Episode 11

Published on:

27th Oct 2020

Episode 11: Ida Oberman _ Community School for Creative Education

Special Thanks to Camila Guiza-Chavez for her beautiful performance of "Over the Rainbow" that introduces this episode.

Threshold Questions & Delicious Quotes

What is the role of the imagination in the development of the child?

I think that now we more and more feel it, as particularly now, under COVID, when we're all pressed against our screens, how life-giving imagination is. And sometimes it feels ephemeral. But, if we realize that imagination is really at heart, thinking about the relationship amongst things that have not been yet, that's when you create new things.

What distinguishes Waldorf education?

So that imaginative power means not only preparing the children, this distinguishes our school and Waldorf schools overall, it's not just to prepare the children to succeed against the benchmarks that have been set to win on in the race that has already been outlined. It is to think of new benchmarks, it's to blaze new trails to build a better tomorrow to build something that has not yet been yet. And that is creating a better future. That's the ultimate purpose of education.

How does Waldorf education prepare its students for an increasingly ambiguous and unpredictable future?

Really, that is the heart of Waldorf education is to start to hear more and more clearly your purpose in your path in the world and feel … your agency to quest for it and then fulfill it, which is of course a lifelong journey.

How can creative education best respond to the significant changes that have been taking place in our society?

I'm thinking of an elder who said that fabric of our society has been rent asunder. And as we sew it back together, we want to sew a stronger cloth, and more tightly woven cloth that will hold us all better. And in that spirit, everything that I just described to you should be true. Even when we return back to brick and mortar, we really need to think about parents as partners, the privilege of working intimately with our parents, them working intimately with us.

What is the role of story in the education of the whole person?

There's one thing I want to lift up that runs through all of this from kindergarten on. And that is the power of the story. That power of story is such a heart piece of the imagination. And for those starting to critically think, but always having your thinking be deeply connected to moral thinking. Because, the stories are not just to teach you the facts of history, to teach you the facts of algebra, to teach you the facts of science. They will also teach you the purposes of life and that there is something like good and bad and courage and meeting challenge.


Bill Cleveland:  Imagine this, the camera zooms in on a vibrant, festive scene that somehow matches up perfectly with that rainbow soundtrack. We see kids dancing, playing with puppets parading in costume laughing and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” You know, kind of Disney-like only, unlike the Disney I grew up with, this rainbow movie is not all white. Quite the contrary. There is no dominant hue here either playing games or on the walls and windows which are truly beautiful -- awash in subtly shifting colors, textures, and fairy tale images. But this isn't just a kid movie. There are adults here too. Quite a few actually moving purposefully watching joining in and leading -- yeah, well, teaching. That's right, you guessed it, it's a school, K through 8 to be exact. And given all the fun and games and extras, you're probably thinking it's a special school. One with a curriculum that caters to the uniquely special needs of the special students who are privileged to go there; clearly one of those schools they call public in Great Britain and private here in the USA. But there, you would be mistaken.

The Community School for Creative Education was authorized by the Alameda County Board of Education to operate as a Waldorf inspired charter in the fall of 2010.

Alejandra Baez: We all embrace what Community School is about. It's about equity. It's about love. It's about caring. It's about bringing the best to the children, especially in San Antonio, that we're so proud of. This is a dream come true.

BC: That was Alejandra Baez in the school's front office describing the impact the community school has had on Oakland San Antonio neighborhood.

Today, like most public schools in California, the Community School is currently serving its students from a distance. To learn more about the school's unique history and approach I spoke with Ida Oberman, the school's founder and executive director in late September of 2020.

From the Center for the Study of art and community, this is changed the story changed the world, a chronicle of art and transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland.

Part One: Free and Proud.

BC: Good morning.

I O: Good morning. I'm sorry, I'm late.

BC: No problem. No problem. You know, time is, is a completely different construct in the in the digital universe. We could be any place and anytime

I O: Were you playing your guitar this morning?

BC: I play my guitar in between everything I do. Yeah. Yeah. So first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. And as you know, I've spent a good part of my adult life being associated with Waldorf education. So I'm particularly excited because your brand of this educational journey is different than the typical one and particularly here in the Bay Area. So I'm just going to begin with a question I start off with everybody, which is what is it that you do in the world what's what's your work? What's your mission?

I O: So my mission is to work with others to ensure that an intercultural Waldorf option is available to any community of families who so choose, regardless of income, regardless of race, or class or color, returning to Waldorf education's original intent almost to the month 101 years ago.

BC: Yes, because the first Waldorf school was in fact, a publicly available school for factory workers?

