Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gleanings from the Waldorf Community

As the school year comes to an end, I would like to share a few articles from our colleagues around the country.  One of the things I appreciate most about being part of a Waldorf school community, is how far that community extends.  Waldorf schools all over the world are faced with many of the same questions and struggles and it is always inspiring to read how others are approaching these.  I hope you find these insightful articles as thought-provoking as I have.

Are Waldorf Schools Religious?    from Loving Learning, the blog of the Waldorf School of Philadelphia

Anti-Screen? No! Pro-Human Relationship? Yes!  written by Kim Payne and posted on the blog of the Eugene Waldorf School

Stumbling Together  from the blog of the Seattle Waldorf School

Happy Reading!
-Heidi Drexel

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fifth Grade Pentathlon Celebration Festival

By John Saccone: Movement Education

This May we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Maine Pentathlon Festival. It is a truly great event and milestone. The organizers would like to thank Paula Runge and Cynthia Taliaferro for planting the seeds, Jaimen McMillan and Thom Schaefer for bringing this impulse into Waldorf Schools and the Spacial Dynamic Institute for their continued support.

The event is an athletic, artistic and poetic combination that brings us closer to the higher ideals of the Greek Olympics. This year's fifth grade participants will be coming from the Bay School in Blue Hill, Ashwood Waldorf School in Rockport, Les Enfants de la Terre in Quebec, and Merriconeag. Once our guests arrive, our students will lead them to their sleeping spaces and help set up. We then have a walk-through rehearsal of the opening ceremony and enjoy dinner together.   

In the evening, we sing, perform an artistic offering from each school, and hear a story about the first Olympics and how the City States came together in peace. The City States: Athens, Sparta, Olympia, Thebes, Corinth and Delphi, are made up of a mix of students from every school. Once students have gathered into their states, they learn about our scoring method, which focuses on Form, Dynamic and Measure. Each of these receives a score of 1 to 3, with 3 being the highest. Good posture is essential as we strive to carry ourselves in a noble fashion. Dynamic is the force, rhythm and power behind a movement. Measure is how far one throws or jumps. All of the students have a pre-score from their trainers. On the night before the event, the athletes are asked that each City State work to exceed their training score. Then we sing and say good night.

On Friday, the athletes rise early with anticipation of the day’s events. We meet together inside of the Temple (Community Hall) that is closed to all except the athletes and judges. We warm-up with Spacial Dynamic exercises and Bothmer gymnastics. We sing our Pentathlon song, Give Us Peace, and follow the judges and flag bearers silently in single file to a drumbeat into the stadium. We greet the assembled crowd, and each school shares a nature offering and ode to the gods. We then split up into the City States, oaths are recited by the athletes and judges, a torch is lit and everyone runs around the field behind the torchbearer. Let the Games Begin!

Each City State moves through the disciplines of javelin, discus, long jump, wrestling, sprint and painting of peace flags. There is a final sprint of the fastest athletes from each City State and we end with a relay race, where all the athletes run around the field and pass the baton to the next runner. At the end, everyone is honored with a medal and laurel wreath and we rejoice together in a Greek Feast.

Over the years I have observed that the practice towards this event and the actual Pentathlon brings out the highest sportsmanship of everyone involved. Students in the upper grades always want to help on this day. When I say I’m looking for a 3, their posture becomes upright and the space around them grows. The entire event is always extraordinary and positive.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Elevating the Word: The Power of Poetry in the High School

By David Sloan: High School Drama and Humanities Teacher

"Poems build our capacity for imaginative thinking, create a tolerance for ambiguity, and foster an appreciation for the role of the unknown in human life."
           Tony Hoagland, Author of Twenty Little Poems that Could Save America

Three years ago, then Merriconeag senior Tyler O'Brien earned the title of Maine state champion in the nationwide Poetry Out Loud contest, a competition requiring students to recite by heart three poems by famous poets.  While in one way it was a remarkable individual accomplishment for Tyler, in another sense it was not so surprising that a Waldorf student performed so well in such an event.  After all, Waldorf students are nourished on poetry from their earliest exposure in the Nursery-Kindergarten through the grades, reciting daily verses, strong, rhythmical classics like Longfellow's Hiawatha in fourth grade, writing their own creative pieces in main lessons such as the seventh grade Wish, Wonder and Surprise block, and acting in plays every single year.

In high school this working with the Word intensifies and deepens.  Freshmen often begin their high school careers encountering the polarities expressed in tragic and comic verse form, usually in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and a Shakespeare play such as A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sophomores in need of an ancient primer on how to deal with various temptations read Homer's poetic epic The Odyssey.  Juniors, who often experience their own burgeoning inner shadows, delve into Dante's terza rima in his Inferno, but they also savor Chaucer's earthy rhyming couplets in his Middle English Canterbury Tales. Seniors striving to find their own individual voices explore the extremities of style and scope in the expansive work of Walt Whitman and the explosive economy of Emily Dickinson. 

