A School With Balance

By David Ruenzel — October 18, 1995 24 min read
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In American education, the notion of developing the “whole person” has been around forever. This is why schools have long encouraged students to do everything from excel in math and play in the band to climb ropes and sing in musicals. At the Pine Hill Waldorf School here, the idea of educating the whole person hasn’t led to an exhaustive string of extracurricular activities but is instead seamlessly integrated into every aspect of daily practice. Everyone at Pine Hill does most everything well--from playing the recorder to freehand drawing of geometric patterns--and all with a sort of contemplative reserve that seems, in its absence of competitive striving, almost un-American.

“A Waldorf education is like a toolbox for life,” one Pine Hill teacher says. Another Waldorf teacher who is also a Pine Hill alumnus attests, “Confidence is the greatest gift my schooling gave me. Once you find your way into something, be it pottery or auto mechanics, you feel like you can find your way into anything else because you’ve learned that everything is interrelated, even if it appears otherwise.”

Pine Hill opened in 1972 with 19 children and is now a thriving K-8 school of 225 students. Tuition is $5,400 a year, less than many other New England pri-

vate schools but far from inconsequential. The majority of the students come from middle-class families, yet many of their parents possess rather un-middle-class inclinations. They are likely, for example, to disdain television and mega-shopping malls and to favor such avocations as gardening and cabinetmaking. Some have moved their families to the rather remote Wilton area at substantial financial sacrifice for the express purpose of enrolling their children in Pine Hill.

Among Waldorf schools, Pine Hill is known for its excellent and stable teaching staff. Many of the teachers have been with the school for two decades, seeing it through two major fires that ravaged the campus in the 1980s. Pine Hill teacher Arthur Auer now refers to the 1982 fire as “a blessing in disguise,” as it induced faculty and parents alike to recommit themselves to the Waldorf philosophy and to raise funds for a new school. Crafted from indigenous materials, the building is a unique combination of contemporary and rustic that blends into the wooded surroundings.

When asked what they like most about a Waldorf education, par~ents at Pine Hill offer a list of intriguing particulars: “Children are greeted in the morning with a handshake"; “They absorb wonderful stories they repeat in their own words"; “They teach us things we never learned in school"; “Only Waldorf kids would say, as ours did, that ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is the best movie ever.”

One father, Mike Anderson, sums up: “From the first time I visited the school in 1972, I could see that there were all kinds of little things that made perfect sense: the way children learned to write before reading, the handwork they did, the way art and music were taught not as specialties but as important daily activities.” Anderson writes computer software for a Boston corporation but has no problem with the very intentional absence of computers at Pine Hill. He says he understands that at Waldorf schools the emphasis, particularly in the early years, is always on “the human.” “It’s very easy for kids to get hooked on computers, and that’s not healthy,” he explains. “It can wait for later years.”

For all of this enthusiasm, a Waldorf education in this country pretty much remains, as Pine Hill teacher and development officer Sue Demanett puts it, a “well-kept secret,” with only 125 Waldorf schools, nearly all of them private, in the United States and Canada. (Worldwide, there are approximately 650 Waldorf schools.) The overwhelming majority are elementary schools, but a handful of secondary schools also carry the Waldorf label. The oldest of these, High Mowing High School, is right across the road from Pine Hill.

According to Demanett, the biggest obstacle to growth has to do with a shortage of trained Waldorf teachers. “We recognize that this is not recipe education,” she says. “You can’t just pick up the manual and plug something in. You have to create all of the material for the children in front of you, and it takes a lot of flexibility to do that day after day.”

Flexibility is also demanded by the fact that Waldorf teachers remain, at least ideally, with the same group of students from 1st through 8th grade. The teacher is to be a guide and mentor, what Pine Hill teachers called “a loving authority,” gradually taking students from a necessary dependence in the early grades into the light of reason and increasing independence later on. The teacher, then, embarks with the students on a journey that takes years. Over the course of that journey, the teacher must change along with the youngsters. As 7th-grade teacher Hugh Renwick says, “Children on the verge of adolescence don’t want the same teacher they had back in the 2nd grade.”

