Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waldorf's Approach to Teaching Math, Reading, and More - An Interview with Tracey Buchanan

Tracey Buchanan received her Waldorf Teaching Certification through Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento, CA, where she was chosen by her class as Graduate Representative. She has been a Class Teacher since 2005, and has assisted in Waldorf classrooms and early childhood programs since 2003. Before her involvement in Waldorf Education, Tracey spent over ten years in individual and formal study of the Gaelic language speaking cultures of Scotland and North America: working, going to University, and living in the Nova Scotian Gaidhealtachd. She taught classes in Celtic Folk Life at Colorado Free University from 2001-2003, when she turned her attentions to the excitement of the Waldorf classroom. She and her husband James live in Denver with their two children: son Breandan, and daughter Peig. Tracey was kind enough to give me some of her summer time to interview on the subject of Waldorf education.

How does Waldorf teach literacy? Why this pace?

Waldorf education arrives at literacy through the imaginative pictures and highly complex vocabulary found in fairy tales, folk tales, legends, and through a profound intimacy with spoken rhyme and meter. The children become deeply familiar with the pictures and paces of the language itself to begin with, developing into an intense connection to the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make. In Waldorf Education, the teacher herself must have a respectful relationship with speech and be conscious of the mystery of speech's evolution into writing and reading and what that signified for the evolution of mankind. This tacit understanding brings to the children a like respect for language that, in the best circumstances, is light and happy.

Once a love for speech is cultivated and other passages of physical development have been obtained, the child will demonstrate a healthy urge to unravel the reading question. This happens at a different time for each individual child, and to push them before they are ready compromises the relationship the child will have towards reading or even co-opt the social urge which is so vital in the developing 1st grader. These are a couple of the reasons why Waldorf educators will bring conscious reading very slowly in 1st grade and always in an imaginative way. The seeds for great reading skills are planted in the Waldorf Kindergarten through physical integration through play and in developing the child's listening skills.

If a love of speech has been cultivated and the child has passed the stages of physical development needed to arrive at the "quest" for reading and this does not happen, we know to observe the child to determine if there are other factors at work possibly blocking the ability to read. In a healthy Waldorf school, the Class Teacher already knows what challenges the children in his or her class are facing through in depth assessments brought by experienced support teachers before 1st grade and again during the 2nd grade year. He or she will have already incorporated remediating activities based on the class' needs into the rhythmic portion of the day, known as circle time.The teacher's eye for observation plays a major role as reading difficulties manifest mainly in the child as problems with actual physical integration. Perhaps the sense of balance (vestibular) is off on a particular child, or their sense of where they are in space (proprioceptive) is in need of further development. In some cases, retained reflexes from infancy due to lack of floor time, birth circumstances, or other factors can manifest as social or learning challenges.

Because Waldorf education is in itself therapeutic by addressing the needs mentioned above, many of the challenges presented by a child will be "worked through" in 1st grade, leaving 2nd grade open and clear for deliberate academic development. Typically, a child who has the desire to read and cannot will experience some frustration. This is a major indicator that the child needs extra support. Depending upon the school, reading support for the child in need could be referred for help anytime from 2nd -4th grade, based on the observations of the teacher.

Rarely are children referred to reading help in 1st grade, as premature reading compromises the cultivation of necessary social skills which have a window of blooming in the 1st grade. They can be referred to a support teacher to further strengthen areas upon which reading is dependent such as the vestibular and proprioceptive skills mentioned above. Reading is introduced slowly in the 1st grade so rarely is there any frustration from the child who might later need support. This allows the therapeutic nature of 1st grade circle time to fully mature the developing child and remediate any challenges which aren't severe. In other words, learning has its foundation in the inner health and development of the child. Waldorf education starts with the child, develops that inner health in 1st grade and Kindergarten so that the foundation for learning is secure, and then moves slowly towards academics observing each child at each step of the game. It's a well documented phenomenon that children who do need help in building this foundation for learning may take a couple of years to do so, after which their reading excels at exponential rates. High reading comprehension is a skill in Waldorf graduates across the board. Colleges admissions officers know this to be a fact.

In essence, Waldorf Education takes the time in the early grades to do everything possible to make sure that the child is a balanced, harmonious individual on all levels, remedial to creative. This time and care builds a robust foundation for learning that provides the child with strength throughout their lives to meet obstacles and overcome them, all the while enjoying a love of learning and creativity.

How does Waldorf teach math?

