The Digital Divide

Waldorf educators confront the era of iPads and the Common Core

‘There was one student in the class who was media-free,” recalls veteran Waldorf educator Jamie Lloyd. “There was such a difference in attention span between him and the rest of the class.”

Lloyd, who taught for 14 years at Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm in Santa Rosa, says the fourth grader could hear a lesson once, remember and learn it, “and he could tune out any distracting behavior in the classroom. He was much more put together, and it appeared it was because he was living much more as a child, as a fourth grader,” says Lloyd.

That’s the dream Waldorf child: fully engaged, unmediated at home, and tuned in to the hands-on, gadgets-off—or completely gadget-free—education.

The North Bay is a mecca for Waldorf education, an experiential, humanistic pedagogy developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner early in the last century. There are seven Waldorf-inspired public charter schools in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties and two private Waldorf schools. There’s even a Waldorf training academy near Sacramento, the Rudolf Steiner College. Outside of California, there are about 20 Waldorf charters spread around the country.

The popularity of Waldorf schools is unsurprising. The education can be a great and natural match for North Bay ethics of sustainability, self-reliance and respect for the natural world. The school traditionally delays exposure to technology until the eighth grade in favor of an unplugged education, and for many parents, that’s part of the appeal. They don’t want their kid reading
My Side of the Mountain on a Kindle, at least not yet. But that core tenet is being tested, as public Waldorf-inspired schools raise questions about the pros of technology in the classroom.

‘The parents who come into this are choosing a lifestyle,” says Lloyd, who is now in his first year as Summerfield’s lower-school coordinator. “They are keeping things much simpler, and keeping the media out.”

But Waldorf–inspired public charter schools in the North Bay brought the media in—or at least the laptops—under new state Common Core computer-testing mandates set to go live in 2015.

The Waldorf charter movement in the North Bay bridges a gap for parents who shy away from the private-school tuition that comes with the independent Waldorfs but who want their kids exposed to Waldorf values.

The added costs for those parents are compromises over technology, given the reality of the new mandates.

Common Core is a set of education standards developed by states and promoted by Obama’s education department. The standards de-emphasize failed “teach to the test” models that arose from George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

“The public charters’ problem is computerized testing,” says Will Stapp, the new business administrator at the private Marin Waldorf School in San Rafael.

The state field-tested the standardized-test infrastructure this spring and summer in preparation for limited computerized testing for grades three and up.

“It’s been a real debate in the public Waldorfs,” says Stapp, who came to his post two months ago from the Waldorf-inspired Novato Charter School.

“More than anything, there was federal money pumped into the system,” he says, “to make sure they had the capacity online to do this.

As officials tested capacity, the Sebastopol Charter School, a Waldorf-inspired K–8 school, took the federally funded laptops that came with the Common Core mandate to expand computer studies for middle-schoolers.

The school will also offer a class on social-media ethics, its first, starting this fall.

Common Core “triggered an in-depth conversation,” says the school’s executive director Chris Topham. “Maybe it’s time to embrace this and figure out how we are going to teach computer skills. Let’s go even beyond that: sixth graders can learn about media ethics,” says Topham, who until a year ago was in the Summerfield post now held by Jamie Lloyd.

For one Waldorf student, the arrival of laptops and computerized tests this spring was cause of great consternation.

“My son burst into tears about this,” says Loretta Mijares, who has two children in the Sebastopol charter.

“He said, ‘It’s not a real Waldorf school!’ He was not happy—he wanted to be transferred to Summerfield.”

But her fifth grader got used to the idea, she says, and when the computers and tests were field-tested, “he was intrigued and interested.”

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Mijares says many of her media and technology worries are aimed at smartphones and parents. “My biggest concern is what the kids are going to be handed by their own parents,” she says.

The Waldorf approach to technology in school, and at home, says Mijares, is “no media or technology through the eighth grade—but that’s a guideline, not a policy. Very few families abide by it 100 percent, and there’s a range of views among families about what’s appropriate and at what age.”

Topham says he took pains at Summerfield to tell parents to teach their kids word processing and other basic computer skills, with an emphasis on supervision. “Because it wasn’t forced upon us, we really did not take it on,” he says.

