PHOTO by Rebecca D’Angelo DESIGN by Doug Dobey
by Charles McGuigan
Color is the first thing that strikes me as I cross the threshold and enter The Richmond Waldorf School on Robin Hood Road. The painted walls seem to pulse with a gentle light, warm and embracing, alive and calming. It’s called lazure, and consists of layers of paint applied thin and transparent as watercolors. And the hues change as I move along the corridors. The halls outside kindergarten through the lower grades are pink and rosy. In the upper school corridors, the colors shift to the other end of the spectrum—blues and pale purples. This method of painting was developed by the man who founded the first Waldorf School exactly one hundred years ago in Stuttgart, Germany, a man named Rudolph Steiner. Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf Astoria tobacco factory, asked Steiner to create a school there for the children of his factory workers. And from that rose a system of education that has spread the globe over.
“The premise of Waldorf education, I think, has three main points,” Roberto Trostli will tell me later. “One is looking at the human being as a spiritual being. So, we’ve come to earth for a reason. We’re doing things in this lifetime that we’ve come to earth to do, so looking beyond the physical and mental to this eternal part of us.”
Roberto should know. He’s worked at Waldorf schools for thirty-eight years. What’s more, he attended Waldorf schools first in his native Sao Palo, Brazil (his parents were Jewish, Austrian refuges who found safe haven in South America during World War II), and later, after his parents emigrated to the States, in New York City at 79th and Fifth Avenue.
Secondly, Roberto would tell me, Waldorf education emphasizes that every student goes through different stages of development. “So each age has a different approach, different methodology, different curriculum, even different sets of relationships.”
And then there’s this, according to Roberto: “Education really should be an artistic process. The best way to engage with that is for the teacher to be a learner so if the teacher’s actively learning, then when you’re teaching you’re trying to get children to learn, and the more you can engage them in every part of learning and the more artistic that is, the more alive it is.”
Valerie Hogan, director of marketing and enrollment, greets me at the front office and we make our way into a conference room. “At Waldorf, we want children to love to learn,” she says. “We want to honor childhood, and that’s a huge component of our program. That, and allowing children to develop at their own pace. Waldorf is based on a developmental approach of human development.”
From the time the children enter kindergarten here, they are introduced to the art storytelling from fairy tales to ancient myths, and it really is all fun for the kids as I will discover when we visit the classrooms. “There’s this feeling now that we need to push kids to be involved in academics earlier and earlier and earlier,” says Valerie. “And Waldorf says children need to be playing, children need to be outside, children need to learn social skills. They need to learn emotional skills, so that they have a foundation to then move into academics.”
Throughout the day, I’ll witness evidence of all of these tenets.
Letitia Amey, a seasoned Waldorf teacher, joins us. Along with her duties as the class teacher for sixth grade, she also helps run the bicycle program. Letitia’s husband, also a teacher at the school, works with the younger kids. “My husband is teaching them how to use a pedal bike so they’re in the gymnasium a lot of the time, but if it’s a nice day they sometimes go out to the black top, and onto our course that we’re creating” she says.
Two years ago, Leitia took her students on an overnight bike trip along the Capital Trail. It was part of their geography class, which focused on Virginia. “We actually biked from Charles City to Jamestown,” she says. “We spent the night at Chickahominy Riverfront Park.”
In the Waldorf method of instruction, there is a continuity that benefits students and teachers alike. “From first until eighth grade the class teacher moves up through the grades with the same class,” says Letitia. “So this teacher is developing himself or herself just as the class is, and the subject matter is really new and fresh, and the teacher is inspired by this new material every year. The teacher is learning as well as the student, and I feel that the students really see that, and see that we’re all learning together, and I think it makes it a little more engaging and interesting.”
And unlike other schools that threw the baby out with the bath water, Waldorf held fast to skills that have proven beneficial to a student’s intellectual development.
