Monday, March 17, 2008

Waldorf... It's not just a yucky salad made with apples and mayo...

I have been substitute teaching at our local "Waldorf based," public charter school. I had applied for a non-teaching job at this school last fall in an effort to make some extra money while simultaneously learning something about the public schools here in Los Angeles. When they called me a couple of months ago, the conversation went something like this:

Office Manager: Hi Julie, we are wondering if you are still interested in working at our school?
Me: Yes, of course.
OM: Great, we would like you to be one of our substitute teachers.
Me: I am definitely not qualified for that.
OM: Did you graduate from college?
Me: Yes.
OM: You're qualified. We'd like you to start immediately.

What goes on in the LA public school district that they are ready to hire someone like me? These must be desperate times. Granted, I do have lots of tutoring experience, but a room full of first graders? God help us all. Truth be told, I was wondering if the school system had some sort of secret arrangement with the local adoption agency. I imagined a subversive conversation between the two...

School District Person (to adoption agency professional): Okay, when you get all those finger prints back, please forward the people who passed to our office. We need them to teach our children, and we need them to start tomorrow.

In actuality, I was fingerprinted a third time for the school. Is it normal to be on a first name basis with the finger-printing police officer in your neighborhood? Are people going to think I have a sketchy past when said officer sees me in the Trader Joe's and shouts out,"Hey Julie, how's it going? Are we going to see you at the station this week?"

The school is Waldorf based. I went to Montessori school. My mother owns and operates her own Montessori school. I had some preconceived notions of what Waldorf meant. I thought the philosophy was something like, "If you feel like climbing a tree right now, please by all means, go climb that tree." The more cynical side of me thought that it might be some Lord of the Flies type of scenario. I am sure my mom shuddered when she heard I was going to enter such an establishment. I have to admit, I feared for my life. Now for a disclaimer, I am just giving my observations on one school that is Waldorf based. I am not sure what this means exactly. I would be interested in observing a school that was a true Waldorf school. From what I can tell, the school where I am working is trying to have a Waldorf curriculum, while still following the rules and standards set by LA Unified. This is not an easy task.

Here are my impressions. Keep in mind that kids, for the most part, don't like substitute teachers. When they walk into a classroom they expect to see the same lovely person who leads them everyday, not some middle-aged, surly woman whose underarm flab flaps wildly as she writes something on the chalk board.

First Grade: This is the first group I taught. They were not happy to see me. The classroom was filled with Waldorfy accents; gnomes, wizards, candles, lavender spray etc. I brought the kids into circle. Here is where I learned something amazing about Waldorf kids; They could tell one hell of a story.

It was like something out of Chaucer. I have never been more enthralled by a tale. A tow-headed girl, (we'll call her Laura) began talking when it was her turn in the circle. I had just asked them to each say their name and to tell me something about themselves, briefly. Remember it was my first day and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Laura: Well it all began one day at the beach...
The Other first Graders in the circle: Oh Laura, we heard it before ha, ha ha.
There was a gentle ribbing by the other kids, you could almost hear the clinking of their beer steins as they continued regaling each other.
Laura continued: There was a man. He was lying on his beach towel. There was a crab...
First graders: Oh, no Laura! Not again. Don't forget the best part!

They had all heard the story before. It was basically a story about a guy, on vacation, falling asleep on his beach towel, getting a visit from a crab and shaking said crab off his towel.
Well, you would have thought it was The Odyssey. Laura told this story with such fervor and wild imagination that I became dumbfounded. This seven year old had constructed a tale with prologue, climax, denouement and conclusion. I have never seen anything like it. It was fantastic. During the story, except for a gentle ribbing or," Oh no not again! " from the crowd, these classmates were completely respectful of Laura. They sat with their eyes focused on her. There they were, her cheerful compatriots full of support and wonder. Wow, I thought, there is really something to this Waldorf stuff.

There is definitely something to be said for this type of education. I love the fact that these kids have to sign a "no media" contract. During the school week, these kids are asked to eschew all television, video games, computers etc. They are asked not to wear logos of any kind on their clothing. It is really refreshing to be around a bunch of kids who are not covered head to toe in Dora the Explorer (not that there is anything wrong with that). These kids are highly imaginative, and I have to believe it has something to do with the fact that instead of watching stories, they are creating their own stories. Of course there is the occasional second grader who says, " Miss Julie, Spiderwick is also a book so we are allowed to discuss it."

Another thing that is enviable in this school is the class size. There are only about twenty kids in the class. The kids study two languages, Japanese and Spanish. They do Handwork, (primarily knitting) and have music and movement classes. Having any kind of arts program in a Los Angeles public school is a huge plus.

More later...


  1. You had me at Waldorf.....I clicked onto your blog from another blog (straightmagic perhaps?) and saw this post. I'm a waldorf alumni and current parent. My sister is living in LA and has been looking at local waldorf and waldorf-charter schools for her daughter. What a small world! Waldorf doesn't work for everyone, and its no where near perfect. Like all educational systems there are things about it I do not like. But there is so much I do like about it. Not having the media play center stage at home is amazingly refreshing. No constant TV in the living room or bedrooms. Boys and girls actually stay friends into grade school. Anyway, I was just thrilled to see the topic brought up on another blog. I am definately linking to you :)

  2. If you look it up on Wikipedia you'll get more info than you were bargaining for...
    While I grew up in Germany I knew several Waldorf scholars. Frankly, i was quite envious of the things they got to do. But as we grew older the question arose often: are these youngsters up to the real world. I remember that they always needed things quiet; they expected politeness and dealt badly with rudeness - not prepared.
    In the end I believe it depends on a child's need whether or not you would send him to such a school. A highly creative, sensitive kid probably gains more from that education than a technical minded one (of course, this is a generalization)
    What seems to go unaddressed here in my very favorite country in all the world is the education of the teachers. Waldorf schools were founded in a country where teaching has been the work extremely trained personnel. A German elementary school teacher does not enter a classroom until he/she has spent at least 6 years of a very specific child oriented training in a major university. Teathers there are paid accordingly, and have to use their long vacation time to further their learning. (None of them would dream of taking a second job over the summer!)

  3. I found your blog through a search for Waldorf class rooms. I wanted to say thanks for your rather unbiased opinion even after admitting that you were Montessori raised. Thanks! We are in the process of starting our own Waldorf Charter School in Alaska. Now I am going to go find out if you have adopted your kids yet!