Yet perhaps the course that most explicitly prepares students both to appreciate the craft of poetry, and to try their own hand at writing it, is aptly titled The Art of Poetry.  Students often come into such a course believing all manner of myths about poetry—that it must rhyme, that it must be "pretty" or "romantic," "Hallmark-card-cute" or impossibly obscure.  They don't think of the music lyrics they listen to on their iPods as being poetry; indeed, they generally don't think much of poetry at all. 

This tenth grade class has a threefold objective: 1) to guide students into an awareness of the root and flowering of the English language, from its Indo-European inception to the gradual cross-pollination of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate streams; 2) to introduce them to a way of appreciating poetry by understanding the poet's image-making and music-making tool kit: meter, metaphor, personification, alliteration, etc.   In this exploration, we are doing nothing less than schooling the students' powers of observation and "image"-ination, as well as attuning their ears, so that they may begin to hear the music of the Word and of the world.  3) To encourage them to write their own poetry, to begin to find ways of expressing their maturing feelings and deepening thinking. 

This last goal is no insignificant matter; adolescents are inherently seekers, striving to be recognized as an individual-in-the-process-of becoming.  They are searching for their own distinctive voices; in this quest, many feel pulled by ambivalent and paradoxical feelings.  On the one hand, they have the urge to protect their tender, fledgling egos; some become very adept at masking their true selves behind a variety of false fronts and evasive maneuvers.  On the other, they would like nothing more than to reveal themselves to the world, if only they could be assured that the world would be tender in its response. 

Hence, the great opportunity through poetry, both for young people to express their inner "soulscape," and for teachers and parents to listen attentively. The poet John Ciardi once wrote, "You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone." Why do teenagers suffer so much?  Partly because one of the incipient inner forces that develops at this age is the capacity for real love. At the same time, they become painfully aware of their own incompleteness, and feel the first stirrings of love as a way of entering consciously into a communion with another human being. 

There is simply no way to avert this suffering.  Indeed, it can be one of the most valuable afflictions they experience in their young lives, since suffering can both deepen and enlarge their capacity for empathy for others.  However, as inescapable as such pain is, young people can write about it; they can use it as a vehicle for bridging the gulf between their inner world and the outer.  Perhaps the highest expression of this desire that I encountered poetically this year follows below. It was composed by sophomore Sabrina Small, and it was selected as one of the finalist poems in this year's Merriconeag Poetry Festival by judge and nationally-known poet Jeffrey Harrison.

All I Knew Then

Back when hope had yet to lose me,
when you would only talk smoothly,
I saw your ghost on the backs of my eyelids, always.
You held me to save me, and kept me from those
who wished to take my heart and
sell it for twenty pounds on the street.
And we were love in a pill.

Back when we promised to never ever care again,
I broke my knee for some twinkly words
out of your mouth, and you took me to Mars in a ship
made of fallen leaves, and I never hated autumn again.
Underneath that white pine
you had hair that rang like distant bells,
and the burn I got from making pasta didn’t hurt.

Back when we were a year older than old itself,
I had nothing else but you
and she had garden lips and blooming eyes
and your lungs swelled with flowers, mine
with thorns, and my ribs cracked.
My body was a graveyard,
and your eyes couldn’t touch me,
 and for three months summer was cold.

But you rushed in on fire with the taste of chocolate,
and I was mango, and we were fools!
And you said I was more blackberry,
and you were more clementine. 
We were fancy red hats on the heads of old ladies,
and dust on a bookshelf at home.

Back when our shadows strolled
and clocks killed us in my dreams
You saw faces in the fog
and forced me to be free.
And we were as long as the music lasted,
until our gazes could not meet.
My heart beat against my eyelids
a form between us shifted,
cracked its back and knuckles,
and they found you on the bathroom floor.

Here in one richly wrought poem we can see what Tony Hoagland meant when he cited the "imaginative thinking" and "tolerance for ambiguity" that poetry cultivates in poets and audience alike.  Sabrina's surprising and evocative use of figurative speech: "you had hair that rang like distant bells" and "We were fancy red hats on the heads of old ladies" exemplify the creative leaps of a future "wordsmith." Furthermore, her facility for paradox ("You saw faces in the fog/and forced me to be free") and implicit, rather than overt, meaning ("a form between us shifted/cracked its back and knuckles") shows uncommon restraint, even amid the poet's soul-wrenching pain.

So much of the poetry that high school students compose bears the recognizable stamp of their suffering, as well of this desire to enter into relationship.  But when teenagers can employ language as artfully as Sabrina does in this poem, poetry ultimately can become for teenagers not simply a response to an assignment, but a balm, a vital path of self-discovery, a probing inquiry into the two inextricably linked questions of identity:  Who are you? and Who am I?

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!