Waldorf Education's approach to mathematics begins where math begins, in the will of the child. How many of ourselves, as children, felt math to be incomprehensible, insurmountable jumble of squiggly marks on a page that signified the lackluster point in the day? Math is in essence a kinesthetic learning experience for the 1st grade child. Moving to math is essential in the early grades so that elementary mathematical concepts reside first in the nature of the will, where they eventually become part of the muscle memory of the young child much like their close counterpart music. Let's live with that image for a moment. Most people find it quite profound that music has a mathematical quality about it. But what if we take a different perspective? What if math had a musical quality about it? What if the human body could learn math much in the same way a musician trains himself to play an instrument? That is the approach Waldorf takes to math. The child, through moving to math in the early grades, develops a proficiency much like a musician memorizing his scales. All four processes are addressed early in 1st grade through fun and enlivened movement. Once a child is moving to math, he or she may begin to use manipulatives (such as beans or glass beads) to understand the relationships that the our processes represent. This is done through telling imaginative math tales where the children get to participate by solving the same word problems the main characters solve. This allows for a "living" math to develop within the children; one that freed by imagination can take on a life of its own.

But before we bring our excitement for math up to a fevered pitch, it's important to talk a bit about the numbers themselves. The numbers are the first real contact children have with universal mystery. Numbers are highly philosophical, and this nature will speak to the children in a profound way. We begin in the classroom by asking the question, "What is the largest number in the universe?" The children love to answer this question. "A googleplex!", "Infinity!", "Ten hundred million billion gazillion!" are common answers. So when the Waldorf teacher says, "The largest number in the universe is 1", the children react quite excitedly. "What!?" And after the teacher assures them that they are not the butt of a joke, the children go deeply inward to discover "why" the largest number is indeed 1.

The concepts at which they arrive are astounding. "One is the biggest because without it there isn't any 2, or 3, or even a million." "One is the biggest because everything there is is in one Universe." "One is the biggest because it can be any number it wants." All sorts of philosophical and mathematical truths become evident through just this "one" discussion. Eventually the children arrive at "I am one!", they see how their bodies are shaped like the number one, they relate themselves to the vastness of the Universe, and realize at that point that they are co-creators. Each number, 1-12, is a discussion involved in this deep intensity of imagination. We begin with Roman numerals and incorporate geometry into the discussion of each number, scribing freehand the relative polygons and stars. The children work diligently to master each of the stars, crossing the vertical midline over and over again as they practice on large sheets of paper. Eventually, a particular star will stand out as the class favorite which tells the Class Teacher an immeasurable amount about the class itself. All of this happens in 1st grade.

So from the get go, children are aware of the significance of numbers and enter very deeply into them. When they
1. have the imaginations of the numbers,
2. use their will to execute stars and polygons,
3. move their bodies through the math facts of all four processes (+ - / x) DAILY,
4. take part in music classes involving flute, voice, and lyre to illustrate the beauty of the voice of numbers, and
5. use manipulatives to work through exciting math tales and classroom conundrums...
a genuine love of math can only be enhanced by the practical approach in the mid to later grades. One can't help but think that the third grade curriculum of learning fractions through cooking and building complements the introduction of the orchestral stringed instruments at that same time. Cooking is a symphony of tastes. Architecture is an opus of space. Math is the key to participating in the music of life. It is everywhere. The sixth grader gets to experience this by working with the Fibonacci sequence and Euclidean to Platonic geometries, creating spiritual symphonies one can only hear if one has the ears to do so. Waldorf Education seeks to help them develop these capacities.

How do art and stories help to teach academic subjects?

Waldorf education holds true the idea that human beings are here to create and develop. So, I would pose this question: how do academic subjects help to teach Art and Stories? If we approach every academic subject as capable of being elevated to the level of Art, and support the students in achieving this, they will learn to be Artful in all that they do. If we approach every academic subject as being a way for them to Artfully write the Story that is their life, the children will seek to do so. But let me return to the meat of your question.

Art and story bestow meaning. They engage the child in a fashion that cannot be met with abstracted conceptualization. With art and story, academic subjects take on a life they do not posses on their own. Art and story are the "breath of life" for any academic subject, and without them the learned material dies, ceases to have meaning other than the husk of the concept itself. Waldorf Education seeks to impart a living form of learning which takes on a life of its own and is capable of leading the individual student into new ways of tackling old problems. Two quotes of Einstein come to mind here, "Imagination is more important than knowledge, " and "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them." In the first quote he wasn't writing knowledge off as unimportant, he was stating that dead knowledge is useless and that imagination is needed to enliven it. In the second, which by far is the most provocative I believe, he calls to task the embedded modern belief that there is "nothing new under the sun" and that it has "all been done before". Our current castrated mode of thought is the direct by-product of an educational system which doles stones of knowledge out to its helpless pupils instead of enlivening their thinking so that it takes on new evolved dimensions to solve the puzzles and tragedies of humanity. Some individuals manage, though rebellion to this deadened paradigm, to maintain a degree of inspired thought. They are the ones who are making a difference today. Waldorf Education seeks to allow every student the opportunity to be the change they want to see in the world through actually encouraging enlivened thinking through the incorporation of story and art in each academic subject. Instead of starving the type of thinking that will make a difference, Waldorf nourishes it in each and every child.

