Friday, April 17, 2015

Why So Much Time Outside?

This week, we would like to share a few links to articles that explore some of the reasons that we feel time in nature is so essential to children's healthy development.  We make sure all of our classes get plenty of outdoor time- including time in the woods- because we know that even though society has changed, children have not.  Time to play freely in nature builds capacities that other activities just cannot recreate.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Geography: Earth's Stories

By Marta Rackmales: Fifth Grade Teacher

Yesterday, the fifth grade was discussing why a tale like Paul Bunyan came to be. A man taller than a house? A blue ox nearly as tall? There were several musings. "Well, maybe there was a big baby and over time, as the tale was told, people described him as bigger and bigger." Or, "Everything in North America was so big, people had to find a way to explain the hugeness of it all, like the Grand Canyon. They didn't really know back then just how the Grand Canyon had formed, or the Rocky Mountains, but they needed some explanation.” Or, "The story told about lumberjacks. And, it was entertaining!"

Geography is my favorite subject to teach. Delving into geography creates a continuous cycle of questions and answers and questions and answers. Why is the land bumpy? Why is the sea salty? Why are there sea-life fossils in the middle of the continent of North America? I have a particular interest in geography, I think, because my own family comes from nearly four different corners of the earth. I grew up on Cape Cod. My husband, although his home base was Virginia, began his life in what was once Yugoslavia; at two he was fluent in Serbo-Croatian. My son comes from northern Kazakhstan, and my daughter comes from Ethiopia. In my classroom, the students have stories of varied journeys, of different sources of geography in their ancestry.

The word 'geography' means 'the writing of the earth'. Some of these questions can actually be answered by looking at the earth, and finding letters, even sentences that tell a story that started millions of years ago. Other questions can be answered by considering the human being. Why do many Norwegians have blond hair and blue eyes? Why do Africans have brown skin and brown eyes? Why do cultures have common eye shapes? What the child begins to notice is that people look the way they do because of the sunlight and the elements. The sun and the wind literally shaped the people the same way the sun and the wind continue to shape the earth.

In the Waldorf Curriculum, formal geography begins in fourth grade, where the children begin to map out where they are. They draw maps of their homes, their schools, their towns, their states. They learn about the animals, plants and native people. In fifth grade, the children begin to broaden their horizons and the study reaches the entire continent of North America. In our classroom, we followed the flight of a migrating hummingbird from the Bay of Fundy to the Yucatan. We followed an American Bison across the Great Plains. These 'journeys' encompassed the geology and flora and fauna of the North American Biomes. We imagined the land how it was thousands of years ago. We imagined the journey of people to this continent, and how people began to use the land in order to make North America their home. We see how the people shaped, and still shape, the land.

To begin our month-long study of Geography, we drew a map of the continent. By drawing, we are imagining the landscape, but we are also copying an already developed map. We think about the cartographers, the explorers who used their eyes, the sun and the stars to draw maps of newly seen lands, and it is stunning to think how human beings began to organize their thoughts about the land and their journeys upon it. From North America we move outward to study each continent: in sixth grade we move south to Central and South America, in seventh grade we expand to Eurasia, and in eighth grade, we settle into Africa, where the human being and the land have the ultimate connection.

One reason I find geography so central in any curriculum is that children are on a journey. They are moving from one point to another. These points can be given many different names-- from childhood to adulthood, from grade school to high school, from infancy to old age. But, sometimes I wonder about GPS and how it changes our self-reliance and our ability to get from point A to point B. Do we still have to persevere in our thinking to, say, reverse directions upon returning home from a new destination? With such technologies available, there is all the more reason to teach geography in a manner of questions and answers, or cause and effect, or tall tale and seeds of truth. 

