The Life Affirming and Future-Oriented Nature of Waldorf Education

The Life Affirming and Future-Oriented Nature of Waldorf Education
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
This is traditionally a season that calls for courage as the light fades, nights become longer, and we head into winter. This year, in addition to seasonal changes, our world is testing us and calling for courage on a daily basis. A series of disasters, natural and human, is taking its toll on our sense of security and wellbeing. After hurricanes and earthquakes, the latest, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, have left many on edge and feeling insecure. For school administrators and leaders, messaging and providing support for children, teachers, and parents has become a too-frequent task. There is inevitable concern about our ability to receive repeated terrible news as we struggle to find the right words and actions in response to multiple, major events. We send our thoughts, best wishes, and sympathy to all those directly affected or with families and friends who have been directly impacted.
As Public Waldorf educators, what can we offer to our children and families as we navigate these troubling times? Help is available in the successful intervention practices of trauma-informed education in general and the remarkable work of the international Waldorf “Emergency Pedagogy” team in particular. Key, familiar principles emerge:
  • Creating or providing a safe space; the importance of routines and rhythms. It is reassuring when the everyday life and demands of school continue.
  • Relationships, important for all of us, bringing a feeling of “I see you and care about you”.
  • Movement, and the opportunity it provides to integrate responses and release feelings.
  • Arts, for the many ways they provide outlets and the chance for self-expression.
  • Connection to nature for its powerful healing and grounding qualities.
  • Stories, for the positive and life affirming images they can bring.
  • Restricting exposure to the repeated, graphic images of disaster scenes that are streamed into lives on media.
  • When speaking with children, allow them to take the lead; respond to their questions and gauge their level of comprehension and their desire and ability to know more.
  • Extra attention to bedtime as a place where fears may be expressed, reassurance sought, and again the importance of predictable routines.
  • Active engagement our wills and contributing to our communities through volunteer work (chores are included here), helpful deeds, or similar.
  • Self-care for the care providers, found through practice of the above with children or alone, through collegial work and discussion, and through inner reflective practices.
It is noteworthy that all of these are features of Waldorf education and are reflected in our Core Principles.
I was always grateful for the life-affirming and future-oriented nature of Waldorf teaching. Taking a lead from Mother Theresa, teaching gives us multiple, daily opportunities to practice small deeds done with great love. May we all find
peace of heart and the satisfaction of meaningful work in these challenging times.
With best wishes,
Liz Beaven, President

Confirming Our Commitment to the Core Values  of Inclusion, Social Justice & Tolerance

 Dear Colleagues,
As a new school year opens, we send warm wishes for joyful beginnings and a successful year to come.  We know that, in addition to the pleasure of greeting colleagues, students, and their families after the summer break, the start of a new school year brings many demands for meetings, organization, planning, and all the details of setting up rooms and campuses. We wish you well with those many activities.
As this year opens, in addition to the routine demands of a new year, many of you may be addressing your community’s reactions to the recent incident in Charlottesville and ensuing events.  With this in mind, our back to school messagetakes a sober tone as we feel compelled to add our voice to the many that are sounding across the nation, strongly affirming our commitment to core values of inclusion, social justice, and tolerance.
The Alliance for Public Waldorf Education is firmly opposed to hate speech or acts, prejudice, exclusion, and bigotry in any form.  Key to the impulse of Public Waldorf education, we strive towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and access for all to an enriched education.  These values are included in our Core Principles and they live strongly in our work and in our member schools. We believe in the transformative power of education as a force for social change and we stand for the free, respectful, inclusive exchange of diverse points of view and opinions.
Waldorf education was founded during a time of great social and economic upheaval when many found it difficult to imagine a positive future. In forming that first school in Stuttgart, Germany, in September 1919, Rudolf Steiner spoke of his conviction that positive, lasting social transformation would only be possible through education, and that a new art of education was needed. From those beginnings and that conviction, today’s global school movement was launched. Each one of us continues to strive towards social transformation through education. Our intent is echoed in the frequently re-tweeted words of Nelson Mandela:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…
People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…
For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
We affirm our commitment to education informed by love.
Sadly, crisis navigation has become a somewhat routine aspect of school life. We stand with you as you welcome your students back “home” and as you provide stability and security for them during a time of uncertainty and change. We support your work on behalf of every child. We affirm the core values of human decency, respect, and tolerance, essential for the health of our communities. We look forward to active exploration of these topics throughout the upcoming year.
With best wishes and in peace,
Liz Beaven, President for the Board of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education
Rainbow Rosenbloom, Vice-President
Chamomile Nunz, Secretary
Charles Burkam, Treasurer
Victoria Temple, Administrative Coordinator

What is a Human Being?

