The Waldorf approach works with human nature and recognizes that capacities emerge in students at fairly predictable stages, while also allowing room for individual rates of maturation. This appreciation for the metamorphosis of comprehension underlies both the organization of the curriculum itself and the changing methods of teaching throughout the grades.
For the Waldorf student, music, dance and theater, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about, ingested and tested — they are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate a lifelong love of learning as well as the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child: The heart and the hands, as well as the head.
Until age six or seven: Children learn primarily through physical activity and imitation. A sense of goodness permeates the soothing, home-like environment of the Kindergarten, where warmth and toys of natural materials encourage creative, imaginative play. Young children drink in the images of fairy tales and stories spoken over and over from memory by the Kindergarten teacher, with exquisite attention to language, thus developing their capacity for inner picturing that then becomes the basis for literacy and future critical thinking skills. The Kindergarten week includes arts and crafts, puppetry, Eurythmy, singing, healthy physical play, home-life skills and social courtesies.
In the early grade school years: Children learn best when academics are conveyed through painting, drama, music, storytelling and other direct experiences that stir their emotions. A sense of beauty weaves throughout the day, engaging children in their learning.
In Grades 6 through 8: The pictorial thinking of the earlier grades are now metamorphosing to more abstract thinking. For example, during the study of Platonic Solids, the teacher challenges students to inwardly picture a cube and then transform it to other shapes (truncated cube to the octahedron to tetrahedron). The student then replicates this transformation process in clay.
In the High School: Themes and methods stimulate higher-level intellectual skills. Now is the time for the forces of imagination, carefully cultivated in the early years, to be transformed into skills of analytic, synthetic and evaluative thinking in the adolescent. A search for truth and meaning characterizes the adolescent years, where community service and outside mentors connect students to the larger world.
We see art as a key to history and culture. In Waldorf schools, the children create their own main lesson books with writing and illustrations. The main lesson books reflect the diversity of the curriculum through the illustrations, illuminated letters, wet-on-wet paintings, portraits, hand-drawn maps, form drawings, and essays stimulated by the continuous journey through the history of consciousness. We know art is a source of healing. When children work artistically, they breathe differently and a sense of well-being can flourish.
We see art as a source of pleasure and power. In addition to a strong choral music program, there is daily practice in speech through tongue twisters, narrative poems, appropriate humorous and dramatic works from the poetic heritage spoken chorally, and individual birthday verses for solo recitation.
We see art as a way of knowing. Academics come alive when conveyed through an artistic medium. For example, the teacher brings a topic such as human physiology in Grade 7 along with a colorful chalk drawing on the board. Only after multiple senses have been engaged does the lesson proceed to the concept. Allowing students to observe and absorb a topic, through a felt artistic and thoughtful relationship with what they learn, quickens knowledge.
We know art helps in concentration and stimulates our feelings. Knitted flute cases, crocheted blankets, cross-stitched pencil cases and four-needle knitted mittens are some of the challenges taken up by eager fingers throughout the grades in the twice-weekly handwork classes. Willow basketry, garden crafts and building projects such as arbors, adobe ovens and birdhouses are included in the weekly gardening program.
We see art as a language. First graders learn to play the pentatonic flute and lyre. In Grade 3 they change to diatonic flutes (recorders) and violin or cello. Upper grade children expand their music repertoire with soprano, alto, and tenor recorders, as well as full woodwind and percussion options. We know art is a humanizer. It strengthens not only our sense of self, but a sense of community. For example, our eighth graders play recorders in a senior center; our High School students participated in a mural for world peace; our whole school collaborated together to perform Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals in Eurythmy.
Art is at the core of the Waldorf School. Not only are the children involved in a fully integrated arts program, the school views the teacher as artist and teaching as an art (and science) in itself.
The Phenomenological Approach to Science
All sciences begin with simple nature experiences in the Kindergarten and advance with the study of acoustics, heat and magnetism in Middle School, to chemistry and modern physics in High School. The emphasis is on a direct encounter with observable phenomena: “Describe what happened.” Then students must evaluate what they have observed: “What are the conditions under which the phenomena appear? How does this relate to what you already know?” Finally, they are asked to think through the experiment and discover the lawfulness that stands behind and within the phenomena. Science is more than just seeing what is there; it is actively employing thinking to make the world transparent.
