I remember when my son was in second grade and other parents in his class were so worried about reading. The students didn’t yet know how to read, and the parents wondered whether Waldorf education would actually prepare their children for success in life. I felt so lucky because I didn’t have any of those worries. I’d been through the education, and I’d watched my students go through the education, and I knew without doubt that this was the best possible education my son could have. I also learned as a parent that children don’t tell us everything that happens in the classroom, so how could my fellow parents possibly know how amazing this education is? This is why I’ve agreed to share my story—with the hope that these reflections from my experiences as a student, teacher, parent, and administrator can help you understand what makes this education so amazing.
Prior to first grade I had attended a public kindergarten. I have distinct memories from public school of the recorded bugle announcing the start of school, and of worksheets that had stick figure type drawings of incomplete pictures for which I was to figure out what was missing and draw in the rest. We all sat alone with our multi-page worksheets and lead pencils, adding the missing handle to the scissors, or the missing leg on the table. I also had to memorize standardized reading flashcards.
And then I entered the magical land of first grade in the Honolulu Waldorf School, where our mornings began with singing, clapping, and stomping followed by the most magical stories about miserly and thin Mr. Minus who always made things less by taking them. But then large, boisterous and immensely generous Mrs. Multiplication would come in and, with a touch of her wand, things would double and triple, and everyone would celebrate. Later, with a lit candle, we would listen to stories of children having adventures in nature while we shaped foxes from orange beeswax. And towards the end of the day my teacher would sing, “the painting fairies love silence and color and calm,” and he would lay thick wet paper on each of our boards. Sounds of amazement and excitement would echo through the classroom as we watched the mysterious dance of the paint colors as they spread into each other creating new colors. As I think back, the stories of fairies and children in the woods are enmeshed with memories of forts in the playground bushes where I think the fairies and various animals joined us.
By skillfully blending magical beings, animals, nature, academics, and humans together through the mediums of stories, songs, drawings and paintings, I believe that my teacher created a oneness amongst these things that has nurtured me since then. The feelings the animals had were just as real and important as the human characters. The unique shape and color of each item on our nature table was as deserving of recognition and appreciation as the art we created in our books. The way that numbers created patterns or letters combined to make new sounds was just as magical as the wizards and fairies. Everything, real and imaginary, had beauty, mystery, magic, and value, and everything seemed possible.
These same principles remained true through the grades. As we moved past Mr. Minus, we found the fractions were hidden in the pie we baked, or the piece of lumber we measured to build a pigeon coop. In the 3rd grade garden we learned that we had magic and power in our own hands to transform seeds into tomato or corn plants and churn cream into butter. Perhaps the mystery of where our food came from went away, but the magic of the process did not.
In fourth grade, the animals we loved as our friends became our research topics, and reading books about the octopus was like reading my friend’s biography and realizing there was so much I didn’t known about them! It was also fourth grade where my love of world cultures really began to blossom, first with the outlandish characters of the Norse gods, and then the more serious Hawaiian gods, and in later years Greek, Hindu, Native American, Islamic, and so many more! It wasn’t a conscious thought then, but in hindsight I felt inspired to find so many ways of understanding the spiritual world which was so interwoven with nature, humans, and art. For me this instilled an interest, familiarity and comfort with things that were very different from my own way of living. Everything we learned about was made into a hands-on experience that we could call our own, and from that point forward we felt a connection with that culture.
As we grew older we explored not just cultures, but real historical figures, and again, through story and hands-on activities we were transported to the Renaissance where we joined Leonardo de Vinci in watching birds take off and land and then sketching the movements we saw in their muscles and wing angles. And we laughed and worried when we learned that some of his art would eventually disappear because his constant drive to experiment meant that some of the paint he created was decomposing. Through our teacher’s stories we built relationships with each person in history. We never wanted to miss school, even when we were sick, because our teacher had a knack for cliff-hangers—he would stop each day’s story right before something new was to be uncovered, and we couldn’t wait to get back the next day for the next chapter of Joan of Arc’s story, or Thomas Jefferson’s story, or Ghandi’s story.
Science was just as much a part of the magic as anything else. Stories of nature turned to detailed observations and drawings in 5th grade botany, and study of prism colors in our blacked-out classroom in 6th grade. We watched sound waves appear as patterns in salt when our teacher dragged our violin bow across a metal plate. In 7th and 8th grade I designed a mouse trap with pulleys and levers; we took a trip to the shoreline to see the geological layers of the earth; we watched what happened to various substances as our teacher held them to a flame. Nature, transformation, awe and curiosity—that’s what science and everything else was for me in Waldorf.
And then my time at Waldorf came to an end. Our school did not yet have a high school.
Several of us chose to attend a private, college prep school that was known for its strong arts program. What I soon discovered was that, although the art curriculum was very diverse and of high quality, I was only allowed to take one art class during my seven-period day. So I could have clay in my life, or I could draw, or I could play music, but I couldn’t do more than one thing per year. Our academic classes were taught by caring and skilled teachers and usually included interesting topics, but almost everything that we took in and knowledge we expressed through assignments was done via worksheets, essays and tests. Space was rarely given for us to act out scenes from history or literature, to draw or write poetry about what we saw in the science lab, to build models of historical scenes or go outside and see the connections to nature. It felt like I had gone from participating in a live, colorful musical to passively watching a silent, black and white film. Or you may say that my learning diet was reduced to just carbs with very little flavor, texture or nourishment. This richness was replaced with competition around grades and college entrance. My Waldorf peers and I all experienced the stress of this in different ways, and yet most everyone, including myself, earned honors and awards throughout high school.
I attribute my success in high school and later in college to the deeply rooted love of learning that Waldorf had planted in me. I was predisposed to be curious and see things as interesting, even when the material wasn’t brought creatively by the teacher. I felt comfortable talking to my teachers and asking questions in class. Even when I knew I could get away with doing less, I did more because I enjoyed discovering new perspectives, I enjoyed the process, and I enjoyed expressing my thoughts on a topic. I’ve heard Waldorf alums joke that they found other Waldorf alums at their college because they were the two people in class asking questions and sharing their perspectives with the teacher.
One of the main reasons I came back to Waldorf as an adult was because I remembered how enjoyable learning and life had been when I attended Waldorf. Even as a college graduate it was clear to me that that foundation had propelled me through the academic and social challenges of high school and college. I also knew from my education outside of Waldorf that what set me and my Waldorf peers apart from other students was our close relationship with teachers, our insistence on making learning meaningful for ourselves, our inclination to work collaboratively with our peers, and our ability to see the connections between ideas, between subjects and between the class material and life. I wanted to be a part of giving those same gifts to more people.
Shanti McCarter is currently the Interim School Chair of Portland Waldorf School, and the parent of a PWHS 10th grader. She has also been a Waldorf student and a Waldorf teacher. This is the first installment of a three part series wherein she has graciously agreed to share some of the insights she has gathered from these various relationships with Waldorf education… stay tuned for “Teacher” and “Parent” coming next…