Author Archives: Laura Gabelsberg

About Laura Gabelsberg

An elementary grades teacher since 1996 and a Waldorf teacher since 2007, serving in public and private schools in Texas and Arizona. I've been blessed to be part of the founding of two non-profit, independent private schools in the Houston area. I have enjoyed 21 years of marriage with my devoted and loving husband Alan, and I am the mother of three beautiful children.

A, B, C, D, F: How some schools are ditching letter grades

t Human beings are not widgets.  But somehow, when we go about the task of designing educational programs and schools we tend to forget this detail.  It is not as though schools can crank out human beings on an assembly line with their minds full of facts and call the job of educating the youth “done.”

This article from Mindshift peaked my interest today as it details the work of some alternative programs that are forgoing using letter grades.  Mindshift has a nice series called Stories Teachers Share, that has had some really interesting articles and podcasts.

In it, they describe the program:

The school board approved the IGSS program on the condition that students could choose to have the narrative assessments teachers give to students translated into more traditional letter grades at the end of each semester. Students apply to the program during sophomore year for participation junior and senior year. English, history, science and art are taught through interdisciplinary projects three hours a day. While teachers plan broad thematic units, student choice is a hallmark of the program and teachers offer a lot of personalized attention. IGSS is meant to be small, so there are only 40 students at each grade level. A team of three teachers works collaboratively to weave an interdisciplinary experience for each class.

The key word here was the term “narrative assessment.” Waldorf schools use narrative  end of year reports rather than letter grades to document student progress.  It’s heartening to see other schools taking this practice up.

The practice of writing the narratives has been transformative for me as a teacher.  It allows me to question bigger and more important topics for the student’s overall development and to seek the whole picture of the developing human being, not just evaluate disparate, disjointed groups of skills or test performance.  Telling the story of the child’s growth is a complicated task, but the humane approach is indeed a narrative timeline.

Read the full article at Mindshift below.

Lots of factors affect whether and what students learn in school, but most often that conversation gets boiled down into a single letter grade, a symbol of everything a student knows or doesn’t know. Because grades are often required, and easy to understand, they have become the focus for many parents, teachers and students. The…

via When Schools Forgo Grades: An Experiment In Internal Motivation — MindShift


“Do what you can with what you have, where you are.”

A few summers ago back in 2015, I took time out of my August teacher frenzy to make a trip to Nashville, TN.  I wasn’t sure I could step away from my classroom preparations at such a busy time of year, but I felt compelled to take part in a first gathering of a special study group I have been a member of for some years.   This study group was a spiritually based study group conducted by mail that was meeting physically in person for the first time.

People of different walks of life  from different parts of the US and Canada came together who had never met one another before.  It was a unique experience and  I find I really enjoy these rare opportunities to bring a cross-section of people together, to break open entrenched ways of thinking and remind us that people are people, and we are different but, we are also all one. I live for open and vibrant conversations.

Our group organizers and our Nashville hosts did an amazing job of lining up housing, arranging meals, activities, guest speakers and engaging content.  While I was on campus at this college where our gathering was held, and enjoying this experience immensely, I walked a labyrinth.  On one of the markers in the labyrinth, I’ll never forget a quote that I saw inscribed there, that truly stuck with me. It simply read, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”    It seemed a humble but effective dictate, and so I have remembered it since then.

This weekend’s racial events in Charlottesville, VA brought this quote to mind for me as helpful way to frame how we might approach these tragic events.   We can’t really just let these events just go by without being outraged and doing something, but what, exactly can we do?   I want to share this quote and also the name of an organization I hope you might take time to look up online.

I joined an email list for a Charlottesville-based organization called New Dream.  Their mission is:

to empower individuals, communities, and organizations to transform their consumption habits to improve well-being for people and the planet.

New Dream’s overall goal is to change behavior, attitudes, and social norms to reduce consumption and build community.

It seems to me that racism and especially slavery and consumerism/consumption mindset go hand in hand.  I am not sure where this type of bigotry and hatred comes from, but it defies logic and reasonableness.  I tend to think that consumerism reduces all of mankind and the planet itself to slavery.  Though I am by no means able to turn my back completely on Christmas traditions of gift-giving, nor am I only eating food I grow myself, (though I would love to have the ability, means and time to do,)  we can take aim at both racism and consumerism and the dismantling of one would help feed each other in a continuous loop.

Here was the simple but effective message I received from them today, which gently but actively asks for us to do what you can with what you have, where you are.