The Waldorf approach originated in the work of the late 19th and early 20th century Austrian “visionary” Rudolf Steiner. Steiner himself founded the first Waldorf school in 1919 for the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette company in Stuttgart, Germany. The school program was driven by Steiner’s own philosophy, anthroposophy, which had much to say about what he called the “Threefold Man.” As Steiner saw it, healthy, well-educated adults are those who have learned to equally integrate their capacities for thinking, feeling, and willing.

The Waldorf approach has a strong spiritual component, though it is most emphatically nonsectarian. The key, as expressed in a Pine Hill brochure, is “to foster in all children a sense of reverence as well as respect for all religions.” Reverence is a word one hears repeatedly at Pine Hill. As teachers there explain it, reverence entails an attitude of awe, gratitude, and respect for the world--a sentient world animated with the presence of the divine. Waldorfians sometimes speak of children as New England transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of nature: “The presence of a Á spiritual element is essential to its perfection.”

The practical aspects of Steiner’s philosophy can be found in a brief description of a Waldorf lesson in which the teacher calls on students to recite their multiplication tables by tossing them a ball. A 1954 book by A.C. Harwood titled The Recovery of Man in Childhood: A Study in the Educational Work of Rudolf Steiner provides a theoretical framework for the use of rhythm as a mnemonic device. “Rudolf Steiner has fully recognized,” Harwood writes, “that the whole human body, and not the brain alone, is a vehicle of consciousness.” This insight, Harwood adds, leads to the following principle: “The golden rule of education is to go from movement to rest, from the active to the passive, from will to intellect. Movement comes first.”

This principle is deeply embedded in classroom practice at Pine Hill. Movement plays a central role in a wide range of academic activities, though the movement is never, as one may expect from small children, the least bit chaotic or sporadic. In fact, it is usually carefully controlled, the teachers correcting careless positioning and posture. In the 1st-grade classroom, teacher Arthur Auer gently reminds children as they work on their letters or play the recorder--all students learn to play the recorder--to “keep your feet together” or to “stop squirming.”

The movement, then, is highly purposeful and characterized by a sort of choreographed fastidiousness. Auer’s 1st graders stand rhythmically clapping their hands and stomping their feet as they chant their multiplication tables: 9 is 3 x 3, 12 is 4 x 3, 15 is 5 x 3. Auer, who is just beginning his third “cycle,” having twice taken classes from 1st through 8th grade, approaches the alphabet in much the same way. He will point to a letter with a crooked stick--Waldorf educators disdain artificial materials in favor of natural objects--while the children sing something like, “W is for water, waves, waiting for ships to sail.” With their hands, they “roll out” the waves.

The emphasis on rhythmic movement is not reserved for the younger children; it is explicit in the conduct of all classes at all grade levels. On the simplest level, this movement appears to be a way of “limbering up” in preparation for the academic work ahead; on a more profound level, it has to do with the Waldorf principle that one “learns” through the body as well as in the mind, that once a poem, song, word, or mathematical concept is in the body, it can be analyzed in an intellectual sense at a later time. Before undertaking a formal study of geometry, for example, students may “walk out” everything from triangles to octagons, the idea being that the body will “perceive” patterns that are yet only ghostly abstractions to the mind.

The “movement first” principle is also evident in the visceral approach teachers and students take to memorization: Students snap fingers, clap hands, and chant as they recite what they have committed to memory. In one 6th-grade class at Pine Hill, this includes everything from Marc Anthony’s famous speech in “Julius Caesar” to geological terms. “Metamorphic. Igneous. Sedimentary,” the students chant, the stresses all in place.

Practitioners of the Waldorf method do not share many educators’ disdain for rote memorization--the belief that making students memorize something is punitive, almost a way of ensuring that they would loathe what they may otherwise come to appreciate.

