By James Finn

Until I was 16 years old, I didn’t watch TV – my family didn’t own one. I’ve never played a video game. I didn’t know what “WiFi” was until I began high school, and I just created an Instagram account last fall as a senior. Until the end of eighth grade I attended a Waldorf school in San Francisco, where students were discouraged from spending time in front of computers, televisions and video games at a young age in favor of engaging in hands-on pastimes.

Yes — in elementary and middle school I took classes devoted to knitting, painting, drawing, woodcarving, and storytelling, among other activities.  I’ve knitted socks, stuffed animals, sweaters, and hats (which are a favorite at our annual Tam News Christmas white elephant parties)….If you want something knitted and see me around school, just say the word, because I’m your guy.

Waldorf education, first created in the early 20th century in Germany by a teacher named Rudolf Steiner, was built around a central philosophy of developing imaginative and creative thinking skills in students — particularly at a young age — that will give them the analytical and creative skills to help them excel later on in school, work, and life in general. In elementary school, I was provided with a steady stream of art classes in the aforementioned disciplines on top of the typical math and English classes that students at all schools take. I also participated in eurythmy classes. Eurythmy is a ballet-like “expressive movement art” that looks just about as absurd as it sounds, and is commonly known among Waldorf students as one of the less-likable facets of the curriculum; my peers and I all groaned at the prospect of having to slog our way through the hour-long sessions of what amounted  to a lot of arm-waving. Nonetheless, eurythmy serves a purpose in the context of Waldorf’s mission to create artistic, creative students.

Nature also played a significant role in my Waldorf education. My class took weekly hikes in the Presidio, and the stories we heard and books we read all placed an emphasis on the importance of keeping “in touch” with nature (“Island of the Blue Dolphins” and “My Side of the Mountain” both made up a large part of my 7th-grade curriculum). Senior Anika Chambers, who attended the Greenwood school for several years prior to transferring to Old Mill, thanks the emphasis her Waldorf education placed on nature for its creative benefits. “In retrospect, I feel lucky to have attended Waldorf for a short amount of time,” Chambers said.  “I would do it exactly the same way if I could go back, because I really appreciate the creative and nature-oriented aspects of Waldorf because it is so important that kids grow up with good imaginations.”

Outside of school, my parents and the parents of my classmates were encouraged to make their children forego TV and other technology-based entertainment in favor of activities such as story-telling, reading, hiking, and playing music. I didn’t watch any of the cartoons or animated movies that constitute so many of my Tam peers’ prized childhood memories. I remember being allowed to watch movies on Netflix once every three months or so up until sixth grade, when my parents gradually began to expose me to technology. I first used a computer around that time, and movies became more of a regularity.

For most Tam students who attended Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS), the idea of attending a small private school where students paint and knit and aren’t allowed to watch TV seems completely foreign, and understandably so. I can’t name a single friend of mine who went to MVMS who didn’t grow up watching TV regularly, and many of my friends are avid video-gamers. When I arrived at Tam and told my new classmates that I had attended a Waldorf school prior to high school, I was bombarded with questions right off the bat. I recall being asked if I believed in gnomes and fairies (commonly associated with Waldorf because of the prominence of fairytales in the kindergarten and early-elementary school curriculum) and whether I “had any idea how to read.” Overall it seemed that my peers felt that the level of academics at Waldorf schools was inferior to that of their respective middle schools, and that it would be difficult for me to succeed at a big public school like Tam.

I would do it exactly the same way if I could go back, because I really appreciate the creative and nature-oriented aspects of Waldorf because it is so important that kids grow up with good imaginations.

-Senior Anika Chambers

Chambers said that her transition to a public school after spending time at Waldorf was difficult. When she arrived at Old Mill, Chambers remembers being behind academically, and felt that Waldorf could have prepared her better. “I was behind at math when I started at Old Mill,” Chambers said. “I remember we had a diagnostic test at the beginning of the year, and I was sent to extra tutoring because I did so poorly. I ended up okay in the end though, with help and hard work.” Chambers also found the social transition from a Waldorf school to a public school environment to be difficult. “I felt weird socially in third grade, because I still didn’t watch TV and my peers thought I was strange,” she said. “Also I remember a lot of things were normal to them that were new to me, like…junk food, and ‘fashionable clothing’ that peers had seen in TV or magazines and therefore I didn’t understand.”

I anticipated my transition to Tam being just as difficult, and in some ways it was. But overall, despite the fact that I was somewhat shy after spending eight years with the same 25 classmates at a 300-student K-8 school, I made friends quickly as I became involved in Tam’s basketball and journalism programs. My technological ineptitude surely made for some awkward moments when I first arrived at Tam, such as the times my new classmates had to explain to me what Google Drive was or how to create an Excel spreadsheet. I did occasionally feel alienated by my classmates’ close-knit friendships with each other (most of them had known each other for the preceding 10 years, after all), but overall, my first year at Tam made me appreciate the time I had spent at a Waldorf school more than I ever had up to that point. As I’ve progressed through my four years at Tam, it has become apparent to me that my time at a Waldorf school gave me skills that I may not have obtained from a public school education; skills that have been an essential part of my success as a student, athlete, and member of the larger community at Tam. The desire to explore and learn about varying perspectives, places and cultures, bred through my various “Waldorfian” pastimes, has served me well.

Over the past four years I have grown to appreciate my Waldorf background for instilling in me an ability to think artistically and creatively, when so much of high school education is straightforward and literal. I’ve found that my greatest motivational strength as a high school student, rather than a focus on receiving a high GPA or getting into a name-brand college, has been a desire to possess a well-developed understanding of all of the ideas, concepts and perspectives that lie at the root of what I’m learning about — whether that means engrossing myself in what drove Walt Whitman to write “Song of Myself,” tackling a difficult calculus problem, or getting to the bottom of why plants photosynthesize. For this aspect of my educational identity, I’m certain I can thank my time at Waldorf. The 12 years I spent at a Waldorf School (I attended preschool and kindergarten there prior to elementary and middle school) immersed me in a curriculum that valued this type of thinking above all else, that taught me to think deeply and creatively beyond the surface-level of what we were being asked to comprehend.

Junior Naomi Ferrell, who attended the Greenwood School in downtown Mill Valley, also thanks her Waldorf education for preparing her for life at Tam. “I wouldn’t [have] attend[ed] a different school because I feel that the alternative education that I received prepared me more for life and not just for high school,” Ferrell said. “Coming into the public school system was definitely a jump but I didn’t feel behind other people. Despite the fact that I learned differently than the mainstream kids, it wasn’t a hard transition to come to Tam. Since I came from a graduating class of seven people, who all decided to go to private school, I barely knew anyone when I came to Tam, but being a part of a small Waldorf environment helped me become good at communicating with people and creating good relationships with my teachers.”

“I would not be the student I am today were it not for the perspective on learning that my time at Waldorf instilled in me.”

All of this isn’t to say that I don’t know kids at Tam who went to public middle school who aren’t engaged, interested, creative students — I have dozens of classmates who went to MVMS who exhibit all of these qualities. But I know that in my case I would not be the student I am today were it not for the perspective on learning that my time at Waldorf instilled in me. Like homeschooling and other systems of “alternative” education, Waldorf education is not “inferior” to education received through the public school system, nor is it superior. It works for some students and fails others, just as the public school system does. Personally, I would not exchange my time spent at a Waldorf school for a different educational experience, and I know that many other students would say the same.