The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)

 

*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.

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