As a part of the newly enacted membership process of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, Schools must do a self-study based upon the 7 Core Principles of the Alliance. Principle One states that “Public Waldorf education is founded on a coherent image of the developing human being.” So what is that “coherent image?”

That there are three aspects to a human being is commonly understood. It is expressed in various ways—Body, Mind and Soul; Body, Soul and Spirit; Head, Heart and Hands; Thinking, Feeling, Willing. However, that the human being also has a four-fold nature is an equally important part of that image of the developing being that is the foundation of Public Waldorf education. The human being is more than the sum of its parts; more than what is visible from the outside. Yet there are four “parts to sum”—three of which are not apparent to the visible eye.

To start with the most visible, there is a “physical” part—a body, made up of chemicals and elements that can be segregated and analyzed in a laboratory. However, there is something more than the physical that brings those physical components to life. A life-force that is most easily acknowledged in its absence—in the wilted cut flower, or in the “empty shell” body of a pet that has died. This life-force also has many names—chi, vital force and, in Waldorf circles, etheric.

Where does that etheric life force come from? It resides in the earth, which is also something more than just physical “dirt.” One can perhaps best imagine it by looking at an individual plant as it grows. It rises up from the seed out of the earth. A stem with two leaves stands up, the plant grows upward over time. If you look away quickly from the grown plant, what remains is an “after-image” that is not solid. There is vagueness to it, related to the term “ethereal,” but this provides an experience akin to perceiving the etheric force. The etheric force is what has given the plant its form as it grows, and what sustains its life. Plants continue receiving all they need from the earth until they are cut off from it.

Animals also have that etheric force within them, but it is harder to perceive that their life-force comes from the earth because they are not directly connected to the earth as plants are. Animals move freely over the surface of the earth. However, animals must eat to survive. Something that plants, for the most part, do not do to sustain themselves.

What is the primary source of food for animals? Plants. Although there are additional factors, one can easily see that, if there is a life force within plants, animals (and humans) that eat the plant could gain the benefit of those forces and weave them into their bodies. Hence, human beings share this etheric element with both plants and animals. The etheric force is “attached” to a physical body to maintain its life, and when “detached” the result is death.

The third aspect of the human being, however, is shared only with animals. It is the ability to connect, to form relationships, with others. While it is clear that plants can respond to an external stimulus—be it light, music or the presence of the person who cares for it and waters it—there is no “connection” that endures. Although the sunflower turns with the sun, when night falls, it returns to its passive state. When the sun rises, it again turns to the sun, but it has not turned in advance of dawn in anticipation of its arrival! When the stimulus is gone the connection evaporates.

This is not the case of the connections forged between animals, whether it is a small “family” group or a large herd or flock, because those connections endure. And, because this aspect is common to humans as well, enduring relationships can be forged between humans and animals. In fact, but for the short life span of animals, it might be fair to say that the individual relationships between a human and “their” animal (or the animal and “their” human) often tend to be more enduring than the relationships forged between human beings!

This realm is where feelings arise and live. This constituent part lives not only within a given individual body, but can extend beyond. In fact, since these forces exist on their own, they create a kind of communication network, but less “physical” than a series of cell towers transmitting electromagnetic waves in some form. This network creates the possibility of maintaining connections and enduring relationships, and an ability to sense or communicate feelings without direct contact.

Once a relationship is established, often one person can sense a reaction from the other person without having to touch them, without speaking and even without being in the same physical space. It is now well documented that twins on opposite portions of the earth can have shared sensations that only one has directly felt.

That such connections can be maintained (or sensed) over long distances is also well established through the many true stories of pets arriving was back home months after being lost at some great distance away. The name of this third aspect of a human being in Waldorf terminology is “the astral.”

Lastly, the fourth constituent of the human being is the individual “spark” that makes each one unique. The seed that “brings specific gifts, creative potential, and intentions to this life.” It is was allows a human being to make decisions, be independent, to make his or her own choices—“able to determine a unique path through life.”
 This last element is called the “ego.” It is what raises he human being to a different level than the animal, to be a true individual, rather than merely be one of the “herd.”

