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Tamarack Waldorf School Teaches Using Head, Heart and Hands

Since 1996, Tamarack Waldorf School has offered children enriching educational experiences in Waldorf education principles, which incorporate music, dramatic play, storytelling, handwork, painting and sculpture into the academic experience. In 2002, the school relocated from its original location at 49th and Wells Street to a former Catholic school building in the vibrant Brady Street neighborhood.

Enrollment Director Sarah Stokes and teacher Nancy Price have been involved with Tamarack since the beginning as both parents of Waldorf students and staff. Stokes, originally from upstate New York, has a background in environmental education. As a parent, she was drawn to the Waldorf model due to its nurturing environment, natural materials used in the classrooms and the amount of time students spend outdoors.

Tamarack Waldorf School Dancing"I had a belief that children were being rushed out of childhood,” observes Stokes. “The Waldorf environment was preserving that magic.” Price was an actress with theater groups in Chicago when she met her husband, John, a writer and Waldorf teacher, and the couple moved to Milwaukee shortly after their fifth child was born. All of their children attended Waldorf schools in the Milwaukee area. “We’re an artistic family, and that artistic element drew us to Waldorf as parents,” Price says.

The Price children attended Waldorf School of Milwaukee, so when that school closed, Price, Stokes and other parents and teachers that valued the Waldorf learning style took action and formed Tamarack. Price was the founding administrator and Stokes joined the staff in 2000 as enrollment director.

Tamarack’s classrooms are painted in calming, pastel tones and use low-wattage overhead lighting. Learning supplies are made of natural materials and the students spend recess outside—regardless of the weather—at a neighborhood park. Tamarack is located within walking distance of the vast green spaces along the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan.

Tamarack Waldorf School PlayingPlay is the main focus of the Waldorf Kindergarten program, which emphasizes social development and imagination, rather than jumping into academics. Students stay with the same instructor from first through eighth grade, thus building lasting relationships between teachers, students and parents. Subjects such as science or history, called main lessons, are taught in two-hour blocks, with one topic being the primary object of a three- to four-week period—an approach that better helps students retain what they learn.

There are no textbooks in Waldorf schools. Instead, the children create their own books of art and words to demonstrate what they have learned. “The students’ books are essentially a portfolio of what they’ve learned,” Stokes explains. There is no grading, and testing is minimal.

Students also learn how to knit, crochet, sew and sculpt wood and metal. Handwork, an important aspect to Waldorf education, utilizes the brain, as well as the hands. “Sewing machines are used in eighth grade because students are studying the Industrial Revolution,” Stokes notes. “Knitting also ties in with math, because they have to count stitches. Handwork projects help strengthen what we call the will—the determination to get the project finished, stick with it and to correct mistakes.”

The school day also incorporates music, foreign languages, eurythmy (expressive dance) and theater. All grades plan and perform plays, providing a creative outlet and the opportunity to enhance social skills such as cooperation and problem solving.

Price stresses how the Waldorf model builds respect among peers. She created a “talking circle” in which students and teachers can gather to discuss their feelings in a group setting. “Our students learn academics and art, but what I really care about is how kids treat each other,” says Price. “We want compassion and communication, especially to get through those awkward middle school years, when feelings of isolation and heady emotions can set in.”

Tamarack’s new high school, one of only 42 Waldorf high schools in North America, opened in September 2014 and Price will begin the 2015-2016 school year teaching there. It began with a ninth grade class and will gradually expand one grade level per year until they reach 12th grade.

Both Stokes and Price notice how more parents are seeking out alternative education models due to the increasing pressure of standardized testing in traditional schools. “Parents can network with other like-minded parents who have similar beliefs,” Stokes remarks. “Tamarack has a high level of parental involvement and an active parent association.”

Homework is not a main focus in Waldorf education, and the model respects kids’ spare time with family. Stokes notes that Tamarack is also unique in its diverse student population. They participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the school provides its own in-house tuition assistance. Tamarack is accredited through the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Tamarack Waldorf Elementary School is located at 1150 E. Brady St., in Milwaukee, and Tamarack Waldorf High School is located at 2628 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., in Milwaukee. For more information, call 414-277-0009 or visit TamarackWaldorf.org.

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.

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