“In this technological world it might seem the use of mental arithmetic is no longer really necessary,” says Letitia. “But we in the Waldorf School strongly disagree with that. It’s an important skill to be developed from first grade through middle school, and so we feel that if it’s practiced regularly in the classroom it really strengthens the student’s sense of numbers. It challenges their memory. It increases their ability to focus. And it also really helps to develop those general cognitive capacities. The use of calculators, on the other hand, really weakens this ability to do mental arithmetic, so we discourage the use of calculators until eighth grade.”
Waldorf also teaches cursive writing, which sadly has fallen by the wayside in many school districts. “Starting in second grade, we’re teaching with an Italic print, and then we move into the cursive writing, and by the middle school years the children are able to create their own handwriting,” Letitia adds. “Cursive writing is another example of really balancing the hands, heart and head of the child.”
From a very early age, children at Waldorf begin learning about words, and even their component parts. ”We bring the letters of the alphabet to them in an imaginative way,” says Letitia. “So they’re learning to not only use their imagination, but also to create the different sounds of the letter before they really even learn the letter itself. We’re not just teaching them the rote alphabet. We usually use a three-day rhythm, so the first day the teacher might tell a story about a snake, and the next day on the board would be a drawing of a snake in the shape of an ‘S’, and then the next day the children would work with different verses with ‘S’, and they learn much more about the letter ‘S’ than just writing it. We know that children really see the world as a place full of wonder, and so, if we really want to deepen that sense of wonder, we can bring it into every subject. That’s our hope. When we’re introducing the letters, we don’t have them memorize the alphabet. They really actually learn the full nature of each letter, and experience it within their whole bodies. They’re moving the letter, they’re drawing the letter, and they’re speaking the letter. It’s much more than memorizing. Nurturing the imagination is something you’ll see is prevalent throughout the school.”
The students ultimately become avid readers. “In fourth grade we read‘Shiloh’, we read ‘Old Yeller, and we read this book called ‘Blood on the River,’” says Letitia. “They had a book to read every month.”
Foreign languages are introduced into the curriculum from the earliest years. Students begin with Russian and Spanish, and then in fifth grade they learn Greek. From sixth through eighth grades they study that mother of all European languages, Latin. “It’s a classical education,” Roberto will tell me later. “It forms your thinking.”
When we leave the confines of the conference room and head down the hallway, I can hear one group of very young children reciting, in sing-song fashion, a story about a girl named Sasha who is eating girl by the side of a road. They sing it in flawless Russian. From another classroom, there is the sound of half-dozen recorders being played in perfect harmony.
The halls are literally alive with the sound of music.
“Starting in third grade, every student is assigned a stringed instrument, so they’re either going to play the cello or the violin,” says Letitia. “By sixth grade, they choose an instrument. It usually is the same instrument they have been playing, but they move in to working with the orchestra, and they have a private teacher that supports that work. We really try and integrate the music, and art into all of our subjects.” Some kids opt to play woodwinds or brass; it’s finally up to them.
“We don’t want to just focus on the intellect only,” Letitia says. “We want the children to walk away very well-rounded, and ready to walk out into the world. At a very young age, the children are exposed to language that children are just not exposed to these days. I mean very, very complicated words that they’re now using every day in their speech.”
As Letitia leaves us, Roberto Trostli joins us.
Part of the success of the Waldorf program is the way classes are structured. For the first two hours of school, students study a core subject. “They study one subject intensively for a month at a time,” says Roberto. “And the reason it’s two hours long is because it allows you to explore that subject through every modality. So right now, we’re doing North American geography in fifth grade. When we finish that, we’ll move on to history, and then to science. It’s immersion learning where the children have a deep experience.”
The rest of the day consists of four periods, each one being forty minutes long. “They do the subjects that should be done on a rhythmical level,” Roberto says. “English, foreign language, music, handwork, woodwork, movement, art—things that you wouldn’t want to just do once or twice a year, things that you actually need to do on an ongoing basis. They’re doing things all day long that really speak to their will and to their heart.”
