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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Waldorf-Inspired Public Schools Are on the Rise

The John Morse Waldorf Methods School, in Sacramento, California, provides a different vision of education, complete with art, music, and movement.
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

VIDEO: Waldorf's Integrated Way of Learning

Running Time: 2:46 min.

Editor's Note: In the fall of 2010, John Morse Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School moved to a new building and changed its name to Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School. Principal Cheryl Eining has also retired.

Barbara Warren always thought she was meant to be a teacher, but after a decade working in a low-income elementary school in Sacramento, California, she was just about ready to quit.

Right around the same time, however, the school district decided to convert the school to a Waldorf magnet program. So, instead of giving up, she began a three-year teacher-training program at the nearby Rudolf Steiner College. "It was a lifesaver for me," says Warren. "I found the missing element. I didn't just have to teach curriculum anymore; I got to teach children."

Though the district's initial conversion plans met with resistance from some parents and teachers at the school, Warren continued on the Waldorf path and completed her courses. During the training, she and eight other teachers from her original school branched off to found the John Morse Waldorf Methods School, which opened in a residential neighborhood of Sacramento in 1997.

This K-8 school, one of the first public schools inspired by Waldorf methods, infuses music, art, and movement into lessons and offers student-directed learning and what public schools refer to as looping, a process in which a teacher follows her class, ideally, from first grade through eighth grade.

More than 12 years later, despite budget cuts and possible public school closures in its district, John Morse is flourishing. The program, which district administrators praise as one worth replicating, is engaged in a growth plan supported by local parents, many of whom are looking for an alternative to traditional public education.

Growing with Waldorf

The Waldorf approach to education began in 1919 in Germany, when the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory asked esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner to start a school for the workers' children. Today, there are a thousand Waldorf schools in 91 countries, including 159 in the United States, where Waldorf's growth has been particularly vigorous.

Traditional Waldorf schools are private, but the number of public schools inspired by Steiner's methods is growing, fueled in part by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the charter school movement. In the United States, there are about 44 Waldorf-inspired public schools, most of them K-8 charter schools located in the West.

NCLB requirements mandate that students test at grade level in reading and math, which can result in schools reducing the amount of class time dedicated to art. But Waldorf methods, in sharp contrast to traditional public education, encourage a learning pace dictated by the students themselves and an integration of the arts into lessons.

Despite growing interest and support for public schools based on Waldorf approaches, the movement has its detractors. A spiritual dimension to the Waldorf philosophy has sparked debate -- and inspired at least one lawsuit -- alleging the potential inclusion of religion in the schools.

The philosophy derives from Steiner's idea called anthroposophy, which includes the concept of an unseen world complete with angels hovering above daily life (and the classroom), as well as a commitment to developing the inner self in order to serve the community. Waldorf-inspired public schools, however, don't teach the students anthroposophy, nor do they incorporate spiritual practice into the curriculum.

Yet, even parents familiar with the controversy are drawn to the schools' unique approach to teaching and learning. The John Morse school, which was named in an ongoing lawsuit against the district alleging that religion was taught in the classroom, still boasts wait lists for every grade level. And as Waldorf methods have become more accessible and better understood, more teachers have joined charter schools specifically inspired by Waldorf methods or have adopted some of its approaches for their own classrooms within traditional public schools.

"Waldorf education is becoming contagious," says Betty Staley, a veteran Waldorf educator who has trained public school teachers at Rudolf Steiner College. "A lot of people feel there's got to be another way in education."

How Waldorf Works

John Morse teacher Barbara Warren, who taught first grade last year, starts each school day with the same routine: She shakes each student's hand and makes eye contact with every child before he or she enters class. On a recent spring morning, she asked a few kids about missing teeth, then spent some time calming a nervous student.

"All right," Warren says to the students once they have settled down. "Are we ready, my sweet ones?"

The typical Waldorf class begins with a main lesson that lasts up to two hours and is the most academic part of the day. In her first-grade classroom, Warren alternates between teaching about letters one month and numbers the next, an approach designed to build the students' long-term memory.

Many Ways to Learn:

A first grader draws a bee as part of a math lesson on the number six.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Every number and letter the students study has an associated poem, song, and movement. For example, as they learn about the number six, the first graders form a circle in the back of the class, and Warren draws a honeycomb (a six-sided hexagon) on the floor with chalk. She tells a story about a busy bee. The students then take turns walking around the chalk shape while the rest of the class shouts out multiples of six, all the way up to 72.

In the hallway, the same students talk about a beehive they have on campus. At seven years old, they're thoroughly interested in bees, and that interest fuels their lessons in math. The idea, according to the Waldorf method, is to reach children on their developmental levels while inspiring their imagination, rather than just facilitate rote memorization of multiplication tables.