What are the advantages of having the same teacher/students each year from 1st to 8th grade. Are there any problems you have faced with this arrangement?

This is a question that comes often to the Waldorf Teacher from parents new to the movement. Having the same teacher through eight years of schooling seems to fly in the face of our own educational experience and causes us to ask, "Why?" We then remember our worst teacher ever and think to ourselves, "My God, what if I had been stuck for eight years with that person!?" Its a legitimate question, no doubt! The answer to those tough questions can be found mainly in the testimonials of parents who have had the Waldorf experience, but I will try to answer your question from the point of view of both a Class Teacher and a Waldorf parent.

I cannot emphasise how much my training as a Waldorf teacher has prepared me to meet the challenge of a relationship based form of education. Waldorf teachers are cultivated in their training to embrace self development and hone their social skills. Those who feel that inner development and social skills are unimportant in education or who cannot move through these obstacles with an open mind fall by the wayside and find something else to do with their lives. Those that work diligently at improving their own levels of compassion, manage their anger, hone their observational skills, and cultivate a open mind usually find themselves employed at a Waldorf School. Financially healthy schools will hire teachers mostly based on personal development, the ability to teach, and interpersonal skills. That is why a healthy school make take quite a long time to hire a teacher; they develop a relationship with the candidate to see if that person has the temperament they desire to take a specific class.

There is an emphasis on ethics and morality in the life of the teacher which is approached through meditation and the arts in the teacher training. This enlivens ethical and moral consciousness beyond a dogmatic approach and actually creates a very open minded outlook and a loving capacity to stand in the shoes of another. This is what you typically find as a base line of consciousness in a certified Waldorf Class Teacher and what is emphasised in the "Foundation Studies" of the teacher training program. This is also why Waldorf Certification is so important and those who have received only public school training may find it a difficult row to hoe to be with one class for eight years.

The benefits of having a teacher who has undergone Waldorf teacher training are based in the idea that you have an individual who is committed to meeting the needs of the class, guiding it, and growing with the children. The Class Teacher works with a mantra that helps them stay exciting, inspired, and loving. It goes like this:

"Imbue yourself with the Power of Imagination. Have Courage for the Truth. Sharpen your feeling for Responsibility of Soul."

Power of Imagination, Courage for Truth, and Responsibility of Soul are lofty tenets for any one's aspirations. Concentration on such a mantra among others works wonders within the teacher, and helps them stay alert during the whole of the 8 year class cycle. This means that they remain available when conflicts arise and try to see things objectively yet compassionately. If the teacher is lucky they have considerable support through the combined expertise of other faculty members and an active, qualified mentor who advises them in a variety of situations. This support helps the teacher maintain his or her bearings and helps ensure an open minded, friendly, growth oriented relationship with parents in the class. In addition, being with the children for 8 years allows a teacher to really get to know the individuals in the class and be able to measure each child's progress against a personal best and encourage a child to grow as much as possible. The Class Teacher works closely with the family during the 8 years of instruction and is able to cultivate a genuine growth in the children in the class through long term observation and interaction with each individual.

I personally haven't found any problems with the arrangement, but there have been cases where a teacher was deemed "not right" for the class after all and encouraged to pursue other avenues of development. This can be impactful for everyone in the class and school community. Teachers themselves have life changing events where teaching must wait as they take care of ailing elderly parents or other such emergencies arise. My son lost his Class Teacher in the 2nd grade and it was really earth shattering, but we all lived and now she is one of my dearly beloved colleagues at a different school!

How do you handle the more energetic children in your classroom with dignity and yet still bring order?

The first line of support for the energetic child is the classroom rhythm. The rhythm is set by the teacher in such a way that it lends itself to the needs of the class, depending upon the overall energy level. There are moments where the class is breathing in (taking things in a deeply concentrated way) and there are moments where the class is breathing out (art, active imagining, movement). Story is the only time when both breathing in and breathing out are combined, which makes it the crown jewel of the Waldorf Main Lesson. The energetic child soon learns that there will, indeed, be a time where movement is encouraged and that it won't be long in coming. This develops two things: 1. the will to sit as well as one can through the sitting parts and 2. trust that their need for movement will be met. Depending upon the preponderance of energy in the class, the teacher will alter the rhythm so that the children get ample opportunity to both move out with body and imagination and to go inward in thought and feeling.

