No Waldorfwashing at Wasatch

By Heidrun Kubiessa, December 2018

The Salt Lake City Waldorf Charter School is looking for the common roots of humanity. In this search it draws on the myths and sagas from a great variety of cultures and the expanses of the landscape.

Anyone who has ever experienced the expanses of the canyon lands of the American West might be familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Just looking at the earth and the sky can be imposing. We dwindle inwardly when we see such a vista. As human beings we feel tiny and insignificant. At the edge of a deep canyon, the eye scans the monumental formations of the red sedimentary rock, taking in the shadows changing with the sunlight and passing clouds like a drama put on by the rock, imposing itself elementally on the space in the form of mesas, giant arches and still, dark gorges.

It is a performance of aeons, of the power of water and wind over millennia, which in the fractured gesture of this landscape displays the powerful reality of our earth. It provokes a sense of reverence in me which causes me to go on an inner journey. I think of the people who have come into contact with this landscape, their experiences of alienation, of reverence and adaptation, their beginnings and goals, their battles and hopes, their peace.

And of course I think of the myths and songs of the Native Americans as a rhythmical resonance to this wisdom-filled environment. They embed me even more deeply into this landscape. The creative winds; the sun being; the thunder beings whose rumbling echoes from the deep walls of the canyons; the mysterious wolf against which the Pawnee human being committed his original sin; the egocentric, clumsy but at the same time cunningly clever coyote, always willing to help, roaming the prairies light of foot – all of them begin to come alive in me.

Waldorf school in Salt Lake City

In this landscape at the foot of a south-western extension of the Rocky Mountains called “Wasatch” (“mountain pass” in the language of the Ute), the probably largest Waldorf school in North America was established in Salt Lake City in 2016 – after a previous failed attempt. About 600 pupils entered the school as it opened its doors on the first school day and there is still a waiting list of hundreds. Under the US Charter School Programme, the Wasatch Charter School was able to realise its goal of “Waldorf for everyone” while being almost wholly financed by the state.

It is easy to imagine, even two years later, the huge effort which has gone into the attempt to do justice to Waldorf education in a school of this size. Of course not every lesson is made up of perfectly crafted Waldorf teaching and some Waldorf people would undoubtedly see reason to complain. There are smaller or bigger moments when demands become excessive, of uncertainty or, indeed, despair on an almost daily basis but the intervals between such moments are growing longer. Most of the teachers attend in-service training in Waldorf education and are supported in each year by mentors in the main lesson curriculum. This situation leads to a work community which, without the established structures of Waldorf education, is implementing it for the first time – with children who, with very few exceptions, are experiencing Waldorf teaching for the first time. Particularly against the background of the experience with the state school system, the pleasure in learning, joyfulness, feeling of community and jointly felt reverence for the world shines forth.

The pleasure and strength are fed by two groups of people working and rubbing along together. On the one hand there are the experienced lecturers and mentors working with their in-service seminar, which is currently being accredited, for the high-quality implementation of Waldorf education in the schools (mostly Charter schools). Alongside a good mentoring programme for the teaching methodology, their concern is to make anthroposophy accessible for the teachers to ensure that the Waldorf education is not diluted. Not an easy task with teaching staff who are already working to capacity with 30 to 40 hours of teaching each week.

On the other hand there are the young teachers who in a rapidly developing world and a politically very stressed and emotionalised country encounter new questions every day to which they are seeking sustainable, meaningful and unconventional answers. Each day these adults stand before a class which in its diversity is unprecedented in Waldorf history in which they want to give each child the feeling: “This feels right, this is where I feel at home.” Many therefore do not see Waldorf education as a recipe but as a space for the development of their own responsibility and seek ways not to fall prey to “Waldorfwashing”.

Wealth of myths

The use in Waldorf education of myths, fairy tales and sagas is recognised in our school as a key function with great potential alongside the musical and artistic approach. Like in music, telling stories assumes a central function. It creates the necessary relationships which have to come about in such a large group to bring the whole school community together despite all digital distractions. When the class teacher of a class 4 asks whether it would not be better to teach North or Central American mythologies instead of the Nordic ones, then the reason is not a misunderstanding of Rudolf Steiner’s view of the human being but it shows the far-reaching importance of this narrative and the responsible-minded observation with which this teacher is trying to do justice to the needs of the children in their individual soul and spiritual situation.

In a first class in which there are almost as many children with Latin American, Afro-American or Asian roots as children with a European background, class teachers are beginning to ask where they can look for relevant fairy tales – other than the collection of the Brothers Grimm – which link the children with their soul and spiritual roots. In addition, there is the desire to communicate these other, indigenous myths to the children in a way which does not lessen them in their importance against the background of the usual “canon” in the curriculum. Our geopolitical circumstances in the twenty-first century call on us with a certain urgency to find answers and expand our horizons.

We face the challenge of seeking our deeper common roots instead of adhering to obsolete demarcations. Looking at the inwardness we all have in common, at the related mythical archetypal images, should awaken reciprocal respect for our human diversity.

The unifying action of the anthroposophical image of the human being

The development of the Wasatch Charter School shows that for all its diversity and complexity a community can develop through a central, anthroposophically shaped image of the human being. Here people who are rooted locally through their school and globally through their thinking are seeking community in diversity. They are practising a way of seeing which sees something connecting and unifying in diversity.

They also find such a connection in the myths and sagas which are still underestimated as a global community-building element. It contains a structure of many-faceted spiritual developments from which we can let an image of community arise: the community of the people on this earth.

About the author: Dr. Heidrun Kubiessa taught as a class teacher and a mentor at the Wasatch Charter School. She held a lectureship in German language and literature at the University of Utah. This year she started teaching English at the Schopfheim Free Waldorf School.

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