How a Grade-less Environment Made all the Difference

By the time I’d gotten to the sixth grade, I was entirely confused.  Access to my spiritual being and intelligence seemed positioned between layers of homework, grades, church attendance, tests, and assessments.  I had a terrible time at my schools: Saint Claire, Saint Paul, Saint Ambrose, & Saint I don’t remember (but I know there was another one in there). My papers were predominantly covered in exasperated red pen marks.  My mother was at her wits end because I continued to fail my subjects miserably and had increasing anxiety, fear, and behavioral problems. After another failed attempt in the sixth grade she finally, in exasperation and desperation, sent me to The Detroit Waldorf School. I was finally home.

photo credit: Monica Rodgers

Waldorf Education was different than anything I had encountered.  Mistakes were encouraged and so was the exploration of my inner self: who was I? And how were my head, my heart, and my hands connected in learning and contributing the gifts I would bring to the world?  This was my classroom, and my friends and I visited this inner world through handwork, woodwork, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theatre, music, and outdoor play.

Our morning lesson focused on subject matter that all schools explore but we did it differently. We focused on this subject matter intensively for 2 hours each morning (main lesson) and the rest of the day was spent moving, exploring and creating.  Our main lesson each morning, might last for a few weeks on a particular “theme” such as geometry, or science, American history, and so on. Once those intensive weeks were “completed” they would be built upon or reflected upon as the years wore on.  Each treated as a building block to the next related or inter-related subject matter.

The lessons were presented at the front of the room by my teacher, Mr. McNair (the Waldorf teacher is usually with you throughout all eight grades), through an interactive format that included beautiful chalk drawings depicting his content for the morning, which we copied on blank paper with beautiful colored pencils our interpretation of the lesson.  We then bound our own books filled with our drawings and insights at the end of those weeks of subject matter. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and I still have the beautifully illustrated “text” books I made by myself.

There were no tests and no grades, and very little homework. I developed a love of learning in this environment.  I was free at last to be me, without competing with those who surrounded me. We were all unique, valuable, and valid.  There was no more shame for a D+ paper turned back with angry red slashes and comments in the margin (if only Monica would apply herself) and no endless hours behind my desk listening to the drone at the front as I darted my eyes from clock to window using my imagination as my escape from the confines they called my “education”.

The things that distracted me in my former schools were so much less of an issue at the Waldorf School. Most remarkably, children were not petty, hostile or vying for position.  There were no “In crowds,” “jocks,”  “geeks,” etc. I think this is largely in part by the fact that Waldorf School’s have a non media request for families whose children attend. The majority of students who lived media free at home learned to role model heroes from books, school and community. There was very little pressure to “fit in” and have the “right clothes”, “body” or “hair” so my anxiety went down and my self esteem grew. I was appreciated just for being me. This was an amazing environment which fostered my individuality, respect for others, and co-creation and collaboration with my classmates and teacher.

After my few short years at  the Detroit Waldorf School (we moved to Maine) I went on to attend 2 more high schools before my final crowning achievement: MY DIPLOMA.  As my parebts sat proudly in the sea of parents and grandparents I held my diploma (it was a good visual) while inside I held the better part of ME I had discovered someplace else entirely, a place that did not need the proof of a paper certificate. I give Waldorf Education the credit for allowing me to find myself, my own pace, and to excel in a way that was suited to who I was as an individual. From that experience on, I had the unshakable faith that I was *perfectly ok* exactly as I was, and that my intelligence had very little to do with the grades. I have gone on to build a successful career in writing, marketing, and business.  Sometimes I wonder where I would be today if I had continued to “fail” on paper.  Even though my Waldorf years were a small respite in the whole of my academic life, I consider those three years to have been the most valuable as they built the foundation for which to build upon- an unshakable platform of self confidence that I could do anything, achieve anything if I put my head, heart and hands to it.

I’m starting to wonder if we have this educational thing all confused. We seem to be so preoccupied with preparing our children for life in the modern world yet we place emphasis on only one aspect of that child’s development: the mind. There’s so much more to education and schooling. I’d like to emphasize that an individual person’s education is about so much more — developing self-esteem, personality, and a love of learning, community, and mostly the ability to be introspective and secure with one’s self. Only then will we raise happy, healthy, well-rounded, and truly intelligent young people who have the confidence to bring their unique gifts to the world.


