What first impressed me were the colors. Even the bathroom is engaging and vibrant with walls painted a translucent rose-peach-blue with faint images of trees and angels. And colors are everywhere, from the bright blue of the stage in the auditorium, to hallways, and all of the classrooms.
Wilton, New Hampshire is the site of the Waldorf Teacher Training Program Intensive, a summer institute for Waldorf educators run annually by Antioch University New England (ANE). Here, in a peaceful and rural campus are two Waldorf schools: The High Mowing High School and the Pine Hill Elementary School. It is a place that inspires contemplation and refection. Experienced and novice educators from throughout the United States attend this intensive, three-week annual session.
The Master of Education (MEd) with Waldorf Elementary Specialization is a 40-credit program; the Waldorf certificate program is 28 credits. Regardless of which program students are enrolled in, they begin their studies during this three-week intensive program. Summer sequence students attend three sequential July intensives (the next sequence begins in 2008), with the remaining course work done from their homes. Year-round students attend two sequential July intensives, with the remaining coursework completed two-three days a week at the ANE campus in Keene.
Torin Finser, PhD, has directed both the Waldorf Teacher Education Program at ANE since 1990 as well as ANE’s Waldorf Summer Institute in Wilton. Both of his parents, his grandmother, and his wife are, or were, intimately and actively involved in Waldorf education. Finser attended the first Waldorf school in the United States, which is located in New York City (founded in 1928). Finser has taught in Waldorf schools, consults, and lectures throughout the world, and, has written five books that examine Waldorf philosophy, implementation, and implications from often innovative perspectives. He is very clearly, and convincingly, a man with a steadfast devotion and commitment to education, the child, and a life that acknowledges and celebrates all facets of an individual as revealed by the mind, body, and spirit.
Rudolf Steiner (1861—1925), the Austrian founder of the Waldorf movement, established three “golden rules” that lie at the core of all Waldorf teaching: “to receive the child in gratitude from the world it comes from; to educate the child with love; and to lead the child into the true freedom which belongs to man.”
From this central axis radiates out an educational philosophy and curriculum that is child-centered with play as a guiding force. The natural world, art, music, and a deep and abiding sense of community weave through Waldorf schools.
During a July morning on the deep blue stage in Wilton, with two large abstract bluish-green paintings high on the walls, speakers and students speak of the great treasures inherent within their lives, as educators and as individuals. There is music, dancing, singing, and purple scarves are given to graduates from the program (a tradition that dates back to 1982 and the first ANE graduates). Colors are very important within Waldorf education, the color purple signifies a seriousness of purpose.
In Waldorf education the child remains firmly and steadfastly at the philosophical center. Torin Finser comments that the job of a Waldorf teacher is to “follow the child.” There is a reverence, bordering on awe, for childhood and its stages. Creativity, enthusiasm, and idealism are guiding forces with a belief that imagination is, or should be, nurtured and cultivated. The goal is to”awaken the spiritual kernel” that resides within everyone and is felt to be particularly clear and evident during the years of childhood.
The energy is high and the spirits of participants bright during these three weeks in July. The culminating presentations by the students all acknowledge the enduring power of myths, storytelling, humor, music, and art. There is a synchronicity within this group that sparkles with excitement, hope, and gratitude for having the opportunity to be both brought together and to be educators.
A young Waldorf elementary school teacher speaks of a story, a myth actually, she created to empower one of her first-grade students who felt excluded from the class. Through the telling of her story, Sir Oyster Ears, the young child became aware of his gifts and his contributions to his class. Another participant speaks of how she has dealt with provocative student behavior using humor. The thread that is consistent throughout the presentations is the ongoing joy of being alive.
“It is absolutely essential that before we so much as begin to set our thinking in motion, we experience the condition of wonder,” describes Rudolf Steiner.
This sense of wonder permeates deeply into what it means to be an effective Waldorf teacher. For it is the teacher who models for the child, as surely as parents do, a sense of what is possible. Though Waldorf education is not a religious education, in the sense of teaching a religion, children are encouraged to view themselves as a part of a greater universe, one in which a creator plays a crucial role.
“A sense of spiritual submission prepares us to meet what comes out of the future. Teachers and parents live in a perpetual state of anticipation of the unexpected. Children by their very nature defy predictability! Instead of living in fear and anxiety; when we live with and cultivate the imponderables in the inner life, we find that we gradually learn to meet everything that comes to us with new certainty, hope, and personality-generated confidence,” Torin Finser, from School Renewal: A Spiritual Journey for Change, 2001.
In Waldorf education colors are seen as possessing healing qualities; the influence of different colors on soul, mood, and temperament is woven into the day-to-day life of a Waldorf classroom. Thin layers of paint are applied to walls, in a technique called Lazure painting, that form a luminosity and depth that is continually changing as the light alters. The colors appear to permeate the walls, to almost breath, creating environments that are peaceful and conducive to an openness of mind and spirit. And to visit a Waldorf class is an aesthetic and visceral experience.
“The school celebrates various holidays in a traditional, almost ancient, sort of way in which color does seem important. Children are discouraged from wearing bright, wild colors to school so as to promote a more peaceful atmosphere,” states Sherman Morrison, a parent of a Waldorf preschooler.
Morrison goes on to say, “My daughter loves being in a Waldorf school. She loves her teacher, she loves going on walks in the woods. She loves storytime. She loves everything. The most important element, by far, is that the children are allowed to play rather than being pushed into a prepared academic agenda. They just let children be children; it is very gentle.”
There is in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, and in the entirety of Waldorf education philosophy, a reverence towards life and the supposition that creativity is a key force in the evolution of the child. Music, art, theatre, dance, woodworking, and knitting, are daily activities in a Waldorf classroom. They are not pullout activities for an hour here and there. Rather they link together all aspects, of education and by extension, life.
“One thing has remained with me above all-how little I did as a person, and how much came about through the children in my care, and through their efforts. The more I learned to know them the more I realized that they were constantly teaching me. The heavy baggage of material knowledge that adults possess did not encumber them. They seemed to have resources that were fresh, inspired, and full of star wisdom. My best moments were those in which I was truly open to what children had to teach me. For that I am deeply grateful,” concludes Torin Finser, School as a Journey, 1994.
Gratitude and bedazzlement do appear linked together in Waldorf pedagogy. In an age of testing, state standards, regimented classroom learning sequences, and teachers who insist on strict adherence to schedules, the promise of a Waldorf education is engaging and intriguing. The well of possibilities is deep and open-ended.
ANE graduate Ted Curtin, a Waldorf teacher on Cape Cod, states this eloquently, “My own experience in the classroom shows me on a daily basis how an artistic approach to any and all subjects creates a deeply felt connection to the experience of learning, both for the children and for the teachers. Young people especially live so strongly in the experience of their feelings, that the arts are a natural tool for both experiencing and expressing the life of the feelings. Through the arts the full range of human emotions can be tapped in order to make the experience of the world as rich and alive, as beautiful and true, as possible.”