Topham says he now takes equal pains with the younger students at the public charter. “The middle-school-age kids had already been exposed to computers at home, but it was much trickier for the third and fourth graders,” he says.

“We taught them some very basic computer skills in order to do the tests. We did it in a slow, sensitive way, like the way we teach writing, so that they had the basic skills to do the test without feeling traumatized.”

“I felt that they did it very sensitively,” says Mijares.

But the Common Core mandate was for Topham “a blessing in disguise,” given the difficulties parents face with at-home computer supervision.

“It gets very hard for a parent to restrict it, because of all the entertainment,” Topham says.

Stephen Mucher, director of Bard College’s master of arts in teaching program in Los Angeles, says that Common Core has helped to blur the lines between a child’s at-home life and what goes on during the school day.

The addition of technology in schools complicates a traditional dynamic, Mucher says, where kids were basically left to their own devices at home, whereas school is “the one place you are forced to react and adjust to other people and their interests and desires.

“What happens in the classroom,” Mucher adds, “should be unique to what’s going on in the rest of society. The world within your home life is where you could be self-absorbed and take whatever path you wanted to choose.”

In recent years, school districts across the country have leaned on technological teacher proxies to deal with monstrous layoffs and cutbacks plaguing the U.S. education system.

Mucher supports technology in the classroom when it “makes students learn in a more public, transparent way.” Otherwise, he says, “it appeals to our narcissistic side and limits the very social possibilities of schooling: the exchange of ideas between students and the adults.”

The beauty of Waldorf, says Mucher, is the school’s traditional investment in teachers over “teacher facilitators” whose role is essentially to direct students toward short-cut technological solutions.

“You’ll never meet a more committed or busy teacher,” he says. “That’s true of all teachers, but you can’t do it on the cheap.”

Parental tech-angst is not limited to the Waldorf School.

Donations from the private Healdsburg School’s fundraiser over the last couple of years have been used to buy computers and, this year, iPads, for third graders and up.

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The school’s pro-technology posture raised red flags among some parents.

“Moms and parents were upset at the push for the iPads in K-5,” says Elizabeth Hawkins, who has a seventh grader in the independent, non-Waldorf school.

“In these primary years, it’s really best-suited for the kids to not be using so much technology,” she says.

Hawkins and her husband, a tech-sector worker in the Bay Area, are concerned about overexposure to technology at an early age.

“We bicker. Our debate is on how much technology, and when,” says Hawkins, who chose the Healdsburg School when the couple moved here from Palo Alto.

Incoming head of school Nicholas Egan says the emphasis at Healdsburg is on creation, not consumption, when it comes to the school’s dance with technology. As a private school, Healdsburg is providing iPads to students without any of the overhanging Common Core mandates.

And, in contrast to the public Waldorf school’s limited engagement with technology and media, this year the Healdsburg School will offer an “integrated technology program” for fourth through eight graders.

Translation: Students will create applications for mobile devices.

“It’s project-based learning that centers on the iPads, and looks at content creation on multiple levels,” says Egan. “It’s not about technology per se. When I am in the classroom, I tell this to students, and I tell it to parents: ‘If all the technology went away, this school would still exist.'”

Hawkins believes that kids get into the habit of “going so easily to the iPad to look for the answers, and not looking deeper or making mistakes. Having an iPad and a Smart Board doesn’t make you a technical school,” she says, “but everyone is in this race to be on the cutting edge.”

Egan says he’s tuned in to dangers of an excessive fealty to technology. “If it’s not used right, it can be a distraction,” he says. “There’s nothing magical about technology, but any time that it increases collaboration, critical thinking and creativity is a good time to use it. The thing about technology is that it’s so enticing with the wizardry, and it’s very easy to get blinded by that.”

Egan adds that the Waldorf model has a lot going for it but may suffer for its slow-roll on technology education.

“I like it, I like it as a pedagogy, the emphasis on the experiential model, but, like anything, if you’re too rigid or you overdo it, it can be dogmatic,” he says.

Children share common traits in critical thinking, adaptability and resilience, says Egan, and the Healdsburg School emphasizes lessons that develop those skills.