Dear New Dreamer,

As many of you know, New Dream is headquartered in Charlottesville, VA, which was, this past weekend, the site of a violent white supremacist “rally” that ended in a fatal act of terrorism. We condemn the actions that took place in our community in the strongest possible terms. Our hearts are with the valiant people who stood up to hate this weekend, and the people who were harmed, their families, and communities. One courageous activist, Heather Heyer, lost her life standing up for equity.

The last message that Heather posted on her Facebook page was this: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” New Dream has always taken a positive approach to solving the problems associated with runaway consumption. But we recognize that there is an important place for indignation and grief in fueling a brave and non-violent movement to make our lives, our communities, and our country more livable, more equitable, more just.

White supremacy is nothing new in the U.S., but today we urge our New Dream friends and followers—people who believe in making change at individual, household, and community levels—to actively stand up against white supremacy and white privilege in your lives. As we do in our work on consumption, we first ask you to start with yourself: how can you make change in your own life to dismantle systems of oppression, which means recognizing the ways in which you have participated and benefited? And then work outward: How can you make change in your own community to address systemic and structural racism?

Many of you are already doing important work in your own lives and communities to counter hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. But we’re all in this together, and without everyone taking these necessary steps, we will not see the change that we seek for ourselves, our children, our communities, and our country.
The Staff at New Dream
Casey, Edna, Elena, Guinevere, Lisa & Shara

If you would like to show your financial support for Charlottesville, we urge you to donate to Virginia Organizing (VO). In addition to serving many grassroots and nationwide organizations with Joint Plan of Work fiscal sponsorship—and New Dream is one such organization—VO engages in critical on-the-ground organizing and has been demanding justice for under-resourced communities in Charlottesville and around Virginia since 1995. They operate with integrity and work for equity and we are so proud to be one of their partners.
Image credit: Jen Creasy Koym

Visit this organization at Center for a New Dream

Can You Pass Today’s 10th Grade Standardized Tests?

Marion Brady and Valerie Strauss  posted an interesting article on Waldorf Today recently.  I saved it and wanted to come back to it because I thought it was  a great story.

In the article, they explain how a board member of a Florida public school district subjected himself to the same tests that the 10th graders in his district were required to pass. He was a successful businessman with several degrees and I am sure you can guess the result….he did not do well on the tests.

You may read the article here:

Waldorf Today Article

In a similar vein, KHOU-Tv featured a story with 3rd Grade STARR tests. Are you smarter than a 3rd Grader?

In the early 2000’s I took a temporary position with Pearson testing, grading standardized tests from Washington State and from Florida. The tests were fifth grade Science essay answers based on given criteria and rated them on a 0-4 scale.  This experience was truly fascinating and revealed a lot to me about how testing companies operate and how these tests are graded.  The testing industry is a business that is feeding off of public education like a giant, hungry leech and its time to address it.

The NEA says that approximately 30% of the school day in  state schools is spent on testing and test-prep.  This is sucking the life and joy out of our schools and is stressing children and teachers out.

KPFT featured a story on parents who opted out of standardized tests in Houston.

Parents Opt-Out of Standardized Tests in Houston

In the radio piece, Community Voices for Public Education is featured. Their website provides the following further reasons for opting out of standardized tests:

Reasons to Opt Out of STAAR    – From (

  1. Oppose endlesss benchmark tests (“snapshots”) that take huge chunks out of instructional time.
  2. Support classroom assessments written, chosen and administered by the classroom teacher. This can support meaningful instruction in ways standardized testing cannot.
  3. Support a rich curriculum – teachers are incentivized (or forced) to teach only what could be on the tests.  Art, music, PE, writing, science, and social studies get pushed to the side.
  4. Oppose a hostile test prep culture reduces students to data points, ignoring their real needs
  5. Oppose the use of scores to justify closing schools in low income neighborhoods, punishing students for the effects of poverty
  6. Oppose the use of STAAR to evaluate teachers. Scores are statistically invalid and unreliable measures of student, teacher, and school progress (according to The American Statistical Association).
  7. Opt Out works.  It gives parents and communities a powerful voice to demand an end to the test prep culture. In 2015, after New York State parents opted 20% of New York students out of their state tests, New York established a four-year moratoriumon using student test scores to retain students or to evaluate teachers.
  8. While low stakes diagnostic testing is a meaningful component of a world class education, high stakes testing does grave harm to our schools.

What’s wrong with high stakes testing?

1.) STAAR tests are poorly written and developmentally inappropriate. Try some sample STAAR third grade math questions.

2.) The American Statistical Association has shown the tests to be invalid and unreliable measures, yet they continue to be used to make high stakes decisions about students (retention/promotion), teachers (retention/compensation), and schools (closure).

3.) Teachers are pressured or forced to teach test prep almost every single instructional day, and children spend countless hours taking benchmarks, snapshots, and practice tests to prepare for STAAR.