I O: It was an openly available school. That title free Waldorf education was then proudly held. And when I went to the Waldorf school in Tubingen, in Germany, very close to Stuttgart, the founding site in the 1960s. We were always so proud of those letters "free" "frie" by the free Waldorf school. And it was not just freedom of heart in mind, but also of pocketbook.

BC: So for those people who are listening who are going, Waldorf Yeah, what, what is that? What? Could you just do an elevator description of what Waldorf and the Waldorf movement is all about? Yes,

I O: Of course, I'd be glad to. While their education is cousinly related to Montessori, which many of your viewers might be more familiar with. They were from the same time about 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori in inner city, Rome, Italy and Dr. Rudolf Steiner in inner city Stuttgart, Germany. And what brought them to the fore is that they recognize that education was not just a matter of educating the head, but it was educating the heart in the hand.

And, just one more point of reference, when Maria Montessori really understood learning by hand and all project-based learning very much grows out of that. Dr. Steiner added to that the emphasis of the heart that everything is a matter of the heart. And we have brain research now that confirms that if we do not have relational trust, if we are not engaged with our heart, then learning can't occur with the head. So 100 years ago, Rudolf Steiner focused on head heart and hand. The other important thing is that children are not shrunk adults, but that there's actually a developmental arc to learning and to living, and that children should learn in different ways, in sequential ways, in scaffolded ways, and meaningfully scaffolded ways as we go through the years of our lives. So it's head heart and hand. It's developmental. And it's deeply relational -- that if we do not have a relationship, we will not learn. So at the heart of Waldorf education is relationship which actually means love.

BC: So most Waldorf schools are, in fact, like Montessori, private schools, but your school is a little different. Could you describe how it's different and how that came about?

I O: Gladly, so many Montessori and Waldorf schools became private school options, contrary to the intent of either founder, we should say. And when Waldorf education came to America in 1928, it was beautifully and thankfully bankrolled by a couple of deep pocketed funders, and first with intent of large scholarships, but then money's dried up and as things changed and it became a much sought after private school option. What we did from our founding on (before founding) is say let us return to the original intent as you say, it was for the children of the workers of this Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory, it was free because this Waldorf, factory owner Emile Molt bankrolled the effort. And at the time, that that was that if we do well, then other businesses will recognize and there'll be a continual bankrolling to make up the difference so that rich and poor, girls and boys, different cultural backgrounds could all live together. That didn't happen. So now we recognize if it's not the private sector, closing the delta, we need to go back to what we know. This is the gift of public education where America has been so leading for over a century. That we ensure that through the public system, this option would be available to all. 

And so, ten years ago, I started working with fellow community leaders, fellow parents, through a very respected community-based organization -- one to build relationships and trust for me to also learn a lot. I sat at the feet of organizers who've been working in Oakland for decades, so that I could learn about community organizing, and then work with other parents who so chose to first see what is Waldorf education, many parents have never heard of it, actually, almost all. And if they heard anything, they knew it was white, wealthy, and weird. And we were going to show that it was so much more. And so we did it. We started with the support of a very wise organizer to visit Waldorf schools, private Waldorf schools, the beautiful San Francisco Waldorf school, the beautiful East Bay Waldorf school. We also visited public Waldorf charters, we had to say none of them look like your children and you they're all highly white and wealthy. But let us see what if this is for us. What if this is for our community what is for our future, and it's the parents who visited, with thanks to that gracious hospitality of the Novato Waldorf School, The Napa Waldorf, School, the Sacramento public Waldorf schools -- they came back and said, "Oakland is ready for Waldorf education', where others said, "Is Waldorf ready for Oakland?" And we've proven to be so.

Part Two: Not Done, But Unfolding

So when you started, did you consider this an experiment? Or did you have a sense that in fact, the conclusion, the foundation, the ground was was fertile for this to be planted here in Oakland?

I O: I did not see it as an experiment in the sense of, it's never been done before. because we were resting on the shoulders of 100 years of elders and wise sages. I didn't know that it was a deep innovation, as Dr. Steiner said that none of it is imitation, but innovation, none of it is replication, but research and Waldorf is not done but unfolding. This is what Dr. Steiner taught. So in that spirit, it is the most deep extension of his teachings. I did know that there was great risk involved because it's so bumped up against many conceptions that had been, I almost want to say encrusted, but at least sort of rigidify into being regarded as Waldorf truisms. Where I would suggest it and runs exactly against what Dr. Steiner in the founding teachers taught, most fundamentally, that the Waldorf curriculum needs to be deeply responsive to the community it serves, that the Waldorf organizational structure needs to be deeply responsive. And mostly, Dr. Steiner said, teachers need to be "velt mensch" they need to be people of the world -- it needs to be responding to the call of the future today to build a better world, not looking back to the reality of 100 years ago. So this is not replicating 1919. This is building 2025