Instead, at Waldorf schools such as Pine Hill, students recite from memory everything from fables and fairy tales in the early grades to Old Testament passages and Shakespearean soliloquies later. There is nothing punitive about this: It is learning by heart, with the emphasis upon heart. Teachers want their students to get what the Germans call sprach melodie--that is, to get the music of whatever it is they’re reciting into the blood, so to speak.

There is always an attempt in Waldorf classrooms to direct students toward the ideal. The concluding lines of a tale 1st-grade teachers tell urge students to “love the beautiful, seek out the truth, wish for the good and best.” The literature students commit to memory has about it a transcendent quality. A class of 6th-grade students recites the Robert Frost poem “Take Something Like a Star,” which ends with the lines, “So when at the times the mob is swayed/To carry praise or blame too far/We may take something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid.” The recitation is with a feeling that’s completely convincing. It is easy to imagine these students in later years calling the verse to mind during times of uncertainty.

Memorizing such impressive amounts of material might seem difficult, even daunting to some. But teacher Sumitra Haynes says that Pine Hill students have no special ability in this regard, that everyone has a “good” memory, though not everyone knows how to exercise it. “We know that if you’re working with memory, you also have to work with rhythm,” she says. “Everything rhythmical strengthens the memory. People in older, less literate societies knew this intuitively. As long as you swayed and chanted, as long as you kept the rhythm, it would stay with you.”

Implicit in the Waldorf philosophy is the belief that everyone--assuming no obvious handicap--has the ability to do everything well, though that ability often has to be discovered, or rediscovered. We all can do music, do art, do mathematics.

Most people conceive of learning how to do something as acquiring a new set of skills. But for Waldorfians, the emphasis is quite different. They see learning as a kind of massive reclamation project: You reclaim what has always been in you--the ability, for example, to paint or do mathematics--but was never brought out, in part because schooling steered you away from things in which you could not score a quick success. Harwood underlines this very point in his book. “Even with quite ordinary children,” he writes, “being ‘bad at a subject’ is very frequently an induced rather than a natural state. The average man, no less than the genius, could often be more of an all-around fellow than he imagines.”

A basic optimism infuses this message and permeates Pine Hill’s classrooms and corridors. For if acquiring ability in some specific area is less a matter of learning something from scratch than of reclaiming some dormant capability, then it is never too late for anyone. It is just a matter of giving something a shot and then persevering. This is at least as true for adults as it is for students, Harwood points out. If a teacher cannot paint, he writes, “then he must endeavor to recapture the ability which his own education destroyed.”

Many Pine Hill teachers, particularly those who did not themselves attend a Waldorf school, will tell you how they were compelled to re-explore educational terrain they had flown over at great speed during their own formal schooling. They learned or relearned, often in middle age, subjects as diverse as art, geology, and chemistry. The point was not to attain a semiprofessional status but rather to acquire a basic competence and, even more important, a genuine enthusiasm for the subject.

“The key is to be the best role model you can be,” Auer says. “And that means having a connection with what you’re teaching. If students sense that it’s dead stuff for you, it will be dead for them. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be, say, an artist to teach art. If you direct the activity with real feeling, the children will pick it up. They all love to draw and have a lot of budding talent, and so it’s your obligation to draw that talent out.”

Auer notes that Albert Einstein learned to play the violin “with reverence and wonder” in his old age. If you teach with reverence and wonder, the belief goes, the children will learn with reverence and wonder.

This was why for the first Waldorf school, Steiner handpicked people to teach outside of their specialties: a physicist to teach history, a language instructor to teach mathematics. In teaching children, exuberance counts for more than knowledge. Teachers experiencing something miraculously new for themselves will inspire their students with that very emotion.

