoism that goes along with it have even penetrated religion in modern life. This egoism causes us to focus our attention regarding immortality only on life after death, but the life before birth deserves just as much of our attention. And if we combat this materialism and egoism, we cannot help but relate to and teach children in a new way.

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Self-efficacy

In the book about the psychological roots of dogmatism that I am currently editing, the author brought in the concept of self-efficacy, which is described by Albert Bandura (who developed the concept) as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.”

I recall learning for the first time about Waldorf education, and being amazed that the children learn so many practical things–gardening and farming, knitting and sewing, woodworking, and so on. And then learning about the work of the Camphill movement, where children and adults with disabilities have dignified, productive roles in creating beautiful objects and nutritious food.

I read how Rudolf Steiner thought it was crucial for children to learn these practical skills:

It is actually the case today that most people, especially those who grow up in towns, have no idea how things, paper for instance, are made…. Think of how many people there are who drink beer and have no idea how the beer is made…. I would dearly like to have a shoemaker as a teacher in the Waldorf School, if this were possible … in order that the children might really learn to make shoes, and to know, not theoretically but through their own work, what this entails.

The Kingdom of Childhood, Lecture 7

Especially for the nine-year-old, this kind of practical work is very grounding, bringing a sense of security and personal ability. The idea is that if we have some knowledge of how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, then we will feel safe and competent in the world. We will also recover a connection with the world that is partly lost when we achieve self-consciousness (both at around three years when we first say “I”, and at the nine-year change when we see that we are indeed separate, individual human beings).

I’ve often wondered about the anomie one sees in so many young people, the inability to create, to control one’s surroundings, to feel productive. How much of that comes from feeling separated from the world because of a lack of understanding of the basic materials and objects around us? I’ve experienced this myself as the mother of small children: How do you explain what email is? How a telephone works? What plastic is made of? How much of an understanding of the world around us have we surrendered?

One intriguing aspect of the book I’m editing is that there are two sides to dogmatism: those who are dogmatically aggressive toward others (the person who harangues people, the dictatorial leader, the fundamentalist) and those who submit to such aggression willingly (the cult member, the staunch party member, the meek spouse). Sometimes I feel like Western society is in the grips of a lack of will forces, a victim mentality, and the acquisition of power through violence because we don’t feel we have personal, self-sufficient power.

I think of the stereotypical media portrayal of the young, black American man: angry, cocky, seeking prestige and personal dignity through dominating others. How much of that image comes from the reality that these young men have few practical skills and therefore little sense of self-efficacy? If you don’t feel that you have much control over what happens to you (being poorly educated and economically disadvantaged), then it’s not surprising that you might turn to, at best, cultural symbols of domination, and at worst, violence.

* * * * *

A wonderful example of an institution working to enhance a sense of self-efficacy in others is the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust in the UK. Young people with learning difficulties including autism spectrum and developmental delays are given practical, vocational training in arts and crafts. As the trust’s web site explains:

Many students arrive at college with low self esteem and very little expectation of leading a more fulfilling life. Students leave college with practical qualifications, a more positive self image, supported by invaluable skills for living and work. Around 30% progress to higher or continuing education and 30% find jobs or become volunteer workers immediately on leaving college. Whilst some return to their families, many are able to live independently.

Working within historically active craft centers such as the Royal Doulton glassworks in Stourbridge and the silversmithing industry in Sheffield, the trust’s three colleges give young people who would otherwise be marginalized and extremely dependent on others the ability to live independently, the skills to be creative, and the experience of personal competence that is lacking for many people today.

Periodically I check in on the RMET web site to peruse the latest Run of the Mill magazine (I can’t link directly to it, but you can Google that phrase to find it), which highlights student achievements and projects the school is working on. It’s so inspiring! There are always challenges, and some students are less successful than others. But there is also always a sense of achievement, of dignity, and of the real social benefits of this kind of initiative. What would our world look like if we all had the opportunity to learn honest, down-to-earth work?


Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

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Structure

A while back we had lots of conversation about structure, regimentation, and authority. I’m finally getting back to it now, and thought I could share some concepts from Waldorf education and anthroposophy that relate to these aspects of parenting.

Rhythm

Waldorf methods, especially in the early childhood period, emphasize rhythm. The thought is that the child is nurtured within a regular daily, weekly, and yearly rhythm. From the timing of daily meals to the recurrence of seasonal festivals, the social and home world of the young child nurtures the healthy development of both body and soul.

Discipline issues are greatly reduced when there are strong rhythms. Activities are taken as a matter of fact and become habits. Observe how a child can go into fits when he is occasionally made to clean his room…. Rhythm gives children a sense of security and a sense that life has real form. Knowing what’s next enables the child to go with the flow with greater ease.