I O: A great way of putting it. So, if we could move out of the story and the history and the intent, if you could take us into your school. So, what's the story of the school, what's the feeling of the school that a new student might feel when they walked through the doors? What's happened,

I O: The story of the school, the history of the school in what people feel, maybe I'll slip that in first, say what you hopefully feel when you come in where people report, and then that the story and the history, I would think that everybody feels You are welcome here. And hoping that it's you come in a stranger, you leave a friend. That everybody knows when they come that they'd like to stay. And it's not just because of the welcome of the people, but it's the beauty that we learn from Waldorf education. The Lazured walls, and music that filters through the halls, the children that are holding hands and singing as they walk. I would also say that it's among the most diverse schools in Oakland. I think we would also see that it's a deeply community-based organization. So when you come in you see community met, families come in and are very active in our always buzzing Family Resource Center. There's an open door between classrooms and Family Resource Center and the outside world. But community leaders come, the local pastors come, and they offer mentoring, the local food bank comes and helps build with us so that we offer food services to our community, etc.

The history of the story of the school my personal history is that I myself Dutch and moved to Germany when I was nine and have a family that's Jewish. So, it was very scary in the 60s. And the one place our parents enrolled us, just because they'd learned that this was a school that might be more tolerant of non-German speaking students was the Waldorf school. And so, in that time, those following 12 years that I was at the Waldorf school, I felt it to be so embracing of me. That it was about learning through the arts learning through music, learning through recitation, learning through relationship, and so feeling that I'm leaving, becoming a very strong leader for others. Then, I was able to go to America for college, to Stanford PhD, but always knowing I so got that inspiration from Waldorf education. That wasn't a hammering away direct instruction, but really letting me live with my fellow students through the arts and beauty and purpose. So, the story of the school is wanting to bring that to our school as well. And that is really what binds our teachers, our parents and our children. We now have our graduates coming back very loyal.

BC: The school has a name and interesting name, the Community School for Creative Education. So could you talk a little bit more about what that means? Creative education?

I O: in 2007, when I was really thinking about starting the school in Oakland, my mother, my elder mother, and I did a trip through South Africa to learn about the Waldorf schools there because that has such a deep legacy of Waldorf schools really being far ahead and boundary breaking in terms of integration long before apartheid had been abolished legally. And there I went to the Rudolf Steiner college that had just gotten through it very conscious name change, to rename themselves, Center for Education. And I asked why they said, because if you say Rudolf Steiner College, only people who know Rudolf Steiner will come, it's inward facing if we say Center for Education, it's outward facing. And I brought that to Oakland, and spoke with our families who are leading, and said, "What do you think of Center for Education?" And they said, that can be but one word has to be in there too. And that's community, because we are a community school, hence, Community School?

BC: Yes. And could you talk a little bit about the importance of the imagination for your school, for developing children, and how that shows up in what happens for students in the school.

I O: I think that now we more and more feel it, as particularly now, under COVID, when we're all pressed against our screens, how life-giving imagination is. And sometimes it feels ephemeral. But, if we realize that imagination is really at heart, thinking about the relationship amongst things that have not been yet, that's when you create new things. Imagination is where you actually can bridge what is before us right now. And think of a better, more beautiful world. And beauty is important, because that is also about relationship -- relationship of colors, relationship of matter, relationship of people. So that imaginative power means not only preparing the children, this distinguishes our school and Waldorf schools overall, it's not just to prepare the children to succeed against the benchmarks that have been set to win on in the race that has already been outlined. It is to think of new benchmarks, it's to blaze new trails to build a better tomorrow to build something that has not yet been yet. And that is creating a better future. That's the ultimate purpose of education.

BC: Part Three, Education From the Inside Out.

My experience with Waldorf, and probably one of the things that was most important to me, as a musician, and as a writer, and a person who's been involved in the human creative process for my whole life is that coming into the school, seeing the school feeling the school and learning about the curriculum, there's a child's development deeply involves their imagination, and how critical that is. Could you talk a little bit about how that shows up in the classroom?

I O: Thank you, I think I'd need to really go back to the point that learning is developmental. So it will show up differently in our kindergarten than in our eighth grade. But each set of the way it is that the children are creating out of themselves. It's that education from the inside out rather than the outside in. So in kindergarten, it's the free play. Just as in eighth grade, it's the free imagination of your class project, of how you're doing a literary project, how you're doing a woodwork project. But it is always that it...

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Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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