The most simple, and therefore inevitably incomplete, statement about the relationship between these four constituents and the threefold nature of the human being is that the Body is primarily composed of the physical and etheric; the Soul interacts primarily within the etheric and astral; and the Mind/Spirit is most closely connected with the astral and ego.

The teachers’ understanding of all four levels—physical, etheric, astral & ego, and of their interaction during development, in both a fourfold and threefold manner, gains additional depth over the years through observing and interacting with students. This understanding, combined with the structure of the curriculum, allows Public Waldorf Education to address “the physical, emotional, intellectual, social, cultural, moral, and spiritual needs of the developing child, helping them “integrate into a maturing whole.”

Charles Burkam, JD, is on the Board of the Alliance, and currently is the Executive Director of Desert Marigold School in Phoenix, AZ.  He was instrumental in crafting the current Core Principles of the Alliance and active in the development of the new membership process. 

Is a Circle an Appropriate Metaphor?

2017 Conference

A view of the plenum at the Alliance National Conference in January 2017 in Fair Oaks, CA over MLKing Jr. weekend.

by Liz Beaven

Dear Colleagues:  Spring has officially sprung—and, wherever you are located across the country, the chances are high that you are navigating unpredictable, unexpected, and changeable weather and its impact on school routines and student energy. It seems that our weather is a good metaphor for today’s generally mercurial conditions.

We are excited to share this newest edition of Confluence, with news from schools and reflections on our work. You will see that we continue to ponder the theme of our January conference, Widening the Circle, and some of the provocative thoughts and questions that were posed. Is a circle an appropriate metaphor for inclusion, equity, and access? Can a circle face outwards or is it by nature an inward-facing form? When we look around our existing circle of students, families, and colleagues, what do we see reflected back? Are we satisfied with what we see? If we are in a circle, how can we ensure that it is welcoming to all, with the support of hands clasped in colleagueship yet readily able to unclasp and fully welcome and include newcomers?

We were grateful to hear from so many of you throughout the conference: in many conversations; in Friday evening’s working groups focused on our Core Principles; through your comments on conference evaluation forms; and from those who were able to stay on Sunday afternoon to attend our Annual General Meeting. We hope to make opportunities for participation and engagement regular features of the conference as our work grows and spreads, to ensure that we can be as informed as possible in our work on behalf of Public Waldorf education, and to continue to build our circle to be a welcoming, safe, and inclusive place for all.

With your input, our Board is working hard on implementation of the seven Core Principles as the foundation of a revised membership process that emphasizes an essential, continuous cycle of self-study, collaboration, and peer review. As a reminder, historically, membership of the Alliance has had few requirements; schools have asked to join, selected what they believe to be the appropriate membership category, paid dues, and have then become members of the Alliance.

We recognize that, as our work grows and diversifies, our collective work will benefit from membership that signifies common ideals and integrity of purpose. We also recognize that our schools need support in their ongoing development and that we need to provide flexible structures that are able to respond to emerging needs and innovation in service of the widest possible range of students. We believe that our emerging membership process will meet these needs, as schools begin to examine their alignment with our Core Principles through a process of guided self-study, discussion with other schools, and a peer site visit. We have been excited to receive reports that many schools are already engaging in initial discussion of the Principles.

Our revised membership process, now underway and to be fully rolled out in phases over the next 18 months, will allow a school to reflect deeply on its standing in key areas such as child development, relationships, ongoing learning for all community members, and school leadership. How do these principles manifest in practice? Where do we encounter successes and challenges? Crucially for Public Waldorf schools, it will also invite us to reflect on our approach to education as an agent for social change, diversity, equity, and inclusion. How is our work adapting and innovating to meet the needs of our students and families in our ever-widening circle of schools?

This approach is mindful of our limited resources—within a school and within the Alliance. We believe that it will strengthen our collective work and allow us to engage with and learn from one another. It is also timely: we are very aware that many of you are working daily with anxious, insecure families and are providing essential reassurance and support in the face of uncertainty and fear for so many. On behalf of our Board and Advisors, thank you for the work you are doing to ensure that Public Waldorf schools stand as beacons of acceptance and inclusion and remain welcoming, nurturing, and supportive places of learning and community life for all children and families.

