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.