While my two boys, Harper and Will, spent most of their schooling years in a Waldorf school, we spent two years homeschooling. I am a trained Waldorf teacher and prior to this I had been teaching at the Waldorf school that my boys attended.
I spent years in graduate school studying education and had many years of teaching experience, but I learned more about how children learn during those two years than I did from all my teacher training and the plethora of books I’d read on the subject.
Being devoted to Waldorf education, I was determined to give my children a true Waldorf experience at home, so when we started, I did what I knew. I created a mini-Waldorf school at home, complete with lazured walls, wooden desks, and a large blackboard. It was beautiful!
Since I had also agreed to homeschool my niece, I was committed to offering the curriculum to three different grades, as it would be taught in a Waldorf school.
During the first couple of months, I would routinely stay up until midnight, sometimes later, preparing three different lesson plans and drawings that I would expect my students to copy into their “main lesson books” the next day. I had a curriculum and a daily schedule and I was determined to stick to it.
Our first day was a success!
We got through the first month. But as the weather grew cooler, I was getting a little stressed and sleep-deprived. I noticed that my students seemed to be growing restless and resistant to my lessons.
By Christmas I was ready to have a nervous breakdown.
I knew that in order to preserve my sanity, something had to change. I was going to have to relax and let go of my preconceived notions of what the children needed to learn and when. We started planning more field trips, which were a welcome change of pace.
We attended a talk with a naturalist about eagles and owls. The presenter informed us about how many eagles have returned to our home state of Maine, and told us that if we made a point to look up in the sky, we would likely see them.
It was true! In the coming week we spotted three bald eagles, one of which dramatically swooped down to capture a snake from the ground. This sparked an interest in birds of prey. Now “Birds of Prey” was not one of my lesson plans, but we went to the library to get books about owls and eagles.
Then I turned our newfound interest into Waldorf-inspired activities. We drew pictures of owls and eagles with colored pencils in our main lesson books; we memorized a poem about owls; we learned a Native American song about the eagle and played it on our recorders; and we wrote essays about owls and eagles and copied them in our main lesson books.
Our learning became more inspired by the children’s interests, and our days became much lighter and joy-filled.
My A-ha Moment
Then it dawned on me that the prescribed Waldorf curriculum was designed as an institutional model. The curriculum, which Rudolf Steiner brilliantly devised to meet children’s needs at each stage of their development, was intended for a class of 25 or more students of the same age.
It would not be practical for a teacher to create individual lesson plans to meet the interests of 25 different students, but at home we had that freedom. I began to discover that we learn best when learning comes out of our own curiosity; when we feel the desire to know more about something.
After our “Birds of Prey” block, our further studies were inspired by other field trips and from books we read. In choosing books, I looked to the Waldorf curriculum: fairy tales for my first grade niece; Native American stories and fables for my second grader; and stories of the Middle Ages for my sixth grader.
Naturally, a child may never have a burning desire to learn all about long division or solving equations, so we spent a little time every day working on math skills. We worked with Singapore Math and Harold Jacobs’s excellent textbook Elementary Algebra, which really made algebra (never my favorite subject) fun. Harper and I problem-solved together and checked our answers against one another.
Back to School
After two years of learning together, there was an unexpected need for an early childhood teacher back at the Waldorf school. While I loved the time we spent homeschooling and was reluctant to give up the freedoms we enjoyed, I felt called back to the work that I often feel I was born to do, and the boys looked forward to rejoining their friends and the social life of the school.
Upon their return, I worried that their teachers might find them to be “behind,” not having followed precisely the curriculum their classmates had. To the contrary, their skills were at or above those of their classmates, but most importantly, their teachers noticed how enthusiastic they were about learning.
When Harper’s teacher shared that his newfound enthusiasm for math and science was having a positive affect on the rest of the class, he gave all the credit to homeschooling.
“Before we homeschooled,” he said, “I never knew that math and science could be fun!”
Do you follow a set curriculum? Do you unschool, or do a combination of both? I’d love to hear what works for you!