Movement: Freeing the Body in Space
The Waldorf movement curriculum recognizes that healthy physical activity lays the foundation for healthy brain development, enhances physical, emotional, ethical and spiritual aspects of the human being, and provides a vital pathway for self-exploration. The program is designed to strengthen different abilities at each stage of development. Cooperative games in the early grades yield to competitive sports in Middle and High School. Participation in a team sport is open to all students and highly encouraged, for the social benefit as well as for skill development. Circus arts, such as juggling, riding a unicycle and tumbling improve posture, balance, coordination, self-confidence and strength. Eurythmy, an art of movement that expresses the quality, mood, and dynamic force of speech and music through gesture, cultivates in students an awareness of personal and group space and contributes to sensitivity in the social realm.
Nimble Fingers Make Nimble Minds
The Waldorf curriculum cultivates manual dexterity in order to further cognitive development. Handwork and practical arts are integrated at all grade levels — not simply to teach a skill, but to support every student’s unfolding as a well-balanced individual. Waldorf education recognizes that both simple crafts and modern technology are products of the human imagination. Therefore, our students receive fundamental skills and understanding to develop and evolve future technology.
Waldorf education seeks to provide a balanced experience of doing, feeling and thinking in a way that promotes harmony and well-being within and a sanctuary from the hurried world without. Key to these goals is rhythm. The teacher works with the yearly, seasonal, monthly, weekly and daily natural rhythms by creating an appropriate curriculum and environment for the children. Attention is given to the more subtle rhythm of breathing (activity versus reflection) occurring throughout the day. The form and order allows the children to feel secure and confident in knowing what comes next. In the grades, a tapestry of special subjects and practice periods follows the daily main lesson. In the Kindergarten, the children look forward to the special activities present on each day (Wednesday is bread day.)
Sowing Seeds of Tolerance
By introducing a foreign language and culture to students in Kindergarten, we provide students with an understanding of different beliefs and ways of being in the world. Through the opportunity provided to High School students to study abroad at other Waldorf schools, and through the experience of welcoming visiting students from such countries as Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Brazil, England, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia, we provide a comprehensive view of humankind. Our curriculum also emphasizes multicultural stories. We expose students to a variety of spiritual traditions and have confidence that in our essential nature, human beings are alike, part of a global humanity. Compassion and respect develop for what might first appear as “other”.
Awakening Stewardship of the Earth
Waldorf education strives to awaken social responsibility and service to the community. From Kindergarten onward, an intrinsic love of nature is combined with a hands-on approach, followed later by a scientifically based understanding of natural processes and active care for the environment. At every level, students learn to live in partnership and cooperation with the natural world and her cycles, planting gardens, caring for animals, and learning lessons for meeting and taking responsibility for the ecological challenges of the future.
The Role of the Teacher
Ideally Kindergarten children are with the same two teachers for a full three years, creating a home-like environment and a bonding experience with another beloved “parent”. For the next eight years a primary teacher, called a Class Teacher, supported by numerous Subject Teachers, guides the class, knows each student well, striving to call forth the best in each one, and partnering with the parents to help the child’s path unfold. Beginning in Grade 9, two teachers serve as Class Sponsors who oversee the social welfare of the class. Students develop strong relationships with the Class Sponsors as well as with the Director of Student Services. Throughout all the grades, the teacher has the freedom to adapt both the form and content of instruction to the capacities of the particular children involved, the spirit of the class as a whole, and to the qualitative needs of each moment.
An Educational Community
Waldorf education recognizes that healthy individualization goes hand-in-hand with community building. In the course of the year, students perform yearly plays, sing in harmony at choral concerts, and play in instrumental ensembles, learning to listen to their fellow classmates, cooperate, yield for the greater good, and pay attention to the needs and contributions of others. Each student has a place in the group. Ideally, a group of students stays together for Grades 1-12 and learns to weather the ups and downs inevitable in community life. In the larger school community, parents, teachers and staff weave a rich social texture around and with the students through special events, field trips, seasonal festivals and class plays. These events bring young and old alike together in celebration of shared community life.
Waldorf education values soul moods through which learning unfolds: wonder, awe, devotion, gratitude, compassion and trust. The ability to recognize beauty, to discriminate between right and wrong, to carry out a chosen course of action, are the qualities consciously cultivated at The Denver Waldorf School from early childhood through adolescence. True education is about transformation – the gradual unfolding of faculties and capacities – which take the individual beyond tradition and the conventions of our time. Today’s students will become tomorrow’s initiators of cultural progress. We believe that a lifelong love of learning and a curiosity to ask deep questions are vital to this process. Our graduates leave school with clear, independent thinking, feelings of empathy and creative activity, and ultimately strength of will that propels them toward moral courage and social responsibility.