"Remember, everybody, a gem from Grade 8," John Bentley calls out above the noise. "We're all gems, Mr. Bentley," a graduating class member shouts back with a laugh. It may be meant as a wisecrack, but there's a certain wisdom in it: The best testimony for Waldorf education is its students.
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That's as true today as it was 13 years ago, when Ann Peters and her husband, then young parents, marvelled at the children of some friends, students at the Toronto Waldorf School in Thornhill, Ontario. "We were just incredibly impressed with their enthusiasm, their love of learning, their real openness, their social skills," recalls Peters, now registrar of the Alan Howard school in downtown Toronto.
"We attended a parents' evening... and the children did some recitations in German, they sang in a choir, they played an instrumental piece, then they did a fairly substantial French play. And I was blown away.... There wasn't the self-consciousness you often see, particularly in early adolescence.... There was a real ease, not only in the performance aspect, but the ability was quite outstanding as well."
Waldorf education, created by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1919, is often described as education for "the head, the heart and the hands." Knitting, wood-working and singing are in no way extracurricular; they are integral parts of the program. And that leaves some prospective parents uneasy: If my kid is learning to knit at school, are math and science getting short shrift?
Brenda Kotras, registrar at the Toronto Waldorf School, says academics are a crucial part of Waldorf education - but timing is everything.
"While the academics don't start early, when they do start, the child is fertile and ready," says Kotras. "So while there isn't such an emphasis on reading the first few years, for instance, the teacher is speaking stories and showing a tremendous love for literature, for reading."
Teacher John Bentley says Waldorf education addresses what Steiner believed to be the three elements of a human being - the physical body, the intellect and a third aspect, which is a little more difficult to define.
"It's perhaps the creative side, or the spiritual side, or the individual being of that person" he says. "That all those areas are being nurtured and addressed and stretched and developed is the main tenet of this education."
This really puts Waldorf in context. The aim is to develop balanced, creative human beings who carry a love for learning throughout their lives.
As society pushes ever-younger children to achieve, the Waldorf approach becomes an oasis in a world seemingly intent on robbing children of their childhood.
In the mainstream, Bentley says, children tyically have an hour a week of music, phys-ed and art. The rest is pretty much all intellectual and academic training - sometimes starting in pre-kindergarten and nursery.
"There's no doubt we can teach these things at a very young age. But (better) to allow children to have a childhood and to grow at an appropriate level. All the results of 75 to 80 years of Waldorf education world-wide have shown that the extra childhood time means that they accelerate much more quickly later on - and with a greater set of skills."
Sasha Singer-Wilson, one of the "gems" in John Bentley's Grade 8 class, has been at Alan Howard since kindergarten. "You're developed as a whole person;" she says. "Your hands work and your mind works and your soul works and your heart works. It's getting them all to work together in harmony, to make you a harmonious person and a good person - that's what it's about."
As registrar at Alan Howard, Peters meets many a parent seeking to undo the results of a purely academic approach at other schools. "Their child typically has lost interest. Yes, they've learned to read; yes, they can do mathematics. But they've lost their enthusiasm and motivation for learning."
Even very young children are sometimes pushed too far, too soon, Peters says. "There are several costs, and we see them with children who come into the school even as early as kindergarten or Grade 1, who have gone into early academic programs. They've left behind their sense of play and are, in fact, unable to play in an unstructured environment. They have to be told what to do."
Another distinguishing feature of the Waldorf approach is that, ideally, students have the same teacher and classmates all through grade school. The aim is a continuity that provides much more than a ready-made group of friends each September.
Brian Searson led a Toronto Waldorf School class into Grade 7 this autumn that he has taught since Grade 2. "I see my role somewhat like a standing stone. You know how the Celts used to put up a stone... so they wouldn't lose their way and it would indicate a direction to go? I feel a teacher really stands in front of the class as that marker," says Searson.
Grade 8 student Catherine Thompson-Walsh says being with the same classmates through the years has been a remarkable experience. "It doesn't matter where we go - I never get homesick because these 17 people are really my family," Catherine says. "It just made it better to know I'm with people who I love and they love me back."
Back at the Alan Howard gym, at the year's final assembly, the Grade 1s shyly walk on stage, each bearing a perfect pink rose for the departing Grade 8s.
When the school year began, the Grade 8s welcomed the Grade 1s by presenting each with a rose at a special assembly. Now the young ones complete the circle.
The Grade 8s accept their roses with hugs and smiles, and are soon singing a traditional Irish blessing in beautiful three-part harmony: "May the road rise up to meet you, and the rain fall soft upon your fields.... Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand...."
The class is poised and composed - more than can be said for the assembled parents, visitors and one reporter, many of whom are sobbing.
"It's bittersweet, I have to say, to see them go," says teacher John Bentley. "But it's very beautiful to know that they are ready."