By Emily Slomovits
Since its inception in 1980, The Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor has flown mostly under the radar, but its popularity has also been steadily growing over the years. Named after German philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the school uses his philosophy of child development and ideas about well-rounded human beings to provide students with a holistic and age-specific education. One of over 1,000 Steiner-influenced “Waldorf schools” in 60 countries (there are 150 in North America), the schools are renowned for their emphasis on music and the arts, their original approach to the teaching of the sciences, and their celebration of nature, childhood play, and seasonal rituals.
“Waldorf education sees much more than just the intellect as the focus of attention,” says Siân Owen-Cruise, currently the School Coordinator of Rudolf Steiner, and previously the High School Coordinator (since 2010). “There’s a deep understanding of the developmental differences at different ages, and the way in which we teach is really tailored to those developmental stages.” In some respects, it could be argued that this need to tailor education to the age of the child is most important when working with very young children. But at the high school, the faculty feels this form of education is equally vital for teens.
“Waldorf” refers to the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, where Steiner, at the behest of Emil Molt, the factory’s director, started a school for the children of the workers in the factory. His radical conditions for starting the school — that it be coed, that teachers have freedom and control of the school, and that it be open to all children — were the foundation for what became the Steiner teaching philosophy. By 1928 it had migrated across the ocean to North America.
“Everything is based on experiencing the phenomena,” says English teacher Mary Emery, one of the high school’s founding teachers, who is on partial retirement this year. “The students are placed in the middle of something that’s living. It’s not about memorizing facts or someone else’s ideas; it’s about actually experiencing for yourself, becoming a really keen observer, and coming to your own ideas about what you’re witnessing.”
Gary Banks, in his 12th year as the Life Sciences teacher, agrees that the ability to think critically and form opinions for oneself comes from experiencing the world. “Essentially, we’re always trying to begin with experiences that everyone in the room can have — taking a class into the woods so we could observe a salamander, having everyone do or watch a chemistry experiment. But then there’s this process that you write up your observations of an experiment, and then you talk as a class about what you experienced. Everyone has a different point of view, and so you start to say, ‘Oh, someone might have seen something different,’ and you start to work together to create a whole picture. In this curriculum, we’re really trying to foster the students’ development of this capacity of thinking through actual experiences, and then applying their thinking to understand them. To support your own thoughts, I think you need experiences as well.”
Steiner emphasized beauty in his philosophy, seeing beauty in nature, in life, in people, and trying one’s best to make beauty through one’s actions. The Waldorf educational system, started by Steiner in 1919, carries that viewpoint on. “I was always interested in beauty, but not just for its own sake; what can it bring to a person’s life, how can it change them, how can it help all people in all fields of study or work”, says Margot Amrine, the high school history teacher for 11 years. She also spent almost 20 years before that as a class teacher — taking the same class of students from first through eighth grade. “I hadn’t found that anywhere else in an education system. It was Waldorf education that seemed to imagine the arts as transformative, and a necessary part of childhood.”
When the first Waldorf Schol of Ann Arbor was established, it was housed in a building near Cobblestone Farm, on Packard Road. In 1986, the Newport Road location, which currently houses the school’s pre-K through 8th grade campus, was purchased and the school began to grow and flourish.
Mary Emery and her husband, Geoff Robb, had moved from Seattle to Ann Arbor in 1996, shortly before they were asked to be two of the founding teachers at what was to be the new Waldorf High School. Robb, now retired, taught math and physics at the high school; a couple of things he finds compelling about Waldorf education is the attention to the students and being able to support them in an individualized way. “We try to inspire them to be interested and engaged, and that’s the bottom line. There can be different intellectual capacities, and it doesn’t really matter, because if everyone is working to their own individual capacity, that’s perfect.”
Even though students are able to work to their own capacity, a unique aspect of the education is its unified approach to all the subjects. Every student takes math, science, and a language, but every student also sings in the all-school choir and takes all of the art classes. “It’s so well-balanced; all the art and music balance out the academic work, and I think it makes for more well-rounded and more tolerant individuals,” says Robb.
Robb and Emery are only two of the many teachers who’ve helped build the school into the thriving, growing entity that it is today. Their work has created more than thoughtful global citizens: it’s prompted one of their former students to take a position at the school. Noah Burns, a member of the 2013 high school graduating class, began teaching some of Emery’s English classes in September.
“Mary Emery really inspired me, both in how I approach literature and philosophy, and in how I approach my life,” he says. “The impetus toward character, by which I mean the desire and ability to practice radical self-honesty, struck me in her classes. It seemed to me that she was striving to embody the Waldorf philosophy, and that interested me in the philosophy. I guess she made a mistake, because now I’ve come back to steal her job.”
