Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm not Rudolph Steiner

(This post outgrew its nutshell long ago, but it has a terrific poem at the end, so stay with me):

So we're looking into a new school for Iris. We've been very happy with her current school, which is a university-based early-childhood development center, although the fact that this is the first year that we haven't been 100% thrilled with her teachers makes it easier to contemplate leaving. Still, we wouldn't be contemplating it but for the commute. When I worked downtown, Iris and I simply rode together on the bus every morning and afternoon (simply? I could write a whole book, never mind a post, about that. By and large it was good). Now that I don't, the pick-up and drop-off duties – this is where I always think of one of my favorite Car Talk lackeys, Russian chauffeur Pikup Andropov – have become an onerous twice-a-day 45-minute round-trip. J and I split it, but still.

So we're looking for something closer to home.

The perfect option would seem to be the public Montessori school, which includes three- and four-year-old preschool classes, three blocks from our house. As a Montessori graduate myself, I'm all for it, plus, who can argue with free preschool? I mean, seriously, everyone should have it! The only hitch: admission is by lottery, and we did not get lucky. I thought 8th on the waiting list sounded OK until I heard there are only 7 open spots in the class. So, Iris won't be going to Montessori school this year. (We'll try again for kindergarten.)

Next stop, another few blocks up the road: Waldorf School. I haven't totally drunk the Kool-Aid on Waldorf education, but I'm interested enough to have filled out the application (four closely-typed pages of questions about everything from my pregnancy and childbirth to Iris' dream life); attended a "Waldorf sampler" for parents in which I got to participate in some of the same activities Iris would, including baking, painting, and molding beeswax; and sent Iris for a classroom visit. She liked the teacher – whose name, and people, I am not making this up, is Ms. Pagan – and the beeswax, but, uncharacteristically for her, did not hit it off with the other kids. I'm not sure what to make of this: most likely it was a matter of her being an outsider in a situation where the other kids had already clicked (or cliqued), but what if it's something more fundamental?

Other impressions:

No one likes handmade wood and felt toys more than I do, but the absence of books in the early childhood rooms kind of weirds me out. I realize that the Waldorf thing is not to push reading or other academic skills at an early age, and I'm cool with that. I also realize that the teachers do quite a bit of storytelling, and that's great. But books and reading – even including some of the questionable choices Iris makes at the library sometimes – are such a huge part of our family's life, it's hard for me to imagine her not having access to books at school.

I also like the emphasis on rhythm and ritual, flowers in the classrooms and lighting a (beeswax) candle at (organic, crunchy, homemade) snack time and all that, but I'm less comfortable with the – how shall I put this? – peculiar Waldorf mix of didacticism and mysticism. No recorded music or other electronic media! Just music in the mood of the fifth (whatever that is)! And the lyre is the only musical instrument in the classroom! Which is painted pink! And the teachers are wearing full skirts or dresses!

I'm grateful to have this book, courtesy of the school, to explain it all to me, but it's made me realize I am more of a seat-of-the-pants realist myself. I mean, I think Rudolph Steiner's heart was in the right place, and even his more eccentric ideas seem harmless. But my daughter has had a CD player in her bedroom since she was an infant, she seems to regard me as maternal enough even when I'm wearing pants, and I'm not above treating her to the occasional video, artificially-flavored lollipop, or plastic trinket from the dollar store. On the part of the Waldorf application which asked, "Are you willing to set limits on your family's exposure to media?", J and I answered, "We are comfortable with our current limits." We'll find out tomorrow, when we have a meeting with Ms. Pagan and her colleagues, how that goes over with them.

And then there's the fact that whenever I think of Waldorf school, my brain starts reciting lines from this sestina by my friend Jonah Winter:


For a low monthly charge, you can increase your vocabulary
by 600 words. Yes, 600 words! To wit: "Costermonger":
a hawker of fruits, vegetables, fish, etc.; "Pulchritudinous":
physically beautiful, comely; "Anthroposophy":
a spiritual and mystical philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner.

It is not so crucial to actually know anything about Rudolph Steiner
himself so much as it is to KNOW MORE WORDS
like – wait, where'd I put it – "anthroposophy."
Yes, you can actually feel your vocabulary
expanding as those brain cells increase to allow more space for "pulchritudinous," uhm, "costermonger."

You're at an important banquet. "Costermonger"
suddenly occurs to you during a lull. You blurt it out, and Rudolph Steiner,
of all people, appears out of nowhere, to congratulate you on your "pulchritudinous" understanding of WORDS.
"What a vocabulary!" he crows, NOT knowing YOU know HE invented ANTHROPOSOPHY.