The school day starts for one 7th-grade class as it does each day for all but the smallest children--with a formal greeting. Normally, students stand and shake the hand of their teacher. Today, the 25 7th graders line up to introduce themselves and shake hands with a visitor. The students then stand next to their wooden desks, aligned in traditional rows, and participate in what looks like a hybrid of calisthenics and Tai Chi. Their teacher, Hugh Renwick, scripts the movements, speaking in little more than a whisper of “rain coming down over your head” and of “walking down the mountain.” This completed, Renwick almost slides into “Good morning, 7th grade,” and then he and his students ease into a verse composed by Steiner that they (and students at most Waldorf schools) have recited since the 5th grade. In part, it reads: “I look into the world,/in which the sun is shining,/in which the stars are sparkling/... I look into the soul/that lives within my being./The World Creator weaves/in sunlight and in soul light... .”

After this comes another poem, Theodore Roethke’s “The Heron,” which students recite individually. Renwick directs, urging them to “concentrate on the rhythm of words” and to “get the consonants right.”

The literature here, as in other Pine Hill classrooms, is selected to keep students “oriented outward, to connect them to the natural world around them.” An intense focus on the self, to which students are prone in early adolescence, could easily become an unhealthy fixation.

The physical design of Renwick’s classroom, like the lesson itself, is neither traditional nor progressive. Unlike most traditional classrooms, there are no posted rules, no mass-produced posters or visual aids provided by textbook companies, and no bells. Yet, unlike most progressive classrooms, there are no work stations, no wandering about by students, and absolutely no clutter on the desks, the walls, or around the room. This classroom, like the others at Pine Hill, has about it an engaging simplicity. It is all white walls and sunlight, making the few artful objects present, such as a Japanese kimono on loan from a parent, appear dazzlingly fresh. This spare setting seems ideally suited for concentration.

And indeed, sustained concentration more than anything else defines the “main lesson,” the two-hour morning study block during which most of the day’s academic work is done. The tenor and substance of a Waldorf main lesson may shift from moment to moment, requiring great attentiveness on the part of the students.

On this particular day, for example, after an interlude of recorder playing, the 7th graders quickly shift their attention to Asia. Renwick, who looks a bit like a surfer who tumbled through graduate school and emerged a scholar, becomes a taskmaster, albeit a remarkably subdued one. Almost solicitously, he begins asking students factual questions about Japan, which the class is studying as a “main block.” A year is made up of eight main blocks, including for 7th graders chemistry, perspective drawing, and history of the Renaissance. The questions Renwick asks all have a geographic focus: Why can’t Japan be considered a peninsula? Where is the population concentrated? How many of the country’s volcanoes are active? Students are called upon randomly, and each answers his or her question correctly.

Storytelling occupies a central place in the Waldorf curriculum--"there is no time when children will grow well when starved of stories,” Harwood writes--and Renwick now begins to spin a tale that utterly draws the students in. Like other Pine Hill teachers, he uses no text or notes. The teachers always try to make a story their own, and they best accomplish this by summoning it forth from memory.

Renwick’s fictional account is about the 7th-grade students themselves--their flight over the Pacific and the diurnal leap across the International Date Line; their arrival in the crammed, yet absolutely orderly, Tokyo airport where they’re greeted by a bowing Hashimi Moto and his Benneton-clad daughter, strangely carrying schoolbooks even though it’s Saturday; their journey to host Moto’s house, virtually hidden by a drifting line of shrubbery, behind which there’s bonsai and a pond of lily pads; their small dinner of sushi and Japanese tea, leaving them hungry; their curiosity about the shrine in the alcove in honor of ancestors; their uneasy sleep on the chairless floor. Renwick finishes by saying, “Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what happens in the Buddhist temple.”

After the story, two students present statistically laden reports, one on Malaysia, the other on Afghanistan. All the students then work in their lesson books, which every member of the class creates for each main study block. They are impressive, well-crafted records of the students’ experiences with the various subjects that include writing, drawings, maps, and so forth. Toward the front of the 7th graders’ lesson books are maps of Japan, each rendered with great fastidiousness in colored pencil. On this particular day, students are writing, in a calligraphic style, “A Letter Home From Japan.”

Renwick had spent an hour the night before preparing his story. The point of constructing such a vivid narrative, he says, is to convey on a concrete level just what Japan is like. Students benefit by getting a mental picture of what they are studying. This, he notes, is why his students began by studying a country’s geography and by creating maps.

