School Spirit(s)

Just ask the gnome: It's hard to get a good read on the Waldorf teachings

"We're quite comfortable with the fact that children are seven or eight years old by the time reading clicks with them," says David Darcy, an administrator at The Harvest, a Waldorf school in Spring that opened two years ago. "In the public school, those would be considered learning-disabled."

"It sounds like voodoo to say something like that, and yet the person who started Waldorf education, he had some insights."

The gnome says no to the bad TV spirits.
Al Cameron
The gnome says no to the bad TV spirits.

Critics of Waldorf question how forthcoming the schools are with those insights. They wonder if teachers trained primarily in anthroposophy wind up applying it in the classroom.

"My daughter was in a Waldorf school for about a year, and I noticed after a while there were a lot of things going on that were kind of curious and mysterious," says John Holland, a parent in Berkeley who established as a forum for discussion. He gives one example: "At the holiday craft fair, there were gnomes everywhere. There were no Santas, snowmen or anything. It was all gnomes."

Ogle recognizes that "there are elemental beings out there in nature…beings who take care of the air and the water and the soil."

"I've never ever tried to teach them that," she says. "I'll tell you what they have done. I will sometimes, if I think they're not having the right respect for things in the room, I will have them take a gnome and, say, put it where the gnome is comfortable."

The TV and computer blackout is based upon the anthroposophic belief that a dark spirit called ahriman inhabits electronic media and binds people to the earth. "All of these things like computers and televisions can lead us into this pseudo-reality to live as though there's a whole world there," says Darcy, who acknowledges that he's open to the idea of gnomes. He also points out that Waldorf's stance on reading has to do with the fact that the body needs to push out the hardest force, the teeth, during the first period of physical transformation. "Illnesses later in life can be traced to this premature intellectuality that comes in childhood."

Holland had no problem with a religious foundation forming the basis of Waldorf methods -- he just felt they weren't open enough about it. "They say, 'We don't teach anthroposophy,' but anthroposophy forms the educational basis," he says. "I had this feeling from the very first day that something was going on that I wasn't quite getting."

In February 1998, PLANS, a Waldorf critics group, filed a federal lawsuit against two Northern California school districts, claiming that the Waldorf approach in public schools violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. The trial is set for September.

"It's hard to get out once you get in," says Debra Snell, president of PLANS and a former Waldorf parent. "It's a closed system." Snell says that through their Web site she has been in contact with about 100 Waldorf "survivors" -- although she would not disclose their identities, citing confidentiality concerns.

Scott Olmsted, administrative director for the Waldorf schools association, dismisses the merit of PLANS' lawsuit, claiming that any bad experiences are the fault of the individual teacher and not the system as a whole. "I think that the criticisms are based on anecdotal evidence and they in no way reflect the policies of the school," he says, later conceding that Waldorf praise is also based on anecdotal evidence. "With the critics, you have to wonder what their real issue is."

Some parents at Shining Star, a private institution not yet accredited, have no problem with the "spiritual plane" from which the school operates. Several say that they would have considered homeschooling, but prefer the artistic and social exposure that Waldorf provides.

Monette Chilson calls Shining Star "a breath of fresh air" after her daughter's public school experience. She's fascinated by some of the ideas about gnomes and teeth, even as those in her family wonder if it's not a little odd and hippie-ish. "My sister, she thinks we're crazy, so you have to be really strong in your convictions," says Chilson. Her only worry is that they won't be able to achieve the vision of eight full grades in coming years.

"There is some stuff that made me go, 'That sounds weird,' " says Carol Denson, a mother at Shining Star who is in Waldorf training and plans to teach its new first grade next year. Denson uses a comment she once heard to explain her view: "Sometimes you'll read something and think, 'That's really strange,' but if you just stay open to it and use it in working with the children, it just fits okay."

Back in the school's playroom, the parent of the prospective student joins in the circle of children for "music and movement" time. Their chants become song: "I came from the heavens to be here on this earth."

They march around the candle, miming the motion of chopping wood. It's a "spirit recital of Mother Earth" where "seeds and flowers await new birth."

Outside the window, the yard offers a pastoral panorama of forest, contrasting with the grocery store and strip mall across the street. Inside this room, the children look spacey and relaxed as they imitate tai chi stretches set to fairy tale musings.

And from a shelf nearby, Dusty Gnome watches over them with a blank expression, giving nothing away.

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