Children should be able to imagine how a drop of water gets from a Montana mountain peak to the Gulf of Mexico. They should wonder why people who ate caribou had different shelters than those who ate turtles and nuts. They should be able to follow how a decision of theirs or another's moved from idea to fruition. And when they see people who have different colored skin, or eyes, or hair, they should wonder why such details were ever seen as anything but differences in how the sun and wind touches the surface of the skin. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Parenting: Balancing Ideals with Realities

 By Heidi Drexel:  Parent-Child Teacher and Early Childhood Outreach Coordinator

We all have in our minds an idea about what it means to be a good parent.  We think of other parents we know, of our own parents and of moments we have witnessed between parents and their children, and all of these things influence the ideals we set for ourselves.  Ideals are important inspirations that can lift us out of the day to day challenges of life, reminding us of our goals and of the journey we are on.  But ideals should be inspirations and not bases for comparison.  Especially when it comes to parenting.

Anyone who has ever done it knows that there is nothing perfect about being a parent.  Parenting is a messy and confusing business that brings out our very best and our very worst.  And yet, a great deal of energy in our society is put into creating ideals of perfection in the form of parenting.  And many of us impose upon ourselves our own unique forms of perfectionism.  But, excessive idealism take us out of the moment we are in.  If we are always reaching for what could, or ought to be, we are less present with what actually is.  Our children live here in this moment and more than anything else, they want us to be here with them.

On a recent morning my boys and I were shoveling the previous night's snow from the driveway.  I was already tired because we had been to the doctor's office that morning and such an outing is an exhausting undertaking with two young children.  But the driveway needed to be shoveled, so there we were.  My boys were also tired and uninterested in the task at hand.  My youngest was grumpy and I became grumpy at my inability to get him engaged.  To express his frustration with the situation, he knocked over a shovel in the garage.  It hit the back window of the car and shattered it. Luckily all of the pieces were inside of the protective layer.

But as I watched that, all of my frustration came bubbling up and I yelled, "Look at what you did! You broke the window!" I was angry and he could feel it.  He hadn't meant to break the window.  As I was speaking, I was watching myself, knowing I didn't want to be putting it all on him, but I couldn't help it.  I didn't know what else to do.  I walked away for a minute to calm myself.  I tried not to say much because I knew whatever I would say in anger would just make things worse.  As long as I was so angry, I wasn't capable of dealing properly with the situation.  I could see that my son felt guilty and afraid and it hurt that I wasn't yet able to be a reassurance to him.  I knew that my emotions were too big for both of us to handle just then.  And one thing I have learned so far in this parenting journey is that sometimes it is better to just wait.  To wait for the intensity to subside, to wait to speak until I am sure I am saying what I want to.

Once my anger had subsided I felt regret, of course, and I did the only thing left to do, which was to repair the situation.  I reached out to my son and held him.  I told him I knew it was an accident, that he hadn't meant to break the window.  We snuggled.  Slowly I could feel the tension leaving his body and he found his way back to his usual cheerful mood.  It took me longer.

I would love it if I could find a way to never have such moments again.  It would be such a relief to know that I would always be the parent I want to be.  But that is not what happens in life.  Sometimes in life there is a doctor appointment and a driveway that needs shoveling all in the same morning.  Sometimes there is a broken window.  Sometimes there is anger, sadness, frustration and annoyance.  But I try to remind myself that behind all of this, there is always love.  And that is what my children need and want the most from me.

I will make mistakes.  Of this I have no doubt.  But I will continue to get better at waiting.  I will remember to repair.  We come at each moment with all kinds of experiences and feelings that affect how well we are able to respond.  Good teachers know that people learn best with love, support and encouragement.  We need to offer the same support to ourselves as we make our way along the path of parenting.  We have to be accepting, forgiving and understanding.  Then our ideals can inspire and influence us, rather than weighing us down.

