By Sarah Hearn
“There are a great many people who do not know how the paper on which they write or the material they are wearing is manufactured, nor, if they wear leather shoes, how the leather is prepared…we cannot of course achieve everything in this direction, but we try to make it our aim as far as possible to give the children some knowledge of the work done in the most varied trades, and to see to it that they themselves also learn how to do certain kinds of work which are done in real life”
—Rudolf Steiner, The Kingdom of Childhood, 1924, Lecture 7
Back in the ‘70s, a leader of the Waldorf movement, Karl Ege, wrote a powerful collection of essays, entitled An Evident Need of Our Time (Adonis Press, 1979). The essays centered around his concern for our increasingly stunted relationship to nature, and the future of education. He created a new picture for the future of schooling, wherein meaningful work and immersion in nature find thoughtful integration with cognitive education. A teacher at the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart, Germany, Ege dedicated his life to this vision, which culminated in a new initiative in upstate New York: The Rudolf Steiner Farm School, which would transform and become the Hawthorne Valley Association.
This initiative was intended as a response to Rudolf Steiner’s perception that the education of the future would need to turn 180 degrees in the direction of the artistic and the practical. In his essays, Ege expressed that our increasing alienation from nature, from each other, and from the spiritual world, could only be healed by a collaborative effort to renew education. Specifically, he appealed to the Waldorf school movement, which has inarguably led the way in educating “the whole child” through head, heart, and hands. He brought forward gentle, yet firm constructive criticism, and raised the bar for what is possible and expected from Waldorf education. He did this by exposing the fact that the practical and artistic activities of the Waldorf curriculum are too often merely “supportive and enlivening factors” in the education, and it could, he suggested, be the other way around. They could be the starting point; a robust foundation of creative and practical work to bring balance and harmony to the developing child, from which intellectual knowledge and understanding could naturally arise. Perhaps Thoreau said it most matter-of-factly, in his little diatribe on the effectiveness of a curriculum in which hand-work and head-work are deeply, and meaningfully integrated:
“But,” says one, “you do not mean that the students should go work with their hands instead of their heads?” I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?...Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month,—the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, – or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the mean while, and had received a Rogers’ penknife from his father? (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
Like Thoreau, both Steiner and Ege recognized that this deep wisdom linking the thinking and willing aspects of the human being points to the educative capacity of practical, hands-on projects. Steiner’s curative education course emphasized the importance of practical work, of dexterity, skills, and movement of the limbs as essential for the healthy development of the intellect, especially for children who struggle with academic work.
We can easily imagine the conventional response to children struggling with intellectual development: increased use of academic tutoring, more remedial classes, study sessions, and perhaps different types of testing—a far cry from Thoreau’s picture of experiential, will-based education. But this is the reality that so many children face. Last year, a new study revealed that one in 88 children will be diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum (the rate was one in 155 in 2005), and four million children suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments. Studies show that 2.4 million students have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, and nearly seven percent of students are diagnosed with ADHD. All the while, children’s time outdoors and relationship to nature is continually slighted. A new Canadian study showed that more than 70 percent of their youth spend an hour or less outside each day. And of course, this is to say nothing of the children who are not “special needs” students, but have an extremely difficult time in traditional classrooms, even in Waldorf schools. What are children asking of us?
Children who struggle in the classroom setting are asking us to meet them with a profound sense of responsibility and care for their individual needs, and with deep trust in their unfolding development. We must do this regardless of what tests, grades, and evaluations have to say about them. And if we put credence in the reality of the spiritual worlds and humanity’s evolving consciousness, we know that we have to say yes to these children and find ways to commit to their needs just as they are, here and now. Einstein warned us that if we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. The matter at hand is a delicate one. In meeting a child with difficulties, as a teacher, parent, or friend, we must ask ourselves, who is this child? What are the gifts he or she is bringing? And how can we best serve them? Simply put, we have to become highly adaptive; children need and deserve our creative attention. In the Waldorf school movement, we can offer them our best ideas, our thoughtful experimentation, our trials, and hopefully our successes.
Across the US and abroad, there are many inspiring school programs with predominantly outdoor curriculums, centered in practical and artistic activities, which work in conscious relationship with nature and the seasons. Some of these programs work especially to meet the needs of children with difficulties; and all of the programs mentioned below are guided by Rudolf Steiner’s indications for Waldorf and curative education. These initiatives have shown great success in their work, and all have the potential to impact the future of education in the Waldorf movement and beyond. A few of these programs were directly inspired by Ege’s An Evident Need of Our Time, including a new initiative, THE EARTH: Education and Renewal Through the Hands, which is scheduled to begin its first school year this September.
Around Hawthorne Valley, Ege’s original Evident Need vision of a Farm School, never quite faded. His dream of fully integrating the practical and artistic with the academic endured, even as the exigencies of running a Waldorf School, with its treasure-laden curriculum, filled the hearts and minds of the teachers. While aspects of the impulse live in the association’s Visiting Students Program and Waldorf school, a new program has emerged to more fully and intentionally embody Ege’s imagination of school-experience, life-experience, and nature-experience acting as one.
EARTH is a collaboration of the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School and Farm Learning Center and will welcome a small group of middle schoolers struggling in the traditional classroom, to be part of its inaugural school year. The program is designed with a predominantly outdoor curriculum, and will engage students in practical, hands-on projects on and around the farm, supported by academic and artistic work related to their project themes. The children will begin each day with morning chores: gathering eggs, feeding the animals, and other seasonally relevant tasks. After the bustle of an early morning outdoors, the students will join their Waldorf class and teacher for the scheduled main lesson block. Promptly thereafter, they will return to the EARTH program for a hands-on project for the rest of the morning, and corresponding academic and artistic work in the afternoons.