Would the teacher have his students discuss social issues, such as Japan’s emphasis upon conformity? “Yes, but only later,” he says. “It’s important that they grasp things on a phenomenological level first. Then we can move on to analysis.”

Renwick says he tries to address the “hands, heart, and head” in each lesson, bringing into play the physical, emotional, and thinking dimensions of the human experience. For Waldorf educators, these are not separate processes but connected. The student reciting a poem is both exercising memory and, the teachers hope, expressing a feeling for what he or she recites. The student sculpting with beeswax or clay is learning something about form. The student reading a biography of Winston Churchill or Helen Keller--at Waldorf schools, biography is central to students’ study of history--learns not only something about the times in which these people lived, but also much about the doubts and defeats through which all men and women must struggle.

Although Waldorf educators argue that a full education must engage the hands, heart, and head, they also believe that the last should be de-emphasized in a child’s early years. This has to do with Steiner’s “threefold” view of human beings--a view that drives the entire Waldorf curriculum. Essentially, Steiner conceived of human development as unfolding in three stages: The first (through about age 6) is identified with the will, the second (from approximately ages 7 through 14) with the feelings, and the third (ages 15 and up) with thinking. Each stage encompasses the previous one: The healthy, well-educated adult, then, is not so much characterized by the intellect but rather is someone who comes to place the intellect alongside human will and feeling as essential aspects of the “whole” human being.

For Steiner and Waldorf teachers, education is about respecting the absolute integrity of each stage. Kindergartners, for instance, ruled as they are by an indefatigable desire to do and possess, should not grapple with abstract ideas, even if some have the ability to do so. Likewise, 3rd graders, who have moved from the willful stage into the feeling epoch, require fairy tales and the like that speak to their burgeoning emotional lives.

Overemphasizing “the head,” encouraging children to embark upon the life of reason before they are ready, is akin to continuously over-revving an engine, eventually causing a cylinder to crack. This is why, one teacher here says, so many college students suffer from academic burnout; they’ve been overexercising their reasoning faculties while ignoring the emotional, spiritual, and artistic aspects of their being. In many students, this induces exhaustion; in others, it breeds a kind of clever amoralism, turning them into sophists void of empathy and moral vision.

In a world in which increasing numbers of educators are clamoring for more computers and academic acceleration, Waldorf educators remain unapologetically contrarian, playing the tortoise to the hare. They insist that children pushed into adulthood are, figuratively speaking, likely to injure themselves in a serious fall. “It’s important not to awaken children before their time, to resist the temptation to have them thinking too much,” kindergarten teacher Linda Fasciani says as her students dance around a brightly festooned maypole. “Trying to get them to do things before they’re ready is self-defeating. It makes them feel that they can’t do things for which, in truth, they’re simply not ready.”

To a large extent, a Waldorf education is about having students, especially very young ones, imitate actions that have practical, aesthetic, and spiritual worth. Consequently, kindergartners at Pine Hill and other Waldorf schools spend a lot of time with the domestic arts--cooking, baking, and cleaning alongside their teachers.

The belief that children need to be protected from adult concerns, that they must not be asked to dwell upon that for which they cannot be ready, is common among Pine Hill teachers. Barbara Thorngren, a Pine Hill alumnus and 5th-grade teacher, says she was appalled by the “terrible materials” children at other schools brought home--weekly readers that convey news of aids, natural disasters, climbing divorce rates, and the like. “There’s enough doom and gloom in today’s world as it is,” Thorngren says, “and to give them more of it, to expose them to terrible things they can as yet do nothing about, is to instill in them a feeling of ‘what’s the use.’ Instead of doom and gloom, we instill a reverence for the world and the human being. We believe in a Higher Being, and so we sing songs about God and the earth.”