Waldorf Schools are places of beautiful and lofty ideals.  Rudolf Steiner encouraged teachers to contemplate and research for themselves the things he shared.  He wanted them to develop their own relationship to these ideals, so that they would really mean something to the individual.  Similarly, as parents, we need to contemplate and develop our own ideals.  It is important that we parents support, accept and encourage one another in this process, letting our differences inform and strengthen our relationships.  There is no benevolent teacher who can tell us what to do.  We have to find the answers for ourselves over and over again each day and in each moment with our children.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Games We Used to Play

By David Beringer: Educational Support Teacher

At a recent parent evening, I was asked about homework in the younger grades and what parents could be doing at home to help their children. I responded that they should not “drill” their kids with math facts, but should play lots of games together as I assumed they were already doing. I was met with some uncomprehending looks, and mentioned a few ideas: I Packed My Grandmother’s Trunk, Dictionary, Twenty Questions, Yahtzee. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized many kids these days are really not growing up with the same sort of intellectual stimulation that was so much a part of my childhood. We played card games, board games such as Monopoly, Checkers and Chess, Sorry, and Stratego, and did jigsaw puzzles every week right through my days in high school. At first I suspected that this change was the result of our society's dependence on electronic devices, which have taken the place of these things. But upon further thought I recognized that this is a natural result of our busier and more frenetic schedules that don’t allow for the sort of time that family games once had.

While we don’t usually assign “homework” before 5th grade, there is a lot that parents can and should do at home, and most of it should feel like play. At the most academic end of this would be matching sets that go together- suites of cards, pictures and numbers that have the same value, or finding letters and words on the page as you are reading with a child. Reading with your child should happen every day throughout the elementary school years. More fun, perhaps, and just as valuable are the sort of games families used to play at the dinner table or in the car. I will give a few examples, but there are thousands of variations on these games and probably a few in your parents’ or grandparents’ memory.

Hidden object games: from things in the hands (Up Jenkins, Button Button Who’s Got the Button) to things in the house (Hot or Cold, Left, Right, Over, Under- where clues are given verbally involving directional language) young children delight in the surprise of finding something hidden, and following your directions and waiting with a secret build lots of self-regulation skills, as do most games.

Guessing Games: “I am thinking of a number between 1 and 20. You make a guess and I’ll tell you whether mine is more or less than your guess.” This works with letters once the children know the alphabet (visual number lines and alphabets can help! Higher numbers with greater spans are tricky even for third graders!) Variations on Twenty Questions- limiting to an animal or subgroup of animals such as those on a farm for the younger set- where the child has to ask yes or no questions and remember the answers. A favorite in our house was “I Spy”, and although it seems gruesome, Hangman is a lot of fun! With an older student you could ask, “What do you think are the ingredients in spaghetti?” (or Oreo Cookie, etc. The more processed the harder!) and then see who comes the closest.

Dice games: Yahtzee, Shut the Box, and even board games with more than one dice are great ways to practice with numbers. There is a very useful website created by Stanford University, called YouCubed, where you can also find solid research on the value of using numbers rather than memorizing them. Under the “Tasks” tab on that site, you will also find some great math games and number puzzles, organized by grade level.

Alphabet games are great for the car, where you can find letters on license plates and signs. “I packed my grandmother’s trunk” adds memory- you take turns saying what you would pack: an awful apple, a big bug, a cranky cat, etc. For older children (6) they have to say what has already gone in (or the last three things to start). Other word games can also be fun, such as “Hinkety Pinkety” where a clue is given for a one (Hink Pink), two (Hinky Pinky) or three syllable pair of words. For example a Hinky Pinky for an elegant hat could be a proper topper. Start with one syllable, as they get much harder with more! Bananagrams and Boggle have become popular, and are great word-forming games. We used to play it with a randomly selected word from the dictionary, with paper and pencil to see how many words each player could make out of that word. Share your crosswords and Sudoku with your children as well.

