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I began teaching using Waldorf methods in 1984. Starting with first grade, I continued teaching the same group of children until they graduated from eighth grade. That year a teacher left so I picked up her class in third grade and remained with them until their graduation, six years later. Then in 1998 I took a first grade once again. This was my third class. By the end of that year I had been teaching at the Waldorf School of Mendocino County for fifteen years. The following year I made a difficult decision to accept a position at the newly formed River Oak Charter School, a Waldorf methods school, which opened in the fall of 1999 in Ukiah.

River Oak is a public school using Waldorf methods. It was exciting to consider using Waldorf methods that had worked so well in the past in a public school setting. There was some concern that the Waldorf philosophy would be compromised by public school expectations and standards. My teaching style and curriculum content have not been greatly altered in the charter school, although there are necessarily accommodations to meet state requirements and standards.

Children today are awake earlier. They seem to be very self-possessed and self-confident in ways I haven’t seen before. Their vocabulary is much more expanded and they understand concepts that I would attribute to older children. I told a story to my second grade class this year and, as we were recalling the story on the following day, one student began to explain the meaning of the story. The depth of her interpretation was amazing.
It is understood that as part of the daily lesson, a Waldorf educator will tell a story. The following day the children recall the content of the story in some way. In this way, imagination is developed and the memory is trained. Many of the children in my current class are able to retell the story from the day before, or even weeks before, in graphic detail. They take the story into themselves in very personal ways.

Children who initially do not remember details benefit from the retelling by other students and eventually their own memories are strengthened. Each lesson is unique.
After taking two classes through the grades, I had a full understanding of the potential of teaching a Waldorf curriculum and decided to go through the entire process one more time. Of course, I’m still learning and finding stories and concepts that deepen my inner growth. I am delighted by the children’s responses to this education. I love the creative act of putting a lesson together. A Waldorf lesson works with the thinking, the feeling and the activity life of the child. Each lesson involves a creative act of forming the lesson and combining it with activities and artistic contributions. This is both demanding and inspiring for me. I love my relationship with the children. I am excited about each new developmental phase.

Each lesson is fresh. I don’t depend on what I did before. Each class of students asks for something different. I have to understand my class—who the children are and what their particular needs are. Those unique relationships with the children continue as the teacher travels up the grades with the class. Each year the teacher using the Waldorf model will prepare for a different grade. She must build a new curriculum each year, finding the stories, the poems, the movement exercises, new songs to sing and play on the flutes. The artistic and academic skills are integrated. This process is positively energizing.

Some parents bring their children to the school because they hear that the Waldorf method is good although they do not know much about it. What wins the parents’ confidence most is that they see happy children at the end of the day. Maybe one parent wants to bring the child to the school but the other is reluctant. I remember a dad who brought his child to school and he seemed a bit grumpy. Weeks later he mentioned to the teacher that he didn’t understand why, but his child liked coming to school. By the end of the year, this father was playing with the children on the playground and joyfully participating in the life of the school. Participation and understanding comes in stages for the parents and for the children as well. It is not uncommon that a child does not come to the school of his or her own free will. When parents choose the school and their child has been dragged away from friends and the familiar routines, the child may enter the classroom the first day reluctantly. Right away we are singing and reciting verses; we’re moving and drawing pictures. We are writing our own sentences and making a main lesson book, which is one of a kind. In the afternoon, we are playing active games. We are learning how to play a flute, a violin, or playing in the orchestra. We have handwork classes. A boy in second grade spontaneously said one day, “I like this school. We get to knit. I didn’t get to knit in my other school.” He had successfully made the change into his new school setting.

It’s wonderful when children don’t carry rigid gender stereotypes. Holding the needles and putting them in the right place, looping the yarn around and pulling it through and creating the knot—all this takes a steady hand and concentration. Then there is counting stitches and making patterns, increasing and decreasing. You can see how this may help with reading and arithmetic.