4.) A rich curriculum which includes the arts encourages creativity, analytical thinking, and complex problem solving. By contrast, a narrow test prep curriculum relies on multiple choice tests which elicit shallow, black and white thinking.

5.) STAAR tests are inappropriate for many special education students and English language learners, who are required to take the same tests as other students.

6.) STAAR tests are disproportionately damaging to Black and Brown children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Schools that primarily serve these students are pressured to spend inordinate amounts of time on test prep for fear that test scores will be used as an excuse to close these neighborhood schools down.

7.) Texas spent almost half a billion dollars from 2010–2015 on STAAR testing alone. Local schools and districts have most likely spent an additional half billion on test prep material, benchmark tests, etc. Spending this much on testing takes away resources needed to ensure that our schools have an adequate number of nurses, counselors, librarians, social workers, and teachers.

8.) When your child takes a standardized test like STAAR or uses computer programs to prepare for it, there is a strong possibility that his or her personal data are sold to or accessed by companies without your knowledge or permission.

9.) For no solid pedagogical reason, the state occasionally and randomly raises STAAR passing standards for some academic years. This means that fewer children pass during those years and that one year’s pass or fail cannot be compared to another year’s pass or fail. (Read about last year’s higher passing thresholds.) Recent changes in state math standards brought 6th grade level standards down to the 4th grade over the course of a year.

10.) Last year’s STAAR tests were illegal, and this year’s are questionable. TEA ignored the new requirements in state law HB 743 for the 2015-2016 school year: they refused to shorten the tests for grades 3-5 and grade 7 as the law required. They also tried to avoid having the assessments independently validated to assure that they were age-appropriate. Eventually, they had a company evaluate the tests, and they were not found to measure what they said they did. And only after a class action lawsuit by Texas parents did they shorten the tests.

11.) The high stakes testing culture is stressful at some schools, toxic and dehumanizing at others. Neither is an ideal environment for learning.

Instead, standardized testing should be limited, should be low stakes and used only for diagnostic purposes. Assessments are best able to support student learning when written by those closest to the students--their teachers.




6 Waldorf-Inspired Principles Every Family Should Adopt — from A Parent Co.

This is a nice, albeit very general article about Waldorf schools, but the 6 parenting principles recommended are good, general tips that help ground kids.

via 6 Waldorf-Inspired Principles Every Family Should Adopt — Parent Co.

Healthy Adult Community = Healthy Schools

I’m excited to see Houston Sudbury School get some local publicity.  Back in 2001-02 I was involved in establishing a predecessor, a school called the Brazos Valley Sudbury School. Sudbury schools are perhaps even less known than Waldorf schools, and are modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  While I no longer agree with all of its tenets, Sudbury is an interesting, albeit a bit more extreme approach to education, giving a great deal of power to the children themselves by offering no curriculum whatsoever.

As a disillusioned public school teacher, what I loved about this Sudbury model was its democratic governance structure and empowered, self-directed students.  What I came to appreciate through visiting the Sudbury Valley School and studying its literature was how much children will self-correct when given the space and trust to do so and how confident and mature adults must be to allow that.  I also came to appreciate how important it was to surround children with worthy adult role models to emulate and a healthy, safe environment.

I still struggle a great deal with any form of educational coercion, whether it comes from adults towards children in the form of unrealistic educational demands or government towards citizenry in form of unjust laws.  But, what I have found is that children know exactly how to handle adult coercion in schools, they simply refuse to learn or disrupt and misbehave, and this is how it has always been, just as American citizenry has always known how to handle unjust govenment.   Thank you, John Holt for clarifying that for me!

What I have learned since 2001 and come to accept is that Waldorf Education has a different picture of the human being than these other models.  It has taken me many years of studying Steiner‘s writing to even come to hair’s width understanding of his body of work, but I do see that human beings need different things at different ages to develop optimally.  My growing discomfort with the Sudbury model came about through what I saw as a mismatch between the needs of children under 9 years of age and the goals and approach of Sudbury schools to meet the ultimate need for adult freedom from coercion, which is also a vital need, but far at the other end of development.  In between lie twenty-one long years of slow human development toward adulthood.  I see now that healthy parental boundaries is a loving force, not only a coercive force, and by extension,  a teacher’s loving boundary can also be a powerful force for good, not only something coercive.  The difference lies in the quality of the relationship between child and adult and the adult’s worthiness to be a model before the child.  In too many schools, children do not have a true, loving relationship or bond with any of their adult teachers. We strive for this to not be true in a Waldorf classroom. We strive for a loving bond that lasts a full 7-8 years, of course, being full of imperfect human beings, Waldorf schools can miss the mark too, to be totally honest.

