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Schooling heart and head

A visit to the Waldorf School is like doubling back in time. The front walkway's stones are shaped in a heart, and the softspoken pupils and teachers carry lunches and lesson plans in baskets. It feels like a return to the 1960s, when people dressed quaintly and preached peace and love.

The children say verses here, and the teachers sing. The classes do cross-stitch, make their own books and shape animals from colored beeswax. After a while, one feels even more removed, back to a time when people felt closer to each other and the Earth.

The Waldorf concept sprang from a philosophical movement that began in Europe early this century and has grown to include 550 schools worldwide. The schools and teachers exhibit a profound respect for children and a gentle, nurturing style. Art, in all its manifestations, is the glue that holds the curriculum together.

"We are trying to teach children a reverence for all things living," says Gainesville teacher Chris Friedrich. "We are trying to give them a feel for society as a whole, all its parts. We want the children to grow strong in themselves."

Brave and true

Brave and true will I be.

Each good deed sets me free.

Each kind thought makes me strong.

I will fight for the right.

I will conquer the wrong.

First- and second-graders, ringed about in a circle, say this verse as they stride into the center of the circle, then back out again. They seem to stand taller as they chant the words.

An important part of each morning is this circle, where the children recite verses, doing body movements with every single one. The reciting and marching and stretching and bending go on for an incredible 30 minutes, the children eagerly involved in every moment.

Before the circle, the children file into Mimi Coleman's classroom, each of them getting a warm handshake and personal recognition: "Good morning, Rachel" and "Good morning, Joshua." Joseph brings his teacher a big plastic bag of fresh green peppers.

"Thank you," she says. "I can't wait to eat them."

The rooms of the school are big and airy, full of natural light. Soft curtains hang at the windows. One chalkboard displays a drawing in bright colors of children picking apples, jumping rope, raking leaves, roller skating, tending garden. Its frame is white chalk stars. Coleman says she did the drawing as an end-of-school gift to the children. Another wall is taken up with the children's watercolor paintings of a sunflower in the school garden.

"Rachel, you may light the candle this morning," Coleman says.

The children, standing at plain oak desks, recite a verse that celebrates life, the new day, the sunlight and the children's opportunity to learn.

Coleman sings good morning to the children at their desks. "Good morning, Amber, are you here?" she sings. "Yes, I am," each child sings in reply.

The imprint of ritual is deep here, demonstrated in everything from the way fat paintbrushes are handed out _ handed, teacher to pupil, making a connection _ to the use of old, magical myths, fables and folklore as part of the curriculum.

After verses, the children work on their multiplication tables. For this, Coleman passes out copper rods, again the connection, tossing each rod to a specific child so the child must catch it, completing a transaction. Then the children recite their times-tables, tossing the lightweight rods from hand to hand, passing them from child to child. The physical exercise complements the intellectual one.

The second grade departs with their teacher, and the first-graders get ready for music.

"First grade, please take out your flutes and warm them by your hearts," Coleman instructs.

The children play and sing Hot Cross Buns and Here We Go and Touch the Sky and Waken, Sleeping Butterfly and Spring is Everywhere and Little Gnomes.

"Excellent. You may clean your flutes and put them away."

Learning whole

All things about me I do love

and into me will take.

The earth below,

the sky above

a part of me I'll make.

Dorothy St. Charles, a Milwaukee principal, will head a Waldorf school scheduled to open this fall in that city's public school system. A teacher since 1974 and a principal since 1985, St. Charles was assigned to help with planning the school, and wound up a Waldorf convert.

"I was real skeptical," she says. "All my background is in the public schools, and Waldorf looks different. It is different. So I was asking, "What the heck is going on here?'

"But then I sat in the Chicago Waldorf and watched, and what I saw were children who smile all the time. I saw children who are very happy. Children who are able to think. Who score above average on tests. I saw a curriculum so integrated, such an interweaving of everything, that it makes sense to kids."

The Waldorf method is the philosophical offspring of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and author with an intense interest in education. Founded in Europe in 1919, Waldorf is one of the largest independent private school movements in the world, with 550 schools internationally, 110 of them in North America. The Waldorf Institute in New York reports that the Carnegie Foundation, which sponsors and monitors research on education, has shown an interest in the movement, though that has not been manifest in any way yet.

The Waldorf method includes some major components:

The arts are completely integrated into the curriculum. Children paint, draw, sculpt, do needlework, play musical instruments, act out dramas.

The children learn foreign languages from the earliest grades.

Television-watching is discouraged.

Waldorf teachers ideally stay with their pupils from kindergarten through eighth grade. The change in curriculum from year to year is thought to be a refreshment for the teacher, and the continuity of teacher and pupils is thought to be nurturing for the class. Though most Waldorf schools incorporate only the early grades, a few in other states do go on into high school.