Typical Waldorf classroom with blackboard covering the week’s main lesson drawing.

In first and second grades, the children learn to knit. They make flute cases and animals. By third grade they will learn to crochet, and in fourth grade the children will create designs for a cross-stitch project. They make a grid drawing of a symmetrical pattern and then match the drawing with the cross-stitch. Think about the effort and activity in that! Imagine the confidence that the children develop when they see what they can do with their own hands. The results are beautiful.

Since a Waldorf teacher stays with the class for many years, I am often asked what would happen if I didn’t get along with a child. I have not found this to be a problem. I have disliked what a student does sometimes but that is not the same thing as disliking the child. It is possible to see through the behavior to something on the other side. The question is, why is that child behaving that way? It may be as simple as they didn’t have breakfast in the morning or didn’t have enough sleep. It may be something deeper, a physical, emotional, or constitutional reason. I remember observing a class some years ago with several children who were repeatedly falling off their chairs. It never failed to make the other students laugh. These children had found a clever way of drawing attention away from their own fear of not being able to do what the rest of the class was able to do.

If a child constantly interrupts or talks when you are giving directions, it’s irritating, but you don’t dislike the child because of it. Two minutes later that same child will be doing something else that is endearing. It is necessary to be thinking, “How am I going to work with this behavior so that this child learns how to be in the class and to function with the others in a way that benefits everyone.” Or “Why is that child irritating me right now? Is it because he is defying me?” From another point of view, there may be something going on in the class that is irritating the child!

Between eight and ten years old, instead of accepting everything that an adult has to say as the last word, children start to question authority. If you don’t know that is coming, it can be very disconcerting. If you do know it’s coming, you will think, “Oh, my gosh, that child is waking up to the world. He or she is asking questions.”

When I was participating in the Big Brother/Big Sister Program, I was matched with a child from Mayan ancestry. Everybody in her family had wide faces and wide noses. I have a small face and freckled nose. This girl came into my life just as she was going through this nine-year-old change. We were spending time together one day, and I noticed she was staring at me. I asked, “What is so interesting?” and she said, “Your nose is so small!” It wasn’t a compliment. From her perspective that was not the way noses should be. If you know that the observation is a sign of an awakening awareness, it is possible to be grateful that the child is noticing differences. No need to take offense.

In the classroom, if a child is lying, stealing, or doing some other anti-social behavior, it is possible to bring a pedagogical story to the whole class. Sometimes it is not necessary to single the child out. In the pedagogical story you might change the gender of the protagonist. Then tell the story in such a way that the situation is resolved in a positive way. Since it relates to that child’s problem, the child will receive the message on a very deep level. The story works on the child’s imagination to build up social forces.

Sometime between eight and ten years old (depending on the child’s personal unfolding) children wake up to the world and begin noticing things they didn’t see before. They may have the painful feeling of becoming separate. The child may no longer feel that harmonious oneness with the world. A child may feel she doesn’t belong to her parents and may ask them if they adopted her. This is the time when the children stop believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, gnomes and fairies—and when the world of the creative and fantastic is replaced by a more mundane world with “faults.” This is the beginning of the emerging individuality. Bringing stories that meet the child’s developmental needs is very helpful in getting through this stage. In the early days, what did humans have to learn to do to make their way in the world? The Waldorf curriculum provides the children with experiences in farming, cooking, weaving, carpentry, and other practical activities.

In the third grade, lessons in house building are introduced. These studies involve the children in math and measurement skills. Projects include planning and building improvements for the school and making models of different types of houses around the world.
Clothing studies introduce fibers and clothes from a variety of cultures. Practical activities include felting, spinning, dying and weaving. What do we have to do to provide food for ourselves? We take up the subject in a farming/food block of study. The children may go out to a farm and plant and irrigate and harvest. We also prepare foods in the classroom.

