Dog Eared, Part III, Chapter 1

Midsummer Night’s Dream

I’m freezing. God, am I freezing and it’s the beginning of May. It’s the beginning of May and I’m setting up for the Chicago Waldorf School’s annual May Celebration and Book Fair. It’s the first time that I’ve participated in this event. I thought since it’s local that it would be a good thing to do. And, besides, I’m into Rudolf Steiner—or was.

When I started teaching at the World Family School, the alternative school that was tucked away in the attic of a house on a backstreet in Bozeman, Montana, I was reading all things Steiner. I like to think that I brought Rudolf Steiner to Montana. None of my friends had ever heard of him. And the woman who ran the school, she’d never heard of him either—and she’d married an Austrian and had traveled all over Europe. But Steiner is definitely not part of the mainstream. Why he’s even more radical than the pipe-smoking Scottish educator A. S. Neill, who founded the ultra progressive school Summerhill in the 1930s. Where Neill is laissez faire to the extreme, Steiner is strict and regimented, but not in a militaristic manner. No, Steiner is strict because of his adherence to the spiritual vision that informed him throughout his life. In this sense, then, the two are quite alike: both dogmatic to the nth degree about their views of children and education.

Although I respond to Neill’s non-coercive educational theory, it is Steiner’s unique, even cultish, views on child development and education that attract me. I bought every book that he wrote on the subject. I bought them as much for the content as I did for their physical presence. The covers were always the same: an exotic text, often handwritten, floating on top of a solid background color. Take The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy. Floating on a background of solid midnight blue is a rather delicate pink script that announces the title of the book and its author. Or, take The Child’s Changing Consciousness as the Basis of Pedagogical Practice, where maroon and pale blue fonts alternately float upon a sea of deep pink. There is something always very dramatic about the physical presence of a Steiner book. You know you’re holding something special—even otherworldly.

Even though I use the word “otherworldly” to describe Steiner’s ideas about life and the spiritual world around us, I wouldn’t necessarily use it to describe his educational ideas. The word “commonsense” comes more to mind. Here are three of his deepest-held beliefs:

Educate the whole child. Above everything else, Steiner believed in the education of the whole child, which the Waldorf School’s motto—Head, Hands, and Heart—connotes. To educate the whole child, you have to look at each child as an individual in a non-competitive, open (but not laissez faire) environment. To Steiner, this meant no classification of students into intellectual levels, no class lists, no examinations, no honors or advanced classes, no report cards, and no compulsory homework.

Respect the developmental process. To hold this stance, one has to respect the child and the child’s developmental process, which means that the Waldorf School curriculum responds to the child, not vice versa. Unlike the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who used discreet tools to measure a child’s development, Steiner believed that the best way to understand a child’s development was through observation over a long period of time and this is why one teacher takes a group of students successively through the first eight years of school. The teacher becomes more than an observer however; she becomes an important authority figure—a surrogate parent if you will.                   

Nurture the imagination. In Waldorf education the imagination is everything, and what better way to nurture the imagination than through story. Folk and fairy tales, myths, fables and legends—all of these forms of story are integrated throughout the Waldorf curriculum. Each story form has a lesson or teaching embedded in it, though not necessarily a moral. Often they are paired: whereas folk tales teach us about the life of peasants, fairy tales teach us about the life of the aristocracy; while fables teach us about human foibles, legends teach us about extraordinary feats of heroism. The Waldorf curriculum is always about balance, for that is the only way to teach the whole child.

And that’s what I’m doing right now—balancing—because I’m teetering on my tiptoes trying to help the vendor next to me set up his clothes rack (for the third time) after the wind blew it down. He’s from Nigeria and has only been in Chicago a few months. You can tell because he’s definitely not ready for a blustery day in early May that Chicago can readily produce. I thought I was cold, when I look at him I notice that he’s wearing a pair of summer slacks, a short-sleeve shirt, and a pair of leather sandals. Definitely not the kind of apparel you’d want to wear on a chilly day in May.

We finally get his clothes rack set up. I even encourage him to put on a few extra pieces of apparel from the rack. As we do, people begin to arrive for the fair. Since the fair is held in Rogers Park on Chicago’s north side, I expect to see a very diverse population. But the people streaming into the fair area look like they just disembarked from the bus carrying Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. There’s lots of tie-dye t-shirts, braided hair adorned with clusters of dandelion flowers, loose-fitting leather sandals, and hand-woven woolen hats. It’s an eclectic bunch, mostly young, I’d say high school age or younger, with the occasional parent escort. And they’re all here to celebrate May Day with a May Pole dance. I mean who besides the Soviets celebrates May Day.

Folks at the Waldorf School do and I’m glad they do because even though it’s a biting forty-five degrees out and I’ve haven’t sold a single book, boys and girls, moms and dads, and even a few teachers are prancing around a large May Pole in wanton abandonment in a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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