Brian Fisher | February 01, 2016
I knew High Mowing School from my days as boarding school faculty member in northern New England. I know High Mowing is Waldorf boarding high school, but I didn't know what that meant.
What does it mean to be a Waldorf boarding high school?
I ran into Theo Groh- High Mowing alumnus- and, now, a faculty member at a conference and he put me in touch with Susan Lunt Childress, who works on High Mowing communications. Childress is also a High Mowing alumna and the parent of a High Mowing graduate.
I posed some questions in an e-mail interview with Childress to try to gain an understanding of what it means to be the only Waldorf boarding high school in America.
What do Waldorf schools actually do differently and are the results really so distinctive? Once considered counter culture, Waldorf education is now accepted as one of the longest-running alternatives to conventional education, with some 900 Waldorf schools in 80 countries. By definition Waldorf epitomizes a sort of humanist ideal: while teaching real-world knowledge and skills, it strives to meet students ‘where they are’ in their journey, seeing them as ‘beings of a threefold nature; mind, spirit and body,’ and engaging them with compassion, infusing art, music and movement in every day curricula whose rhythms and transitions match those found in nature. It’s not hard to like an idea like that. But how does it actually work?
What do Waldorf schools do that makes students’ experience uniquely Waldorf?
That the answer differs slightly depending on where you are in the world and who is teaching is an important tenet itself. Waldorf education was designed to respond to cultural changes. Classroom teachers work in freedom (in agreement with their colleagues) and are expected to meet the needs of students holistically, out of their own insight and according to the circumstances of the school.
This freedom is tempered by the quality of the education the average teacher has received – a four-year degree and one to five additional years of Waldorf certificate and specialization work– and a universally held aim: to educate each pupil in how they learn best; “to inspire life-long learning in all students,” according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) “and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities” through the carefully chosen subject at hand. Carefully planned block classes bring age-appropriate content and methods to each stage of a student’s development.
A Waldorf teacher’s methods in the classroom are often so intuitive that even a casual observer could easily and enjoyably enter into the teaching moment, as either teacher or learner. In Algebra, instead of explaining the derivation of an equation on the chalk board as students follow along, a Waldorf teacher might ask her students to work together with her to narrate the steps in deriving the formula, the source of the equation. “I do not tell the students what we are doing,” she explains. “I ask them, ‘how did I get from the first equation to the second?’ Hesitantly, after a lengthy pause, a student identifies the operation involved in that step. I then hold the student to using the correct terminology in expressing the otherwise correct answer.”
Likewise, the study of geology might begin with students examining exposed bedrock just outside the classroom, noticing for the first time clearly identifiable components of granite. While subsequent splitting of rock samples, quarry visits, microscopic work and journaling carry the students deep into scientific observations and theories, working together to repair an ancient stone wall and learning Helen Keller’s poem ‘The Chant of the Stone Wall,’ or Charles Simic’s, ‘Go Inside a Stone,’ connects students to the subject in other, equally profound ways.
How do Waldorf students stand out?
By the time they get to high school, most Waldorf students understand how their experience is different from that of their non-Waldorf peers. “Good Waldorf students are critical thinkers,” says Jack, a High Mowing School senior. “No matter their skill set, whether it is engineering, or writing, they will be highly valued for their critical thinking.”
Another senior, Federica, who attended Waldorf schools in Europe and is now at High Mowing, says it was the tendency toward self-reliance that distinguishes her and her peers from others. “You are guided in experiencing things for yourself, in a way that is not from a book or a second-hand narrative,” she said. “Most importantly, it is about searching for the right question, in order to gather your own experience of something. When you look that deeply into something, you are able to see connections with other things,” she said.
“Some people tell me I ask the weirdest questions (due to learning in this different way) but in the end I feel I come away with a greater understanding,” added Jack.
What does a Waldorf graduate bring to the world?
Waldorf teachers measure their success not by test scores, but by the graduates themselves. The AWSNA website reaffirms that ideal: “Music, dance and theater, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate their intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world.”
For actual graduates, proofing what they’ve learned is often much simpler – and deeply personal. “Waldorf graduates tend to be calm. They are not at war with themselves over someone else’s idea of how they are supposed to be,” said Robert Amburn, a New York City-based fixture designer. “They are socially evolved,” he added. “They can express themselves well and without fear. They are used to dealing with conflict.”
How does the typical Waldorf graduate fare when applying to college?
Not surprisingly, Waldorf graduates are often drawn to smaller, progressive colleges. But, in general, they compete across the board, and are favored among admissions officers for their self-assurance.
“We love our High Mowing girls,” says Lia Brassord, at Smith College, in Massachusetts. “In my experience in admissions, I feel like they are self-motivated. They have a love for learning. These students have learned..no, not learned, they have cultivated an excitement for things. They take charge of their education. They aren’t just checking boxes.”
“Waldorf students are a good match for us, says Heather Albert-Knopf, Dean of Admissions at College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. “They are especially community minded, active and thoughtful, with a willingness to participate in the institution. There is self-awareness and also awareness of those around them. There is an empathy and compassion; a wish to make an impact.”