As the children mature there come new expectations and the education changes to meet the child’s developmental stage and their inner personal needs. The stories told in class are chosen to nurture them as they go through each growth crisis so they can make transitions without fear. They build up self-confidence. They can say to themself, “Look I can take care of myself. I can build a bench. I can build a playhouse.” It’s amazing to watch the children go from feeling the loss of that perfect world to feeling confident and capable.

Learning is very intellectual unless you also develop the feeling life and the will to actually do things out in the world. Everyday the rhythm of the lesson engages all three—the thinking, feeling and willing.

“The Waldorf curriculum provides the children with experiences in farming, cooking, weaving and carpentry, and other practical activities.” Children farming at Decatur Live Power Community Farm, Covelo, California.

When the children come to school in the morning, they will have some time to play in the schoolyard together before they enter the classroom. This gives them time to greet their friends, socialize and run around a little bit. A brass bell rings to signal the beginning of the school day. As the children come to the door of the classroom, the teacher shakes their hand and gives each one a personal greeting. “Good morning, Rebecca.” That child pauses in front of the teacher and shakes hands. In that moment of personal exchange, the teacher can assess the child’s mood and their health. She can notice if they have rosy cheeks or if they look pale. Do they have a running nose; is their hand clammy? You can tell a lot about a child in that moment. This exchange is brief but it’s important.

In my class, the children come in and put on indoor shoes, and move to their desks. The teacher then greets the class as a whole and the morning has begun. I like to have a few minutes of personal sharing at the beginning of the day. The children bring news from the outside.
“I’ve got a new kitten,” “I’m going fishing with my Dad.” Children bring in treasures they have found on trips such as shells, rocks, pine cones. These things stimulate conversation about the world. Then the morning lesson begins with opening verses recited chorally and movement activities.

I like to break up the day with verses and songs so that I am not giving commands all day long. I have a song to transition the children from sitting to standing. We do movements to warm up, to help the children get into their bodies and to work socially together. We say verses that inspire reverence for learning and seasonal songs and verses to connect them with the time of year.
Rhythmic movements may accompany specific learning: repetition of a times table goes along with a song or verse and physical movements so that the learning gets right into the limbs. Stepping the times tables is so much fun that the children don’t even know that they are learning. We do different movement patterns for each times table: for the twos they have sticks that they rhythmically click and pass. Some children pick up the time’s tables right away; those who are slower are carried by the group, and eventually they get it. One child who absolutely could not memorize times tables was able to sing the Frère Jacques tune repeating 3, 6, 9, 12—3, 6, 9, 12. He knew the tune and by adding these words, the learning became easy and enjoyable.


Main lesson takes place during a two-hour block of time in the morning. We recall the main lesson story from the day before and then tell the new part of the story or an entirely new one. I think it is important to emphasize that stories are told and not read. This makes them much more engaging and lively. In the telling you can make eye contact with the children and add parts that engage all the different children and their temperaments. If you see a phlegmatic child going off into a fantasy, you can bring her back to Earth by talking a little bit about food. You could add a description of a great feast talking about the smells and tastes of the food.

Speaking of temperaments is just a way of identifying a predominance of certain characteristics that a child may embody. The phlegmatic child is dreamy and possibly exhibits a lack of initiative initially. A choleric child is full of energy, initiative and self-confidence, but may be slightly aggressive. Sanguine children are very social and cheerful and also a bit distractible. They are the ones who want to do something one minute and two seconds later they are anxious to do something else. And, then, melancholic children are extremely serious or moody. If a storyteller addresses all these tendencies, she will really capture the children’s attention and interest. The phlegmatic becomes grounded when you talk about food, the sanguine likes the movement and change in the story and the choleric child likes conflict or challenges. For the melancholic child, you appeal to the feeling life. A good story will contain all these elements.

