BEA'S BOOK NOOK "I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once." C. S. Lewis “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” ― Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Guest Post by Rebecca Coleman: Childhood Perfected?


 A New Yorker by birth, Rebecca Coleman grew up in the close suburbs of Washington, D.C., in an academic family. A year spent in Germany, at the age of eight, would later provide the basis for the protagonist's background in "The Kingdom of Childhood." She first learned about the Waldorf School movement at age 14 and quickly developed a fascination with its culture and philosophies. After studying elementary education for several years at the University of Maryland, she graduated with a degree in English, awarded with honors, and speaks to writers' groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing. She lives in suburban Maryland with her husband and their four young children.

 



Her debut novel, "The Kingdom of Childhood", while in manuscript form, was a semifinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition.


Today, Rebecca is talking about her own personal experience with The Waldorf School.Thank you Rebecca for stopping bu today.
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I was a 14-year-old public school kid when I got my first glimpse of a Waldorf school, walking through its doors as a guest of my mother's co-worker, whose son was a student there. From the street it looked perfectly ordinary, but inside, it was a revelation. Breathtakingly beautiful drawings and paper cutouts, all made by the children, decorated its corridors; the classrooms for its youngest students were filled with handmade dolls, carved wooden figurines, baskets of wool yarn and colorful hooded capes for games of imagination. It made me think of the Three Bears' cottage, something out of a folk tale sprung to life. That day the school community gathered in the multipurpose room for a candlelit carol sing-- it was nearly Christmas. My starkest memory of that day is the rising panic I felt at being surrounded by all those wiggly children who each held a lit candle, and, at the same time, an overwhelming awe of the beauty around me.

Much like Judy, the main character in my novel, the school reminded me instantly of my classrooms in Germany, where I had lived for a year in the mid-1980s. In the years that followed, as I learned more and more about the Waldorf philosophy-- invented, as it was, by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s-- I identified strongly with its notions that children do well to be immersed in the rhythms of the seasons, working with materials made by nature. I believed, too, in the wisdom to be found in the subtext of the oldest fairy tales, and in setting a high value on the beauty of a child's environment. Waldorf school, to me, seemed like childhood perfected.

My oldest son, James, began Waldorf preschool just before he turned 4. I was a very young mother, and it felt like a true victory to have won him a spot at the school. I didn't think it mattered that James was obsessed with all things soldier-related, because that's common with boys that age, and knights are a common motif in Waldorf stories and toys. I couldn't have been more wrong.
            
 We lasted one semester there. Nearly every day, his teacher greeted me at the door with a negative report about his behavior. It seemed the kid couldn't do anything right; even when he painted, he painted wrong, because he wanted to use multiple colors and paint objects, which was not allowed. When the teacher set out wooden planks for creative play, James encouraged his classmates to build ramps to climb the bookshelves; when she gave them a basket of rocks (indoors!), he threw them. Bewildered by his teacher's constant criticism, I told her the always-effective method for correcting James: tell him to stop. But that was not the Waldorf way; the method is to redirect the child. That didn't work with James, and so she kept tearing her hair out, and he, blissfully ignorant that he was doing anything wrong, kept returning to his own great ideas. 

The breaking point came when she told me the other children were ostracizing him because of his behavior. This put me into a complete panic. The next day I came in to observe him on the playground, hoping to discern the reason why my child was an outcast. Instead, I watched as he appointed himself the construction manager of an epic project in the sand pit; one child after another came up to him asking to be assigned their role. He wasn't an outcast at all-- he was a leader. He was popular. I knew then that we needed to leave. I loved the philosophy with all my heart, but I couldn't leave my exuberant, free-spirited boy in a place where he was the sticky nail that needed to be hammered down.

James is 13 now, and now and then I look at him and wonder what his first teacher would think if she could see him today-- my incredibly funny son, smart and friendly and very well-behaved, whose favorite place in the world is the Shakespeare drama camp he attends every summer. His personality hasn't changed a bit since he was four years old-- but luckily, he has been surrounded by wonderful teachers who value him for who he is. I still keep one of his Waldorf preschool paintings on the wall-- a reminder of my hope to give him a happy childhood, and how that precious wish was granted to us after all, just not in the way I expected.  

I don't assume that all Waldorf classrooms are like my son's-- not at all. I still have great affection for the philosophy. In The Kingdom of Childhood, Zach finds wisdom and strength in what he has learned as a Waldorf student, even as the entire ideal of protected innocence has broken down for him in the most egregious ways. Truly, it's the rare institution that won't, at some point, let us down-- but it doesn't mean we have to discard what beauty and truth we found within it. Life is a process of gathering

           

7 comments:

  1. Truly incredible! I honestly had no knowledge of the Waldorf movement until I read this book and I was so intrigued by it, I went online and did some more research.

    In fact, I'm STILL interested in it!

    What a great story :)

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  2. I had a passing familiarity with it as I teach pre-school. When I got the book for review, I talked to some of my co-workers about the Waldorf curriculum and got a book from the library. Overall, I find I disagree with a lot of their thinking but there are some good bits. At my school, we happily take bits and pieces from various educational philosophies and mix them into our own blend.

    As a teacher, I'm disappointed at the interactions between her son and the school and I'm glad that she recognized that they weren't a good fit and pulled him out. Children are individuals and no one philosophy or system will fit every child. I love my school but there are some children whose needs are better met elsewhere. I hate to see them go but I know they will benefit from the move.

    I'm glad that Rebecca shared the story with us.

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  3. Thanks, and thanks for posting my story. By the way, I had been an elementary education major before I had James (after he was born I switched to English) and did two student teaching seminars, and so what I was seeing was bewildering both as an almost-teacher and a mother. I'm sure his teacher would have her side to tell, too-- I wasn't the ideal Waldorf parent, after all. But then, not many are, so I'm not quite sure what her issue was. I could talk all day about that one, but I'll spare you. Thanks again ;-)

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  4. To be honest I hadn't heard of the Waldorf movement until now and I can't understand why they would stifle a childs creativity when its something that should be nurtured and encouraged. After all we don't want a world of grey suited clones do we. We want the enlightenment of humour, the progressive positiveness of forward thinking and people to question the way things are done to make it better for everyone.

    Thats the key and Im so pleased to hear how his life changes haven't dampened his spirit or his loves. Great stuff Rebecca and thanks for letting me know Bea.

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  5. This sounds like a very interesting read...I've added it to my TBR pile...I get so many great recommendations from your site Bea!

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  6. Rebecca, I can imagine that you were bewildered. I'm glad everything worked out and that you were willing to move him.

    Gareth, many followers of the Waldorf movement are what we call "the crunchy granola types", modern day hippies. There's some value to their thinking but it's not a philosophy I can buy into all teh way.

    Angie, thanks! I appreciate hearing that. :)

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  7. There is much more to the "philosophy" of Waldorf/Steiner education than what one learns from the movement's outreach material or from a few months in a school. The pedagogy is based on a religious/spiritual foundation called "anthroposophy." Buyer beware . . . .

    Years of research for my own novel left me both fascinated and concerned about the reality of what happens in these schools. Rebecca Coleman's personal story - unfortunately - is not surprising and certainly not unique.

    I look forward to reading The Kingdom of Childhood.

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Thanks for taking the time to comment. I enjoy hearing from my readers. Let;s talk!