In the earlier grades, Class Teachers will also form the class culture through songs, verses and cues that let the children know they have some time (by the end of the verse or song) to collect themselves into the right configuration for an upcoming activity. In addition, great emphasis is placed in engaging the children when they are seated so that the lesson becomes all absorbing. All of these supports will help the energetic child as well as the low energy student come into oneness with the class. If there are children in the class who have issues that cause them to move an inordinate amount, beyond what is addressed by the rhythm of the classroom itself (especially vestibular, proprioceptive, or impulse control issues) the teacher will suggest support lessons for the child to help her or him integrate her or his body so that the child can know where they are in space without constant stimulation. In the meantime, the teacher and the child will work towards some sort of positive reinforcement for surmounting the "staying seated during seated times" situation. What that is depends a great deal upon the individual, the class, and the Class Teacher.

The Waldorf teacher knows, through careful observation, regular assessment, and collegial input which children have an energetic personality and should muster their will forces to stay seated during seated times and which others have genuine issues that actually make it very uncomfortable for them to remain seated. For the latter, the classroom support may consist of sitting on a particular type of balance cushion or even a one legged stool. That way they are working on remediating the issue as well as remaining seated during the appropriate times. Some Class Teachers have such a preponderance of needs in the class that they opt to have the entire class sit on one-legged stools. It helps the ones that need it and doesn't hurt the ones who don't. The rest is left in the hands of the Class Teacher to follow through with the will and the protocol it takes to have an entire class of students who sit upon chairs that crash loudly to the floor if a child unwittingly gets up without proper control of the stool! Sounds impossible, but it has been successfully done!

Do you identify different learning styles and intelligences and then work with them?

Because Waldorf is a foremost a holistic, therapeutic education we first seek to build that strong foundation of physical integration in every child. We then build upon our knowledge of each child's integrative constitution to separate "learning style" from "survival mechanism". This is vital if we as educators are to integrate for wholeness so that a child can have the ability, the freedom, to do what he or she chooses in adult life. An adult who leans on gifts while never developing their weak areas does not operate in true freedom. It is this true freedom that Waldorf Education seeks to give its graduates. But to answer your question more plainly, yes, we do.

One of the most powerful gifts a teacher can give a student is to see with that student's perspective and acknowledge said perspective in teaching. We are all individuals and as such have the need for our individuality to be seen and met. One of the ways Waldorf teachers work with this is to know, for instance, the dominances of their students. Eye, ear, brain, hand, and foot dominances can tell the teacher a lot about whether a child is primarily a gestalt learner or primarily an analytical one, or whether there will be issues related to cross dominance. When under stress, a child's dominant side for each will shut down and the non-dominant side will act in its place. If a child is right eared dominant and he is stressed out, he will need a method of calming down before he will "hear" anything that goes into the right ear, the left ear, being undominant is unsatisfactory as well. Many Waldorf teachers use beanbag exercises or Bal-a -viz-x to regain integration from a child who has become stressed and shut down his or her dominant side.

In addition, we work with four types of temperaments in the grades. Depending upon the temperament, Class Teachers can engage a child in the way that they go about learning a particular subject. Even though there are four temperaments I have yet to meet a child that was purely one to the exclusion of all others. Typically there will be a dominant one, with stress or delight reactions gravitating towards the temperaments to either side. Because Waldorf teaches to all the mainstream learning styles by way of the curriculum itself and through the breathing of the class rhythm, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners are all met in the classroom.

Waldorf education is one that builds strength in all of what is now known as the "multiple intelligences". The Class Teacher will recognize a student's gifts in one or several of the intelligences, but also strive to help them round out the ones in which they display a need to grow. In that respect it is truly a balanced education. One even wonders if Howard Gardner discovered multiple intelligences much like Columbus discovered the New World. Even though his ideas were new and quite impactful to mainstream education in 1983 with the publication of Frames of Mind , the concept of what he described as "multiple intelligences" was already in practice in Waldorf schools and had been for almost 50 years. Not to downplay the immense sociological and pedagogical mainstream impact of Dr. Gardner's work in any way, mind you. Educators are inspired and rightly so by the focused and heartfelt endeavors of this amazing man. But we should recognize that his life work supports the pre-existent Waldorf approach, though Waldorf pedagogues will not necessarily use the same terminology or go about implementing his ideas in a systematic way.

What progress have you seen in your students now that the year is coming to a close – in terms of behavior, academic achievement, confidence, artistic talent?