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Whatever the pedagogical model, he says, “it really does come down to teaching those other skills and then applying it to the technology, the experiential, or the pencil and paper.”

Egan says Healdsburg parents that he’s heard from aren’t so much concerned “about earlier or later adoption—it’s about usage, and they want to be reassured that we are using technology for its highest and best potential.”

Caroline Otto enrolled her fifth grader in the Healdsburg School this year. Her daughter spent her first years at the Cali Calmecac Spanish-immersion school in Windsor, “which was very different from the Healdsburg School,” says Otto.

“The technology problem there was there was no technology,” says Otto.

Otto is still weighing the iPad issue. “I haven’t been sold on the concept that iPads are going to really improve things,” she says. “But I do think that now that my daughter is in the fifth grade, that access is important. Otherwise, she’ll be left behind.”

Otto notes, with a laugh, that her volunteer job is hands-on and dirty. “I’m the garden coordinator at the school, so I am at the low-tech end of it,” she says. “But you have to have both. You need to get your hands dirty, yes, as long as there are enough other people pushing the technology.”

At the Waldorf-inspired Sebastopol public charter, Topham is pushing the technology, even as, he says, he was loathe to introduce computers to third and fourth graders.

For him, the Common Core mandate was an opportunity for Waldorf educators to engage with the 21st century. One of the classic knocks on Waldorf is that it provides a great education—for a 19th-century child.

“Maybe in the North Bay we are in the forefront,” says Topham.

The new social-media class, he says, “involves conversations with teens about so-called social media and the trappings of Facebook, and what it means to put up a picture or you or yourself that is up there permanently.”

All of this, says Topham, was “triggered by the requirement. Before last year, we did not have a single computer in the school for student use, K–8. We never felt that we were lacking by not having computers for student use, and we know that our students have been doing well in high school and college.

“The Common Core lines up with Waldorf very nicely as a concept,” Topham adds, given its emphasis on nurturing problem solvers and on an educational model that teaches “how to address a problem from multiple directions.”

But Mijares believes Topham went one new direction too many when he planned for a class in social-media ethics.

“I know that when the computers came in as part of the standardized testing, he spoke about introducing a computer curriculum,” says Mijares. “My sense of it was that it was very moderate and not a doorway for kids to be on computers at home.”

The proposed social-media ethics course, says Mijares, is “more than I’m aware of, and that’s one that I’d have issues with, frankly.”

But Mijares appreciates Topham’s effort to manage the mandate. “He is dealing with reality,” she says. “I think the school is doing its very best to come up with a moderate curriculum given the state mandates. It’s unfortunate that as a charter school we don’t have the choice to opt-out.”

Mucher says the social-media course at the Waldorf charter is probably a good idea. “In a world where social media looms large,” he says, “there is something productive to be gained in problematizing it. You don’t need to have technology to have a class on technology ethics, and that could be usefully weaved into the curriculum. It can be a humanities-type course.”

Summerfield administrator Lloyd credits Topham for having “weathered the transition” at the Sebastopol public charter. “There’s always been some sort of standardization that charters need to address, and technology is one of them,” he says.

Lloyd notes that “the very first Waldorf in Germany had to make compromises in the administration of its curriculum in the teens and ’20s, and that was part of getting along with the rest of the world.”

Lloyd is a Waldorf traditionalist who sees the value in an expanded presence in the charter school movement. “I believe in this education,” he says. “Both of my kids have gone through K-12 at Waldorf; I like what I see in them, and the kids I see who go through it. And I appreciate that Waldorf can get to the average parent—it’s not a private school.”

Stapp at the Marin Waldorf is less convinced about compromises made in the service of the Common Core—and, as a parent, he’s skeptical of quickie tech solutions over critical thinking and problem solving.

“Education has gotten overexcited about technology as a tool,” he says. “I call it the ‘search generation,’ and I notice it with my daughter. She pushes the internal button, the ‘Ask Dad’ button before she gives the question a fundamental thought,” he says.

“Technology is superficially social,” Stapp adds. “In my experience with it, it allows people to isolate.”

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