The light of learning
April 17, 2003
Sitting quietly alongside Highway 82 east of the Catherine Store is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork – a far cry from the private and public schools that most of us attended as children.
For starters, the walls are made of straw bales rather than cinder blocks. Inside, natural illumination is so abundant that electric lights aren’t flipped on until the sun sets or on particularly gloomy days.
But it’s never gloomy inside the Waldorf – a pastel paint job in hallways and classrooms keeps the mood pleasant, and the building’s thick, straw-insulated walls repel the winter’s cold.
The organic-style building is unique, and so is the school experience.
Inside and out, the Waldorf on the Roaring Fork is akin to summer camp. Aside from lessons in math, geometry and Spanish, Waldorf kids learn how to knit and how to play the recorder, and they all have beautiful handwriting after learning calligraphy.
Their school assignments are often punctuated with colored-pencil illustrations ranging from portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. to diagrams of the earth’s core. Students don’t use textbooks, but listen to their teachers’ lessons during the year and build their own brightly colored books of everything they’ve learned as the year progresses.
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Many parents tell stories about children smiling and running into school when the morning bell rings. Some say their students’ creative abilities might have been squelched if not for the Waldorf school and that it encourages the musical, theatrical and visual arts.
“I loved that my children would be learning their lessons in such a magical place, where all the kids looked like they were having fun while learning,” said Renee Ramge, one of the school’s many parent volunteers.
It’s a group effort at the Waldorf on the Roaring Fork: Administrative decisions are made through consensus, and parents and teachers used their own muscles to hoist the straw bales that first formed the unique building.
A school community
Waldorf education has been available in the Roaring Fork Valley for 12 years, at first in Aspen’s Yellow Brick school building. Waldorf bought the land near the Catherine Store in 1996.
Parents, teachers and even students pitched in over 19 weeks to build what was then the largest straw-bale building in the United States – “It was like an Amish barn-raising,” one administrator said.
In summer 2000, an Early Childhood Center was built to accommodate a growing enrollment of 3- to 6-year-olds.
In 2001 the campus grew again to include a community hall – an auditorium with a stage, administrative offices and a spacious lounge where teachers and parents can gather.
On the school’s 13 acres sit the straw-bale structures and a wide, grassy field where the children have “games,” a noncompetitive sort of physical education. On the edges of the field are compost piles built by third-grade students learning about farming, and the front of the school will soon feature an orchard and gardening project.
There are now 122 students from preschool through eighth grade. They come from as far away as Aspen, Marble and Silt.
Parents don’t seem to mind the commuting distances. Many are just as involved in the school as their children are. Parent volunteers gather over coffee in the community hall to plan the nonprofit’s next fund-raiser. Parents sit on various planning committees, and final decisions are made by a community council of the board of trustees, faculty and parents.
“Parents here want to be involved, and they give so much of themselves even though it’s not a requirement,” said Julie Mulcahy, the school’s enrollment coordinator. “The parents are part of what makes this school hum.”
Imagination and free thinking
Drawing pictures on the blackboard and on assignments isn’t considered doodling at the Waldorf – it’s just how kids are taught.
The roots of Waldorf education go back to 1919, when Austrian Rudolf Steiner first developed the concept of educating children using certain developmental stages as a guide. This means the youngest kids aren’t rushed into academic drills, but are encouraged to use imagination to build, garden, paint and play outdoors.
In grade school, students are taught one subject for the first two hours of the day for two to four weeks at a time – science, math, history, geography or language arts. After the main lesson, students move on to a “classical education” of fine arts, foreign language, crafts, and vocal and instrumental music. The arts are a key component of Waldorf education, which aims to develop well-rounded young people.
All first-graders learn how to sing and play recorders. In third grade, violin lessons begin, and older students can either continue with string instruments or take up wind instruments. A school orchestra allows them to perform.
All of the school’s subjects develop as the musical instruction does – from year to year, along with the children as they grow. For example, the subject of History and Cultural Studies takes on a new theme every year. First-graders learn fairy tales and folk tales; second-graders move to fables, legends and folklore; third-graders learn stories from the Old Testament; and fourth-graders learn Norse sagas, Indian legends and local history.
Later the students grow into mythology, Roman and medieval history, the Renaissance and finally the age of revolutions (French, American, Russian) to the present. These cultural and historical subjects become themes for each grade throughout the school year. The children make beeswax historical scenes and work on class plays based on their grade’s cultural or mythological theme.
In a class called “Eurythmics” the students enter a dance room and learn to link movements with speech and music. The room has a piano and looks like a dance studio, but there are no mirrors on the walls to make the students self-conscious.
“The artistic approach de-mands that children expose themselves, and put themselves out there,” said teacher Frances Lewis. “It does a lot to cultivate the imagination in these grades, and imagination is a precursor to free thinking.”
It’s the teachers’ responsibility to create an enthusiasm for learning, Lewis said, and when she sees a student with a pale, bored face, she switches gears to wake the kids up and bring them back into a lesson.
Lewis has been with her particular class of eighth-graders since they were in the first grade; Waldorf encourages such situations, in which teachers truly get to know students and families, but even in this unique environment it’s a rare and ideal occurrence.
“Our kids are enthusiastic about learning, and our teachers love them because these kids aren’t burned out on school,” Mulcahy said. “We teach them self-discipline and independence, and they master the ability to think analytically and critically.”
The littlest students
The Early Childhood Center building sits just across the school’s grassy field from the main building complex, surrounded by a fence and a play yard.
The space for the youngest students is built with less natural light and more soft lighting, for a womblike effect. The two rooms for small children are cozy and smell like freshly baked bread. Pint-sized chairs line tables that are just above knee height.
A spirit of encouraging imagination thrives at the Early Childhood Center, to follow the philosophy of Waldorf education.
None of the dolls in the room have faces, and, for the most part, toys are simple wooden playthings, some with wheels, some without. Mulcahy said the simpler the toys, the more the children use their imaginations. Picking up a 3-foot length of braided yarn, for example, children spend an impressive amount of time pretending the rope is anything from the reins of a horse to the leash for an imaginary dog.
Again, imagination is the precursor to free and creative thought.
“I think our students leave here and feel like they can do anything – they’re so self-assured in who they are,” Mulcahy said.
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org