Ege’s legacy streams through the EARTH’s thematically cohesive project curriculum, embracing nature and the rhythm and regularities of the seasons (something a traditional school schedule is unable to accommodate). In the fall, the students will work in the garden, with harvesting and preservation as the central focus in the morning, and seed craft, wreathes, and plant dying as the parallel afternoon activities. Later in the fall, they will harvest apples, explore the life and work of bees and insects, and deepen their knowledge of the role of compost in the farm organism.
In winter time, the program’s blocks will focus on cows, sheep, and then horses, as well as forging, ice harvesting, and maple sugaring. The afternoon blocks flow directly out of these practical concentrations and will include leatherwork, horn craft, felt, and fleece, and weaving and sewing their own bags and clothing. The children will study business math geared toward the project at hand—whether it be cow feeding, compost, or maple syrup production. They will explore their experience of the economy of time and resources spent, and when they’ve harvested fall apples, grain or other foodstuffs, forged iron, or dipped candles, the children will meet the financial realities of selling their value-added products to the school community.
In the spring, the students will shear and wash wool; learn to make cheese; meet the flora and fauna of gardens and streams; and experience plowing and planting, while painting, drawing, potting, and sculpting.
The EARTH program’s founder and lead teacher, Stu Summer, brings with him the fruits of his experiences in land/place-based education, and as a class teacher in a traditional Waldorf classroom for the past twenty years. Over the years, Mr. Summer has encountered a number of students whose needs couldn’t fully be met by the Waldorf curriculum schedule. “There are kids who really struggle in the classroom, that pretty much need to move around every seven minutes,” he explains, “but often those children who struggle in the classroom become leaders in outdoor projects. These experiences can create confidence that supports breakthroughs in the classroom.” Summer’s colleagues at the Learning Center are experienced Waldorf and farm-based educators, and have all observed how “problem children” become leaders and collaborators in the “field.”
As early as Rudolf Steiner’s first experience with curative education as 11-year-old Otto Specht’s tutor. As he worked with this boy deemed uneducable due to social and learning difficulties, he observed that “the secret of the matter lay in the care and attention given to the movements of the limbs.” His curative course emphasizes that “mere intellectual attention to the world can never work therapeutically; the feeling and the will must also be engaged,” and his seminal lectures on education and child development stress that “the right way is, as far as possible, to awaken the intellect through the will.” As such, purposeful, project-based work in nature, where the will is actively engaged, can be key to helping children with cognitive, volitional and social difficulties. The faculty and staff are designing the EARTH curriculum with these realities in mind. Their experiences have confirmed that by engaging in practical projects, children are more able to control impulsivity, increase their focus and concentration, and to work better in groups. The program’s vision is that by activating both their will and intellect in such a rich and integrated program, they will be happier, healthier, and will be able to apply themselves in any context. They will have a better sense of themselves, and have a stronger ability to confront adversity and take initiative.
OTHER RELEVANT PROGRAMS
FARM-BASED EDUCATORS INSPIRED BY ANTHROPOSOPHY (FBEIBA)
From their website: FBEIBA's purpose is to cultivate collegiality, networking, and best practices in this emerging field. We gather annually in the fall, in different regions of the country to further our mission.
THE MOTHER EARTH SCHOOL
Santa Rosa, California
From their website: At Mulberry, we have been working out of curative education for the last ten years, and we have seen the results of Steiner's intentions carried out in the progress the children make. Through this work many children have been able to return to a large classroom without significant difficulties and ready to take up their work academically and socially. Other children are served by Mulberry in that they can receive a Waldorf Education tailored for their own time schedule; one that allows them to succeed at their own pace and feel real pride in their work. Farm chores have become an integral part of morning movement time, and the children are very proud of their farm.
Aonghus Gordon is a remarkable educator. He is well known in Waldorf circles for his remarkable work with the Ruskin Mill Education Trust in England since 1982, helping to turn lost youth around through a hands-on, nature- and place-based curriculum. Mr. Gordon was inspired to begin his work, back in the 1970s, by An Evident Need of Our Time by Karl Ege. Mr. Gordon is quoted as follows at a biodynamics conference last year: “Meeting resistance in matter helps us move through our own inner resistance. The blacksmith hammers out his own stiffness. The carpenter smooths her own rough edges”
THE OTTO SPECHT SCHOOL
Chestnut Ridge, New York
From their website: The Otto Specht School offers a developmentally appropriate academic and artistic curriculum to small, individualized classes of children in grades 1 through 12. The school is designed for children with learning differences, alternative learning styles, and sensory and social sensitivities. Classroom work is integrated with dramatic, visual, musical and movement arts, as well as practical skills including cooking, weaving, woodwork, metalwork, farming and animal care.
FARM LEARNING CENTER AT HAWTHORNE VALLEY
THE VISITING STUDENTS PROGRAM AT HAWTHORNE VALLEY
Sarah Hearn co-founded Think OutWord (www.thinkoutword.org) for which she has organized and presented at dozens of conferences, workshops and intensive studies since its inception. Sarah is a research associate at The Hawthorne Valley Center for Social Research and teaches the senior economics main lesson block at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School.