Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 11
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
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Princeton Waldorf School Marks 25 Years Teaching Three “R”s: — “Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships”

Ellen Gilbert

Administrator Nancy Lemmo would heartily like to dispel the myth that the Princeton Waldorf School is comprised of a bunch of “granola-crunching hippies,” who teach little else but art. What it’s really about, she says, is the art of education, and Waldorf precepts have been around for over 100 years. As a matter of fact, she reported, the Gates Foundation recently funded a new Waldorf-based high school on the strength of research evidence reflecting the rigor and quality of a Waldorf education.

The Waldorf School of Princeton, which is observing its 25th anniversary, is part of an international educational movement that grew out of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, scientist, architect, and artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Worldwide, there are now over 1,000 Waldorf schools, with most of them located in Europe. “In Germany they just wait in line to get into Waldorf Schools,” noted Princeton Waldorf School founder Caroline Phinney in a recent conversation. There are also schools in countries like Thailand and China.

Princeton owes the presence of a pre-K through grade eight Waldorf School, which is located on a rolling expanse of land adjacent to a working organic farm at 1062 Cherry Hill Road, to Ms. Phinney, who was not dissuaded when someone suggested that “Princeton doesn’t need another private school.” A well-travelled educator, she was particularly struck by the culture of storytelling and tradition of gardening she observed when she taught in Africa, connecting them to the Waldorf philosophy she had also been exposed to. After moving to Princeton with Princeton Geophysics Professor Bob Phinney, she tried on several existing schools for size, but none of them fit. Workshop support from Princeton University Teacher Preparation head Henry Drury enabled her to introduce “this fabulous curriculum” to the area.

“This fabulous curriculum,” according to Ms. Lemmo, a Borough resident who had worked at the school earlier and returned last fall after a three-year stint as a science teacher at the George School in Newtown, “has a true academic focus.” While she acknowledged its emphasis on healthy living and a healthy environment, she emphasized the concern with fostering “concrete learning capacities” and critical thinking skills, while nurturing a sense of self-confidence in students who emerge believing that they can “make changes in the world.”

The Waldorf curriculum for grades five through eight includes chemistry, anatomy, and physiology, Ms. Lemmo noted, as well as languages, eurythmia (rhythmical movement), gardening, and art. While most students enter the school in the lower grades, she believes that the middle school offers a particularly “extraordinary” opportunity, providing a “somewhat protected” environment for this often distracted age group. A more nurturing environment is also present in kindergarten, where activities are more play-based than those in most public schools. Children of all ages are encouraged to go outdoors in all kinds of weather, where a greenhouse, a garden, a playground, and “lots of natural materials” that encourage climbing, swinging, and imaginative play are all available.

Striking aspects of learning at Waldorf include the students’ creation of their own textbooks as they learn, the participation of every child in the school play, and mandatory music lessons on a string instrument — and participation in the orchestra — for older students. Another near-unique feature is the tradition of a “class teacher” who remains with the same students for, ideally, their entire eight years at the school, with “extra skills” classes supplementing their basic instruction as students grow into the older grades. Teacher David Heberlein, who has been at the school for 22 years and has shepherded two sets of students through the eight-year process, says “he wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Describing the class teacher as a “consistent authority figure,” he recently observed that “the more I know them, the more I can tailor the curriculum to speak to them. Through my teaching I mirror back to them who they are.”

Ms. Lemmo also emphasized the school’s sensitivity to the various stages of child development, and the awareness of living things that permeates the Waldorf philosophy. The “willow,” a recurring school motif, refers, she said, to the “Old Man Tree” located at a creek where early classes played, as well as a willow that can be seen right outside the newly-renovated main building, suggesting both rootedness and continuity. Rather than “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic,” she said, the school’s own “three r’s” are “rigor, relevance, and relationships.” Ms. Lemmo unknowingly added a fourth while recounting a Waldorf alumna’s response when asked the most important lesson she’d learned at the school. “Reverence for the world” was the answer.

Upcoming Events

On March 20 and 21 the school will host developmental pediatrician Susan Johnson for a weekend workshop entitled, “Toward an Understanding of Neurological Science and Learning: What Can Science Tell Us About the Healthiest Way for Today’s Children to Learn?” While the workshop is geared to parents, educators, and health practitioners, the topics presented are relevant for anyone who interacts with children. An important aspect of the presentation will be a discussion of non-pharmacological strategies that can be used to work with learning-challenged children. New Jersey educators attending the workshop will be eligible to receive professional credit. For more information and to register, contact Marla Hanan at, or call (609) 466-1970 x 620.

The Folk Tale Puppets will perform Urashimo Taro, a Japanese tale, at the school on Sunday, March 29, at 2 p.m. Tickets for the performance, which is appropriate for ages five and up, are $5 each and may be purchased at the door. For more information contact Ms. Phinney at (609) 466-1365.

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