What I have also come to accept as truth is that no matter whether a teacher or adult works in a Sudbury School, a Waldorf school, a Montessori school, a charter, a public, parochial, classical or progressive, a homeschool, or an unschool, that whatever the adults are like that surround a child,  the quality of adult communication that children see modeled around them will have a profound influence on the character of the child.  What is in the best interest of the child is that the adults around them trust one another and communicate in a healthy way through conflict.   That is what will shape their ability to handle relationships in their lives, and give them an understanding of how to live in harmony when harmony is needed, and how to approach conflict respectfully and productively when conflict is needed.  This environment with positive adult role modeling is so much more vitally important than the minutia of drivel that gets passed off as educational curriculum in almost every classroom I have ever seen in any type of an enviornment.

Another important factor is to allow the child to grow and live organically “into its own.” Waldorf Schools do it differently than Montessori, or Sudbury Schools, but all seek to achieve the same end, to honor the child’s true nature by doing no harm.  One person’s idea of how best to do that varies greatly from another, just as one educational model differs from another.  This must be negotiated through conversation, listening, and understanding among the community of adults creating the given educational environment, thus my on-going study of NVC, or Non-Violent Communication and my on-going interactions with Bren Hardt of Houston NVC, since my days of being involved with Brazos Valley Sudbury School.

Ideally, everyone involved in a school understands and agrees with the general approach being applied and the adults ideally work from shared principles.   I have not yet found a school or community that totally exemplifies my ideal of shared understanding of principles,  though I continue to strive to create such a school in my lifetime that at least comes close, perhaps quite foolishly or naively so.  I still feel it is worth continuing to strive for.   I adore my colleagues at Great Oak, and I work hard to continue to have the privelege of associating with such intelligent, hard-working, and kind people.  That trust among adults with a common vision and principles makes all the difference in the world to my willingness to be a part of a school community.

Perhaps the best that we can do as adults, is to continue to examine our ulterior motives and motivations for becoming educators in the first place, or in the case of parents,  to examine our true motivations for seeking alternative forms of education for our children, and work to keep our egos in check, remembering that our first task is to do no harm to the organic nature of the child.  Secondly, respect the child as an individual on his or her own path in this life, someone who has the right to become who he or she is organically meant to be.  We ouselves, as adults, can then focus on how to grow into the best version of ourselves that we can be, and to remember that the children are depending on us to give them models on how to live and do just that.

For more information about Great Oak School, visit the school’s website.

Come Visit an Open House at Great Oak







Anthroposophy and Secrecy

I am forwarding a post recently given by Jeremy Smith.  I too have long wondered about all of the secrecy put over by anthroposophists and consider it pretty unhealthy for the Waldorf Schools in particular.  I have long felt that Waldorf Schools need to be more explicit and upfront with people about the underlying philosophy. People will absorb what they are able to and and ready to receive at any given time in the way of spiritual understanding and knowledge.

Can it be damaging to expose humanity to the secrets of the universe too soon in their development? Perhaps, but I am more inclined to believe they will just be turned off and tuned out and uninterested if they are not ready to hear it.

I suppose, if you liken spiritual knowledge with, say, nuclear fusion, then yes, it could be damaging. But, there may be some flaws with an analogy like that.

At what point do we declare ourselves ready for receiving spiritual insight?  Wouldn’t it be the spiritual world itself who governs this discernment of readiness?  We simply don’t know enough to worry! So, I say, share your insights with those who want to listen, and relax the secrecy.  Nobody here (on this earth plane) has the corner market on truth.

Some of the comments on the recent thread “An Open Letter to Frank Thomas Smith,” about the online publication of the lessons of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science, have caused me to think quite hard about my own position on making the lessons and mantrams available to any who seek them. […]

via Anthroposophy, the First Class and the Dharma Protectors — anthropopper

A child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music education

Music Education Works

Creative illustration of the brain Image from Pixabay, reproduced under Creative Commons CC0.

A two-year study by researchers at the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at the University of Southern California shows that exposure to music and music instruction accelerates the brain development of young children in the areas responsible for language development, sound, reading skill and speech perception.

The study of 6-7-year-old children began in 2012, when neuroscientists started monitoring a group of 37 children from an underprivileged neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Thirteen of them received music instruction through the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Program where they practiced up to seven hours each week.

Eleven children were enrolled in a community-based soccer programme, and another 13 children were not involved in any training programme at all.

The researchers compared the three groups by tracking the electrical activity in the brains, conducting behavioural testing and monitored changes using brain scans.

The results showed that the auditory…

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