Learning Curve: Leading roles

In structuring their classes, teachers at the anthroposophic high school take their cue from pupils.

Anthroposophic schools_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anthroposophic schools_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For parents of pupils at the anthroposophic elementary and junior high school, the anthroposophic high school is a dream come true. The Adam School, an anthroposophic elementary and junior high school on Emek Refaim, has been operating for more than two decades, but parents’ efforts to open a high school had been rejected by the Education Department, saying there were not enough students to justify it. Until last year – when Roni Harnik, the principal of the Seligsberg junior and high school (in East Talpiot), offered to house the anthroposophic school in his institution. After Pessah in 2010, the first two classes moved to Seligsberg from the crowded building on Emek Refaim.
Anthroposophism (also known as Steiner-Waldorf education) takes a humanistic approach toward education. Its learning is interdisciplinary, integrating practical and artistic elements, emphasizing the role of the imagination in learning. The first school of the anthroposophic education system was created in 1911 by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in Waldorf, Germany.
In this education system, the student is the focal point. For example, matriculation exams are taken seriously and students are prepared for them, but they are not the main objective.
Explains Guy Paz, a history teacher at Seligsberg and a major figure in the project, “Exams are not the most important issue.
Learning, developing and satisfying the students’ curiosity, delving into the topics we learn and not just studying for tests is our philosophy.”
Thus subjects are learned in large-scale units, running for weeks and not as separate lessons once or twice a week as in regular schools. And arts studies are a major part of the curriculum.
Every year, there is a high-level theater production in which all the students participate. The production is part of the curriculum and takes about three months, during which time there are no other classes except math.
Harnik says he had no hesitation, despite much trepidation by the students and their parents, in including the anthroposophic stream in his school. “I am strongly opposed to what are referred to as ‘special schools.’ I believe it has ruined the sense of solidarity and equality among Israeli society. But I am very much in favor of including special streams in public schools. Having the anthroposophic school in Seligsberg fits my philosophy.”
Within a few years, Seligsberg has changed from a school rejected by top students to the only local public school that was nominated for the Education Ministry’s annual excellence award. Stigmas and stereotypes may still exist, but Harnik is convinced he made the right decision, and he expects more principals to follow his example.
On a recent visit to the two ninth-grade anthroposophic classes at Seligsberg, it was difficult to see any difference at first glance. Like in any other high school, the students talked, walked around, and did anything but pay attention to the fact that the teacher was waiting to get their attention. But after several attempts to get them to settle down, they were finally ready.
Class started with the morning prayer – a text the teacher and students recited together. Then the biology lesson began. So far, nothing special – until a simple question about the role of genetics in the functioning of the eye (the topic of the day) elicited a major difference.
The students suddenly became focused, asked a lot of questions, compared knowledge and seemed totally fascinated.
During all that time – about eight minutes – the teacher answered with a lot of patience, and although he said once or twice that “this is not part of your curriculum,” he continued to answer and impart more information. During that time, nothing seemed more important to the teacher and the students than to understand and to hear more about the issue. They would not get back to the topic of the optical system until all the students felt they’d learned enough about chromosomes and heredity for that day.
I asked Paz if that was common. He said that for him, it was not surprising at all. “This is typical of the anthroposophic system. Of course, we prepare our students for the matriculation exams, but we value intense and detailed knowledge first and foremost. We don’t teach only for the sake of exams. That is the very basis of our system, and that’s why the teacher didn’t hesitate to deviate from his lesson for a few minutes to satisfy his students’ curiosity.”
Tali Sela, who has two daughters at Adam, is the chairwoman of the parents’ association of the Anthroposophic School. After finishing her studies as a teacher, she graduated in anthroposophic education at David Yellin College.
“I always thought that if an anthroposophic high school didn’t open by the time my daughters reached fourth grade, I would do it. And that is exactly what happened,” she says.
How are the graduates of this kind of school different or better? Sela explains that in addition to the regular curriculum, the students are taught in a way to make them contribute more to society.
“I know there are some good schools in this city, but we focus on different aspects. We don’t just give our children knowledge and education, we want to give them the widest possible range of interests, beyond what the system requires. We want them to be involved in the community, in society. We want to raise children who will be able to think and find solutions to the complex modern reality and not focus only on their own achievements,” she says.
Twice a year, for example, the students volunteer on a kibbutz or a moshav as part of the philosophy that requires social involvement and experience.
“At first, the kids here had a lot of stereotypes about us, like they thought we prayed to the sun and worshiped stones and things like that,” says ninth-grader Yair. His classmate Eden confirms that things were not easy at first but adds that even though there is still lot of misunderstanding about them, “Things have evolved in the right direction.”