Most adults would describe the middle school years as awkward and confusing, but also liberating and exciting. We base this description on our own experience and on observation of middle school students over the decades. Middle school students begin to face themselves and the world, and this can lead to some discomfort: the world does not look the same as it did when they were younger. In some ways, characteristics of the middle school experience have not changed much over time, but the world has changed significantly, and education must rise to meet the needs of children today. Now more than ever, the education of young children must fortify them to meet the challenges of tomorrow with grace, intelligence, and courage. In Waldorf education, we help middle school students meet the world and themselves gradually and thoughtfully. During the often-turbulent middle-school years, we care for students’ social-emotional well-being, overall health, and academic life, which provides a strong foundation for the secondary school years and beyond.
The curriculum in Waldorf schools honors students’ whole experience of their expanding world and finding their place in it. Every aspect of learning in a Waldorf school middle school curriculum is designed to stretch students to explore a topic through several modalities, thereby increasing the depth of learning rather than just a surface approach or memorizing. This multi-faceted approach also helps students learn about themselves, their own learning style, and allows them to explore aspects of themselves they might not explore otherwise. For example, students study mechanics in seventh grade by exploring and creating mechanical structures, calculating mechanical advantage with math, and expressing the salient points of experiments through writing and drawing. When studying the industrial revolution, eighth grade students learn through stories about people and events that spark the imagination, and even perhaps through a dramatic production in which the class will engage. To further deepen their understanding of the human experience of that historical time period, handwork classes include the creation of clothes with a sewing machine which was once cutting-edge technology, and learning about how this machine changed the world forever. Poetry, song, and movement activities often accompany geometry and mathematics lessons so students have a multi-sensory approach to learning mathematics. This integrated approach to learning in all subject areas creates rigorous experiences that demand many modes of engagement from students. This facilitates deep, meaningful learning that lasts a lifetime.
In addition to the academic rigor experienced through many modalities, middle school students play sports and participate in orchestra classes several times per week; they complete complex handwork projects such as shoemaking and shirt design; they produce classic plays for large audiences; and they sing and explore art daily. In the adolescent season of brain development, unused connections are pruned from the brain; if students continue to engage in art, music, and movement in the middle school years, they will be more apt to lead rich, well-rounded lives in later years. Often, Waldorf alumni are characterized as “Renaissance people” because they remain competent and confident in many areas. Waldorf students in high schools and beyond are often not only high academic achievers but are also involved in the arts, athletics and many other pursuits.
Surrounded by adults and classmates who support them through these experiences, students are comfortable making mistakes in this safe, familiar environment. The several-year journey that students have together is an experience that changes students’ lives forever, as friendships are often built that last a lifetime. The ups and downs of the middle school years are tempered by these close relationships with peers and caring teachers who teach, care for, and support students for many years. When Waldorf students finally emerge from their eighth-grade year, they move into secondary schools with confidence, self-assurance and genuine interest in the world. The end of a Waldorf middle school journey will include a foundation built of care and compassion, creativity and confidence, and this serves as a fortification for the years ahead. Students need this uniquely sturdy foundation more than ever, as they will be called upon in ways that we cannot even imagine today.
By Dianne McGaunn, Faculty Administrator