No textbooks are used. Instead, the children write and illustrate big books of their own, using what they've learned. Printed books are used for reference, and many other materials, songs, stories, activities, come from other sources.

Children learn how to read by hearing stories, telling them and learning to write them.

The children are given time to study topics in depth and to finish complex projects.

Creative play, lots of it, is an essential part of the program for the younger children.

There are no report cards and no grades. Instead, written assessments of progress are provided to parents.

But a list of components doesn't capture the atmosphere that makes the Waldorf school so different.

"Waldorf is a healing-type school," St. Charles says. "This touched my heart. It's warm and caring, and at the same time exciting. It's about respecting and liking children."

The Milwaukee school came about as a result of parent requests. How much extra the school will wind up costing isn't yet known. "But it'll be a lot," St. Charles says. "Just the wooden chairs cost $70 apiece, compared to $15 for plastic. And I just spent $30,000 for music. We need a lot of specially made things."

The school will be divided between inner-city, neighborhood children and those from outside the district, 55 percent and 45 percent, respectively. St. Charles says the out-of-district slots are full already, and she's busy explaining what the school is to the neighborhood parents. Her district describes the Waldorf method:

"The ultimate goal of the Waldorf approach is to awaken within each child a will to work, a steadily increasing intellectual capacity, a remarkable enthusiasm for learning, and a strong sense of moral values to guide the child through adolescence into adulthood."

Artists at work

Sun and Moon and wind and rain

and earth and fire and sea and light

The sun is out

The wind is light

The children are dancing with pure delight.

In Gloria Curry's kindergarten class in Gainesville, leaves captured between sheets of waxed paper decorate some of the window panes. In one corner is an oak-limb tree decorated with hand-painted Easter eggs. Like the other classrooms, hers includes a nature table that shows off cypress knees, rocks, shells, beeswax animals and figures made by the children.

Singing all the while, Curry has set out jars of paint in primary colors and handed out fluffy paintbrushes. The wet watercolor paper awaits. The children dip their brushes and paint, rinsing in quart jars of clear water that turn mauve, blue, green and finally brown.

After they finish their Father's Day pictures, the 3- and 4-year-olds get up and find the baskets full of soft cloths and sheets. These cloths, draped over frames in the room, become castles and hideouts and clubhouses. Draped over the children themselves, they become royal rainment or bird's feathers or fairy wings. It's the old principle of the cardboard box being the best toy a child can have, because it excites the imagination.

Curry is a gentling presence when necessary: "You need to use your words to work that out with Sarah" and "Nicky, don't you need a little sister in your game?"

After play and cleanup, the youngsters help act out the story of Sleeping Beauty, and then it's time for porridge (oatmeal with raisins). Table talk is about neat tricks dogs can do, like retrieving newspapers and meeting school buses, and about the deer that are eating the blueberries off the bushes at Gabe's house. This leads to a discussion of the properties of scarecrows.

The real world?

The contact of the soil and seed

Each giving to the other's need

Each helping on the other's quest

And blessing each as well as blessed

Katie Bates is one of the Waldorf parents and editor of the school newsletter. "People visit us and say, "Is this the real world?' And we say, "Yes, this is the real world.'

"We're trying to protect childhood here. We're trying to retain the connection to the Earth and the rhythm of things that our society has lost. And because the children do experience real life here, the real world, as adults they will be able to cope better, problem-solve better."

The Gainesville school _ the only other Waldorf school in Florida is in South Miami _ began about 13 years ago in a church, sponsored by parents who wanted something different for their children. It now is housed in two leased buildings, and its 70 children attend kindergarten through fourth grade. The children come from a variety of backgrounds and pay $2,600 to $2,800 a year to attend. Next year the school will include fifth grade.

The school is run by the faculty, though Chris Friedrich comes as close to being a principal as there is. "We're not trying to protect the children from the rest of the world," she says. "Rather, we're trying to offer them things appropriate to their development."

Though Alachua County public schools don't track Waldorf children, or those from any private school, after they transfer in, Friedrich contends their children can hold their own anywhere.

"If a child is doing well with us," she said, "it'll do well anywhere."

The results are impressive. Each fourth-grader has produced books this year to culminate studies of Norse myths, fractions, man and animal, drawing and geography-history.

In geography-history, for example, Althea Moore wrote a book about war between France and Spain that she titled "Tit for Tat." Jo Reilly-Brown's book is the log of a fictional sailor who served during wartime.

"When a child can write a diary about what you'd be doing on a day like today as a pioneer boy or girl in the 1800s," said St. Charles, "and that child really has a grasp of what went on in that period, you know that some teaching had to be done for that to happen."