How a Grade-Free School Environment Made All the Difference in My Education

Family Matters on 04.28.11
Contributor bio | twitter

The depths of my childhood experience were deeply rooted in Roman Catholicism.  My mother, before marrying my father, was a nun.  They met in the operating room. He was the surgeon, and she was his scrub nurse.  He already had a wife and three children when he met my mother (a story for another time).

Fairy House Two Girls

Photo: Monica Rodgers

From my earliest memory, I was entirely confused and turned off by school, and access to my spirituality and intelligence seemed positioned between layers of homework, grades, church attendance, guilt, confessional boxes, rosary beads, and fear. I had a terrible time at my schools: Saint Claire, Saint Paul, Saint Ambrose, & Saint I-Don't-Remember-But-I-Know-There-Was-Another-One-In-There, who all failed to help me recognize the connection between myself and my spiritual being.

My papers were predominantly covered in exasperated red pen marks.  My mother was at her wits end because I continued to fail my subjects miserably and had increasing anxiety, fear and behavioral problems. After another failed attempt in the 6th grade she ,in exasperation and desperation (and guilt), sent me to The Detroit Waldorf School. I was finally home. 

Children's -Waldorf- Drawings

Photo: Monica Rodgers

Waldorf Education was different than anything I had encountered. Mistakes were encouraged and so was the exploration of my inner self: Who was I? And how were my head, my heart, and my hands connected in learning and contributing the gifts I would bring to the world? This was my classroom, and my friends and I visited this inner world through handwork, woodwork, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theatre, music, and tons of outdoor play. 

Our morning lesson focused on subject matter that all schools explore but we did it differently. We focused on one subject intensively for two hours each morning and the rest of the day was spent moving, exploring and creating. Our main lesson each morning might last for a few weeks on a particular "theme" such as geometry, or science, or American history, and once those intensive weeks were over, they were over.  

girl-jumping-over-stream

Photo: Monica Rodgers

The lessons were presented at the front of the room by my teacher, Mr. McNair (The Waldorf Teacher is with you through all eight grades), through an interactive format that included beautiful chalk drawings depicting his content for the morning; we copied on blank paper with beautiful colored pencils our interpretation of the lesson. We then bound our own books filled with our drawings and insights at the end of those weeks of subject matter. I've never forgotten those lessons, and I still have the beautifully illustrated "text" books I made by myself.

There were no tests and no grades, and very little homework. I developed a love of learning in this environment.  I was free at last to be me, without competing with those who surrounded me. We were all unique, valuable, and valid.  There was no more shame for a D+  paper turned back with angry red slashes and comments in the margin ("If only Monica would apply herself.") and no endless hours behind my desk listening to the drone at the front as I darted my eyes from clock to window using my imagination as my escape from the confines they called my "education".   

The things that distracted me in my former schools were a non issue at the Waldorf school: Most remarkably that girls were not petty and hostile and vying for position. I think this is largly in part by the fact that Waldorf School's have a non-media request for families whose children attend. The majority of students who lived media free at home learned to role model other things instead of skinny perfect girls, how to be witty and important, and how to win. My anxiety went down and my self esteem grew.   

No longer was I preoccupied with how to gain the attention of the "in" crowd and how to keep my status friendship alive with the "popular" girls. Now everyone in my world was equal... an amazing environment which fostered my individuality, respect for others, and co-creation and collaboration with my classmates and teacher. 

My father (whom I adored and still do) thought what I was learning was not quite as valid because he could not quite wrap his head around a grade-less or non-competitive society. I was happy being the "slow" child though, and although my experience there was largely unrecognized by him I was still happier there than I had ever been in my entire short life. Since attending for those three years I have never experienced a place like it, and I vowed that If I ever had children, that I would do everything I could to send them, or find an alternative school that was as close to Rudolf Steiner's teachings as I could get. Waldorf-toys

Photo: Monica Rodgers

Since I've been introduced to my spiritual "self" and my "being" which is the basis for my huuman intelligence,  I wanted to keep discovering that aspect of myself throughout the rest of my education. After the Waldorf School we moved to Maine, and I went on to attend two more high schools before my final crowing achievement: my diploma. As my father sat proudly in the sea of parents and grandparents I held my diploma (it was a good visual) while inside I held the better part of ME I had discovered someplace else entirely, a place that did not need the proof of a paper certificate. I give Waldorf Education the credit for allowing me to find my self, my own pace, and to excell in a way that was suited to who I was as an individual. From that experience on I had the unshakable faith that I was *perfectly ok* exactly as I was, and that my intelligence had very little to do with the grades, and everything to do with how I learn, who I am, the community that surrounds me, and the choices I make.

I'm starting to wonder if we have this educational thing all confused? We seem to be so preoccupied with preparing our children for life in the modern world yet we place emphasis on only one aspect of that child's development: the mind. There's so much more to education and schooling. We need to understand that a child's education is about so much more -- developing self-esteem, personality, a love of learning, community, and mostly the ability to be introspective and secure with one's self. Only then will we raise happy, healthy, well-rounded, and truly intelligent young people who have the confidence to bring their unique gifts into the world. girl-running-from-behind

Photo: Monica Rodgers

Top Articles on Education
Are Today's Kids Less Creative?
Should Schools Get Rid of Recess?
How to Fit in Fun, Education, and Service on Family Vacations