Sitting in a circle on tree stumps one cool summer morning, an earthy bunch of Madison-area schoolteachers are learning how to incorporate gardening into their teaching. The group is in the backyard of Oaksong School, an unusual private school that has its own plans to grow.
"Can I join the kindergarten class?" one of the teachers asks jokingly as Dianne Brooks explains the Waldorf theory of education. It's an approach that stands in stark contrast to the high-pressure academic rigor and standardized testing that are increasingly reshaping public schools.
"We tend to view a child's development in three seven-year cycles," says Brooks, who quit a traditional teaching program about 30 years ago and began working at a Waldorf school in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1984. She's been in Madison eight years, teaching kindergarten, the only grade currently available at Oaksong, located in the Old Waubesa Schoolhouse on Siggelkow Road in McFarland.
"For a child's first seven years, we believe it's our role to provide children with a picture that the world is good," she says. The theme for the second seven years is that the world is beautiful; the third cycle is to teach kids about the world's truths.
The 3- to 6-year-olds in Oaksong's kindergarten classes spend at least an hour a day roaming the enchanting 1½-acre yard, filled with trees, small hills and gardens. They sing songs and listen to stories. They draw and do craft projects and act out fairy tales.
"We give them life experiences and let them live in the world," Brooks says. "It's self-directed. They really are left free to do whatever they are moved to do."
What don't kids do at Oaksong? There are no TVs or computers. (Technology is frowned on, even at home). Oral storytelling is preferred over reading. They do not spend a lot of time in teacher-centered classrooms. There are no plastic toys or poster-plastered walls.
Sound a little strange?
"It is off the mainstream," admits parent Kymm Ann Wallin, whose 5-year-old son will begin his third year at Oaksong this fall. (The cost is $5,000 a year for five days a week, $3,750 for three days.) Wallin's family moved to Madison specifically to be near a Waldorf school: "People come here, and they smell the baking of bread, they see the mood and atmosphere, and they just know this is a nurturing place."
Now Oaksong's parents and educators are working toward a major expansion. They hope to have a first-grade class in place for 2007-08, and then grow a grade each year, perhaps with combined grades for the first years.
To succeed, the school (oaksong.org) will need to attract more families, and sort through a tangle of building-code regulations. The school may need to use a modular classroom or rent space elsewhere as it grows.
But one thing it has already is people who believe in it.
The Waldorf movement proclaims itself to be the nation's fastest-growing independent school system. Worldwide, there are about 900 Waldorf schools in 80 countries; the first opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. Today, about 140 Waldorf schools operate in the United States, most accredited by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. There are also some public schools, including two in Milwaukee, that embrace the Waldorf philosophy.
The roots of the Waldorf approach are in the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher who died in 1925. A man of almost mythical importance to Waldorf supporters, Steiner is the founder of "anthroposophy," which Encyclopedia Britannica calls "a movement based on the notion that there is a spiritual world comprehensible to pure thought but accessible only to the highest faculties of mental knowledge."
Teachers at Waldorf are trained in anthroposophy, and it is a guiding principle in their teaching. But many students graduate from Waldorf schools without ever hearing the word.
Criticism of Waldorf schools abounds. Some stems from questions about Steiner himself. Critics wonder whether schools are transparent enough about their tendencies to embrace spiritual and religious elements. (Waldorf schools have been criticized both for being too Christian and anti-Christian). There was even a lawsuit in California after Waldorf schools sought public funds.
To be sure, Waldorf schools aren't for everyone. But the idea of attending to children's physical, emotional and spiritual needs - not just pumping them full of knowledge - has inspired generations of families. And a lengthy list of famous and successful grads, from actress Jennifer Aniston to the CEO of American Express, attests to the program's success.
Public schools, under pressure to boost test scores and demonstrate accountability, are increasingly struggling with standardizing teaching. The success of rigid curriculums is leading to more mandated lessons and even scripted lectures. Waldorf schools have the luxury of dismissing all of this as another educational fad. And Waldorf parents wholeheartedly support that approach.
Mark Voss is a public schoolteacher in Middleton. He has taught high school French classes as well as programs for at-risk kids for the past five years.
His 5-year-old daughter, Zinnia, will begin her second year at Oaksong this fall; his 6-year-old son, Augie, after two years at Oaksong, will begin first grade, likely in Madison public schools. Voss doesn't have anything against public schools, but he's sad his son will no longer attend a Waldorf school.
"I know how rich the Waldorf experience is for students and the reverence teachers have for the students," says Voss, who is working toward Waldorf accreditation himself. "Some teachers have that in the public school system, but it's not as richly or widely cultivated, unfortunately."
Voss first learned about Waldorf education while working on a farm in Whitewater that used techniques espoused by Steiner, whose writings on gardening - related to moon cycles and benefits of "biodynamic agriculture" - also have a something of a cult following.
Susanne Schadde and her husband, both doctors, liked the Waldorf education at Oaksong so much they now send their 9-year-old to a Waldorf elementary school in Pewaukee, a 50-minute drive. Such devotion to the Waldorf way is not unusual.
"On the East and West coasts, Waldorf education is very well known," says Stacy Borman, whose daughter has attended Oaksong for two years. "And virtually all cities across the country that are similar to Madison have strong Waldorf schools. It's really surprising that there isn't the same awareness and desire here."
That may be about to change.