Waldorf's homecoming School: For 25 years the independent facility has provided an education in borrowed facilities. On Oct. 1, it will break ground for its own building in Baltimore.

September 24, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

The Waldorf School of Baltimore will be a nomad no more.

After 25 years of holding classes in borrowed buildings, the growing independent school in Coldspring New Town is about to build its own home.

A home for not only eight classrooms, but also the art, music, handwork and movement classes that are an integral part of Waldorf education.

At Waldorf schools -- there are more than 100 in North America -- students learn to knit before they learn to read and paint before they print. Students, ideally, stay with the same teacher from first through eighth grade. The school has few tests, grades or textbooks.

With 200 students, Baltimore's Waldorf School is larger than ever, with students scattered among four buildings in the residential community. On Oct. 1 it will break ground on a nearby parcel for the classroom building. When more money is raised, it will add a gym-theater-library complex.

With the new building, the school will be able to consolidate classrooms and enroll about 75 more students, mirroring the growth of the Waldorf network throughout the country.

"We have grand visions and we are getting there," says Patricia Ellis, the school's administrative coordinator.

Despite a 25-year history and the hundreds of students who have been exposed to its experiential education focusing on "head, heart and hands," few people not associated with the school know much about it.

Based on the theories of the late Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the Baltimore school is one of more than 600 that have sprung from the first that opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. Steiner started his then-controversial school in the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory at the request of the factory director.

In some circles, the schools remain controversial for their nontraditional approaches and underpinnings in Steiner's philosophy, which recognizes the spiritual, as well as the physical, aspects of people.

Among his educational tenets are the belief that art, music and handicrafts are as important as reading, writing and 'rithmetic, that each day should include activities for the hands, body and heart as well as the head, and that education has a strong moral and spiritual element.

Take teacher Nina Rutledge's third-grade class, where language lessons concentrate on "Hebrew legends," beginning with Creation. Written in three shades of pastel chalk, a passage describing "the fifth day" is a recent subject.

The class reads the passage together, then one student reads it again, as the others follow along.

"What is this word?" Rutledge asks.

"Heaven," the 20 youngsters answer.

"That's right. It was in our list last week," Rutledge replies.

"What is this?" she asks, pointing to a semicolon. The children don't know. "It's halfway between a period and a comma."

In third grade, Rutledge later explains, the children "change into leaving their parents' laps. The Hebrew legend of Creation brings in the wonder [of nature] in a more sophisticated way."

As the children branch out from their homes, so does the curriculum. "We will be going into farming and house-building" -- activities that will incorporate math, language and other skills.

Soon, the language arts lesson becomes an art class in which the children illustrate the creation verse. But first they stand and say:

There's a bridge of wondrous light,

Filled with colors shining bright.

Red and orange, yellow, green,

The fairest colors ever seen.

Blue and purple, magic rose,

From heaven down to earth it flows.

Now we gently dip our brush,

Our colors speak,

Our voices hush.

Rutledge hangs up a watercolor of sea and sky that she has painted and that they will copy. She paints it again for them, detailing the colors and the strokes.

Throughout the day's "main lesson" -- a Waldorf staple in which academics are concentrated in long blocks of time in the morning -- Rutledge changes from speaking to singing. "Julie, to your seat, please," she intones. "Se-e-eth, finish your pa-per."

Another Waldorf strategy.

"In children under 9 we believe that a child's consciousness is a dream consciousness, a stream of consciousness with their imagination. Music and singing live in that place," making such instructions more meaningful, says preschool teacher Andrea Gambardella.

"We engage children through their imagination to study everything in a context," she adds. In the early grades, for instance, math is taught through activities such as baking and through nature's shapes and symmetry.

Waldorf students do not begin reading books until late in second grade, says Susan Nierenberg, this year's fourth-grade teacher. "Reading is taught through writing," beginning with pictorial representations of the alphabet and continuing in words, sentences and eventually long passages, read aloud by the whole class.

In the upper grades, learning becomes slightly more traditional, with the study of math and sciences, as well as ancient history. Students begin to take tests, and the teacher's sing-song gives way to direct instruction.

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