There are no textbooks in this classroom. Instead, when the students are at their desks, they use lesson books they create and illustrate for each subject. In their math books, they've drawn images of bees with six legs. Later, they sit up at their desks and wave their hands to tell Warren they know the numbers that add up to 20.

Two hours into their math lesson, they are still focused and energetically on task.

The Right Time to Learn

Waldorf education divides childhood into three seven-year stages of development: The first stage, birth to seven years old, is imitation, when children are encouraged to learn through play and movement. The second stage of development, seven to 14 years, is imagination, when students learn through images, art, and stories. At this stage, when the students' emotions are thought to be developing, Waldorf practitioners believe that the stable relationship with one teacher is key. The third stage, from 14 to 21, is inspired thinking, when students become engaged intellectually and are encouraged to analyze information and think critically.

The Waldorf method suggests that teachers time their teaching to coincide with a child's readiness to learn. For instance, they teach writing before reading, which sometimes results in students starting to read as late as the third grade. "We hold back on intellectualizing the child until it's time," says sixth-grade teacher Chris Whetstone.

In "Learning from Rudolf Steiner: The Relevance of Waldorf Education for Urban Public School Reform," a study published in 2008 in the journal Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, researcher Ida Oberman concluded that the Waldorf approach successfully laid the groundwork for future academics by first engaging students through integrated arts lessons and strong relationships instead of preparing them for standardized tests.

In her assessment of four California public schools that use Waldorf methods, Oberman found that students tested below peers in language arts and math in the second grade, but they matched or tested above their peers in the same subjects by eighth grade. Observers note that second-grade students gain a love of learning through kid-friendly classroom activities that pay off academically in later grades. Oberman says John Morse has also successfully followed California state standards and trained and retained teachers at an impressive level.

Teacher as Family Member

Along with integration of the arts and sensitivity to each student's development, relationships are considered crucial to success in Waldorf education philosophy. Teachers rely heavily on the bond that evolves between them and their students as they move together from the first grade until the students graduate from eighth grade. During this time, students and their families have to work through conflicts with the assigned teacher, and even though such problems inevitably arise, it's uncommon for students to switch to another teacher.

At John Morse, Chris Whetstone has been with his current class for six years. He says that they have become like a family, making it possible for him to intervene early when interpersonal conflicts between students begin to brew. It also gives him an advantage as he works to develop each child's individual character. Parents describe it as a gift to have another adult who gets to know their children over many years and who becomes deeply involved in their development.

"Mr. Whetstone was the best teacher ever," says 22-year-old John Morse graduate Layal Maalouf. "I loved John Morse. Those still count as some of the best years of my life. I built a lasting foundation there."

More Start-Ups on the Way

Last September, the first public high school inspired by Waldorf, the George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, opened in Sacramento. A charter approved as part of the district's small-schools reform plan, Carver took over a failing high school in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city. Local children, along with students from John Morse and a private Waldorf school, make up the high school's student body. (There's also a private Waldorf high school in the area, which has allowed local students in the program to continue the traditional Waldorf education track from kindergarten to the end of high school.)

With a Rudolf Steiner teacher-training college in the area and many community parents familiar with Waldorf elementary schools, the new high school received early and enthusiastic support. Still, supporters and participants in the school consider Carver an experiment because adapting Waldorf methods to a public high school is uncharted territory for them.

In a near mirror image of the John Morse morning routine, teachers at Carver meet their students at the door each day, shake their hands, and look them in the eye. Teachers integrate the arts into the curriculum, and students create their own lesson books for each subject. Using the classic Waldorf developmental approach, students study drama in the ninth grade to reflect where they are emotionally.

Other methods used by Waldorf schools, such as looping and a daily centerpiece lesson, are not as practical in high school, so the teachers are interpreting these tactics even more broadly. George Washington Carver principal Allegra Alessandri, who worked for private Waldorf schools for 20 years, says they're adapting looping so that each student will have the same homeroom teacher for four years to create a lasting bond with that individual. In fall 2009, ninth- and tenth-grade students will start a two-year Waldorf core class that integrates subjects such as art history, poetry, art, drama, and gardening.

"What we're doing by taking Waldorf to the public sector is developing a reform movement," says Alessandri, who was a founder of the new high school. "We're changing the way the district looks at teaching and the way it looks at success."

Malaika Costello-Dougherty is a senior editor at Edutopia.

Go to "Waldorf Methods You Can Use in Your Classroom" and "Waldorf-Inspired Curriculum Materials."

The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America owns the registered service mark of Waldorf for educational services. The AWSNA maintains that its service mark should be used only in the name of schools, institutions, or organizations that have received express permission from AWSNA to represent themselves with Waldorf in their names or subtitles. Guidelines for affiliation with the AWSNA are available from the association.

