Choosing Your Homeschool Spine
As Waldorf-inspired homeschoolers, we try to implement the ideas and timelines developed by Rudolf Steiner for the first Waldorf-Steiner school in the early 1900s as best we can. We don't follow it exactly, we don't subscribe to every idea that he had, but we use quite a bit of it to the best of our ability.
In simple terms, I use Waldorf-Steiner education as our spine for our school day and other aspects of our home and family life as we are able and as it serves us.
If you are new to homeschooling, you will hear people refer to their "spine" a lot. They aren't talking about anatomy - they are talking about their list of general topics (or list of content in a particular subject area.) It could be state standards, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Classical Conversations, or even whatever comes in their big box for their all-in-one curriculum. It is often not only a list of topics, but a particular homeschooling philsophy. That philosophy can form the backbone of everything in a homeschool - daily schedules, topics, presentation methods, etc.
Just like in a physical body, everything in our homeschool is supported by
and moves together because of our spine.
When we first started homeschooling, my spine was the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. I had been a public school teacher and that is what I knew and was familiar with. At that time, we also thought that our son would re-enter public school in a year or two and I wanted that transition to be as easy as possible for him.
Except that spine didn't serve us well.
Over the course of the next several months, we made our way to a Waldorf-inspired curriculum. You can read more about that here.
Since that major transition from TEKS- to Waldorf-inspired homeschooling, we've followed Waldorf-Steiner ways as best we can. I've accepted that doing this at home will look different than in a school, that my lack of formal training as a Waldorf teacher "shows," and I have also accepted that that is not only okay - it's maybe even desirable. One thing Steiner said that I am mindful of at all times is that we are to "teach the children before you." Not the ones in my head, not the ones down the street, not the ones on other people's Insta stories - mine. Cheech and Scooter and their unique temperament, interests, and aptitudes.
With that said, we have followed Steiner's spine for the main subjects fairly closely. For example, history/literature, Grade 1 is Fairy Tales, Grade 2 is Saints & Heroes, Grade 3 is Hebrew Bible and Native American Lifeways, Grade 4 is Norse Mythology, Grade 5 is Ancient Civilizations, Grade 6 is Ancient History of Greece & Rome, Grade 7 is Middle Ages, Renaissance, Age of Exploration and we have followed to the best of my ability. It is amazing to me how each year's stories, concepts, and skills fit so perfectly with where my children are in their personal growth. It is really awe-inspiring! This is the heart of Waldorf education: the belief that children should be brought the right things at the right time, not merely on an intellectual level, but on a developmental level.
What does this mean? Let's look at one Grade - Grade 3. Steiner posits that the child in Grade 3/Age 9 is leaving behind the realm of childhood - but is not quite adult. They are asking big questions along with that inner shift. How am I to make my way in this world? What are the rules, written and unwritten? How will I take care of myself? How will I survive and forge my own path? That is why the story content for Grade 3 are the Hebrew Bible stories. These are not brought as historical fact (unless the parents choose to do so), but as archetypes just as the fairy tales, saints and heroes were introduced in prior grades and as the Greek heroes will be part of Grade 6. Origin stories, myths about the origins of good and evil, family rivalries, dark periods of enslavement followed by eventual freedom, wandering in the desert - these stories can meet the emerging nine year old in a unique way.
Every grade is rich with these developmental connections. It is a complex - and fascinating! - subject and so many outstanding resources to learn more about Steiner's ideas. Two of my favorite print resources are Understanding Waldorf Education by Jack Petrash and The Tasks and Content of the Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum edited by Kevin Avison and Martyn Rawson. For a very brief quick reference, this is a handy resource. Petrash's book is a great first read about what Waldorf is, what it looks like - a great overview book. Tasks and Content is my go-to for a "scope and sequence" type reference book. A chart like the one I've linked is a great way to get a bird's eye view of what Waldorf quickly.
We are fortunate to have found the philosophy that works for us early on and that we've been able to stick with it. I know that isn't everyone's experience - including people who try Waldorf homeschooling! Everyone has to find what works best for their family.
So...what do you do if you want to change up your homeschooling spine?
Bottom Line: Only you can decide.
Sometimes, a big change is absolutely needed. Something isn't working and it has to go! Remember that we went from following the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills to Waldorf in Grade 1. But making a major change every year can create some interesting challenges down the road.
The first challenge is that you can end up feeling really defeated. Nothing you've tried has "worked," so maybe the problem is you, right? Maybe you are doing it wrong. Maybe you aren't enough. The truth is that this job is hard, no matter what spine you choose. Parenting is hard, homeshooling is hard. It just is. There is no magic curriculum out there that is going to make every day fun, effortless, and full of rainbow sparkles. Maybe you do need a philosophy change, but if you're changing curriculum every year because your kid struggles or grumps, the issue may not be the curriculum - it may just be how your kid is wired. (I have one like this!) Homeschooling may not look hard on other people's social media, but it is hard! We struggle almost every day.
Just because we don't see other people's struggle doesn't mean they aren't having them - struggle doesn't photograph well.
The second challenge is the changing your spine every year can mean your kids end up with significant gaps. Every spine/curriculum/methodology does things slightly differently. If you were schooled traditionally and ever had to move mid-year, you know what I'm talking about! Our family moved to Texas in tenth grade where my year of World History began with Western Civilization. We moved back to Washington mid-year and my year of World History continued with...Western Civilization. I never learned the history of Eastern Civilization in school! I just missed the entire thing! You can usually avoid big gaps if you are working with Grade 2 or under, and/or if you do some careful comparison to see what your kiddo "missed" in the grade levels below where you will be starting.
Changing spines can be done, but it must be done carefully!
I am thankful that early on we were able to find a homeschooling philosophy and methodology that works for us. We've been Waldorf-inspired for almost seven years and it has been awesome for us! We have changed curriculum providers, and I've written my own, BUT the spine remains the same. We are able to have a firm structure that keeps us moving forward (mostly) fluidly and for that I'm truly grateful.
Curious which spine might be a good fit for you? Want to know if the spine you've been following is still a good fit for you? I've found this little quiz super helpful over the years. I even retake it from time to time as a tool for personal reflection. (See this year's results above.)
Do you use a spine for your homeschool? Does it cover every subject or is it subject-by-subject? Have you taken the homeschooling styles quiz? What was your result? I'd love to hear from you!