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Penmanship Not Dead at North Side Waldorf School

By David Byrnes | December 29, 2014 6:47am | Updated on December 29, 2014 9:51am
 The private Waldorf School at 1300 W. Loyola Ave. still requires students to hand-write — rather than type — their assignments. School officials maintain that the approach actively engages kids in learning.
Waldorf School
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ROGERS PARK — Even in the Digital Revolution, the pen is still a mighty weapon at the Chicago Waldorf School.

The private school at 1300 W. Loyola Ave. still requires students to handwrite — rather than type — their assignments. School officials maintain that the approach actively engages students in learning.

“When children create something, they’re invested in it,” school spokesman Jason Greenberg said. “They really learn instead of just memorize.”

Studies in education psychology support that claim, school officials say. A 1994 study in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, conducted by Marsha J. Weil and Susan J. Cunningham Amundson, found that “Visual-Motor Integration [skills]… significantly relates to children in kindergarten’s ability to copy letters.”

Put another way, students who learn to write rather than type have higher levels of motor development than those who do not, Waldorf argues.

“Our students create their own textbooks,” Greenberg said. “They learn to collate and organize their notes and then put them into a handmade, handwritten textbook. That’s important, because they learn that once they make a mark of the pen, they can’t take it back.”

These textbooks, or "block books" as students Seamus Scott and Ely Taylor call them, take about four weeks to make. Each one is handwritten and drawn and created to complement a monthlong morning class corresponding to a specific subject.

"I've had morning [block] classes for Greek geometry, anatomy. Right now we're studying organic chemistry," said Seamus, an eighth-grader.

This Waldorf method of learning by doing was pioneered by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the early 20th century. According to Greenberg, Steiner believed in creating a more humanistic approach to education — as opposed to the parochial systems that were common in Europe at the time — in the wake of the loss of humanity in World War I.

The first Waldorf school started in 1919 in Germany, and today there are more than 1,000 independent schools across the globe following the educational philosophy.

The Waldorf school in Chicago opened in 1974 with a single kindergarten class. It has since become a full kindergarten-through-high school program, with many of its 350 students attending all of primary and secondary school in the same program.

Besides penmanship and writing, the Waldorf School emphasizes what its website calls “an arts-integrated” approach, meaning students are often given lessons in the form of projects, service outreach and creative assignments.

"Art isn't one subject we learn. It's part of every class," said eighth-grader Ely.

Two years ago his class was doing an experiment on how ice melts.

"We had to write our lab [reports] as if it was a fantasy novel with two living ice cubes," he said.

“Our kindergartners learn the difference between odd and even numbers by playing jump-rope games,” Greenberg said. “It’s a simple thing, the difference between odd and even. But playing a game with it helps them internalize the information.”

Technology still has a presence in the Waldorf program. Many high school students, according to Greenberg, use computers to create research papers and interactive art projects. And, keeping with its “arts-integrated” focus, many also become involved with how technological devices are made, rather than just their functionality.

“Many of our older students will disassemble a computer or radio and put it back together again," Greenberg said. "One student, for his senior project, built a bike from parts he manufactured himself."

Waldorf’s approach has its critics. Waldorf founder Steiner founded a spiritual ideology known as “anthroposophy” that, according to Steiner, seeks to examine spiritual and supernatural phenomena via the techniques of the scientific method.

The philosophy has bred a number of opposition voices, including the People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, a collection of former Waldorf community members who believe Waldorf education is a cult.

The Chicago Waldorf school’s tuition is more than $16,000 a year for a first-grader, and increases to nearly $19,000 for high school. Greenberg said 52 percent of families get financial aid for tuition.

Sheila Donahue, Seamus' mother, said it's not easy to cover the tuition but feels it's a worthwhile investment.

"Wherever kids that go here apply for college, they get in," said Donahue, a writer whose 10-year-old daughter Julia Rose also attends Waldorf.

Donahue first came to Waldorf as a guest speaker for a poetry class and was impressed by how engaged the students were. 

"These kids were so excited about hearing my poems and reading their own," she said. "It was incredible.

"By teaching the way they do here, kids learn and create widely," she said, adding the school instills "a sense of meaning" into the children's' lives.

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