-Jaimmie Marx, quoted at Waldorf in the Home.

So what is meant here by rhythm and boundaries?

Imagine that you are a four-year-old child. Now imagine that each day, you know more or less what will happen: breakfast, then playing outside, then a snack, then some quiet indoor play, then lunch, then a nap, then another snack, then a walk, then dinner, bath, and bedtime. How comforting it would be to have a basic understanding, even if not entirely consciously, that your day will unfold in a similar way!

In contrast, imagine that you are the same child, yet each day might be at grandma’s house, or the babysitter’s, and meals might be eaten in the car, or at unexpected times. Some days you might not get a nap, or an afternoon snack. Some days you might even spend the night at grandma’s house, but you’d never know that until you got there. How unsure you would feel!

This attempt to bring rhythm to daily life is also beneficial to adults, as I’ve written about before. When we are freed from having to decide at each moment what to do, we are also freed to use our consciousness in other ways. For parents this also helps with fatigue and feeling overwhelmed–the secret behind FlyLady and lovers of slow cookers worldwide!

“Better authority with security than freedom with fear.”

-Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, 1957.

If the child is “held” within a regular daily rhythm, then the child can be free within that rhythm to develop and grow healthily. The rhythm is seen as another form of nurturing–just as a plant that receives plenty of water but not enough sunlight will not thrive, so a child who eats well but always has some anxiety over where they will be each day might not be able to devote sufficient forces to their development, because those forces are being are being diverted into handling their worries.

Boundaries

In a similar way to rhythm, setting age-appropriate boundaries creates a sense of security in the child. A leading proponent of this idea was Magda Gerber, who founded Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) in California in 1978. Her work was based on the finding of Dr. Emmi Pikler of Hungary, who observed, among other things, that children who can play freely in a safe space will not only develop their physical motor skills, but will also develop a sense of self-mastery and confidence, as well as trust.

Central to the RIE concept is providing the very young child with a completely safe space, so that adult intervention is minimized and the child can freely explore and play. When my children were infants and toddlers, I used baby gates to keep them safely enclosed in our living room, and out of the kitchen when I could not supervise them there. I made sure that I did not have to constantly say “Don’t touch that!” by removing breakable items and making sure the furnishings were age-appropriate (no glass tables with sharp corners, no precious tchochkes within reach).

Now that my kids are older, I set different boundaries for them to allow them to safely develop new skills and explore the wider world. They can play outside without direct supervision, because they are old enough to remember to stay by the house and not wander off. But they are not allowed to ride their bikes in the street, because they are not yet aware enough of cars. My son can use a sharp knife in the kitchen with supervision, but he can’t yet cook on the stove.

Boundary setting shows them (if unconsciously) that I love and care about them, promotes a feeling that their world is safe, and allows them to use their growing consciousness in other ways while I provide the Ego* forces to make decisions they are not ready to make. For these reasons, I believe children want adults to set boundaries, much as they complain about some of them!

Authority

In the first six or seven years, the overriding concept for child development and education is imitation. The young child wants to do what he or she sees others doing — if you are washing the dishes, the child will want a little pan of water and some spoons to wipe with a cloth. If you are always reading a book, the child will want some books to read as well. In this same way, the child will learn to speak politely, have good table manners, and other social graces if the parents model that behavior.

Think about how we use the word authority in other contexts: someone who has the most complete knowledge or mastery of a subject, or who has been given the power to make decisions or take actions. A professor might be the world authority on particle physics, or a minister completes the marriage ceremony with “by the authority vested in me by the state, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

In a similar way, the young child looks to the parent for complete authority — mastery of all things in the environment and therefore worthy of imitation, and as the final arbiter of decisions. Having too many choices calls on Ego forces that the child does not naturally have yet, and puts an undue burden of power on someone who is otherwise (more or less) in a state of union with the world.

From [the sixth or seventh year], the child’s soul becomes open to take in consciously what the educator and teacher gives, which affects the child as a result of the teacher’s natural authority. The authority is taken for granted by the child from a dim feeling that in the teacher there is something that should exist in himself, too.

-Rudolf Steiner, An Introduction to Waldorf Educatio

Now, authoritative adults are not authoritarian, which suggests an unfeeling and ruthless ordering about of subordinates. Rather, the authoritative parent knows what is right for the child, and through loving concern directs the child through example and redirection. The parent is in charge, but it is with the sense of providing the Ego forces that the child does not yet control.

What the child sees directly in his educators, with inner perception, must become for him authority — not an authority compelled by force, but one that he accepts naturally without question. By it he will build up his conscience, habits and inclinations; by it he will bring his temperament into an ordered path….

These living authorities … embody for the child intellectual and moral strength….

With puberty the time has arrived when the human being is ripe for the formation of his own judgements about the things he has already learned.