The last category of games that we played as kids involved questions about general knowledge, especially geography. My mother would ask us at the dinner table “What states would you have to go through to drive from Rhode Island to Chicago?” We would pore over maps after dinner to try to stump each other with such questions. I’d be careful with this type of game in the world of “everything at your fingertips” and the shallowness of understanding that can come from collecting factoids. Keeping it age-appropriate and connected to other aspects of your life. For example, “Where do you think the potatoes we’re having for dinner were grown?”

Of course to do all this, you will have to create the time for it. Fortunately, it is there in the midst of other activities such as eating, waiting, driving, and waiting, as long as the waiting time is not already filled with something more passively entertaining. These games require your attention and engagement, but also that of your children, and this is what we want for them: to find entertainment in activity rather than passivity. If you succeed they may never be bored again!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Loving a Great Question: The Waldorf Approach to High School Science

By Jeff O'Brien: High School Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry Teacher

Driving in the car recently, the topic of conversation somehow steered to the question of why eggs are shaped like eggs. We all argued for a few minutes, each of us yelling over the other, about whether the shape has an evolutionary purpose. It only took a few minutes for someone to bring up Wikipedia on their phone and quickly dispel the mystery. The answer was read aloud to a hushed backseat.

While we all learned something new, as soon as the answer was read, the discussion quickly quieted down. We all gave nods of agreement and the conversation moved on. However, the fun, the period of wonder and funny guesses, the great discourse was lost as soon as the 4G network kicked in.

-David Macaulay

Every child comes into the world naturally inquisitive. "Why is the sky blue?" "Why is the grass green?" Why do ice cubes float?"

The high school sciences in a Waldorf School aim to foster this natural inquisitiveness, to help it grow and send students off into the world with this love of questions.

We love questions in our classrooms. A good question -a really, really good question- is gold. We strive to create an atmosphere in which our classes are question-rich.

Good questions often have answers. But what is wonderful about a really good question is not the answer, but the joyful process of solving it.

How fast do objects fall to earth?  I could just give my students the answer to a question like this and they could plug it in to the correct spot in an equation. Or my students could set up an apparatus that allows us to explore the answer. 

They could set up a ramp with a very minor incline to slow down the object's fall to earth. The students could closely observe and study an object slowly falling to earth as it rolls down the inclined plane. They could observe that the object accelerates as it falls to earth. Students could time the object rolling down the ramp, maybe even use their pulse as a stopwatch as Galileo did. Eventually, they could use a stopwatch and trigonometry and find the acceleration of an object's fall to earth.

While the answer is important, the process of figuring out how to find an answer is the critical skill that can be applied to any question. Waldorf high school sciences do this process over and over again in Chemistry, Physics, Life Sciences and Earth Sciences.

In a world where answers are just a few keystrokes away, students should become unhappy with just finding answers to their questions. They should want more than the answer. Students should demand the joyful process of discovering answers for themselves. They should develop the capacity to tackle unanswered questions, and to form and seek to answer their own questions that we can't yet imagine.

"We can classify education into two main categories: passive education relying primarily on memory, and active education relying on intelligent understanding and discovery.  Our real problem is what is the goal of education? Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery from the preschool age on through life?”

- Jean Piaget

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Middle School Science and Phenomenology

By Jennifer Chace: Seventh Grade Teacher

“The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.” Plutarch, in his Moralia

Middle School Science Teacher. Does that job sound interesting or enjoyable to you? Probably not. You don’t imagine yourself as the type to torture. You have clear memories of middle school science class, don’t you? I do. Our teacher stood in the front of the cold gray room, his white lab coat perfectly buttoned and clean, and he lectured and lectured and lectured on something to do with balancing equations and perhaps converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. While he was lecturing, I was busy - alternately praying for an early dismissal due to snow and glancing at the clock to see how many more minutes separated me from the hallway and my friends. That is the entirety of what I remember from middle school science. I did go on to study biology in college and, miraculously, did just fine without having paid the least attention during middle school science class. So, is middle school science designed less as a means to disseminate information and more as a test of students’ patience and ability to appear alert while simultaneously being bored to no end?

