Joseph Reyes / Sun Staff Photographer

Students at the Ithaca Waldorf School have the opportunity to take care of cows and participate in agricultural hands-on activities.

May 6, 2024

Where Agriculture and Education Meet: The Ithaca Waldorf School

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Located on an 80-acre plot of farmland, the Ithaca Waldorf School takes a non-traditional approach to a student’s education. Students undergo a hands-on learning process that utilizes the farm to teach students both academic and practical skills. 

The IWS is part of an international network consisting of over 250 schools across the globe. Though some Waldorf Schools span all grades, the IWS instructs students from preschool through eighth grade.

In 1919, the Waldorf method of education was developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in Germany to serve the children of workers in the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory and to challenge the traditional educational complex. The IWS has distanced itself from Steiner over his controversial views on race, stating on its website that the school “unequivocally denounce[s] any statements made by Rudolf Steiner that do not honor all human dignity.” 

Laura Hayes, director of the IWS, explained the Waldorf method emphasizes intrinsic motivation, forgoing a traditional grading system. The school uses progress reports instead of letter grades.

“[Intrinsic motivation] makes [students] really want to engage with the content versus having to learn just for a test,” Hales said. “It’s like learning to learn instead of learning for a grade or your GPA.”

Hayes also said that the school deliberately omits technology and traditional textbooks from classrooms, opting to have students create their own “lesson books” instead.

“[There are] no screens, no phones, no nothing,” Hayes said. “It’s all handwritten textbooks that they make themselves. So [when students] have an experience, they conceptualize it [and] they write it down into their main lesson book, … which creates really beautiful ways of showing what they’ve learned over the year.” 

Students also dedicate much of their days outside on the school’s farm to gain hands-on educational experiences, Hayes said. 

Hayes explained that the school offers two classes of farm and land stewardship. Only middle school students currently do farm chores in the morning, but the school aims to eventually have every grade level participate in farm chores in the coming years.

Melanie Ryan, a fourth and fifth-grade teacher at the school, said she incorporates agricultural principles into teaching academic skills, such as fractions. 

“One of the activities that my class did was they designed farms and we broke [the farm] into fractions,” Ryan said. “[For example], half of your farm is grain production, or a quarter of your farm is pumpkins or squash.”

Ryan said that some of her favorite lessons to instruct involve students learning about the production of food and being able to eat the food that they grew at the end. 

“I think it’s really good when [students] know where [their food] came from,” Ryan said. “ If they had a hand in growing it, they’re far more likely to eat it even if it’s like kale. Using some of the herbs and edibles that we grow, they can even make their own teas and different things like that.”

To teach second and third graders measurements, Ryan said students participated in the 2024 Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off, combining their knowledge of math with their knowledge of food production. Their maple chipotle venison chili placed third in meat-based chilis and won the People’s Choice Award.

“They learned about volumes and weights,” Ryan said. “[With their new understanding of math], they learned how to cook a huge 20 gallons of chili for the chili fest.”

At IWS, unfavorable weather does not keep students off the farm. Students have gear to take on the rain and snow, including boots, rain jackets and rain pants. 

Ryan said that students go outside to work on the farm throughout the winter, barring extreme cold. 

“[During winter time] we go outside,” Ryan said. “If the wind chill is below negative 20, we stay inside, which I can say did not happen once this winter. So we were outside the whole time.” 

Netta Joachims, an eighth grader at the Waldorf School, has an active role in the upkeep of the farm. Joachims takes care of the cows, ensuring they have water and food.

Joachims’ Eighth Grade Project, titled “My Study of Cows,” involved halter breaking a calf to get it accustomed to people. Halter breaking trains the cow how to be handled using a halter. 

Joachims has been working with the youngest cow, whom the students call Steve, to get him comfortable with other children and students.

“[Steve] used to not be friendly at all. He wouldn’t come to the fence even for treats and stuff,” Joachims said. “But I’ve been working with him and socializing with him, and now he’ll come to the fence and interact with the kids, take treats. I’m working on getting a halter and a rope on him.”

Sometimes, students’ involvement with the animals escalates to problem-solving emergencies. Joachims recalled when Steve escaped from its pen. After spending time chasing after it, Joachims was finally able to wrangle it and return it to its pasture. 

“He kind of went crazy. He spent the whole time running around,” Joachims said. “And then eventually, we tried to make a blockade. I was able to calm him down and put a rope on him.” 

Ryan said IWS is altogether set apart from traditional public schools with the originality and artistry of the students brought about by the school’s low-stress environment.  

“The imagination and creativity that comes in with these students is just remarkable,” Hayes said. “There is less of the anxiety and stress in our school than you would see in a typical public school because it’s not high stakes. We have a lot of parents that’ll say [the students] settle back into childhood, which is an amazing thing.