The Illusion of MORE

From time to time, I open up the contents of my childrens lunch box to find a great article from their teacher.

This one was from my son’s early childhood teacher, entitled TOYS ARE NOT US by Thomas Poplawski.

These articles are a great reminder for me, and so helpful in supporting me to be a more conscious Waldorf parent because… god knows I cheat (I know my childrens teachers know I cheat too). I think they also realize that to be a parent in today’s modern world AND a dedicated and completely infallible Waldorf parent is very, very difficult.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget things like the article points out; like reminding us that toys are not a substitute for spending time with our children, or using toys, digital gagets, and TV to occupy them while we get “our time”.   I look around my house and realize that there would be a lot more “room” for creativity with LESS.  That filling rooms and closets with distractions for my children’s play things might just be undermining their creativity altogether. Allowing more outside time with simple tools will make for satisfying play.

Digging Outside

As a family, I’d like to teach my children that “less is more” and to grow up with a consciousness about the difference of NEED VS. WANT, and that feeding a belief that they can find satisfaction with “stuff” will only serve to foster a less desired attitude about living sustainably, and simply in an increasingly complex world.

When I was a kid I had very few toys.  The basement was the place for us to “play” if it rained, and open ended toys were what we had access to:  blocks, books, blankets for forts, a baby doll and some trucks and cars. Birthday’s were “special” because the gifts were few, and very modest.  Having owned a children’s toy store, it was very easy for me to bring home “extras” that never seemed to be a substitute for quality time, nor did they provide much lasting play value.  I’ll admit I’m human, and I too get swept up with the belief that more = better.  It’s time to really tidy up, and as the school year comes to a close, I look forward to releasing the grip on things I’ve continued to stock-pile with a huge summer yard sale and donation bin. I’m done fooling myself that those items should take up valuable real-estate in the landscape of our lives and home.

Feeding the Child’s Soul in Nature.

By Su Rubinoff.

This article was originally published in Gateway in the spring/summer issue of 2000.

Good morning dear earth, good morning dear sun,

Good morning dear stones and flowers, every one,

Good morning dear beasties and birds in the trees,

Good morning to you, friends, good morning to me.

This is the verse that we begin our circle with. I chose it for its simplicity and its emphasis on the natural world, for I was working with Steiner’s thought that, The child must not be sharply detached from nature, that his whole feeling must be that he is linked in a living way to the world around him.

At Meadowbrook School in Rhode Island, we are fortunate to be renting a school that sits on seventy acres of woods that include a pine forest and pond where beavers have built a large dam. Our morning rhythm begins outside since so many children must drive at least thirty minutes to school. After forty-five minutes outside, we go inside and gather on the round rug for circle which is followed by inside play and the activity of the day. Clean-up, a short rest, snack, and story follow, and we end outside with dismissal. During our outside time, the children run, climb, jump rope, make large houses and boats out of bales of hay, sticks, and logs, “cook” a lot of mud cakes and cookies, and create little houses for the gnomes. Their imagination is so alive that they have been sewing the gnomes little shirts, pants, and mittens and placing them in the houses they are building for these little friends.

In the beginning of the year, a large load of sand was delivered to the school and purposely placed away from the area that would eventually become the sand area. For weeks, we were busy workers, digging and delivering the sand to its new home. Not all the sand was moved, and a month ago the children began to dig tunnels and rivers in this area. We have an outside faucet, and they would fill a five-gallon bucket with water to pour into their river. This was satisfactory for two weeks until too many tributaries developed and a lot of water was required. The children decided to build a trench over to the water faucet so they could just turn it on and a waterfall would pour right into their river. Miss Su and Miss Nancy (the teachers) are the water fairies who turn the faucet off in order to conserve the well water for the rest of the school. All twelve children have been absorbed in this. It has been amazing to watch these first-grade-ready children share the limited number of tools (I deliberately did this) and work out their differences with their various construction ideas.