Comments (40)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Leader's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If you would go back to the article that this string on comments is attached to, there is a very important point that no one should miss. The First Grade Teacher in the article Barbara Warren. She was a consultant at the Woodland Star Charter School in Sonoma prior to starting with her new group of children. She has taken one group of children from grades 1-8 and had another group that she had for part of the way through a cycle. If anyone wants to see the benefits of Waldorf Methods find these people who are adults now and see where they have landed. It will change the way you look at things.
Also, critical comments about grammar in this type of communication is a waste of time.
You may quibble as much as you wish about religion, but there is a huge difference between children being taught myth and fairytales to guide the spirit and the DIS-information that is still perpetuated in a regular public school.
If the kids at a regular public elementary school can be taught that Christopher Columbus was a hero and the Pilgrim and Native People sat down a to a peace meal with turkey and stuffing, and that the Boston Tea Party was the start of the Revolution etc etc. I wish I had been given pure myth rather than myths as facts when I went to school.
Stop being so stubborn and wake up. I am proud to be a parent involved in growing the little charter school so that Public Ed offers a choice to everyone. There is nothing religious about it. There is only room to grow, and create.

Let it go....

Fight against the serious imbalance of funding between schools and prisons in California.
The governator gave 7 billion to the prisons here, and 38 million to education.
If you want to quibble about details there is something to chew on...
PLANS should maybe find a new bone to pick.

S. Compton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The real reason for the apparent success of this school is found in their Enrollment Policy:

"Prospective students grades 4-8 must be ON OR ABOVE grade level as evidenced by the report card." (emphasis mine)

and....

"The final decision to enroll will be made jointly by parent, teacher and administrator and appropriate paperwork will be provided to parent."

Any school that can pick and choose those students they wish to "educate" is bound to be successful. Let's see how this school would fare given the average student population of a South Central Los Angeles classroom where a significant portion of the students and parents speak little English and many parents don't even care what their child did in school today.

Sarah Wollheim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We had our children attending a private Waldorf school in Maine, but with my husband being a public school teacher the prospect of affording to continue was bleak. We moved across the country in order for our children to attend a tuition free charter Waldorf school (like the John Morse School) in Arizona. My husband happened to be offered a job at the school and went for Waldorf training. Many of the students here are able to get a free Waldorf education that could never afford one. There is a large percentage that qualifies for Title One.

Our new charter Waldorf school is wonderful, but we are facing some problems. My husband is being paid near below poverty level to work there and all the teachers had to take a %5 pay cut and a reduction in benefits on top of their terrible salary. Charter schools do not receive the same funding as public schools. We also have too many students for the space at the school and have had to make many concessions and turn students away. I was wondering if there was anyone out there who knew of grants or donors that were willing to help this Waldorf school continue to grow? We almost doubled our student body this year and would like to continue offering this wonderful style of education to everyone.

Vickie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your comment questioning the Waldorf approach for reading intervention is a good one, and this should also exist for math as well in any school. The question begs for information about the benchmarks for reading and math that are set into the Waldorf approach. My guess, knowing nothing, is that they are flexible, as the Waldorf inherently treats children as individuals, each with their own way of learning. This is its strength.

RTI, or Response to Intervention, the current buzzword for reading interventions that are now being designed into curriculum, adheres to benchmarks that guide what we expect from our children. Unfortunately, this does not allow for the individual developmental differences of our children, but as teachers, we need some kind of standard to guide us.

As an special education resource room teacher in one of the lowest performing, poorest, urban schools in Massachusetts, I have a deep background in remediating reading. I can tell you that motivation, building a love for learning, curiosity, and a desire to read is what makes my students succeed. I can teach them phonics and reading comprehension strategies forever, but they won't retain them or use them unless they care about what they are learning and read independently by choice. And that is what Waldorf schools do far better than what I am seeing in most public schools today. And for a few students, they need hundreds of hours of private tutoring to overcome reading disabilities, which public schools do not provide.

In critiquing the various educational philosophies upon which to base the structure of a school's curriculum, including Waldorf's, I am hoping that it can be understood that the best schools borrow from them all, including Waldorf schools, and that what each child ends up receiving, educationally, is highly dependent upon the quality of the individual teacher.

Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Vickie, you wrote: "the Waldorf inherently treats children as individuals, each with their own way of learning. This is its strength."

Where did you get that idea?

-Dan Dugan
Secretary, PLANS, Inc.

amy leader's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

[quote]Vickie, you wrote: "the Waldorf inherently treats children as individuals, each with their own way of learning. This is its strength."Where did you get that idea?-Dan DuganSecretary, PLANS, Inc.[/quote]

What gives you the ideas that children are not treated as individuals? My son is a full inclusion special ed student. He was born with spina bifida. Woodland Star Charter has treated him as an individual, his teacher has been nothing short of flexible with modifications. The Waldorf methods have been excellent for him. When he was in the local public elementary school, his third grade teacher gave up on him and called him a failure. None of the children were individual everyone was expected to have the same benchmark.