Burns is trying to live up to the example set by Emery and the other teachers who inspired him during his 14 years at Steiner, counting the two years of kindergarten that most Steiner students go through. “Steiner requires a lot of its teachers,” he says. “As a Waldorf teacher, you’re expected to develop yourself into a practitioner of a high art, one with extremely high aesthetic, intellectual, and moral demands. You don’t see the inner work as a student. You see the high points of the process, which I just described. But you don’t really see the self-doubt, the long nights, the frustration, or the endless self-discipline required to review dozens of assignments and truly give all of them your full attention and care.”
Changes in faculty aren’t the only recent developments. With an ever-growing high school population to provide for, renovations for a new gym, more classroom space, and science labs were completed in time for the fall 2018 semester to begin.
“Enrollment has grown quite dramatically,” says Owen-Cruise. “With enrollment comes a vibrancy and a health in the high school that just brings a depth of interest, connections, and social life that’s really healthy for teens. But it became clear that we needed, as a school, three different things. The first was more classroom space to accommodate the programs we already had; we had a number of classes that were taking space in places that were not classrooms, and we didn’t have a dedicated space for languages, for example. Also, as the size of the high school grew, so did the importance of sports. I think it’s one of the reasons actually that the size grew, because we were able to provide stronger sports programs, and that helped students who wanted that to stay in the school. But it also meant that we were having to rent gym space all over town. So, we also needed gym and athletic space to meet the needs of our students, and until the start of this school year, we had nowhere where the entire community, lower school and high school, could meet inside. The new space, which we’ve now fully moved into, has given us new classroom space, an additional science lab, additional art space, and two language rooms. All of this allows us to meet [the needs of] the students we’re working with more successfully.”
Another way faculty and staff work to meet students’ needs is through a “college of teachers,” which is responsible for all the pedagogy and teaching-related issues, such as determining if a new teacher is right for the school, teacher evaluations, and specifics of the curriculum. A board of trustees is legally and financially responsible for the school, but the college of teachers has control over the pedagogical governance of the school. The school being largely faculty-run was one of Steiner’s conditions for his educational model, and the Ann Arbor Steiner School holds true to this. “We like to make decisions out of consensus, and it’s pretty unusual these days to have a group that does that, but we really do,” says Banks.
Despite higher enrollment, the condition that the school be open to all students is a difficult one to fulfill. The school takes no government assistance; it relies on donations, tuition, and fundraising, which means that the cost of attendance is too high for many families. “By far the most important issue in Waldorf education today is accessibility,” says Burns. “Most private Waldorf schools in America are not accessible to the poor, or in many cases even the middle class.”
Other faculty members are similarly frustrated about the high costs. “I do wish that funding came somehow not just on the backs of the parents, because I wish every child and every family who wanted to be here could be here,” says Owen-Cruise. But teachers also shared hopes for the future. “I hope that the richness that’s offered in the classroom can continue, and I hope that there are teachers who are interested in working with Rudolf Steiner’s picture of human development,” says Emery.
Robb agrees. “Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, which is kind of what underlays this education, takes time to investigate, and it takes time to build a relationship with it. I think it’s what makes the education so great and so powerful, and I hope that the teachers in the future have the time and the interest to really dive into it. I still think the essence of Waldorf education is living very strongly in this high school and this community, and it’s not under threat at all. It will carry on into the future, and most likely will thrive here.”
Amrine is optimistic about the future of Waldorf education, believing that it’s necessary for the development of well-rounded human beings, and for the future of our world. “This is an education that’s really about integrating different skills; and I think that practicing that over many years changes the way people approach their jobs and their relationships. I think high school students are looking for meaning, not just a test score. They’re looking for these four years to be deeply enriching and meaningful. This education has tremendous potential in terms of changing people’s lives, in terms of confidence, in terms of thinking very broadly, and in a very interconnected way. As we move into the next century of Waldorf education, I think the world is crying out for people who see how systems relate to each other, people who understand ecology. But I also mean ecology in many spheres; when we make decisions, they have effects. Waldorf students have been trained to see connections, and have been trained to see how interactions between human beings can profoundly affect policy, can profoundly affect cultural and scientific directions. We need that.”
Waldorf education, in its own special way, has certainly thrived here in Ann Arbor. The school’s teachers, administrators, staff, students, alumni, parents, and former parents, as well as community members who just believe in Steiner’s teachings and the Waldorf education model, have kept the school relevant and dynamic for the last decades. Anyone who steps in to either the Lower School or the High School is readily dazzled and stirred by the quality of the students’ art work on the walls, and by the quieting but lively feel. There is a creative rustle to the place that lifts one’s spirit even as it calms the nerves. In today’s overly wired world, that makes it a very special environment for the education of the next generation.
Emily Slomovits is a graduate of the Rudolph Steiner School and EMU. A local musician, she plays with her father, San Slomovits, and her uncle, Laz Slomovits (who comprise the duo Gemini), and plays music with others, as well. A member of Spinning Dot Theatre, she has appeared on stage at a variety of local venues. She also teaches violin, voice and guitar, and writes regular theatre and music previews and reviews for Current Magazine, PULP, and the Washtenaw Jewish News.