Using the Waldorf model, the main lesson is taught in a three-day rhythm. On the first day is the telling of the story by the teacher. The following day, the children recall and retell the story. This can be a verbal retelling or in the form of free rendering—as a drawing or construction—which gives the children an opportunity for creative expression. New information from the teacher is also added. On the third day, the child creates something, either in writing or drawing in the main lesson book. So, you have new learning on the first day but you don’t practice it on the day it is presented. The child has an opportunity to sleep on it. The second day there will be a practice activity. On the third day, something concrete goes, in a permanent form, into the main lesson book, the child’s self-made textbook. The children get used to that rhythm. By engaging the mind, feeling and action, the learning deepens and becomes part of the whole child.

The students are constantly processing concepts. This is different than just presenting information. Information is data, little bites of things, and not the whole. By taking two hours each day for the main lesson, the child has the necessary time to integrate the lesson. The art of teaching is the ability to present that rhythm for learning in an effective way.

The main lesson is taught at the beginning of the day when the children are most alert. Then there is time for a snack and a recess/free play in the yard. In the middle of the day they come back for two more periods that cover language arts, reading, art and music. Then comes lunch and recess. The afternoon classes include games, handcrafts and other physical learning opportunities.
The main lesson teachers also teach specialty classes. After main lesson, they may leave their class in the hands of another specialty teacher and travel to another class to teach subjects they have developed. I often teach drawing, painting, modeling and handwork.

Ms. Gould’s First-First Grade Class, 1984, Montgomery Woods

In kindergarten, the emphasis is on learning by imitation. They move in circle activities, do puppet plays, listen to stories and act out fairy tales. They play. The kindergarten is filled with simple objects that stimulate imitation and imaginative play. Silks and fabrics are used for costumes. After listening to a story about kings and queens, or a princess and prince, the children can put on silk capes and become those characters. They can use nice pieces of wood for building. The dolls are simple and not too formed. That way the children can bring their imaginations to those dolls and to how to play with them.

Each day kindergarten involves the children in some highlighted activity such as painting or modeling. The children learn to sew and to cook soup and bake bread. They work together to set the table and make snacks. In these activities, they are building social and language skills to prepare them for first grade. They aren’t using worksheets.

In first grade, the children begin to learn to read first by writing. They learn their letters; the letters becomes words; the words become sentences. They read their own sentences, their own books. They build confidence for reading by reading what is familiar to them. They learn word families and simple phonics. They may act out a play and then read the text.

The children learn their numbers and all four computational skills in first grade—adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. That is a little bit different from most public schools where they learn division later. Math is taught in a concrete manner, showing the connections between these processes. Each child might get a little bag filled with jewels or a basket of acorns. They add and subtract them, making groups and piles.

Each teacher uses his or her imagination to give the math processes life. I invented math helpers: Diana Divide is a large girl who wears a bright red dress because she is so warm and giving. She wants everything to be fair and equal and she divides her whole array of jewels into equal parts. Timothy Times is her best friend. He is thin and lively and wears the color yellow. He is wearing yellow because he is expansive. He doesn’t want to add 1, 2, 3, 4. He wants to say: 2, 4, 6, 8. He views them in terms of division or multiplication.

Two Halloween Photos, Second grade, River Oak School (top),
First grade, private Waldorf school (bottom)

Children act out these parts with costumes. Peter Plus is rotund and dresses in a green tunic. He loves to add and add and wants more and more and more. He is a best friend with Minny Minus who is a little bit melancholic. She has a big hole in her apron pocket and wherever she goes she loses her jewels. So Minny Minus always ends up with less than what she started with. Peter Plus is happy because he is picking them up. As the teacher tells these stories, the children remember the images and they don’t forget the pictures.

I have seen children go into a panic when asked to solve word problems. If I say: “What is happening? Which helper do you need to call on?” They say, “Oh Minny Minus.” It comes to them like that. Solving story problems has been easy because the children have these characters to help them.