With warm wishes and fervent hopes for calmer days ahead.

Liz Beaven, Ed.D., has over 30 years experience in Waldorf education in a range of roles that include class teacher, school administrator, board member, adult educator, and researcher and writer.  She was an advisory board member of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and has served as the President of the Board since March 2016. Liz is a core faculty member of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she is working to develop a graduate program in integral teacher education. She enjoys working directly with schools on a rage of topics.

THE INTERVIEW with Betty Staley A Life Devoted to Waldorf Education


by Chip Romer

On March 4, several hundred people gathered at Rudolf Steiner College to honor Betty Staley on the occasion of her retirement after fifty years as a Waldorf educator. Betty shared an autobiographical sketch, available (here).  Now, in her “retirement,” Betty is working on a new book about middle school that addresses the subject of nurturing the civilized mind—and exploring ways to develop training programs for Waldorf high school teachers.

Chip Romer: You are highly regarded in the worldwide Waldorf community, but best known as a leader of Waldorf high schools. In your autobiographical piece, you spoke about someone referring to Waldorf schools without high schools a “chickens with their heads cut off.” Could you talk about this?

Betty Staley: The reason I think high schools are particularly important is because the young people are coming into their thinking. They are trying to find their way into their individuality, idealism and somehow maneuver through all of the temptations that surround them.  With the situations of society today, Waldorf high schools are even more important than ever, not only because they offer a curriculum that is wonderful, and a deep connection between teachers and students, which is very important to community, but because of the larger view of what it means to be a human being. In the lower school this is implicit, but in the high school it’s explicit. High school consciously addresses the larger view of what it means to be a human being. There are so many very serious questions for teens, and troubling issues that can cause melancholy or cynicism.  I think what Waldorf education brings in the high school, which is different than a lot of other schools, is that it enables students to retain their idealism and keep it grounded in reality and connected with their will.

CR: Is the maintenance of idealism embedded in the curriculum itself?

BS: Everything depends on who the teachers are and how clear they are about their own feelings about things. Teachers’ relationships to the importance of human life, and of nature, are going to infuse everything they say and do. I think that it is very important that a high school faculty is serious in working with the insights offered out of anthroposophy. The curriculum is like a guidepost that takes you through the different steps, but without a depth of understanding of human development the curriculum can be empty. It’s not a fixed curriculum—Steiner was very clear about that. He wanted it to be discussed and changed according to where one lives and the times in which one lives. I find it very exciting to go to teachers’ conferences and see how flexible things are becoming. The curriculum wasn’t meant to be orthodox. It’s a dance we’re doing all the time in Waldorf education, and particularly in the high school.

A third important part, in addition to the teachers and the curriculum, is the community.  The teenagers must feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They need a place where they can trust and rest that their needs are being met—even when they’re fighting such a place. This is a really important part of Waldorf high school education.

CR:  I agree. Students are able to trust that their needs are being met almost wholly because of the quality of the teachers surrounding them.

BS: You have good teachers in many schools, but what’s different in Waldorf schools is a common purpose.  I think Waldorf teachers are carrying the awareness that they are doing something for the future of humanity. This gives perspective to the heavy workload. High school teaching can be exhausting, but teachers can be replenished by their own feeling of community, by the awareness that they working as a group for the betterment of humanity.

CR: Do you think high school teachers have a greater awareness of this because their students are older and therefor closer to effecting change in the world?

BS: Steiner taught about the pedagogical law, where the teachers must teach out of the next higher body from their students. So when you are working with teenagers—who are centered in their astral body—you are working out of your own Ego and sense of higher self. High school teachers have to be really clear about where they are and not play on the whims of the teenagers. As a Waldorf high school teacher, you always have to connect to your inner faith and compassion, to express yourself though your own higher self.

High school teachers must love adolescents. They must also love their subject—but they cannot love their subject more than they love their students. You have to be a scholar, but not just a scholar—a scholar for the benefit of the students in front of you.

CR: At your recent retirement party you saw many of your former high school students, who are now in their 50’s. Do they seem extraordinary?