Thorngren offers as an example a field trip her class had taken to Cape Cod as part of a botany lesson. “We looked at the lichen, plankton, and ferns, talked about what you could eat and not eat, about how you could take a seed and make it grow. It wasn’t just about scientific knowledge but about awareness, opening up the senses. There has to be a sense of magic, of mystery, no matter how scientific you get.”

Thorngren made it clear that shielding children from painful realities does not mean promoting blissful ignorance. Children are, in fact, confronted with human dilemmas and the nature of suffering. But this, she says, should not be done with apocalyptic news reports that engender only a sense of futility but rather with literature--with fables, myths, poems, histories, biographies, and the like--that present the difficulties of human life in terms of an inspiring challenge as opposed to an inevitable disaster. “Students can worry about changing the world later, when they’re in high school and college,” Thorngren says. “And many of ours do just that because they feel a reverence and connectedness with the world that makes them want to take responsibility for it.”

Thorngren uses herself as an example. Once, while working for a community-health organization, she went before a powerful Washington committee to lobby on behalf of AIDS patients, even though a lot of her colleagues said, “You can’t do that.” Her intent was not to boast, but to make a point: “As a Waldorf graduate, you’re not devastated, mortified by problems,” she says. “You’re not immobilized by despair, and that empowers you to take almost anything on.”

Halfway across the country in Wisconsin is the Milwaukee Urban Waldorf School--one of only a handful of Waldorf public schools. Mark and Laura Birdsall, longtime Pine Hill teachers, came to the Midwest two years ago to teach at the inner-city school. Milwaukee is a long way from rural New Hampshire, but the Birdsalls insist that the Waldorf philosophy works with urban students just as it does with rural New Englanders.

The main difference between the Pine Hill students and those in Milwaukee, they say, has to do with the issue of exposure to life’s harsh realities. Some of the Milwaukee children have witnessed and endured so much suffering and violence that they have been compelled to grow up far too quickly; it is necessary to help them reclaim their childhood. This can be done, the Birdsalls believe, only if the teacher fully earns the student’s trust. Only children who feel protected can reclaim for themselves the openhearted exuberance that rightfully defines the child’s nature.

The issue of exposure and overexposure comes up time and again in conversation with Waldorf teachers. And the Birdsalls offer parents a bit of advice: Get rid of your television. It can do no one any good, and as long as it’s around, children will put interminable pressure on their parents for the right to watch it. Television exposes children to all kinds of ugly banalities when they need instead room to explore and create. If parents turn it off, turn it off for good, they say, children will quickly find a way through boredom. You as a parent don’t have to entertain them, they say. All you have to do is point them in the right direction, and they’ll undertake all kinds of amazing projects and activities.

As if to exemplify this point, Laura Birdsall displays a beautifully formed pot her daughter Rachel made while attending High Mowing, the Waldorf high school across the street from Pine Hill. “Of my three daughters, Rachel is the most intellectual, but her education kept her from being extreme in that direction so that she could create things like this--things that bring into play willing, feeling, and thinking. Now, everywhere my daughter goes, people tell her how brilliant she is, that they’re amazed by all the creative talents she has. And my daughter just shrugs her shoulders and laughs because she doesn’t think she’s brilliant at all. It’s just that her education has given her a broad background and certain inclinations that other people were not so fortunate to get.”

Her comments about the creative capabilities of Waldorf students echo those of Andrew Tempelman, a New Hampshire innkeeper who had sent his son to Pine Hill before transferring him, in the middle school years, to a public school with a specialty science program. It was a decision he regretted, at least in one respect.

“The music the children played at Pine Hill just took your breath away--it was so beautiful, so moving,” Tempelman says. “But everything was different at the other school. Once we went to a band concert there at which they performed a popular Edvard Grieg piece, a piece we had once heard performed at a Pine Hill concert. But the Pine Hill kids had played it with real vitality; when these other kids played it, the music sounded like that TV commercial--that Sudafed commercial!”

With these last words, Tempelman strikes his fist on the counter top. Surprisingly, there are tears in his eyes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1995 edition of Education Week as A School With Balance


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