“My class right now has biking, and then they have painting,” he continues. “After lunch they have music, and then they have Russian. In geography we, of course, are learning all the terminology and all the states and provinces in North America—the things you would learn anywhere. Today, we studied about the beaver because the beaver was the foremost animal that really had a huge impact on trade and settlement in this country. We will be painting a map of North America. They do projects, so it’s not like we try to cover everything, but we try to cover the representative things that will allow them to understand other things we study. That way, the academics aren’t so tiring and depleting. It’s one of the reasons they can do Greek at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
Even as some school districts have shortened the length of recess, or erased it altogether, the Waldorf School provides students with ample time for play, even in inclement weather. “We try to go out in all kinds of weather,” says Roberto. “There’s a saying, ‘There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.’ They go outside twice a day for half an hour each time because they really need to explore the physical side of life, and also the social part, so that time outside is time really well spent. Children need to play.”
The Waldorf School, unlike every other school I’ve ever visited, has no principal. “But we all have principles,” says Roberto. “What Rudolph Steiner said, is we replace the function of a headmaster or principal by being fully responsible ourselves. So instead of wondering what the administration thinks of my teaching, I wonder what my students think of my teaching, and what I think, and my students’ parents, and my colleagues. So, in a way, it’s a much harder level of accountability because, if you’re devoted to being the best you can be, there’s a tremendous motivation to be better, and not because you’re going to get a raise or you’re going to get disciplined.”
There are several full-time administrators—Valerie Hogan, along with a finance officer, and a front office manager. “They handle, you could say, the logistics of the school,” Roberto says. “Then we have a leadership team which is composed of three people who act on behalf of the different realms in the school. I function as the community relations coordinator. In addition to being a class teacher, I’m also serving an administrative role. Then we have a governance group of teachers called the Faculty College, which meets weekly to program staffing vision. Steiner felt that nobody should be involved in making educational decisions who’s not a teacher. Teachers will always put the children’s experience and best interest first, whereas administration can easily lose sight of it.”
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and as Roberto exits, Valerie leads the way from one classroom to the next. After visiting the Russian class (these were the kids singing earlier) taught by Irene Baranov, the entire class says, “Dasvidaniya.”
The second grade teacher, Noelle McKown, holds a length of colored chalk in her hand, and draws a fox who reaches for a cluster of grapes he will never attain. She works meticulously at each purple grape in the cluster, slowly bringing this classic Aesop fable to life, which gave birth to “sour grapes” an idiom that has persisted through the ages. “They will be sculpting foxes and grapes,” says Noelle, who has a background in both art and education.
When she asks the students what characteristics foxes have, hands shoot up. One kid says, “A black nose.” Another says, “Pointy ears. Then one girl says this: “They have adorable little nails.”
When we’re back in the hall, Valerie says, “There are different themes for each grade, so second grade they’re learning a lot of fables. First grade they learn a lot of fairy tales.”
In the third grade classroom, boys and girls alike are crocheting, and they’re amazingly adept at it. “They know how to knit, they know how to crochet, they can even use the loom,” the teacher tells me. One boy explains, in great detail, the difference between knitting and crocheting, between hooks and knitting needles. By the time the kids are in fifth grade, they will move into a woodworking class.
“What impressed me about Waldorf students before I began my training was how easily they talk with adults,” Valerie tells me when we’re out in the hallway again.
It’s true, too. These kids are comfortable speaking with adults, are not in the least bit shy or reserved. They already exude a confidence that is born of security, not arrogance. And their vocabulary astonishes me.
At Waldorf, Valerie says, they celebrate the seasons, and what is unfolding in the natural world as Earth spins with defined purpose around the Sun as it has done since time immemorial.
At the beginning of each school year, the kids observe Michaelmas, which commemorates Saint Michael slaying the dragon. “It’s about having the courage to stand up for what’s right,” Valerie says.
As the days shorten toward the Winter Solstice, the kids walk along a spiral of candles in a darkened room. “It’s about bringing your internal light into that dark time of the year,” says Valerie. “We have to shine our internal light, even in dark times.”
Then, as the days lengthen in February, the school gives a nod to Candlemas, and then the final celebration comes with May Faire. “It’s about spring and the planting season and new life,” Valerie says.
And just as Waldorf celebrates the seasons and the universe in all its majesty, the school also celebrates the beauty and wonder and absolute complexity of each and every member of its student body.