As Waldorf teaches students, parents are taught patience

NIWOT — What do Jennifer Aniston, American Express Corp. chief executive Kenneth Chenault and the children of automobile designer John DeLorean have in common?

They’re all Waldorf School graduates.

Despite such well-known and successful alumni, a Waldorf education remains a bit of a mystery. Is it that school that focuses on the arts? The one where the students write their own textbooks? Where they don’t teach children to read until much later than more traditional schools?

Yes and no, yes and yes — sort of.

Key components to Waldorf Education are time and its relationship to three different phases of child development, which founder Rudolf Steiner defined as birth to age 7, 7 to 14 and 14 to 18. A Waldorf-educated child isn’t rushed into reading by the end of kindergarten. In fact, he or she may not become fluent in reading until well in the second grade.

“We ask our parents to be patient,” said Melanie Reiser, outreach and enrollment director at Shepherd Valley Waldorf School, 6500 E. Dry Creek Parkway in Niwot. “It takes a great deal of faith and patience to trust in the Waldorf method. That’s not always easy when parents have been educated in a more traditional school setting, or when their neighbor’s children are reading and writing when their own child isn’t doing that yet. It can be very difficult.”

That’s why Shepherd Valley hosts an extensive “parent-enrichment speaker series.” Presented by teachers and community members, the series is designed to engage and educate parents as well as those exploring Waldorf education with a variety of topics that range from painting and felting workshops to understanding the role of music at Waldorf and a session presented by Jamie York, who authored the “Making Math Meaningful” book series. That session’s title is “From Freehand Geometry to the Platonic Solids: Grades 5 Through 8 Math.”

One of this winter’s scheduled speakers at the parent-enrichment series is Eugene Schwartz, who has been involved the with Waldorf methodology for more than 30 years and has visited more than 150 schools worldwide.

“One of the precepts of Waldorf is that the teachers loop with the children for eight years,” he said. “In the early years, they are generalists and teach all subjects. We really have the time to get to know our children and see what works and what doesn’t.”

Schwartz emphasizes the patience that parents must employ with the Waldorf method.

“Some children show their true colors the first day of first grade, and you know how it’s going to go with them and it will be pretty smooth sailing,” he said. “With other children you don’t really see what they can do until fourth grade or sixth grade or, I can tell you, sometimes the last weeks of eighth grade. Suddenly, you see what that child has learned.”

“Visually speaking, when you walk into a Waldorf school, you’re struck by the aesthetic beauty,” said York, who teaches middle-school and high-school math at Shining Mountain Waldorf School, 999 Violet Ave. in Boulder. “Certainly the arts are integrated into quite a bit, even mathematics. Geometry, for instance, is one of those (subjects) that most differentiates Waldorf mathematics from mainstream mathematics … and to some degree, a lot of that geometry is approached to be intentionally aesthetically appealing.

“Our educational needs have changed because the world has changed — industry and business and academia,” he said. “We’re looking for people who are more creative, more flexible, more adaptable. In terms of mathematics, a lot of that boils down to problem solving. We’re hearing from leaders in industry and academia that our very best math students can’t problem solve. What we’re doing is teaching them to regurgitate answers to questions that we’ve shown them in class, but not to creatively problem solve.”

York sees a big difference between problem solving and solving problems. His own 12th-grade students spent two days trying to calculate the vertex of a parabola (think of the arc formed when a stream of water shoots from a fountain and you have a parabola) that skewed off to an angle, so traditional formulas wouldn’t solve the problem. York admitted that he had never encountered this problem and thus was unsure of how to approach it. One student said the class was working on a theoretical problem and York was quick to point out that the situation was actually very close to what real-world problem solving looks like. The solution came to them after much discussion and idea exchanges led to revealing a key step in finding the answer. It all happened five minutes before the end of class.

“That doesn’t usually happen,” York said, “but it was spectacular.”

Shepherd Valley opens its parent-enrichment speaker series to the public. There is no cost to attend. Seating may be limited, so it is advisable to R.S.V.P.

For more information, contact Reiser at 303-652-0130 or visit the website at www.shepherdvalley.org/shepherd-valley-Lectures.html.

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