Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Visit to the Brooklyn Waldorf School Kindergarten

Entering a Waldorf kindergarten is like entering a sacred space. Colored silks on the windows filter in a soft light. I trade my shoes for slippers. Here and there through the classroom are thoughtfully placed offerings from nature: a bouquet of dried flowers, a whirled piece of driftwood with a parade of small felted animals nestled in the curve, a bowl of apples and squashes. The toys are beautiful; handmade felted hats & fairy capes, a intricately carved kitchen "store" full of wooden cups & saucers, knotted colorful rope swings beneath the birch wood treehouse. 

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).

1 comment:

  1. Tough question. I have heard anecdotal stories about athletes or students whose entire lives were rigidly structured and managed by others until, say, they arrived at college; at which point they went completely off the rails. The analysis sometimes given is that these folks were never given the opportunity to establish their own structure, boundaries, etc. I also know, in reflecting in my own experiences of growing up, that I often wish that I had been given MORE external structure - and I still struggle to create this for myself. I guess this is trite, but it seems like a balance is needed. I like the idea of getting kids invested by allowing them a role in actually shaping the classroom norms, but I also think that the wisdom and authority of adults is important in equipping them to do so. I was impressed by your observation during "free play time" at the Waldorf school, that even within this highly structured environment most conflict was resolved by the children themselves (even when an adult was engaged).