Digital Divide: Keeping Balance in Distance Learning

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Waldorf School’s teaching staff is using creative solutions to keep a balance between screen time and other educational activities based on developmental capacities.

On any regular school day a guest could walk into the Waldorf School of Baltimore and find children engaged in activities from reading to playing string instruments to exploring the great outdoors.

What guests won’t see are children glued to screens – in fact, a guest would be hard-pressed to find a screen at all. The school embraces slow technology and is screen-free during the school day on the Pre-K through eighth grade campus. As the school transitioned to distance learning, continuing to be conscious of developmental needs is a continued, top priority for the school during this time, said Executive Director Pat Whitehead.

“Slow technology is the idea that children are introduced to electronic media as useful tools in the right way at the right time,” she said. “Our intention is to ensure a gentle introduction that avoids an unhealthy amount of electronic exposure. We are dedicated to continuing that throughout this time.”

With the emergence of the global pandemic earlier this year, the school began to engage in distance learning and is taking part in it today. As the teaching staff began to create a distance learning model, being able to deliver quality programming without inundating children with screen time became a thoughtful part of curriculum planning.

A value of Waldorf education is introducing things to children where they are mature enough developmentally to understand a subject appropriately – this includes technology use.

In the Children’s Garden, the school’s youngest children are nurtured through a combination of teacher-led activities and self-directed play free of screen-time. By eighth grade, students have gained exposure to the digital world in a digestible amount through school programs and are supported at home by their families. Today, of course, teachers from Pre-K up through the grades are embracing technology as a means for communication and not necessarily for directly replicating the rhythm of a school day.

“Every teacher knows his or her class best and can decide what is appropriate,” Whitehead said. “This is a new frontier for us and we are making adjustments as we can but also staying true to our principles and beliefs while being mindful of the current situation.”

Creating Curriculum

During a regular routine week, every Waldorf student, in middle and lower schools, begins the day with main lesson. This intensive learning period first thing each day involves learning material on one topic for several weeks before changing to a different topic. Topics include exploring interdisciplinary skills within the lessons for math, science, language arts and history as they pertain to that topic.

This important start to each day is an imperative part of Waldorf education and is not being spared through distance learning. In first grade, the students are being logged on to get a shortened period of instruction time with their teacher, Sharon Barkhouser.

“I’m video chatting with them three times a week for a short main lesson,” she said. “I plan to do language arts, story work, form drawing, math and other lessons that need intensive instruction time.”

For the days when they aren’t getting screen time with her, she sent home materials to facilitate lessons with non-digital learning activities including reading and doing math exercises. These students will continue with their nature studies program as well as Spanish, movement and different artistic programs. Lessons for these specialty classes are communicated with parents, and materials were sent home in packages that were prepared as the school building closed. The underlying philosophy and success of Waldorf education lies in encouraging experiential learning and forging strong supportive relationships rather than relying on a child absorbing information by sitting in front of a screen for endless hours. In Waldorf each child learns by doing.

“We are still whole-heartedly dedicated to connecting them to nature too and to keeping them grounded with real, tangible things they can relate to instead of a screen,” Barkhouser said. “So we are being really thoughtful about inspiring them to get outside.”

Students in the third grade are engaged in an exciting main lesson block that involves learning about shelters from around world and throughout history. The concept of how shelters are built to protect people from the elements and how this varies with climate was explored before distance learning began. One of the very first assignments third graders received was to build their own shelter outside. This project took planning, creative thought and hard, physical work – all without the use of electronics.

Gaining Complexity

While the lower school students need additional guidance from parents to keep their distance learning program moving forward, by sixth grade students become more independent. The amount of technology being used for middle school students increases as they understand its place and use as a learning tool. Sixth graders see their teacher, Nina Jones, more frequently than lower school students through video conferencing to get more complex guidance on their lessons.

“I’m doing my part as a teacher to balance their needs based on development,” she said. “How unsettling would it be to have very little technology in your daily life and then, suddenly, all day long, have to sit in front of a screen? It’s unhealthy, so I’m avoiding putting them through that.”

Meanwhile seventh grade students are also getting assignments that bring their attention to the world immediately around them rather than in the digital sphere. Students were instructed to use their pre-algebra skills to draw up schematics of structures in their own homes and figure out all of the calculations associated with a doorway or window. This arts-integrated math lesson was drawn out and calculated all on paper.

In addition to studying core subjects, this experience also gives middle school students a life lesson in time management and how to start taking responsibility for getting work done at home. While during the regular school week they may get smaller doses of this reality, right now is a great learning opportunity that will allow them to really hone in on the skill.

“I encourage the parents to have their child think about how to arrange their week in order to get the work done,” Jones said. “I’m not structuring every second of the day for them but, instead, coach children to own their schedule and part of that is knowing how long they can work before they need a break. It’s developmentally appropriate for them to start figuring that out.”

While this time may be challenging, teachers and staff are dedicated to supporting students and their families figure it all out in the best way possible, Whitehead said.

“We understand that families are feeling a lot of stress and anxiety right now,” she said. “Our role is to help them adapt as we provide them with all the tools they need to set their children up for success in a balanced way. Arguably the most important resource is each child’s teacher who remain at the helm of their classes.”


Want to learn more about the Waldorf approach to education? Visit Waldorf School of Baltimore.

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