A few months ago, as part of the Academy for the Love of Learning's efforts to push the education envelope in Santa Fe [cover story, March 14: "Localize This!: Stop the Experiment"], I visited a little charter school in Sebastopol, Calif. I was led into a sunny third-grade classroom where 30 or so children wrote quietly at wooden desks while a schoolmarmish teacher stood at the chalkboard. Then I was led into a sunny fourth-grade classroom where 30 or so children wrote quietly at wooden desks while a schoolmasterly teacher stood at the chalkboard. In both classrooms, ceramic drinking mugs hung from wooden pegs above the sink.
I rapped on a wall to make sure I wasn’t on the set of Little House on the Prairie.
I wasn't. I'd just entered the world of Waldorf education.
It was Aaron Stern, president and founder of the Academy, who suggested I look into the emerging national trend of Waldorf-inspired public charter schools, now 14,500 students strong. I knew almost nothing about it: Like most of my public school chums, I held vague associations with an artsy, Dungeons-and-Dragons-type place for the overprivileged.
To prepare for my visit, I read hundred-year-old lectures by the Austrian fellow who founded Waldorf, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher, architect, social reformer and clairvoyant who believed with startling certainty in reincarnation. Combining boundless intellectual energy with his esoteric spiritual understandings, he conjectured theories about nearly every field of human activity, from farming to medicine to art.
In 1919, as Europe groped forward from World War I, he put his theories on education to the test by founding a school for the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Steiner instructed his teachers to treat the students as if they were seeds, each carrying a unique karmic destiny. Teachers were to nurture the individual temperaments and talents of the children, and attempt to solve the riddle of why each had come into this world at this time.
This fascinating approach to education may be the main reason why there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide today, including some 50 publicly funded charters in the US. As modern research has revealed that children have multiple intelligences and are "hard-wired" to learn, Steiner's "see the child" pedagogy has become increasingly relevant, and the "one-size-fits-all" pedagogy of mainstream schools increasingly obsolete.
Those of us who work in non-Waldorf schools, of course, do everything we can to develop individual talents. But unlike our Waldorf colleagues, we're working against the historical grain of our institution, which is why public school teachers, students, administrators and parents often find themselves having to do things they don't feel are right.
Not so at the five Bay Area charter schools I visited in January. They were classic Waldorf: teacher-centered, wooden materials, student-made lesson books, a de-emphasis on reading and computers in the early years, and singing and knitting and story-telling galore. But what distinguishes these schools from any good public school is not so much what they are doing, but the atmosphere in which they are doing it. There is a shared sense of purpose, an overwhelming sense that everyone is on the same pedagogical quest.
I don’t know if Waldorf-inspired charter schools are a good fit for Santa Fe. It can’t hurt to see what we might learn from the private Waldorf school we do have. But the deeper lesson here is that the public Waldorf school movement offers hard evidence that change is possible in public education, that the outdated models dominating our schools are not as impenetrable as we might believe.
Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what “school” could someday be in Santa Fe. Seth Biderman is a graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe teacher and administrator.