In first grade, the teacher or a student puts on a costume—a tunic with the arithmetic signs stitched on it and a matching gnome hat. Then the arithmetic problem is acted out in a concrete, visual and very imaginative way. They acquire a wonderful feeling for numbers and carry that into the next grade. I started off my first math lessons in second grade by bringing Diana Divide, Timothy Times, Peter Plus and Minny Minus back but, by the end of the year, all I needed to do was mention them once in a while.

There are particular types of stories in each grade from which a lesson is developed. For example, folk tales and fairy tales in first, fables and hero stories in second. I like to make this a multi- cultural experience for the children.

I told the story of Jerome, a monk who hand copied ancient Hebrew and Sumerian texts into Greek and Latin. In that way, he preserved the ancient cultures. I compared what Jerome was doing with their own writing efforts. They could recognize the value of each drawing and each letter that they put into their own main lesson books.

These stories should deepen our understanding of life values. The hero overcomes some powerful obstacle in order to do good in the world. These higher values are healing and inspiring to the children.

We also study creation myths in third grade: Hebrew, Native American, African, Chinese, Japanese, Mayan. I choose stories for the children who are presently in the class.
Third graders learn measurement, both liquid and linear. Building on past skills, the new learning is advanced by tying the processes to the practical activities: housing, clothing and food around the world.

In fourth grade, the children study fractions. They enjoy bringing in sheet cakes to divide—into fractions. They will find many ways to divide the cake; they will experience the whole cake and will eat parts of the cake. No part of the cake is ever wasted. We study myths in fourth grade. The ten-year-old is ready for creation myths and trickster stories from all cultures—Norse, African, Chinese, Japanese and Native American, for example. By this time, reading skills are strong and children are reading for information. There will be a block study of the unique characteristics of animals, the relationship between animals and human beings. The children will choose an animal to study.

Fifth grade is one of my favorite years because in this grade the children study ancient cultures of India, Persia, Macedonia, Egypt and Greece—each one bringing a different kind of wisdom.
In sixth grade, we explore Roman history and Roman life and how this culture relates to us today. We also study the invasions of the barbarians, the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Pre-algebra and the physical sciences include experiments with light and sound.
Sciences have been studied in each grade using appropriate activities for the grade level. In first grade we might tell an imaginative story about the water cycle and then the subject will reappear in the study of meteorology. In the upper grades we set up experiments for the class to observe and record observations. From sixth through eighth grade, physics, physiology, meteorology, geology, botany and chemistry are discovered.

The Middle Ages are completed in seventh grade and then we introduce the Renaissance—a time rich in possibilities. In seventh and eighth grades we study the biographies of scientists, artists, writers, and other great people. Eighth grade examines the Industrial Revolution and continues history studies through modern times. Lessons include a thorough picture of American government.

Lessons in geography begin in fourth grade when we take local field trips and study California history. We start with where we live and then expand out further and further—from California to the ancient world and from there to the modern world, which is born in the Renaissance. In eighth grade, we are carried into the present time with discussions of current events.

Eighth grade calss in Mexico, 1998

In eighth grade, we also listen to famous speeches. The students learn to write their own. On graduation day, each child gives a speech to attentive parents and friends who have come to celebrate this transition into high school. These speeches include tearful memories of joyful events, acknowledgments of parents and classmates, expressions of gratitude to their teachers and humorous observances. It has been a long meaningful journey between first and eighth grade.

This brief curriculum sketch is incomplete, of course, but can give you an idea of the way a Waldorf teacher advances his or her class through the grades.

The students in my first class have all had some college experience and most are getting degrees. My second group of children is still in high school and is doing excellent work. I have been told that they are getting 3.5 or better grades. Their parents tell me that they still love to learn and their high school teachers enjoy having them in their classes. Some are active in sports. Several are musicians. One student was in three Ukiah Players productions last year. Several of my former students traveled abroad this year. They sent me post cards telling me about seeing places that they had studied in seventh grade. They expressed their enthusiasm for experiencing the world that they had learned about in class.