-Rudolf Steiner, The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy

With the older child, the time has come for more independent decision making, and the transition from imitation to imagination. Now the child will build on the foundation of security and boundaries set during the earlier phase of life. By imitating worthy actions of adults over the first seven years, the older child can now begin to create both inner mental pictures and an inner sense of order.


*By “Ego” I mean what Steiner described as the immortal aspect of the human being, distinct from the physical and soul aspects.

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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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Tired Feet

Are what I have right now. We went to a Barn Dance fundraiser at the local Waldorf school tonight. Several hours in an extremely stuffy gym (which is beautiful–it looks like an overturned viking ship–but has zero ventilation. Maybe when they remodel it they’ll put in windows that open.) full of children running to and fro and country dancing, African drumming and dancing (Napoleona’s favorite: the “African knights” with spears and shields), and lots of people sitting on bleachers, eating cornbread and hot dogs and sweating.

Really, it was fun, and a big treat for the kids to go to something like that, as they haven’t been to many big events before.

But my tootsies sure are tired.

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Question for my Waldorfy Readers

And of course anyone who might have an opinion…

I’m mulling over the idea of writing something to sell as an e-book. Among the ideas I’ve had is something to do with native plants and/or animals. (I would have to stick with North America since that’s what I know, but I would love to expand it to other regions!) I’ve thought about doing a craft book about native plant flower fairies, for example, or something for homeschooling curriculum (seems like this would fit in well with 5th grade).

What do you think would be interesting/useful/successful?

Homeschoolers: is there any subject or format that isn’t already out there or could be improved? I know there are tons of curriculum guides, most quite good. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so I’m thinking of something more topic-specific, like botany or crafting. On the other hand, so much of homeschooling seems to be about the family creating their own activities and curriculum, so how useful would something like this be?

Any advice on publishing and marketing e-books?

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How the Rhythm Saves Me

No, I’m not talking about a religious epiphany while listening to the samba.

I’m talking about rhythms in life.

In the Waldorf early childhood world, it’s all about the rhythm. Little kids thrive in a familiar, rhythmical environment. Imagine you are a 3-year-old. Imagine if every day you weren’t sure when you were going to eat, who was going to look after you, or whether you were going to have a nap or not. Pretty unsettling, no?

So we try our darnedest to make each day familiar. Mealtimes, sleep times, general activities are all the same. The kids feel safe, and their energies can be spent doing more important things like playing, learning, and growing. Another important rhythm is inside play/outside play, which kindergarten teachers liken to an in- and outbreath. You know how a bunch of kids in a room will start to bounce off the walls and into each other after a while? Time for the rhythm to change to an outbreath.

Now, this is not to say that each day should be spent identically with no freedom or flexibility. That would be routine, a rut. It would have no life! Rather, there should be an overall rhythm that can be relied upon, and that will make those special exceptions all the more fun and interesting.

A big secret about this: it helps us parents, too! I love how, because we have a fairly set pattern to our days, I don’t have to spend much mental energy first thing in the morning to figure things out. I don’t have to keep a complicated schedule in my head (or a day planner).

For some people, this ease of rhythm may seem very hard to achieve. Each day brings unknowns, or our days are very full of many activities. But it’s easy to start small, because our lives are full of rhythms whether we acknowledge them or not. The sun, for instance, rises each morning. Spring follows winter. Or perhaps each of your days starts with the sound of the coffee maker gurgling to life. You might take the same route to work each day. You might call your mother every Friday (hi Nana!)

In the “olden days” (and perhaps even today among groups such as the Mennonites), women had a rhythm to their housework: “wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday,” and so on. While women of that time certainly were in a sense chained to their housework without options, we can also look upon this structure as a great help to them.

Sometimes, greater rhythms prevail. I have to laugh at myself: when my son was an infant and I was home full time with him, I developed a little housework schedule for myself. I was ambitious: I wanted a clean house and felt that since I was home all the time, I should be able to achieve it! Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Babies demand that you follow their cues, and dishwashing and vacuuming go by the wayside more often than not.

Nevertheless, I have found that after a long time with the same rhythm, something is freed up. Rudolf Steiner once said (this is one of those anecdotal comments that I can’t find published anywhere, but it makes the rounds of the Waldorf world): “Rhythm replaces strength.”

For me, an example of that would be how we manage breakfast: Anthropapa is the chief breakfast maker, while I usually help the kids get dressed. On Saturdays, we usually have pancakes. After a long time of this, one Saturday morning I realized that Papa needed some more sleep, so I cooked breakfast instead.

Lo and behold, I made some great pancakes, Papa got a few more minutes’ rest, and I had discovered that I could do something new. Now we trade off, depending on who gets themselves out of bed first.

What’s your favorite rhythm?

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