Not at a Waldorf school it isn’t. I had the privilege of teaching both Chemistry and Physiology to the seventh grade this year. One of the reasons it was so deeply satisfying was that I could create a four-week block for each subject in which the lecture-style course would be replaced by direct experience, personal connection and reflection, and independent thinking. I could create the class I wish I’d been able to take as a seventh grader and then take it myself by teaching it!

What helps you to be interested in something? Is it knowing that you “should” be knowledgeable about it? No, that has more to do with duty than interest. Is it knowing you will be tested in a few weeks on the subject matter? No, that has more to do with obligation or perhaps ambition. Or is your interest kindled because you have a connection, some prior experience or current personal feeling that relates to the subject, which literally sparks something in you when you realize that connection? I believe it is that personal connection, combined with the ability to wonder, that drives interest, and it is on that premise that we base our teaching of science in a Waldorf middle school.

The main blocks of middle school science are Physics (3), Chemistry (2), Anatomy and Physiology (2), Geology (1), and Astronomy (1). Meteorology, Botany (taught in fifth grade), and more Astronomy are often woven into other blocks as well. The preparation for the work of middle school science begins in the Early Childhood Center. The children who experience wonder, delight, and sensory stimulation in their physical interactions with the natural world are creating connections that will later serve their work in science. In the early grades, the children who are led to notice that the oak stands stiff and tall while the birch bends and sways in the wind and wonder how it is that the hare survives the harsh winters that drive us inside, are cultivating skills of observation and imagination, both essential in scientific study, whether or not their deductions are correct. In the middle grades, the child who learns to draw precisely a tulip and to ask questions that lead to more questions as opposed to learning to expect pre-digested answers, is learning the skills of separating one’s feelings of like and dislike from observation of phenomena and the joy of independent scientific inquiry. When a child does not have these foundational experiences she is much more likely to be satisfied by simple facts and quick answers, neither of which have a place in science. “I know that” could become a familiar refrain. What we know supports ongoing scientific study is “I wonder what would happen if,” not “I know.”

We built a fire on the small driveway behind the middle school building on the first day of the chemistry block last September. We had just returned from having spent two weeks camping without tents, harvesting in our school garden, and volunteering on a farm. Being outside most of the day had become quite natural and so what better way to transition to the classroom than to spend part of the main lesson outside. Students gathered the wood, built the fire (having learned through observation how to do it), and lit it with a match. Their task was now to sit, watch, and draw. The drawing was meant to evolve through the process of igniting, burning, and smoldering. The class, a group of 21 12- and 13-year-olds, sat in near silence for an hour or so, looking intently and drawing what they saw. Precision and fluidity were both absolutely necessary. “Ah, yes I’ve finally got down the way that log is burning, but now it is breaking down into ash…How will I represent that?” There was no time for “I know.” There was only time for what was.

The lab table sat in front of the room for the next three weeks. On many days the students silently watched me, yes in a clean white lab coat perfectly buttoned, perform a demonstration. They saw bright solids turn to gray ash, solids precipitate out of liquids, red liquid turn blue, bunny fur transform into acrid smelling goo, and invisible forces suddenly extinguish ardent flames. Each of these experiences cultivated interest in the students who were able to wonder and be stimulated by seeing something new happen to something familiar. On other days groups of four experimented on their own, carefully noting observations. Following demonstrations or experiments the class recapitulated what they had observed, without drawing any conclusions. Right, without drawing any conclusions. Then, the next day, after further clarification of our observations, we discussed what insights might be drawn and the students created lab reports which included detailed illustrations. I was able to share concepts built on the students’ direct experience and personal insights. The concepts were readily assimilated because each student had connected to the phenomena through her senses and feelings, actively wondered, questioned, and deduced silently and aloud in discussions, and finally, decided how to represent the observed process correctly and artistically in order to best illustrate the conclusions we had drawn.