As part of our rhythm, we have Adventure Day on Friday. We spend most or all of this day outside and in the woods. On Adventure Day, we often have circle outside. Since the theme of circle corresponds with the cycle of the year, it feels appropriate to be outside with Father Sun and Brother Wind. After turns in the bathroom and gathering our bags, we are on our way. “Let us form a golden thread, see the needle at the head” and “Will you come and walk with me, both my hands I give to thee”are the songs that take us from the school to the path that leads us into the woods. As we enter this different world, I always say “Good morning” to the gnomes and ask them if we may enter their forest. They always say yes but remind us to keep our voices low since this is a home to many animals. We have seen a number of its inhabitants: Mr. Snake, Billy Beaver, Sammy Bluejay, Old Wise Owl, and more. The different trails that we take always lead us to the Pine Forest which is adjacent to the pond. It is here that we have our home for the morning. As soon as we arrive, the play begins. The children build houses against the large pine trees. Sticks are gathered for fishing and the leaves in the pond are the fish. Sometimes I am the owner of the Spanish fish market and buy the fish, and pay for them with pine cones, while only speaking Spanish. The children’s love of water and their sense of wonder arise again, and they dig with their sticks near the pond, crying with delight as little streams are created.

Looking for frogs by the river.

We always bring popcorn, apples, a jug of water, and a jug of hot tea for snack. We lay down our picnic blanket and everyone comes.  “We thank the earth for ripening glow, the wind and rain that makes things grow, to Mother Earth our thanks we give, for all her fruits whereby we live.” This is the blessing we sing. Its meaning lives deep in the children as we are with Mother Earth herself. In the winter, we spend a shorter time outside, but we still follow this same rhythm. Instead of sitting on the cold ground for snack, we sit on felled trees, some of which were chewed by the beavers. Sometimes it begins to snow as we sit and drink our tea. During these cold days, the children see the ice on the pond, and they become curious about how strong it is. While standing on the land, they try to see if the ice will crack. One day, each of them had his own stick and tried in vain to break off a piece of the ice. A few of the boys went searching for a larger, heavier stick and emerged from behind one of their houses with the four of them carrying a huge fallen limb. They were successful in their endeavor and took the ice to their “house” to use as a window.

A tiny tree frog - click for a closer look.

Before we leave our home in the woods, we have a story. Most of the time, we do a play from the fairy tale that I have been telling all week. It is a perfect setting since most of these tales take place near or in the forest. Our plays are informal but are very much enjoyed.

Our golden thread once again weaves its way back through the woods. We all thank the gnomes, sing our good-bye song, and then check each other’s ears and necks for ticks. We want the ticks to stay in their home and not come home with us. Parents are waiting for us and the morning comes to a close.

I have taught in four different locations in Rhode Island, and I have been able to find a little nook in each of these places to go on weekly walks. One location was at the edge of town and on a main street. We were still able to find a small, public garden with a pond and trees close by. As we were walking, I would always bring a bag for litter. I never said anything to the children but quietly collected the garbage along our walk. One five-year-old child, at the end of the year, went home to his mother and told her that “Miss Su is cleaning the earth.”

Even if there are absolutely no places around, such as the ones I have mentioned, we still can bring nature and the four elements into the classroom. For children to experience the ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water is crucial for their health. Children, as well as adults, are nourished by the natural world. As teachers, we try to create environments where there is ample opportunity for creative play and meaningful imitation. Being outside in every season supports this idea.

A birthday picnic, on Adventure Day in the forest.

The plant’s bright blessings Spring forth, From Earth’s gentle being,

And human children rise up, With grateful hearts

To join the spirits of the world. — Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925).

Editor’s note –  Many years have passed since this article was written but the rhythms of Meadowbrook’s early childhood classes endure.  The school has since moved to its permanent home, situated on 28 acres of beautiful woodland in Richmond, RI.  On Adventure Day, Miss Su and the children of Morning Glory continue to enter the forest on permission from the gnomes.  They still fish in the river, picnic on popcorn, and feast on nature with all of their senses.