BS: Well, they’ve all had their joys and sorrows. And I think they have met what’s come in their lives with a kind of dignity. Waldorf education does not make your life easier, but it does give you a kind of inner backbone, it helps you get through challenges with a certain kind of positive attitude. One student told me that doing the main lesson books, while she didn’t always like it, gave her a real sense of process, of beginning, middle and end—and that really prepared her well for a life of projects. Another student, who is a tech executive, said that projective geometry helps him visualize things that other people cannot visualize. A third student, who is a doctor, developed a traveling emergency room in a van, and he serviced hotels that hosted dance groups, and symphonies. No one had thought of that before. Waldorf graduates share a quality that I recognize—they are problem solvers with flexibility in their thinking. They think of new ways to do things. Waldorf students have a quality where something has been nurtured and something has not been allowed to die.

So many years later they still care for each other, and the feelings are very strong. They realize that they are part of a world community of Waldorf students. They can go anywhere in the world and find someone who is connected to them in a very deep way. That’s very special. I’d love to see a world organization of Waldorf students.

CR: Maybe you can take that up in your retirement?

BS: Ha!  Maybe you can!

Betty Staley, MA, has been a Waldorf educator for fifty years at the kindergarten, elementary, high school and teacher training levels. She is a founder of the Sacramento Waldorf High School, where she taught history and literature for nineteen years, and an advisory to Waldorf and Public Waldorf high schools throughout the West. She is a founder and served recently as interim president of Rudolf Steiner College.

Chip Romer is the Editor of Confluence, a founder of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, and a developer of Public Waldorf schools, including Credo High School, where he currently serves as Executive Director.


What Do We Say to our Children … about Election 2017?

By Jack Petrash

“At the center of your being, you have the answer.”  Lao Tzu

The day after the presidential election, a group of preschool children were lining up for recess. One of the older boys was making plans for what they would do outside. However, in doing so he was excluding some of the children. The teacher, overhearing this conversation, reminded the boy that everyone could play. The child replied, “What about Donald Trump? He doesn’t let everyone play.”

We have to ask ourselves how aware our children are of our current political situation and how do they make sense of it. I know what it is like for me, and how difficult it has been to know how to respond. The election of Donald Trump has affected us all differently. For 45% of the country his election was a joyous surprise. But in Washington D.C., where I live, more than 90% of the votes were cast for Hillary Clinton. The people in my community have expressed dismay, disbelief, bewilderment, and often anger. This leaves me wondering how to go forward in a positive manner.

Perhaps the best advice that I have received was from a good friend who said that when the world’s events astonish you, pay attention. So I have read more of the Washington Post and listened to more NPR reports in recent weeks. But most of all, I have worked hard to find my center, that quiet place of discernment. When I am centered, I don’t say much, and if I do, I ask questions—open and honest questions. I come away with the understanding that our political situation is complex, that things are rarely black and white, and that there is invariably more to learn.

But the bigger question is: What would I say if I still had children at home and I needed to speak with them about Donald Trump’s election and this new direction in our country? How would I mediate the tension between seeing that my children are both protected and informed? I would want my response to be developmentally appropriate and that, of course, would depend on their age.

I have always put my faith in Waldorf education’s understanding of child development and have agreed with the idea that for the preschool child, the world should be good. Young children have such trust in the goodness of the world that they imitate the actions they see. That is why, when I hear about a Waldorf preschool student who says to his teacher that he wants to punch Donald Trump, I am concerned. Does that impulse come from an adult conversation that this child has overheard, or is it an imitated response to a radio report heard in carpool on the way to school? We should protect our young children from experiences such as these.

However, I don’t believe in protecting children from everything. I have friends who were part of the Women’s March on Washington and brought their very young children, clothed in knitted pink hats, on their shoulders and in their arms. These children seemed fine, especially since they couldn’t read the creative, but provocative, signs that were carried. Perhaps it was the positive mood of the march, or the fact that millions were marching all over the world, but attending a peaceful demonstration doesn’t seem inappropriate to me. I was actually reminded of the words of Abraham Heschel, the religious writer, who said that when he marched in Selma, Alabama he felt like his legs were praying.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum is the adolescent, for whom it is a markedly different situation. For the high school and late middle school student, the world should be true. You can see that, at this age, young people want to cut to the quick and have conversations about the political situation. These conversations should be thoughtful, informed, and considered. Adolescents have much to say and their insights are often surprising, but getting them to speak at the dinner table or in class is not always easy, and getting them to disagree respectfully can be harder still.