"WELL," you say, winking at the invisible studio audience, "How's your ANTHROPOSOPHY going these days? COSTERMONGER! COSTERMONGER! COSTERMONGER!"
is key. It has to do with Rudolph Steiner
and how he and others like him respond to YOU. Words
are what make you pulchritudinous.

Take the word "pulchritudinous,"
for example. Or "anthroposophy."
By now, you should be able to use these words
comfortably in most social situations. Repeat after me: "Costermonger."
That's right! You've got it! You don't have to be Rudolph Steiner
to show off your new and very impressive vocabulary.

For years, I labored at cocktail parties with little or no vocabulary,
using hand signals and facial expressions to communicate words like "pulchritudinous."
I'm not stupid, nor are you. But neither one of us is Rudolph Steiner.
Again, you DON'T have to be the inventor of ANTHROPOSOPHY
to slyly insert "COSTERMONGER"
into a discussion of Italian-American immigration. Words

are how we talk. "Words" is the same thing as "vocabulary,"
basically? Though a "costermonger" is usually not described as "pulchritudinous,"
"anthroposophy" was invented by "Rudolph Steiner"!


Anonymous kirsten said...

i know what you mean - i love some of the waldorf idealogy (sp?) quite a bit - but no books? no seriously? i hadn't heard that before. i'm actually a big proponent for early-reading. IF the kid is ready, obviously. and how better to have a lifelong love of books than to be surrounded by them.

also, i just heard someone mention something about the 'waldorf style of reading aloud' - with no expression, so as to let the kids put meaning in it themselves. i'm pretty sure i don't agree with that one.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous meg said...

hello angelique!

i'm sure you will get a host of passionate responses to this post, so here's my dispassionate two cents...

as you can imagine, i live in a waldorf-loving corner of the country and have many friends and neighbors who have gone the waldorf way. and i'm with you in that i can embrace it to a point. and if i thought my kids weren't getting their needs met elsewhere and was selfless enough to schlep 20 minutes up the road, i would consider going that route.

my biggest reservation would be (as i suspect yours is) that there is a cult-like quality to it that rubs me the wrong way (the calling mom and dad "mama" and "papa", the boycott on all media, the european-dutch-boy haircuts i've taken to calling "the waldorf special"). ok, now i feel a little mean-spirited, but you get my point. i have a feeling that, although i'm pretty secure w/the choices i make for my family, being immersed in that culture might make make me (or worse, my kids) feel bad about those choices in little, subtle, annoying ways.

so that wasn't totally dispassionate and it was definitely more than two cents. hope it helps!

4:24 PM  
Blogger C said...

My daughter switched from public school kindergarten to Waldorf last year, and my youngest is in a Waldorf preschool.

My children get plenty of books at home. I read to them, they read to themselves, they have shelves full of books, and we go to the library. What we don't have at home is a lot of story telling, puppetry, handwork, or singing. No one seems starved for books.

There's some other weird Waldorf eccentricities, but I think no books in K and pre K classrooms are not as big a deal as they initially sound.

5:43 PM  
Blogger house on hill road said...

do you have access to a reggio program? that was the basis of my girls' preschool and we really liked the self-guided learning.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Leila said...

Dear Angelique,

You make me laugh and you are very level-headed -- and your husband has common sense too.

Thanks for the beautiful linen towel, I love it!


7:36 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

your post made me chuckle. thanks for the insight! i have always been curious about the Waldorf approach.

i feel like a crappy parent that i chose a school for my kid because of the convenience in location. oh well.

- carol (not nathan, forgot my account info. and still using my husbands)

8:03 PM  
Blogger Ecodea said...

I think Waldorf education varies somewhat from school to school. I have tried both Montessori and Waldorf with my son, and I preferred Waldorf, but then again they are not as orthodox as the example from your post.

Good luck on your school search!


7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that Waldorf is cult like. The teachers much hold the ideal and the parents do the best they can. If you are judged by the teachers than that is not good, but in my experiences as much as you can do helps. My daughter has been in Waldorf since 3.5 and all the while has watched tv in moderation and also has had a CD player in her room since birth...remember the classroom is not supposed to mirror home, and the skirt wearing is not supposed to undermine your parenting. It is role playing for the teacher and the classroom and as long as your child maintains imaginative play the media shouldn't be a factor. From my experiences Waldorf has been a wonderful learning environment and never have we been discouraged to have a family movie night or take books from the library.

4:42 PM  

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