How would you illustrate on paper carbon dioxide halting the process of oxidation so that one unfamiliar with the topic would understand it? And if you can’t share it with a “lay person,” do you really understand it? Probably not. Our students learn that just “knowing” is not really the point. What good is knowledge that is stored up, unused and unshared? Doing something with that knowledge, through actively sharing (publishing) and using the knowledge as a springboard for further inquiry – that is the work of the true scientist and that is what our middle schoolers do too.

We just yesterday finished our Physiology block, in which we studied the major systems of the human body, other than the nervous system, which we will study next year. How many times did an understanding of and connection to acids and bases, a key topic in the Chemistry block, support the students understanding? More than a few. And the students didn’t need reminding; those concepts had become a part of their experience to draw on as needed. Now they were able to chuckle as they asked stimulating questions such as, “When the alkaline bile and pancreatic secretions neutralize the acidic chyme, is a salt created in your duodenum?” while wondering if that meant salt would show up in one’s feces.

Will you now reconsider your feelings about middle school science?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Community Modeling: a Forest Friday Visit from Our Seventh Grade.

Written by Clare Stansberry: Kindergarten Assistant

In some ways, it was like an old western. Over the horizon came the seventh grade, and like a herd pulled by invisible strings, the kindergarteners stopped what they were doing and gathered round. The seventh grade, under the guidance of Ms. Chace, were joining us for a romp in the woods. 

Each kindergartener was paired with a seventh grader (and in a few instances graders), and we trekked up through the woods to our Forest Friday Kindergarten camp. Upon arrival, the crowd dissolved into groups running and jumping and tumbling through the snow. Out of our twig house crawled small person, small person, small person ... big person, big person! A particularly enterprising kindergartener enlisted the help of several older friends to aid him in building a whole new fort. The din was such that one kindergartener came to us (her seventh grade partner in tow) and solemnly informed us that all this noise was scaring off the fairies. We nodded, equally solemn, and bid the noisy runners to run to the other end of the glade, closer to the tree where the Sleeping Giant rests. 

Soon, they joined in an impromptu game of duck, duck, goose, which the seventh grade seemed to delight in as much as the kindergarteners. All around these scenes children danced- the twelve and thirteen year olds no less joyful to be out in the snow than the five and six year olds.  This opportunity was a way for all of us to meet each other in advance of next year, when the eighth graders partner with the first graders to help in the transition from the realm of early childhood to the elementary years. 

Building these cross age connections gives opportunities for growth for both groups. The seventh graders feel responsible for the kindergarteners, and a duty to play and socialize with a younger group. They work hard to remember the games that they played as young children. The younger children, meanwhile, remind the older ones how to wonder. Their serious concern about the fairies is taken to heart by those who are older. The seventh grade is not nearly as jaded as they would like to pretend, and the kindergarteners bring this younger innocence out. 

In our early childhood classrooms, we teachers constantly practice modeling the behavior we would like our students to learn.  Demonstrating the motions and reverence of our work, we know the children unconciously imitate it. They model after each other as well, with much attention put on the older children in the class. Our kindergarten classrooms are mixed-age with students between ages 4.5 and 6 in the same classroom.  This configuration allows children who are the youngest in their families to try out being the eldest, and vice versa. This community of children, unconfined to one age builds a more familial relationship, where they are looking out for each other. When we bring together an even larger age gap of kindergarten to seventh grade, we are able to model what we hope to achieve as a community. We seek interconnectedness, to know each other and have shared experiences that stretch on over the years. 

Before leaving the forest that morning, we sat down and heard a story about a little moss woman and a woodcutter who helps her by carving an X in to the stumps he leaves behind. In the circle of children huddled together, large and small, there was not a sound. As we prepared to leave, a kindergartener whispered something to a seventh grader, who came over to us to ask us if he could use the saw. There was a stump that needed carving.