Each day follows a careful ritual, informed by the training as well as the intuition of the lead teacher, and supported by the assistant teacher. Mindful to not disturb the routine with my presence, I slid into a tiny wooden chair in the corner and kept my hands busy winding large skeins into small balls of yarn that the children would later use for a handwork lesson.
The rhythms of the day are lead through song. After greeting each child at the door and inviting them to come into the classroom, wash hands and settle themselves, the lead teacher began singing "Now we are a circle, now we are a star... " The children quickly joined in and made a circle around the large round carpet in the center of the room, reaching out their arms and legs to form stars. After the daily verses, the class was joined by the eurythmy teacher, who guided the children on a poetry-fueled journey, prancing, galloping & stretching their way around the carpet. Eurythmy is an "art of the soul," according to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education. I still have much to learn about the teachings behind this form of movement therapy.
During free play time, I noticed that the teachers both spoke very little. The assistant teacher spent much of her time engaged in preparing a full lunch for the children, and the lead teacher was constantly observing the children, but rarely intervened in their play. Children who were having difficulty with another child came to her, and she often prompted them to talk through their difficulty until a solution arose from the child's imagination. Twice I saw her call over a child who may have been heading toward a conflict, and direct them to assist her with a mindful task around the classroom, such as setting the table with placemats & cloth napkins, or filling each child's mug with water before snack time.
Just as the energy of the free play time started to crescendo, the teacher sang the words that cued the children that it was time to clean up. Incredibly quickly, the children worked together to put all the toys back into their places (after teaching preschool for 4 years, I understand that cleanup time can often be challenging for some children). The teacher took her lyre from a high shelf and sat down to play. The children all lay down on the carpet. The energy that had been rising quickly faded away as the children relaxed, slowed down and listened to the music. After a few moments of this, she exchanged the lyre for a 4- note chime. As the children lay quietly, she slipped around the room, ringing a tone for each child and very gently brushing the mallet across each forehead. At this signal, each child rose, washed their hands and sat for lunch. I saw the anticipation of each child being called for the meal in this special way; it was beautiful.
I'll be visiting a different kindergarten class tomorrow, as well as the middle school. It's definitely a lovely place.
Next week I'll start my internship at Pono, a free/democratic school in Harlem. Very curious to see and feel the differences between these two schools, each very invested in nurturing the whole child, but one following the intuition of the teacher, and one following the intuition of the child.
What are your thoughts? Do children benefit from structures established by teachers, or are learning experiences best when the children themselves decide what they would like to do or learn in any given moment? (With limits, of course; at Pono, all children & adults follow a set of democratically-established classroom agreements).