The Armidale Waldorf School

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The Armidale Waldorf School Celebrates 30 Years this year. Principal John Davidson gives Focus readers more insight into this unique style of education.

How long has The Waldorf School been going in Armidale?
Our school started thirty years ago. Celebrations are planned for later this year in November. It is my hope that people from town will come and visit. It doesn’t matter whether you have children or not, we would like you to come and see what we do. Feel welcome.

How is it different from other schools?
We have tried in building our school to fit in harmoniously with the natural environment. This is a place where children can learn and play. Often in education people talk about saving the environment. Care of where we are has been a strong part of this school right from the beginning. We have a reed bed system to filter wastes, and we catch the rain-water for use in the school. Solar panels on the roof have saved the school a lot in electricity expenses.
We make a big effort to consciously take in materials that can be recycled and to send things off site where this can happen. There is a large vegetable garden. We grow things, which the children can pick, and then we have a regular lunch every Friday from the harvest. This is not to labour “environmental consciousness” with the children, but simply how we wish to work.
With our lessons we start with two-hour lessons each morning. One subject focus for two hours, but taught in a way that is engaging, interesting and helps children have a love of learning. After three weeks we teach another subject in a block lesson like that. It enables the children to focus, develop a real depth in that subject, and then allows them time to digest what they have learnt. The children love coming to school. You can see it on their faces when they arrive in the morning. You get a sense for that when they go home after school.

What does Waldorf mean?
The name comes from a cigarette brand. In 1919, Rudolf Steiner described how a new style of education could be set up. He gave these lectures in a cigarette factory in Stuttgart owned by a friend of his, Emil Molt. Molt said, “You can start here”. The schools are sometimes called Steiner schools, sometimes Waldorf schools. It is not a brand; there is no organisation starting these schools. They begin where parents want this style of education for their children. As simple as that.

Are ideas from 1919 still applicable to children today?
In many ways, we can see aspects of the world that are so different for children today, even from when we were little. Children themselves, however, long to play, to explore and to test things out. They want to discover and understand this world around them. What we do, how we teach, allows them to do this. The classroom materials are of high quality. There is a strong accent on doing things with the hands, and doing things that are beautiful. When they make handcrafts, they make things that are useful – things that they can use. Class Seven students have just completed storage boxes in woodwork. These are decorated with a brass plaque and are for their classroom equipment. Class One children are weaving a case for their recorder. Skills and useful items. Things that have been made with care.

Do you just focus on arts and crafts?
Not at all. The education is very comprehensive. In mathematics we work a lot with real situations and examples. These are tools the children will need to know solidly and securely. In science we work a lot with experiments, so the children can perceive for themselves how simple machines work, how heat and acoustics are. For example, we don’t tell the children scientific ideas and say look. We say look at this, what can you see, and then what can we make of this. This approach is like a training for the children in practical science. They take this research/evidence approach with them into high school.
The foundation for all learning we see as the socio-emotional wellbeing of the child.

How do these ideas fit in a rural city like Armidale?
I have only been here a little while, but I am surprised how few people have actually visited the school. Just this week three musicians visited for the first time and were delighted with the children they met, the environment and the tone of the place. They also were impressed with the acoustics of the space they played in.
I wish more people would come simply to see for themselves how it is, and if they have children, to see how it could be for their children.
A lot of what we do relates to a classical style; there is a strong emphasis on world history and quality literature, music and drama. Country people would recognise as well the value and importance of children having lots of outdoor experiences; with the camp programme they visit farms, and travel all over. Class Seven just completed a 12 day walk last term, along the coast, canoeing across the rivers, and walking more than 60 kilometres. Class 5/6 are currently doing Greek gymnastics, throwing javelin and discus, Class 1/2 go for walks in the bushland every week.
Armidale I sense has a cross between rugged Australian values and a strong cultural sense for the arts and academia. There has long been a connection between the university and the school, and also with cultural groups throughout the city.

Where do the students go when they leave your school? How do they fare?
Over 30 years they have gone to a variety of schools – they fit in easily, because our education provides a broad foundation for life and a love of learning. Even in the short time I have been here, I have heard from high school principals and university staff how successful our students have been.

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