Now More Than Ever, Strong Relationships Sustain Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Even in the most difficult circumstances, there is social, emotional and academic strength when teachers, students and families work together. It's the very foundation of Waldorf education.

Each fall at the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, an independent toddler to grade 12 educational community, students in the 12th-grade class welcome incoming first graders through a formal introduction to their new teacher. The much-loved tradition is called the Rose Ceremony because each new student receives a rose from their mentor as a poignant pass of the baton from eldest to youngest. Each spring, the Rose Ceremony takes place in reverse, as the now more confident first graders send off the graduating seniors with a warm wish — and a rose.

While this spring’s Rose Ceremony was virtual due to COVID-19, the video compiled by the first grade class was a warm reminder of how the Rudolf Steiner School’s ethos of education through strong, supportive relationships was kept alive throughout this spring’s stay at home order.

“During normal times, the relationships we work so hard to build and sustain are what make Rudolf Steiner School so very special. And those connections are even more important at the moment,” explains school administrator Dr. Siân Owen-Cruise.

One way the Rudolf Steiner School builds strong bonds between teachers and students is through its model of pairing students with one teacher for multiple school years. This practice is deeply rooted in the Waldorf educational belief that when children are secure in their learning environments, they thrive socially, emotionally and academically.

“In all grades, the teachers move with the students, and some will remain together for as many as eight years,” Owen-Cruise says. “For high school grades, we have a core group of full-time teachers and they move between the grades. For example, students will start their ninth grade exploration of physics with one teacher and see that teacher again in 10th, 11th and 12th grades.”

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Through thick and thin

While the Rudolf Steiner School was forced to pivot to remote instruction when all Michigan schools closed on Friday, March 13, all grade levels began receiving curriculum delivery by Wednesday, March 18. With a top goal to keep students engaged in the rich Waldorf curriculum, faculty and administrators prepared to introduce instruction in a new and creative way.

To strike a balance between available online connections and immersive crafts and activities so important to the early childhood group, teachers bundled materials and simple instructions to send home with students, then reinforced the teacher-student relationship with class check-ins over Zoom video in very small groups. Parent meetings each week encouraged parents to enjoy with their children puppet play and bedtime stories read by a teacher’s familiar voice.

Grades one through five engaged in their typical subjects, plus art and language study with direct new curriculum. They also were tasked with handwork, an educational concept that is integral to the Waldorf education at all grade levels, and awakens the mind with creative applications. This includes knitting, crochet and, in response to current needs, sewing cloth face masks by hand.

“Every single family rose to the situation in an amazing way and found balance,” Owen-Cruise says. “We were very careful to make sure we didn’t make anything more difficult than it needed to be, and when we accidentally did, to make changes to support parents.”

Middle school students dug into independent project work, language lessons and full progression of their curriculum while connecting with fellow students and teachers through Zoom two to three times each week. High school students worked traditional school hours engaged in language, math and their core academic curriculum, plus music and art.

“Because we offered their core program remotely, this allowed us to continue a relationship-based center. Students were able to talk with each other and work on projects together. We were so happy to see that office hours were fully booked, which is a common and normal part of our school days,” Owen-Cruise says, adding that, overall, students demonstrated understanding and mastery of the subjects and gained full credit without the need for overly generous grading.

Given that so much learning and connection happens outside of the traditional curriculum, Rudolf Steiner School made sure all clubs and activities moved online, too. “Students had hiking club workouts, yearbook and Model U.N., and faculty continued to go to clubs to work with their students,” says Owen-Cruise.

Returning to campus this fall

Because children learn best when there is a strong partnership between school and home, Rudolf Steiner School parents are enveloped in the educational experience, allowing a depth of understanding and connectedness that is uncommon, even among other independent schools. This investment is even more crucial in the weeks to come, as plans are in progress for an on-campus experience for all students this fall.

“Human beings are social animals who need to be in connection with each other,” says Owen-Cruise. “Students need to be engaged actively so their social-emotional needs are met as much as their academic needs.”

So, Owen-Cruise and her colleagues are working hard to plan a robust return to school, mindful of the critical need to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“We are reconfiguring buildings, routines and staffing, and it’s very challenging. But it is worth it to have students on campus five days each week, rather than one or two days. We are doing the work from our side to make it possible.”

Learn more about Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor at steinerschool.org.

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