Grandparents & Friends Day Address by David Sloan,

 

10/22/10

       Good morning, you lucky grandparents.  I must confess from the outset that I stand before all of you with a twinge of envy that you are all, indeed, grandparents and I, alas, am still a grandparent-in-waiting.  I have several promising candidates to elevate me into your exalted ranks—that is, four grown children, ranging in age from 22 to 31—but only one is currently married, and since that blessed event took place just two weeks ago, I suppose it’s a bit impatient of me to expect too much too soon.  My three sons and my daughter all went through 13 or 14 years of Waldorf education in New York state, so they are products of the Waldorf nursery/kindergarten, elementary school and the high school, what in Waldorf circles the students refer to as “lifers.” I suppose that makes me a “half-lifer,” as I have been a teacher in a Waldorf high school for over thirty years.  Since the Merriconeag Waldorf School is now in its fourth year of existence, during which time we have grown from 16 to 40 students, I thought I might take a few minutes to describe how the high school builds upon the foundations provided for younger students in the earlier years. 

       We high school teachers are ever mindful of our students’ rich inheritance from the early childhood and elementary school.  A Waldorf high school is, in so many ways the blossoming of the seed planted in those younger years, because first and foremost, Waldorf education proceeds according to a developmental understanding of the human being.  That is why we don’t treat our nursery-kindergarteners as little adults, but rather as children who need to play, to exercise their bountiful imaginations, to imitate the purposeful gestures of their teachers.  So the children bake bread, rake leaves, plant bulbs, sing songs, experience the wisdom of nature stories and folk tales, often through the magic of puppetry.

       Take bread baking—that seemingly simple activity provides the basis for so many future skills: the measuring of ingredients foreshadows the arithmetic they will learn in the elementary school; the kneading of the dough exercises their will, so critical to the development of the resolve they will need in the years ahead; the awe aroused by the magical transformation of flour, yeast, water, salt and a little honey into mouth-watering bread really sets the stage for the focused attention they will bring to bear when they work in their high school science courses—thermodynamics in ninth grade, acids and bases in tenth grade chemistry, marine biology in twelfth.  The seniors just came back last month from a week at Hermit Island, where they and another 100 Waldorf twelfth graders waded into the tide pools to study first-hand the marine life there.     

        Perhaps most important of all, bread-baking requires patience, especially when those delicious aromas permeate the whole kindergarten and the children learn they have to wait until just the right moment.  Even this simple act of delayed gratification is an important building block for the self-discipline they will need in the future.

        You see, in the Waldorf school, nothing is done randomly.  The entire curriculum really is like cultivating a garden, whose seeds I mentioned before produce complex and mature plants of every variety.  You can see it in the first grade, where the class teacher introduces many subjects through fairy talesThe archetypal pictures such stories engender in the children—the wise old woman who lives at the edge of the dark, forbidding woods, the animals who come to the aid of the resourceful girl trying to wend her way back home, the prince trapped in the body of a bear—help to develop the imaginative faculties that high schoolers will need when they study more adult “fairy tales”—the Odyssey in 10th grades, the epic of Gilgamesh in 11th grade, the stories of Parzival, Prince Hamlet, also in 11th grade, and of the ill-fated Faust and Brothers Karamozov in 12th grade.

         Another part of the curriculum where you can see these seeds growing is in the handwork program.  At first glance, handwork seems like a quaint but outmoded throwback to earlier times.  After all, who learns to crochet a cap these days?  Who stitches his or her own moccasins, or sews his or her pajamas from scratch?  Your grandchildren do, and not because Waldorf education is stuck in the nineteenth century!  Study after recent study suggests that one consequence of today’s children being raised amid all these electronic media is an alarming diminishment of their sensory awareness and motor skills.  The average young person spends over 7 hours and 45 minutes a day in front of one screen or another, and the only will activity involved is the pressing of keys.  So the handwork that has been a signature program of Waldorf schools for over ninety years is becoming more critical than ever to cultivate health and balance in our children.  The knitting that all first graders learn and the woodworking that begins in fourth grade with the carving of butter knives develops manual and mental dexterity that enable high school students to fashion intricate copper earrings, or to hammer iron hooks in the blacksmith’s forge, or to make a tile mosaic in the manner of medieval artisans, or to sculpt a self-portrait in clay.

       In the early grades another key activity is what we call form drawing, a freehand rendering of straight and curved line patterns that helps cultivate beautiful handwriting.  As we all know, handwriting is a dying art, but one worth perpetuating for its pedagogical value, if we can believe the article that just ran a couple of weeks ago the Wall St. Journal.  In it, the author quoted recent research proving that handwriting stimulates much more neural activity than keyboarding.  More than that, form drawing sets the stage for the more precise geometrical shapes that students create in sixth grade with compass, straight edge and triangle, and the perspective drawing that seventh graders learn when they study the Renaissance.  And that transform into explorations regarding the nature of infinity in eleventh grade projective geometry.

        One more example of this curricular interweaving—of course, most of you know that Waldorf schools are a worldwide movement, with a curriculum that celebrates the diversity of cultures around the globe.  To that end, we are one of the only schools that require students to learn two languages throughout their elementary school education.  The French and German songs they learn in the early grades has helped prepare our high school students for three-month sojourns in Germany or France, during which time they have become semi-fluent in the native tongue.  By the end of this year, over half of our eligible sophomores, juniors and seniors will have spent time abroad.  We have heard rumors that our students on foreign exchange have occasionally taken advantage of the opportunity to become semi-fluent in another area by sampling some of Europe’s finer beverages, but that rumor has never been substantiated.

          These are just a few of the countless examples of the interweaving that distinguishes the Waldorf curriculum, from the imaginative play in the early childhood center, to the artistic, feeling-oriented, skills-building of the elementary school, to the intellectual development of the high school years.  And what is the end of all this interweaving?  For an answer, I need to turn to the words of a businessman.

       Jeffrey Hollander is the founder and CEO of the green company Seventh Generation; he is also a Waldorf parent in Vermont; he recently wrote an article entitled “Why You Can’t Grow a Business without Growing People” that appeared in Lilipoh magazine.  In the article he noted that his best employees were creative thinkers; they were also passionate about the mission of the company and motivated self-starters.  He then referred to a survey of over 550 Waldorf graduates worldwide, in which the authors (David Mitchell and Douglas Gerwin) discovered three predominant characteristics many of these Waldorf graduates shared:                                      
1) They tended to think outside the box; that is, they thought for themselves, approached problems in creative and imaginative ways, unfettered by traditional answers. In this regard, they looked for the relationships between seemingly disparate ideas.                     
2) They valued lasting human relationships; living in community was a desirable intention.

3) In their conduct, they tended to be guided by ethical principles, by a kind of moral compass. They believed that it was not “going out of their way” to help others. 

       Not surprisingly, Jeffrey Hollander has begun actively recruiting Waldorf graduates to work in his company, since they seem to possess the qualities he’s looking for.  He’s not alone; the world is beginning to wake up to what Waldorf graduates have to offer.  When Rudolf Steiner founded the first Waldorf school, he didn’t conceive of it as simply a learning center.  He saw it as a center for social and cultural renewal for the world.  Your grandchildren are living examples of the power of this mission.  They are developing capacities that our world needs now more than ever: creativity and inner mobility in their thinking; an appreciation for relationships of all kinds—between ideas, disciplines, people; and a purposefulness born of a wish to make the world a better place. You should applaud yourselves for supporting such a vision.