Urban Prairie Waldorf School

Chicago, Illinois, September 10th

Peggy, one of the administrators, greeted me. I asked Peggy what makes Waldorf education different from traditional school. Firstly, she said, the kids get a more hands-on approach to learning. They get to see and do what it is they’re learning about. There are no textbooks for the students—they’re encouraged to make something during every learning activity they do (usually in form of writings or drawings in a workbook). By the end of the year, they have a whole lot of their own work collected in these workbooks, and they can look back at all they’ve learned and all the hard work they’ve put in.

Another interesting feature of Waldorf is that teachers continue with their students throughout the grades—so your first grade teacher will continue to be your teacher all the way through fifth (sometimes up to eighth) grade.

According to an information packet Peggy gave me, Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and scientist, developed Waldorf education in Germany in the early 20th century. After World War I, “people were devastated physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” The goal was to produce “a school that could develop the full range of students’ capabilities and allow them to become free, self-reliant individuals capable of contributing fresh insights and initiatives to the world.”

In the younger grades, kids get plenty of time for play and socialization. The mornings are reserved for the important lesson or academic focus of the day, but then the afternoons, especially for the little ones, involve a lot of free time.

The curriculum at most Waldorf schools is more or less the same. Students progress along a set track of topics, lessons, and ideas. For example, for language development first graders focus on fairy tales, second graders on fables, third graders on the Old Testament, fourth graders on Norse mythology… The goal is to steadily build students’ language ability and understanding of narrative.

In the younger grades, game-playing and music/movement was a common feature. When I walked into the second grade class, the entire class was singing a song—very beautifully and in harmony—while moving in a circle. Then the teacher brought out bean bags and threw them one at a time to the students—part of building fine motor skills I assume.

In third grade, the class played “Zip Zap Zop,” a movement and concentration game I first encountered in an improv class at The Second City. After the game, they took their seats for a math exercise (an addition worksheet). Next they discussed the story of Cain and Able.

When I entered the fourth grade class, the teacher was leading the class in singing and movements. Peggy informed me they were practicing for an upcoming school-wide pageant. Then they played a jump-roping game during which each student had to shout out a multiple of 8 in succession.

In the mixed fifth and sixth grade classroom, the teacher was reading a passage about the biology/anatomy of bees while one student wrote what she said on the blackboard and the rest of the students copied the paragraph down. After the writing portion of the lesson, the teacher brought out a large drawing of a bee and the class started to copy it down in their workbooks.

After observing the four classrooms, I sat down to have a discussion with Mat, the 3rd grade teacher and faculty chair. He spoke about three important aspects of developmental that Waldorf focuses on: the hands, the head, and the heart. The hands involve fine motor skills at the lower level, artistic and handiwork ability at the higher levels. The head involves intellectual development—knowledge and critical thinking skills. And the heart involves socialization, emotional growth, and the feeling that oneself and one’s work contain meaning.

As far as traditional options go, this type of school seems like a good one. The school didn’t strike me as being all that alternative. There may be a little more physical movement and a little more arts integration, but overall it seems pretty much like a traditional school. The teachers still direct and correct the students during lessons. The kids don’t really get to choose what to learn about. And the desks are positioned traditionally—in rows, facing the front of the room. Waldorf does utilize an important alternative practice: instead of testing and giving out grades, the teachers write holistic assessments of each child and meet with the parents regularly to discuss progress–a much better approach to assessment that doesn’t rely on external reward and doesn’t breed as much competition or people-pleasing (it also simply offers a more informative and useful assessment of the child).

Mat and I agreed that grading young students can take away their inclination to learn for learning’s sake. Mat said that they have absolutely no problems with cheating at Urban Prairie—the thought doesn’t even cross students’ minds. External rewards are minimal. The reward for good work is internal—meaningful learning—so one gains no benefit from simply reproducing ‘the right answer.’

The reward for students comes in the way of feeling more confident in one’s abilities. By the end of the year the students’ workbooks are full of their creative, hard work, and they are meant to serve as reminders that one is capable of learning and producing meaningful things.

Overall, Waldorf seems like an interesting model. It’s not quite as radical as some other alternatives, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

You can read more about Urban Prairie at their website.

You can read more about Waldorf education here.