Back in 1999 during the Clinton impeachment hearings, I was teaching American history to a group of eighth graders. Trying to navigate our discussions on the Constitution and the impeachment process without running aground with comments about Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress was a challenge, especially for the fourteen-year-old boys in my class. I worked diligently to get my students to make their “behind the hand” comments public. And then I worked harder still to get them to elaborate more fully about what they thought and felt. I have always believed in respecting the thoughts of adolescents and leaving them free to think for themselves. When we offer an honest question, such as: “What do you think about this?” spoken with genuine interest and no preconceived notion of what we believe they should answer, young people share their opinions. Teenagers need to talk. Finding out when they are most likely to talk is part of our job. Sometimes it happens late at night when they come home at the end of an evening. It can also happen over food—milk and fresh-baked cookies can be a wonderful catalyst for meaningful conversation. Sometimes it can happen when you are stuck in traffic or during walks in nature, which can be especially helpful when we are in need of peace of mind.

My real worry is for the children in the middle of this developmental journey, the elementary school students, because for them, the world should be beautiful.  That is why there is so much art in our Waldorf school hallways and classrooms; why there are all of the beautiful blackboard drawings, the paintings, the plants, and crystals. For example, what do we say in response to Donald Trump’s really ugly comments about women? I believe that in these instances it is important to adhere to the Obamas’ guideline: “When they go low, we go high.” Rather than respond in a way that impugns the president’s character, I believe we should speak in broader terms about the real issue of respect and equal rights for women and how this matter has been coming to the fore for over a hundred years.  Our children can be reminded about how important it is that women be respected in in the workplace, on campuses, and in society.

In addition, there is also the matter of how our children view humanity as a whole today. Are human beings noble, and are their actions beautiful? Where is the beauty when a truck runs into marketers at a Christmas fair in Germany or when an ISIS video airs depicting an execution. Our children, exposed as they are to too much information, are at risk of becoming decidedly cynical about humanity, left with little or no faith in the goodness of people.

The first core principle in the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education is that we ascribe to an image of the human being as a unique and dignified individual. I believe that as parents and teachers we should be compiling a reservoir of stories that illustrate the remarkably good qualities that reside in human beings so we can share them with our children. These stories are in our newspapers and online; they just don’t grab the headlines.

Here is a story that I have been thinking about recently. It involves a young basketball player named George Raveling. He was a member of the Villanova basketball team in 1963. That August he decided to travel from the Philadelphia area to Washington D.C. to hear Martin Luther King speak. Early on that August morning, Raveling was standing by the Reflecting Pool on the Mall when two men came up to him and asked this young, strong looking African American man if he would be a body guard for Dr. King. George Raveling said, “Yes.”

When Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, George Raveling stood by his side on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At the end of this speech, Dr. King began to walk away. George Raveling spoke up, “Dr. King, you forgot your papers.” Martin Luther King turned and replied in a joking manner, “Oh, you keep them son. Who knows they may be worth something some day.”

George Raveling kept those three pages, a record of this most famous speech. Even when he was offered a million dollars, he wouldn’t sell them. But what was so surprising was that when Raveling looked at those papers, the words, “I have a dream” were not written anywhere. That famous phrase was not part of the original speech. Those words came to Martin Luther King as he spoke. (John Feinstein, Last Dance)

When we speak with our children about difficult topics—and there will be many in the coming years—we should speak out of a place that is hopeful, not frustrated and angry. And we must hope that the spirit will move us as it moved Dr. King, and that from time to time our speech may be inspired too.

But until that inspiration arrives, we can use Waldorf educations’ understanding of child development as our guide. Protect the young children from adult conversations and concerns. Engage adolescents thoughtfully and listen with interest and without judgment when they share their opinions. However, it is the grade school children who will present the greatest challenge. Their stage of development is called “the heart of childhood,” and matters of the heart are delicate. These children need a hopeful picture of this beautiful world to take with them into the challenging years of adolescence.

Jack Petrash is the founder and director of the Nova Institute. He is an educator with over thirty years of Waldorf classroom experience and a teacher of teachers. He has written extensively on issues pertaining to innovative classroom instruction, has served on the editorial board of the journal Encounter, and is the author of Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out and other books.


Founding a Public Waldorf High School in Washington D.C.


