Visiting PhD Student, Alys Mendus, reports on her day in the Upper School...
Wednesday 1st November 2017
I met with Juliet at 8.20 on Wednesday morning and she showed me the staff room which was in an amazing position up above the playground and yard that the classrooms were nestled around. It was beautiful morning so I joined the whole of the Upper School in the second yard, standing in a large circle to say the verse together. The students went off to their first class. I joined the ‘Creative Writing’ lesson Cl 10 group. The classroom was quite narrow and the students squeezed into two long rows facing the board and teacher. I observed the early morning faces, the ones that arrived late, the tired faces and the others bright with interest and engagement. The activity, I could tell, was cleverly organised by the teacher to lead the students slowly but deeply into more evocative writing. For example, they first wrote and then read aloud a memory from childhood - many were from being at the Steiner school and others were ‘wearing a pink tutu’ which caused laughter to ripple through the group. It felt like a good natured class with a responsive, cheeky but respectful relationship with their teacher. The ‘I remember…’ statements became ‘I am…’ and slowly the class caught on to the power of words! From observing, I realised that some of the students were exchange students from Germany and when they were not sure what was happening other students seemed to help them out. It felt an inclusive atmosphere. I brought my gaze away from the students, the teacher and the lesson and began to look more at the room. The black-board had the most impressive drawing, showing great skill in chalk drawing but also, for me, providing some beauty at the front of the class. There were lots of older computers around the edge of the room and several interesting book shelves. I noticed a gnome on a top shelf and that made me smile - felt like the ‘gnome of the adolescents’ keeping a supportive eye on what was going on.
Juliet then showed me around the school, I was intrigued by the buildings and interested to learn the history of the architecture and then to observe how the space was used inside classrooms. We popped into Classes 1 and 2 and I saw that Class 1 used benches instead of desks which I have read a lot about. It seems like a sensible transition between Kindergarten and formal learning. The outside play area for Class 1-3 showed understanding of how younger children still love to play, climb and dig in the sand. We then walked through the gate into the Kindergartens, which are designed like three anthroposophical cottages around a garden, pond, sand and extensive space for exploration and deep play. One of the Kindergarten groups was outside so we peeked into their classroom. I am always inspired by the details in each Kindergarten that I visit and was really interested in the little hand-sewn napkin holders ready and waiting on the table for the children to come for snack. The warm smell of apples permeated out of the space and it reminded me of how that smell was what one of the Class 10 students had chosen as their ‘memory’ from childhood.
I then had the chance to observe Class 9, where half were in art and the other half in Science. It was really helpful to have a chance to talk to the teachers. I always find the journeys of people who chose to work in Steiner Waldorf schools fascinating and teachers always seem to bring a real wealth of life experiences, professional and teaching experience into their classrooms. The students in art were deeply engrossed on their own projects. This classroom too had an amazing blackboard drawing and was full of interesting art, posters and colour. I was intrigued as I crossed the yard to observe the Science group as they were all outside, wearing lab coats and what looked like splatting red paint everywhere! I soon found out that it was for forensics experiments and the class were researching how far and in what direction ‘blood’ would travel when hit/dropped from certain directions. It was fun to watch and the students seemed engaged. From chatting to their teacher I realised the possibilities that having a decent Science lab and being longer term in one school can provide in terms of sustainability and subject content.
After break-time instead of choosing to go into one Main Lesson I decided to go into all three to see a flavour of different subject and approaches. As even for someone like myself who calls them-self a ‘School Tourist’ I rarely get to observe many Upper School main lessons in action. I began in Class 10 Ancient History and immediately I saw something that attempted to solve a problem that I have had in my work with poetry and teenagers - they don’t want to recite it, or speak out loud in public. However, what I observed here was: One person agreed to read the first line and from then on anyone could read the next line and the next… However, if you decide to speak out and to say the line then you must commit to the entire line. This meant that for some lines only one person spoke, others a few and some virtually the whole class. The first time through was a bit of a warm up but the second time it was really coming together and I could see how this approach of giving a level of autonomy could engage the group to be able to all read/recite the poem together.
The Class 9 Modern History Main Lesson was in full swing when I entered working with a poem about human rights. I was filled in that the class had realised that many of the students had heritage from all over the world so they were enjoying working out who was to recite each line as they were about the rights of people from different countries. I was interested to find out more about the dynamic of this group - the ones who had been all the way through class 1-8 together and those that had joined for the Upper School. I asked a couple of students what they thought about Upper School and they enjoyed the change and the different teachers but they said they got too much work! The class practised reading the poem out with some parts together and then the rest with those who had been designated to read a line (alone or in 2/3s). They will present it soon in an assembly and that goal did seem to give most of the class a focus. Just before I moved on the class were shown some maps of Europe to show colonisation and an interesting discussion began about what they had learnt in Class 7 about the 'Age of discovery’ and now in Class 9 realising that there were challenging stories from colonialisation in relation to human rights. Throughout the class what was expected of the students was very clear with the pages for their Main Lesson book listed on the black-board, with possible suggestions of how to reach what was expected in different ways. I spoke to the teacher and this was connected to allowing more autonomy for the students but within a held environment.
Class 11 were in Botany and when I entered, the small group were troubling over how to design an experiment connected to germination/growth of some seeds during the next two weeks of their Main Lesson. I appreciated watching the class trying to solve the problem themselves, think about the parameters, how to design a results table, what actually to research and then finding the correct equipment to start the experiment itself. They all seemed interested and engaged. I could see on the board that they had been learning about botany and had all been making notes but when I entered the more interactive practical part of the class was happening. The small group worked well together taking on different roles and included those who were occasionally bit lost.
I found the morning very helpful at giving me an insight into a school that wants to offer the Waldorf Upper School curriculum rather than have to dilute the focus into high-stakes-tests over the Waldorf curriculum. It was an honour to observe several teachers working patiently, respectfully and creatively with what seemed like from what it seemed like from my morning observing interested and engaged students.
Alys Mendus, November 9th 2017, Devon.