Waldorf alumni reflect on unorthodox education

Photo courtesy of Amelia Eichel

By Amelia Eichel

A Waldorf education is often associated with mandatory interpretive dancing (aka Eurythmy), no homework and children playing with plain wooden toys. There are a handful of Lewis & Clark students who went to Waldorf schools, and their stories reveal the quirks, benefits and shortcomings of this alternative education experience.  

William Humphreys ’19 attended Summerfield Waldorf School & Farm in Santa Rosa, California for third through eighth grade. He had a particularly wild Waldorf experience due to the freedom that the teachers and parents gave students during recess and field trips.

One of Humphreys’ craziest Waldorf stories took place during a field trip when he was in fifth grade. Half of his class went hiking in the temperate rainforest north of Point Reyes while the other half, led by a parent volunteer named Raincrow, hiked on the beach below. When Humphreys and his classmates got to the end of the beach hike, Raincrow noticed a hole in the side of the cliff and ushered the kids through it. The hole led to a U-shaped secluded beach cut off by cliffs that went into the ocean on both sides. It was covered in sharp rocks and abalone shells. While the rest of the class sat by the hole and ate their lunch, Humphreys and two of his friends ventured off to gather abalone shells. After about 30 minutes, Raincrow noticed that the tide was rising and that the hole was below the tide line. He quickly ushered the students back through the hole without counting them. Humphreys and his friends noticed after a while that not only was their class gone, but the ocean had covered the hole and they were trapped.

“As kids we decided it was magic, like there was some fairy messing with us, especially because that’s the kind of stories they read to us at Waldorf,” Humphreys said. “So we’re like ‘alright, how do we fix this situation?’ Our Waldorf training kicks in and we think ‘well the tide’s coming in,’ and we realize that we can’t stay on the beach, we have to leave. We obviously can’t swim; the tide is so rough that surfers aren’t allowed there, it’ll just kill you. So we decide we have to climb the cliff.”

The three fifth graders made a pact that if any of them fell, they would not go back for them because they would die. The cliff was not completely vertical, but it was all loose dirt that would break away when they put weight on it and it was covered in blackberry bushes.

“We took off our long-sleeves and made baby bjorns to hold all of our abalone shells,” Humphreys said. “Every once in a while, someone would need to make an emergency grab at a blackberry bush. We were bleeding down the arms by the time we got up. We finally pulled ourselves over the top, we were shaking, bleeding everywhere. We couldn’t feel a single thing, the sheer endorphins flooding through our bodies. When you’re in a life or death situation your body’s like ‘we don’t have time for pain right now.’”

The three boys followed a deer trail through the rainforest and eventually ran into the other half of their class.

“Our teacher sees us in flip flops, shorts, covered in blood and dirt, shaking with abalone shells in the middle of the woods where there’s not even a trail, and he says ‘alright, get in the line,’ and we joined the line and walked back,” Humphreys said. “When Raincrow saw us he said ‘oh that’s where you went,’ and never said anything else about it.”

According to Humphreys, safety is not one of Waldorf’s top priorities.

“They make parents sign a waiver at the beginning saying if your child gets damaged it is not our fault,” Humphreys said. “I loved that. They give you space and freedom.”

The students particularly enjoyed and took advantage of the space and freedom they had to run around during recess.

“We had this area near our school past the campus and beyond the massive field that we played on called the Wetlands,” Gabe Mertz ’20 said. “We would always try to convince our teacher to let us go to the Wetlands and they’d just let us run loose. Me and my friends would go out really far and get stuck in the mud. My fondest memory is playing out there.”

Academically, a Waldorf education is very different from an education at a traditional American public school. The Waldorf school system was created by a German philosopher named Rudolf Steiner.

“Each lesson is taught anecdotally, like a story,” Ethan Kelner ’20 said. “Each kid puts the information that they learned from that day’s lesson on a page. Those pages are put together into main lesson books.”

Main lesson books are Steiner’s version of textbooks. Instead of making kids learn from the textbooks, the students create their own main lesson books. Not ever having had to sit down and read from a textbook for hours, some LC students find it hard to transition to book learning in college.

“I’ve been having a lot of trouble learning from textbooks,” Sarah Price ’20 said. “The fact that half of my grade is not based on how beautiful I make something has been hard. That was a huge confidence boost at Waldorf because I would make things beautiful and that would make my grade better.”

Because the teaching style is so different, the transition from Waldorf high school to college can be difficult for LC students.

“The biggest change was the lack of main lessons,” Curtis Trueblood ’20 said. “Having to continue doing four classes consistently throughout the semester was hard at first. Waldorf cultured a shorter attention span.”

Waldorf schools do not assign homework, which all of the students found very beneficial in the younger grades, but feel that it did not prepare them for the heavy homework load in school after Waldorf.

“At first, I found it really hard to grind,” Kelner said. “At Waldorf, you do the work in class and you enjoy it. Being self-motivated was hard for me. It is something I am still learning to do.”

At Waldorf schools, students take German and Spanish throughout elementary and middle school and then choose one of them to focus on in high school.

“The focus on foreign language was the biggest part of my Waldorf experience,” Price said. “I chose German in high school. Through that program I was able to study abroad for six months in high school. I am now fluent in German and I am going to Germany next year to study abroad.”  

Art and hands-on work is a huge part of the Steiner education and proved to be very influential in Humphreys’ education beyond Waldorf.

“The thing that inspired me to become a surgeon was handwork, which we took every year,” Humphreys said. “Third grade was crocheting, fourth grade was cross-stitch, fifth was knitting, sixth grade was stuffed-animal making, seventh grade was stone carving and eighth grade was wood-whittling. We walked out in the woods, found a stump, cut that stump into pieces and made a spoon out of it.”

Overall, Waldorf instills a curiosity and love for learning which has impacted these LC students.

“Waldorf makes you love to learn,” Mertz said. “That love for learning has been the foundation of my education and has helped me at LC to be curious and interested in what I’m studying.”

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