East Montpelier students practice 'authentic learning' - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

East Montpelier students practice 'authentic learning'

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Many schools have regular achievement tests that measure development and contain educators under pressure to meet core standards and 'teach to the test,' but Waldorf schools like Orchard Valley in East Montpelier are charting a decidedly different course.

Jen Nelson's sixth-grade class is studying medieval emperor Charlemagne. The history lesson allows wide-ranging class discussion.

What you first notice about this Waldorf class, besides the fact that it's held in a yurt, is that none of the students have textbooks. Instead they create their own, absorbing the stories they hear and retelling them through writing and illustrations. It's what teachers here call "authentic learning."

To help bring the medieval age to life the class recently took a day to dress up as knights and squires, go on quests and test their knife-throwing skills.

"When you think of throwing a knife at a target you think it would be pretty easy, but to have it go so the hilt does not hit the target but the blade does and to actually have it stick in is really hard. I never got it to do that," said sixth-grader Audrey Ely.

Orchard Valley started back in 2004. Director Deb Reed has been there from the beginning.

"We think we understand childhood, and our focus is on childhood -- that time of life versus the individual child," said Reed.

The core of Waldorf teaching is in many ways diametrically opposed to what you see in a public school where academics like reading and literacy are pushed from the earliest grades. Waldorf education, as embodied by its founder, Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, argues that children need to explore the world on their own terms and that rote academics stifles creativity and a natural love of learning.

"We don't begin working in an active way with the child’s intellectual development until seven, so our early childhood programs are very much play-based social education," said Reed.

Much of that play and education happens outside on the school's sprawling 150-acre campus. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between recess and a French class. With no gymnasium, PE class called "movement" happens outside and in all kinds of weather.

"It helps us get more balanced, so we're not sitting down all day," said sixth-grader Heath Atwood.

Something else you notice in the school is the absence of computers. While many schools are pushing technology at the earliest levels, there's no screen time here.

Reporter Alexei Rubenstein: Do you look at other kids with envy when they're wandering around with their iPhones, talking on their phones?

Sixth-Grader Emelin Scherbatskoy: No, I actually don't envy them at all because you’re not exactly, cause you’re not being social at all, you're just staring at a screen your whole life.

Along with core subjects like math and science, middle school students take woodworking or other "handwork," like knitting, which is thought to improve fine motor skills and focus on a sustained effort.

And where music, singing, art or language might be considered a "special" in public school, and often the first casualty of the budget ax, it's at the core of the curriculum at Orchard Valley.

Ideally students keep the same teacher from first through eighth grade.

"I think it’s better because you get to know your teacher better and they get to know you, so I think it’s a lot better than changing teachers every year," said Ely.

Reed says it also prevents teachers from passing the buck when it comes to challenging or special ed students.

"You're going to work very diligently to either understand them and appreciate that and help transform that over the years, because you’re not passing them on to another teacher and saying, 'Oh Phew. That family was one of those challenging families and now they're your problem,'" said Reed.

At a time when public education is increasingly geared toward outcomes and "teaching to the test," Reed says that anxiety can stifle a child's natural curiosity.

"There are many more children that are coming here in the third, fourth and fifth-grade because their parents are looking for a place where their child can re-engage in the joy of learning and feel safe and have fun at school and not feel pressured -- feel that they're already starting to flounder or fail or struggle," said Reed.

And while all this "let kids be kids" stuff may sound a bit utopian, some studies say it makes sense. They indicate that while reading and other academic skills may be below average in the early years, they eventually catch up and excel when they get to high school and college.

"People are seeing these children are a force to be reckoned with. They are bright, they are curious, they are engaged, they have a social consciousness, they're good friends, they take pride in their work,“ said Reed.

It’s a decidedly different approach to learning going on in the hills of East Montpelier.

This Waldorf experience does come at a cost. Full tuition at Orchard Valley is $9,600 per year. But the school's "need blind" admission policy means a majority of families pay substantially less than that.

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