The first grade classroom is such an exciting place! It always begins in chaos and ends in order, provided a class culture has been formed, the rhythm has met the children, and they have learned to breathe out and in (as described above) in a healthy way. In the beginning, the first thing the children want to know, "What does it mean to be in a classroom?" and we give them rules so they know. The rest of the year is comprised with working with the precious individualities in the class to help them understand that the boundaries are the boundaries in a loving, fun, and exciting way. Time for work, time for play. Time to eat, time to rest. Time to be loud, time to be quiet. Time to be outside (different rules!) time to be inside. Maybe this friend is a good work partner, and this one is great for playtime! It is magical watching the capacities of the children develop, watching the class knit into a community. The social development of the class culture is one of the main considerations in the education. Can these wonderful individual children, guided by the Class Teacher and their parents and supported by the school itself create community? Of course they can!

All of the children are artists, each with his or her own different signature style. The Waldorf methods allow the teacher to truly witness the essence of each child's artistic nature by noticing his or her unique signature in artistic "studies" (where they all paint or draw or sculpt the content given by the teacher, displaying the inner nature of their style) as well as in "free-rendering" (they choose the medium and contextual content). The art of the children in the classroom never ceases to amaze me, and with this 1st grade it is no different. Vibrant, alive, unique, and even jaw dropping.

Artistic and musical ability along with classroom (behavioral) skills were overall the most prolific gains represented in the classroom this year with a majority of the class meeting "secure" or "prolific" goals in these areas. A majority of the children in the class are also secure to prolific in areas related to the Alphabet, Numbers 1-100, the Four Processes, and "skip counting" (counting by 2s, 3s,5s,10s,11s forwards and backwards while moving in time with the class). Most were still developing in writing, which in my book depends upon being able to write from dictation with correct letter and number orientation, and correct stroke and grip. Many children in 1st grade are still practicing how to make their letters and numbers correctly with the correct grip and stroke. I find improvements across the board in these in 2nd grade after a summer of healthy outdoor play, and expect the same with this class of 26.

Reading is not quantifiably measured until 2nd grade, but at the moment I have abilities ranging from complete disinterest to vigorous chapter book reading in the class. Most of the parents have been with Waldorf since the beginning, aren't too concerned at the close of 2nd grade and haven't been pushing their children in any way other than to read to them regularly. The range is completely based upon the readiness of the individual and there is no reading hierarchy in the class at the close of 1st. Next year we will focus even more on dictation, reading from readers we create, and further writing in our Main Lesson Books and in our nature journals.

What led you into Waldorf teaching?

My dear children, specifically my son Breandan, led me to Waldorf. I knew he was going to need a pretty special education because he was by no means an easy child. Waldorf showed me how to better support him with his particular needs with amazing results, and because of my involvement in his school I became aquainted with the methods. Encouraged by the faculty, I got my teacher training at Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento beginning in 2005 and graduating in 2008. I cannot stress enough the positive effect becoming a Waldorf teacher has had on the life of my family and my own personal renewal. I am grateful.


  1. I can't thankyou enough for this post! We are about to embark on 1st grade and I am a bit nervous...this had perfect timing! Thankyou!!

  2. Fabulous interview. Even for a Waldorf parent of quite a few years now, Tracey's impressively clear and well thought-out explanation of Waldorf's approach to reading, math and more deepens my own understanding - and makes this a great article to pass on to grandparents and friends who often have questions about these very issues. Thanks!

  3. thank you!! this is such a great post--very helpful and inspiring!

  4. This is a fantastic Post! I am going to print it to give to everyone that bugs me and wants to pressure into putting my son in a regular public school. I want my children to know who they are, to understand the world around and their vital part in it, to then evolve and manage it according to society. I am not in a rush for my son to learn how to read and write at age 5. As far as I know he doesn't have to go to work yet!!! He is a child with the soul of an Angel. Let's allow our kids to be kids and explore the world of fantasy and imagination so they can later on handle reality in a mature and holistic way.

  5. very informative and enjoyable read for someone considering embarking on a Waldorf path, thank you

  6. Tracey,

    I love your post and I am very very excited to have found your blog. I have two children at the Meadowbrook Wadorf School and I myself attended for grades 7, 8 in Detroit Michigan in the 80's after being deemed "unteachable" lol in catholic and public schools. I have accomplished much in my life, and Waldorf and the ARTS were directly responsible for grounding me in my education and in my capabilities.

  7. That's so nice to hear, Monica. You and your kids are both lucky. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience a Waldorf education - or at least one full of the arts, nature, and reverence.