I attended the wedding of one of the children in my first class this summer. At least two thirds of my first class was there. As I spoke with former students, I learned that many of them are taking double majors in college— blending the arts and sciences, such as music and biology. Isn’t that interesting? Intuitively they seem to know the importance of this kind of balance in their education.

The newly wedded couple has a ginger farm in Hawaii. Their parents created a wedding registry at a local lumber store where friends could purchase building materials for their new home. I purchased cement piers. I had contributed to this person’s educational foundation, now I would provide the foundation for her first home. I loved that concept!

A Waldorf school—whether a method school or a private school—involves the parents in a child’s education. The parent nights, festivals and plays at the school are community-building events. Parents show up to work on the playground and build play structures. Not all parents do the same amount of work, but they do what they can. This year, I had an impressive percentage of parents help in our class or the whole school. They participated in reading groups, knitting projects, supporting standardized tests by bringing nutritious snacks. At the end of this school year, the parents painted the classroom and washed down the desks. They will assist in setting up the class for the new school year. They served on committees to help design curriculum and evaluation processes. Parents created a playground out of a parking lot! This is to mention only a small part of the participation of parents in the school. It is very gratifying to see parents so involved in their child’s education.

“Lynn Meadows made an announcement that everyone who had been in my first class
should come to the bandstand for pictures.”
Caroline Frey’s Wedding, June 2000, Photo courtesy of Katrina Frey, Redwood Valley

Since so much of standardized test taking has to do with reading skills, test scores from Waldorf methods charter schools were expected to be somewhat lower than average in the lower grades because we don’t push early reading. I have excellent above grade level readers in my second grade class and children who are just learning. But the scores on the standardized test were surprisingly high. It has been shown in the Waldorf method schools that have been around for a few years, that test scores dramatically rise in the upper grades and stay high. It is important to look at the big picture to get a feel for what is happening. I question whether or not standardized tests are able to test a child’s true intelligence. How can they? Children exhibit intelligence in different ways.

First grade tossing rose petals May Day, 1999 (top),
Firstt grade class, end of year, 1999 (bottom).

Our school teaches thinking skills and builds imagination without the technical backup of computers in the classroom. The teacher is still the authority, guiding the children through activities that help them build confidence. Eventually, technology is a useful tool, but I personally don’t feel that it is necessary until the children have mastered basic skills on their own. I like to see students reading books and learning how to talk to people to get information in the early grades. The young children before six and seven years old are learning by imitating other human beings and the seven to fourteen-year-olds are building up their feeling life. After that, thinking and intellectual development are in the forefront. All of these modes of learning are happening together but the emphasis changes at different stages of life. We want to teach what is appropriate to each developmental age of the child. I’m not against technology. I use a computer at home and acknowledge its value, yet I am opposed to depending on computers in the lower grades.

Several new charter elementary schools have opened in recent years. A charter high school will be opening in the Ukiah area this fall and a Waldorf methods high school is also in the planning stages. If we want to support democratic principles, shouldn’t we support freedom of choice in schools? I would like to see schools reflect the values in the home. If the values of school and home are not the same, it is confusing to the children. Yet, in learning to meet the needs of students today, it is important to remember that no one approach is perfect. Learning how to teach, how to create a living education that meets the needs of children today is a process.

Sometimes I have felt harshly judged about the way I taught something in class when in my heart I felt I was meeting the children’s needs. I believe a good teacher doesn’t follow a system dogmatically. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, spoke of indications for teaching children certain concepts. He encouraged teachers to observe and know their children. There is always a danger of following a method slavishly without truly understanding where you are going with it. I have come to recognize that there is more than one right way to approach any subject. The key to good teaching is enthusiasm. The challenge is to set a worthy example.

Michaelmas Celebration; St. Michael & Angels on roof
Waldorf School of Mendocino County

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