An Interview with Lydia Whitham

By Charles Burkam

Charles Burkam: What is your background?

Lydia Witham: I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, where my father was a professor. After college I became a CPA and moved to Miami. I met my husband there and married, but shortly afterwards we moved to the Washington, D.C. area for my husband’s work.

CB: What lead your move from accounting into education?

LW: After my daughter was born, I took a job in a business office at a private school to better balance my work life and home life. Being in that educational environment, I came more and more to feel that I wanted a different direction for myself. I decided to make education my focus, rather than stay just in the business realm. So, I went to Harvard to earn my Master’s in Education.

CB: How did you come to meet Waldorf education?

LW: During the time at Harvard, we visited a local Waldorf school as a part of exploring different educational environments. Also, one of the other students in the masters program was a Waldorf graduate. I became very interested and, when I was back home after completing my studies, I found Washington Waldorf School. After visiting the school, my daughter decided she wanted to go and she started in 9th grade. It grew from there…

CB: How did he intention to found the Washington School for Arts and Academics come about?

LW: In September 2015, the XQ Super Schools Contest was announced with $50 million in awards. It was a competition to modernize high school education started by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. In response to this opportunity, I helped form a group and we based our XQ proposal on Waldorf principles. It was decided that we wanted to focus on the area with the greatest need—which was in the SE section of Washington D.C. Our proposal made it to the final round, but was not selected for funding.  Having worked this hard on the ideas, the group wanted to proceed, and we have been working to get support for a charter application for a high school in Wards 7 & 8 of SE Washington, D.C.

CB: What is the mission Washington School of Arts and Academics?

LW: The area we have chosen for the school is almost entirely African-American and our estimate is that over 90% will be eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch programs. We also know that many of the students who will come to the school will not be truly ready to work at a high school level. We have to find effective approaches to get their basic academic skills up to where they need to be so that they can become college ready and escape the cycle of poverty.

CB: Had you been involved in social justice work previously?

LW: Not really. I did some tutoring for adults learning to read, and some other volunteering, but nothing like the focus of this high school project.

CB: What motivated you to stay with this then?

LW: I first saw the need to work with these underserved communities through a friend who ran Excel Academy, an all-girl K-8 charter school in Ward 8. After all of the preparation work for the X-Q contest, this is now what I must do.  It just feels right.

CB: In what ways are you considering adjusting the Waldorf curriculum given the population you will be serving?

LW: Because of the need to bring students up to grade level in basic skills, we may have to do more in traditional survey classes in ninth and tenth grades, rather than utilize the main lesson block approach. We will have one period a day set aside for either remediation or enrichment, depending on the needs of each student. There will be extra professional development for teachers about meeting the needs of diverse learners in the classroom.

We are also working with our board members to develop history and social studies content that is more relevant to the African American community and its heritage. Since we are starting from scratch, we have the freedom to be very creative and fully relevant to these times.

CB: Who has been helping you on the project?

LW: I originally got in touch with Pack Petrash and his colleague Cynthia Bennett at Jack’s NOVA institute. Later, I spoke with Allegra Alessandri. Now we have a local board that includes community members as well as educators.

CB: What difficulties do you still face?

LW: There are lots of charter schools in D.C., but there is a spilt within the African-American community about them because of a perceived threat to existing district public schools. Also, the community is rightly skeptical of outsiders coming in to tell them what to do. Fortunately, there are many active Area Neighborhood Councils within these wards. They provide venues for promoting the project as well as getting input on what the community values and wants. There is also an Education Council for each ward that we have connected with. We must build community support if we are to be successful with our charter application. So we attend many community events, letting people know about the project, finding individuals we can work with, and building up a network of supporters.

CB: When do you hope to open your doors?

LW: If our school is approved this spring, we will open in the fall of 2018.  This is our hope.  If not, we will reapply and open in the fall of 2019, which also has a nice ring to it.

Charles Burkam, JD, has been involved with Waldorf education for nearly 40 years, and has been leading the administrative team at Desert Marigold since 2010. In 1986 he moved to England to study Anthroposophy and was bursar at Michael Hall Steiner School for seven years. Charles has consulted for the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the Santa Fe Waldorf School and was Managing Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. He is currently the Treasurer for the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and actively collaborates with the partner schools of the Arizona Council of Waldorf Education.