Now as a grade 7 student he is doing grade level work and is interested and the best part of all is how wonderful it is to overhear him talking to an adult about information that he learned two years ago in the chartered Waldorf school. He was explaining how farming was done on the Nile in ancient Egypt! To me this is proof of learning. This is what education is, and nothing should be ruled out if it works.

Do you know children who had Waldorf education that are total failures? Brainwashed empty-headed zombies? What? What is the problem with it? What makes one so totally against this?

Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

[quote]Quote:.
What gives you the ideas that children are not treated as individuals? [/quote]

Rudolf Steiner's lectures and writings, and the publications of the Waldorf movement since then.

[quote]My son is a full inclusion special ed student. He was born with spina bifida. Woodland Star Charter has treated him as an individual, his teacher has been nothing short of flexible with modifications. The Waldorf methods have been excellent for him. When he was in the local public elementary school, his third grade teacher gave up on him and called him a failure. None of the children were individual everyone was expected to have the same benchmark.
Now as a grade 7 student he is doing grade level work and is interested and the best part of all is how wonderful it is to overhear him talking to an adult about information that he learned two years ago in the chartered Waldorf school. He was explaining how farming was done on the Nile in ancient Egypt! To me this is proof of learning. This is what education is, and nothing should be ruled out if it works.[/quote]

It's great you've found a better teacher. I'd just like to point out that it's the teacher who's responsible for the flexibility, not the Waldorf system, which is quite rigid.

[quote]Do you know children who had Waldorf education that are total failures? Brainwashed empty-headed zombies? What? [/quote]

Well, yes, PLANS has heard many reports of kids who've come out of Waldorf way, way behind.

[quote]What is the problem with it? What makes one so totally against this?[/quote]

Ridiculous theory, incompetent teacher training.

JayBeeh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone who grew up in a public school system in the 80s or later with a ridiculous abundance of pointless standardized tests and who spent 90% of their time memorizing data, 9% of their time trying to get in and out of school without an injury, and 1% of their time actually learning has a right to be upset with any school system that perpetuates the same. Every public school in this country is subject to the whims of politicians who are more interested in votes than your child's education.

Anyone without an agenda can visit a Waldorf school and evaluate it for themselves. You can visit with Waldorf children and families. Decide for yourself if there's too much religion.

As for the agenda-ridden "opposition," I don't get the need for your arguments. Waldorf education may be *based* on what you consider a religion, but does that mean any sense of right and wrong taught in a public school amounts to teaching religion? And, if there are examples of Waldorf students who "come out way, way behind," what's the point since there are millions of students every year in the public system who "come out way, way behind."

Dan Dugan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

[quote]Anyone who grew up in a public school system in the 80s or later with a ridiculous abundance of pointless standardized tests and who spent 90% of their time memorizing data, 9% of their time trying to get in and out of school without an injury, and 1% of their time actually learning has a right to be upset with any school system that perpetuates the same. Every public school in this country is subject to the whims of politicians who are more interested in votes than your child's education.[/quote]
I'm glad most public schools aren't as bad as your example. I think most parents come to Waldorf for what it doesn't do (testing, immunizations, etc.). They don't know what it really does.
[quote]Anyone without an agenda can visit a Waldorf school and evaluate it for themselves. You can visit with Waldorf children and families. Decide for yourself if there's too much religion.[/quote]
I hope they will understand that the school will have all the answers they expect to hear ready for them, and many of them will be deceptive. They've practiced that for a hundred years and they're really good at it.
[quote]As for the agenda-ridden "opposition," I don't get the need for your arguments. Waldorf education may be *based* on what you consider a religion, but does that mean any sense of right and wrong taught in a public school amounts to teaching religion? [/quote]
Another straw man argument. I expect public schools to teach ethics, and that's not religion. Many people don't want to pay for other people's religions. I don't want to pay taxes for Christian academies, Islamic madrassas, or Waldorf schools.
[quote]And, if there are examples of Waldorf students who "come out way, way behind," what's the point since there are millions of students every year in the public system who "come out way, way behind."[/quote]
But in Waldorf it's intentional. Did you know that Steiner taught that it was harmful to teach reasoning, cause-and-effect logic, before puberty? Fortunately, good teachers don't follow all Steiner's "indications," but most Waldorf schools, public and private, seem to end up being governed by the most doctrinaire teachers.

David's picture

It is nice to see that Edutopia allows a good open discussion of this topic. This really helps those interested to see all sides of the issue. Thank you!

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