Learning About the Waldorf Approach Through Story : a book review by Kimberly Parsons

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A Gift of Wonder is a beautiful collection of vignettes chronicling Waldorf teacher and mentor Kim Allsup’s journey with her first class. Each chapter focuses on a key element or trait – Curiosity, Resilience, Nurturing, Responsibility, and Balance to name a few – and the story that follows allows the reader to see how that capacity or quality can emerge in a Waldorf school setting.

In a Waldorf school, a teacher and a class remain together for many years – ideally from first through eighth grades. Because of this long-term commitment and consistent experience, a very special connection develops between teacher and students. In her book Allsup does an excellent job of allowing the reader to see this relationship evolve. We also get to witness how the children develop over time, from the wonder and magic of the earliest years to the more analytical, concrete mindset in later elementary years, and how Allsup navigates this change.

We also observe her own development as a teacher, as a parent, and as a human being. As most teachers do, Waldorf or otherwise, Allsup spends a great deal of time planning and preparing. She shares many details about this preparation to which she she seems naturally inclined, but we also see how living and responding spontaneously provides her students with an experience they may otherwise have missed in the chapter, “Experience.” She also shares about struggling to silence her inner critic and trust her deepest instincts in the chapter, “Awakening.” And in the final chapters, Allsup allows us to walk with her through a heart-wrenching decision-making process, her feelings about it, and how a particular story that she had told her class helps her through.

The emphasis on story is, for this reader, the best part of A Gift of Wonder. Using stories is really the perfect way to convey the essence of Waldorf education since story is the Waldorf way. If you are new to Waldorf education, perhaps one of the first essentials is to understand that Steiner advocated teaching not through dry facts, lists, and information, but through narrative. His idea was that teaching through story allows the student to internalize and interpret information for themselves, gleaning from it exactly what the individual needs in that moment. Over time, the story remains with the hearer, working on their inner being, and unlocking understanding and insight. Allsup has done this beautifully for her adult readers.

The chapter titles are a clue as to what to look for, but the story, and how to interpret it, are left largely to the reader. There are a number of them, especially those about children my own children’s ages, that I will continue to think on! She has done an excellent job of describing capacities emerging in her class, but leaves the reader to consider, observe, and question exactly how she did it – and to imagine possibilities for similar moments and experiences with their own students. Rather than prescribe, she describes and the result is truly inspiring.

There absolutely are nuggets of Waldorf whys and hows sprinkled throughout. For example, she refers to Steiner’s assertion that little children are immersed in sense impressions and shares about her daily meditation practice on each child. But these are subtle, and might not be recognized for what they are by someone completely new to Steiner’s philosophy, but I suspect these shining bread crumbs will lead to a desire to more deeply understand Steiner’s ideas. For example, Allsup tells us she is creating a lesson plan and then describes a walk through the woods and the story she will spin later for her class. She doesn’t give us a lesson planning checklist – she takes us along through her process instead.

What about non-traditional schooling families? What about homeschoolers in particular? As a former public school teacher and a homeschooling mother of two, it is the rare book written for classroom teachers that I find helpful. The techniques for managing and educating a large group of same-age peers in a single subject are just not the same! Unfortunately, I also often find a strong bias against anyone doing things differently, especially those who school at home. It was refreshing to find that bias absent, and in fact, find that many of the best things Allsup experienced as a classroom teacher are also things I often experience at home. For example, Allsup found herself teaching a combined age class – which nearly every homeschooling family is by nature. Combining ages can be very difficult when following the Waldorf path since particular stories, concepts, and skills are tied to a particular age-range. I very much enjoyed reading how Allsup wrestled with how to meet the needs of all of her students even though they were at two (and sometimes three!) developmental stages. I also enjoyed reading about her delight in witnessing her students’ growth over a long period of time, one of the things I treasure most about our homeschooling experience. She also marvels in the way that the children also play an important role for each other, taking care of each other – another of my favorite aspects of homeschooling. These similarities between her experience and mine were very encouraging.

I must also acknowledge the beautiful language throughout. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a variety of sources (not just “Waldorf” quotes), all well-chosen and artful. Allsup’s writing often takes an almost poetic turn and I very much appreciated the high-quality prose and excellent editing throughout. A Gift of Wonder is chock-full of beauty, wisdom, and humor. It is vivid and engaging – and you may just find yourself crying over a chewed-up green pencil in the final pages!

In conclusion, if you are looking for a “how to” manual for Waldorf education filled with checklists and graphs, this is not that book. If you are looking instead for something more than a how-to manual, one that employs the same teaching method for adults that is used for children A Gift of Wonder is an excellent choice. It will be a book I revisit, pondering how her story intersects with my own and how I can better bring out these things in my own home and practice.

Kimberly Parsons is a Waldorf-inspired homeschooling mother of two, a musician, and curriculum author. She is also a certified public school teacher with B.A. and M.M degrees from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. 

Sources for A Gift of Wonder :

Signed from the author: $19 via PayPal to: https://www.paypal.me/authordirect free shipping within the US

Indiebound http://bit.ly/2Faj9LI

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2EcX8fF

The Publisher: http://bit.ly/2F58G4k

Floris Books for European orders http://bit.ly/2F5fUWQ

Booktopia for Australian orders  http://bit.ly/2TozYXm

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