By David Barham
Adolescence is and always has been an extraordinarily complicated period of life. Even in the simplest of times, working with adolescents to help them find themselves and the meaning they so desperately seek is deeply challenging.
And these are anything but the simplest of times.
Though we may desire to move on from the endless ruins of the recent past, we cannot outrun the physical and psychic wounds and obstacles we have all experienced together and have not yet fully processed. In a recent piece in The New Yorker (January 16, 2023) on the report issued by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, historian Jill LePore vividly reminds us of our collective recent history: Covid-19 deaths, masks, lockdowns, loneliness and loss, joblessness, farm closures, guns and mass shootings, a national mental-health crisis, daily reports of devastating storms and fires, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and partisan battles over election integrity. She remarks that “so many felt, and not always for the same reasons, that a great deal was being stolen from them: their jobs, their co-workers, a sense of justice and fairness in the world, predictable weather, the idea of America, the people they love and human touch.” She describes a national mood of “vulnerability, fear, and sorrow.”
While we in the Waldorf world strive for the equanimity to keep these forces of chaos and dissolution at bay, we know we must meet the needs of adolescents––our vulnerable canaries in the coal mine––in new ways. We cannot simply move on from the recent past. We must come to understand how it has changed us, adolescents, and the classrooms and communities where we serve the future. The world is not the same as it was, and we cannot continue educating our students as if nothing has changed.
Educating the next generation of Waldorf high school teachers continues to build on the deep wellsprings of wisdom we were given by Rudolf Steiner and on more than a century of pedagogical research in Waldorf classrooms all over the world. With that powerful history as a foundation, the real work is to look to the questions coming at us at lightning speed and needing responses if Waldorf education is to fulfill its true mission.
What do adolescents need today to face their future with courage? Which classroom practices build the capacities and skills needed to face an ever-changing present and unknowable future? Which aspects of our current Waldorf high school curriculum still speak to the essential human qualities we all share? What can be drawn from new sources that speak a language that can be understood at the cellular level by modern adolescents?
Through our series of “Starlight Rays in Darkened Times: Seminars on Contemporary Topics for Waldorf High School Teachers,” we are attempting to tackle the enormous questions of the world. Essentially, every speaker we bring in to engage with our participants is asking some version of the archetypal Parzival question, “What ails thee?” And equally importantly, “How can I help?”
We are nearing the end of the second cycle of this series, during which time we have explored questions of
- helping adolescents cope with climate change without growing cynical or shutting down
- meeting neurodiverse learners in the classroom
- re-examining the Waldorf high school literature curriculum
- supporting students through anxiety, depression, and addiction
- determining the rightful place of technology in the Waldorf high school
We have given free rein to our guest presenters without claiming to endorse or agree with all that they have said. Rather our intention has been to open up topics in a gesture of open discourse. It has been so rich and rewarding to work on these enormous topics with participants equally devoted to the fragile world of high school students.
We already have a line-up of speakers for a third round of “Starlight Rays” seminars. Starting in September 2023, we will revisit a number of the themes listed above, while also
- exploring how drama, eurythmy, and the arts and crafts nurture adolescents
- guiding students to independent thinking through mathematics
- mentoring teens without playing therapist, parent, or friend
- African-American literature in the high school curriculum
- how Waldorf high school education is unfolding in public charter schools
We hope all will join us for this high-quality professional development opportunity.
Our three-year Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program (WHiSTEP), which resumed meeting live and in person last summer on the gorgeous campus of High Mowing School in Wilton, NH, as well as through virtual sessions, internships, and independent study, is ever-evolving to meet both the moment and the eternal. We are eager to launch new cohorts in the humanities and the arts––and especially in the science and math, given the acute shortage of trained Waldorf teachers in these disciplines.
In this context, we are excited to be welcoming new instructors into this program: Marisha Plotnik will take on the teaching mathematics from Jamie York (both graduated from CfA’s inaugural WHiSTEP Class of 1998); Michal Noer will be guiding students through clay modeling and sculpture, a position Patrick Stolfo has held since the beginning of this program in 1996; Cedar Oliver, another graduate of WHiSTEP, will assume the teaching of the physical sciences from Michael D’Aleo, who taught this subject among others for the past 20 years; and Debbie Spitulnik will join the program to bring creative speech, an assignment previously held by Craig Giddens, a founding adjunct of the Waldorf Program at Antioch University New England as far back as 1982.
We are incredibly grateful to those faculty members who have carried this program for so many decades and to those colleagues who are now stepping up to carry it forward. Its combination of self-transformation through the arts, deep study of the anthroposophical underpinnings of Waldorf education and human development, and subject seminars that give teachers the tools to teach their discipline in profound ways, is powerful. In this way, becoming a Waldorf high school teacher is both a vocational path and a way to find meaning in the madness.
“While outside the whirling wind heaves and twists and roars,” (J.LePore/January 16, 2023), here in WHiSTEP, we are steadfastly keeping our eyes on the prize: providing true, human care to meet the true needs of our students, families, and communities, as well as our own battered selves.