Many Rivers, One Source | An Innovative Approach to Meeting the Social Mission of Waldorf Education

Cheryl Dressler

By Victoria Temple

“If you want to raise intelligent and compassionate children, tell them stories.  If you want your children to be more intelligent and more compassionate, tell more stories!”  Albert Einstein

Waldorf education is traveling diverse paths as it inspires and informs public education in the United States today. A five-year-old initiative in Massachusetts offers a unique approach, one that has roots in the accomplishments of its neighbor – the Waldorf School of Lexington.

Cairn Hill is an educational cooperative currently serving elementary school children in the towns of Malden, Somerville and Lynn, MA. “Cairn” is a Scottish Gaelic term for a pile of stones built to mark a pathway created by many individuals over time, one that serves as a traveler’s guide.

In early 2012, the image of a cairn spoke to three Boston-area educators who were meeting in a café in the town of Malden to discuss the best way to bring the gifts of Waldorf education to local public school children.  Those collaborators were:

Daniel Bekele, Ed.D (Harvard University), a program administrator for Tri-City, Malden’s community development program, which was successfully organizing immigrant communities to receive needed educational and social support.

Cheryl Dressler, Ed.D. (Harvard University), an educator with a focus on creating literacy programs for English language learners, who has a deep appreciation of Waldorf pedagogy and its healing potential.

Mararet Ris, M.Ed. (Antioch University), an experienced Waldorf teacher, mentor, evaluator and administrator, who is dedicated to working with inner city children.

The outcome of this conversation was the decision to form a non-profit organization, named Cairn Hill, after an historic spot in the town of Malden’s beautiful and rugged Fells Reservation. The image of a cairn spoke to the founders as they envisioned a new approach to helping guide public school children along their lives’ paths. Their mission statement thus became:  Cairn Hill brings the transformative power of the arts to young learners in urban and multi-ethnic communities using nature, story, music and the hand-on approach inspired by Waldorf education.

The strategic approach to bringing the Waldorf pedagogy to culturally diverse, urban populations in the State of Massachusetts was the after school program.  It met the needs of working parents, enriched the children’s school day, was welcomed by school leaders, and introduced the vision and values of Waldorf education into the public realm.

In September 2012, the team piloted their first after school program at the Salemwood School in Malden. The centerpiece of the program was an arts- and nature-oriented storytelling curriculum called The Art of Word Weaving. This is a resource they developed to make oral comprehension and word retention easy, memorable and fun. The heart of the program is vocabulary-rich storytelling, which provides a framework for related verses and art activities that include beeswax modeling, handwork and drawing. (The Cairn Hill website offers a terrific articulation of “The Art of Word Weaving”:

In September 2013, Cairn Hill partnered with the Somerville Community Schools to offer another version of the after school program curriculum entitled Story Play, designed as an afternoon of arts, music, crafts and drumming, built around story themes. Like Malden, Somerville is a highly diverse community with over 71 languages spoken, the most prevalent being Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian, Creole and French. Somerville is a vibrant and changing community in which the Somerville Community Schools District welcomes outside specialists and activity club providers to offer enrichment opportunities.

In 2016, a new step was taken, with the decision to open Cairn Hill Nature Preschool. The preschool will be located in Lynn, MA, home to families of diverse ethnicities, incomes and languages, which boasts a majestic expanse of 2,200 acres of woodlands, marshes and ponds with vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. On this perfect location for a nature preschool, a year-round program is being established that will offer full and partial-day enrollment for working parents, utilizing a five-level tiered tuition scale and offering parent support programs. The developmentally aligned curriculum offers a comprehensive foundation for school success, featuring language arts through storytelling, puppetry, and music, and arts through painting, clay modeling and crafts. Nature education includes rain-or-shine outdoor exploration and a gardening program.

In addition to the three founders who gathered in Malden back in that coffee shop, Lauren Smith has been involved with Cairn Hill since 2012 when the initiative was begun.  That was the year she volunteered to teach in the first program at the Salemwood School in Malden. At the time, Lauren was on her sabbatical year after graduating her eighth grade at The Waldorf School of Lexington. Today Lauren remains involved with Cairn Hill now that she has returned to class teaching at the Waldorf school.

The collaborative spirit of community is alive and well in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!

Victoria Temple is the Administrative Coordinator of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and a Managing Editor of the Confluence Editorial Board.