Editor’s Note: Good morning. Waldorf educator Rebecca Watkin is on site this morning showing us the inner workings of a Waldorf elementary grade classroom. Here she is:
The first time I set foot into a Waldorf classroom my breath was taken away by its beauty. I am not sure what I expected, but I was transformed by the experience. I never wanted to teach anywhere else.
For my first class I painstakingly took the whole summer to select silks, the right pieces of bark and drift wood, just the right bell, candle holder and stones. I lovingly stripped the paint off of the fir frame around my chalkboard and lazured the walls. I felt like I was a mother to each item, each wall, each table, each basket of toys, each book shelf and each chair. I have learned a lot since then.
It is true about the love. My sense of that very first classroom was my experience of that teacher’s love and the love extends. Each item in a Waldorf classroom comes from nature, whether it’s actual pine cones and stones on the nature table or wooden desks and chairs.
A love and respect for nature lives in the curriculum but also in the experience of being in the classroom. And just as we find our favorite places in nature are uncluttered and open, so too is a Waldorf classroom. You might find some watercolor paintings on a wall, or perhaps a line drawing or geometric design. You will see tidy shelves of baskets containing scissors, crayons, toys and games. You will see a place for story books and main lesson books. But, overall, a Waldorf classroom is decorated to eliminate clutter of the space and therefore the mind.
The materials that the children of a Waldorf grade school use are most often made by the teacher. This allows each teacher to bring her own ideas and inspiration to her teaching. For example, right now I am teaching place value to second graders. I have told them the story of the Counting King. He is very, very generous and very rich in jewels. He has hired some elves to help him organize his counting house so that he knows how much he has to give. On the first day he gives the elves a blue cloth and gets them to begin counting jewels.
The children are each given a piece of blue wool felt. They are then given a handful of tiny, shiny stones. They count. A problem arises when we count too many and jewels start spilling off the cloth. The King also had to tell the elves, “For jewels adding up to nine, a Royal blue cloth will do just fine. When they count the tenth, a fine red bag is sent.” And so I give the children red bags I have sewn to put tens into. The story goes on. Next is a green box, then a cabinet, then a chamber, then a whole floor of the castle, and the castle is a million. Shh, we won’t get there until February!
I knew this story would work for my class because they are in an age of Fairy Tales, yet they are more practical than the first grader. They were excited to make the story come to life and motivated to write about it since it was their own experience.
Every lesson, from arithmetic to language arts and everything in between, begins with a story to awaken the imagination and engage the children in a place where they live. Things come alive for them when they hear the story that matches their own imagination. When a lesson is inspired by a story that fits the child’s developmental phase the child is motivated to learn and reaches toward self discipline.
Oral history is such an important part of every lesson in a Waldorf classroom. Each developmental phase has its own stories to reach the children where they are at. In first grade when the children are still dreamy, Fairy Tales and Nature stories are told. In fourth grade when the children are suddenly realizing that the securities they previously felt are now separate from them and they want to know how you know, Norse Mythology is told. In eighth grade when the children are completing their elementary years and perhaps reflecting on who they are, they study biographies of outstanding people like Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King and others from the 20th century.
There is so much to tell about the intricate beauty of Waldorf education. Suffice to say my overarching sense of it is well said by Lucille Clemm in Waldorf Education: A Family Guide, that the task of the elementary teacher is to offer her students knowledge that is “so rich and warm it engages their hearts and wills as well as their minds”.
Not only is this done through the lesson, but also through the way the classroom is decorated, the way the teacher and the students are dressed, the way the playground is structured, the connection to nature that is nourished by outdoor activities, the artistic activities and many other subtle elements to life at a Waldorf school.
I feel fortunate to be part of such a successful and incredibly peaceful form of education.