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.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Media & Waldorf Education, Part Two: Adolescence

By David Barham: High School Humanities Teacher

By the time of adolescence, there are so many more issues to be concerned about regarding media use, than earlier in childhood. The stakes are much higher because the young person is naturally calling for more media consumption and, after years of arguing, negotiating and denying, parents are more likely to "Just say yes."

This is the time of the awakening of true thinking. Can a child learn to think- truly think- on a diet of YouTube videos and slickly produced content? It all moves too fast for thought. If children consume endless media without being able to process what they have seen, weigh it for its value, determine for themselves if the content is true or false- the danger arises that they might become automatons, unable to think for themselves. This is a dangerous time- in terms of human development and in terms of world history- to not be able to think for oneself. This is a time when students need to be able to clear away the smoke and seek the truth. There are plenty of people out there who would be happy to tell our children what to think. I would argue that modern media is designed to keep us from thinking for ourselves.

Adolescence is the phase of development that is supposed to be a chance for young people to see their ideas turn into ideals and to have the chance to develop independent judgment and discernment. The Waldorf curriculum in the middle school and high school strives to nurture and support this very activity.

Much of the content young people watch today is crude, fast and violent. Do I believe watching violent movies makes you a violent person. Not necessarily. But does a diet of sexism and racism and violence and stupidity make you less human, less tolerant, less able to live with differences? I think so. Many children find it hard now to sit still for a story, to listen to a book on tape, to experience something that moves slower than the typical Hollywood movie because they are used to the jump cuts and speed of modern media. These children have trouble listening to instructions from humans (like teachers, coaches and parents) and moving at the pace of real life.  Most importantly, they might find it hard to sit quietly and check in with their inner voice on important issues because they have become conditioned to move at the speed of modern video!

Much of the modern media environment creates a culture filled with a lack of civility and respect. It is hard to create a world that is Good, True and Beautiful when you are constantly exposed to a lack of civility and respect. Much that our children watch and listen to is cynical and filled with mean-spirited content. Though there is great fun in a hip, post-modern playful world of ironic detachment, there is also a risk that actually caring about someone and something becomes that much harder.

Regardless of one's feelings about corporations, the advertising a child encounters watching screens can't help but make them more materialistic or to not be able to think clearly about the impact of corporations. Smoking? Drinking? What to wear? What to eat? What to buy? Images of masculinity and femininity. I read that once male bodies started being used in sexy ways to sell products, we saw more examples of young men with the sort of body image problems and eating disorders girls have suffered from since their bodies have been used to sell products.

Young people need to become adults who can choose a presidential candidate based on his or her ideas and qualifications. Making decisions about enormous issues like climate change, gun control, gay marriage, and the balance between funding social programs and the national debt, requires careful consideration of the evidence- not manipulation by corporate media.

A healthy relationship to media for the adolescent comes about by helping to balance the fun and infinite possibilities in these media worlds with the sense of responsibility to help young people learn to be still, dig down deep and practice the art of thinking for themselves.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Enjoying Nature with Young Children

By Lynn Wetterhorn: Preschool Teacher

As they say “baby, it is cold outside!” We are lucky to have four distinct seasons here in New England, but this winter it is cold. How does one actually “enjoy” nature with young children during the winter?

As a mother and early childhood teacher I can say that I have found many answers to this question.  The first and most important item to take into consideration is clothing. As we all know, we can only relax and enjoy ourselves if we are comfortable. Here in Maine we must dress in layers. Luckily, it is easy to find wool long underwear, warm boots, mittens, hats, snow pants and coats. In my classroom getting dressed to go outside is a major activity!

Once outdoors the fun begins. Did I mention that you, the adult, must also be dressed for comfort? If you can enjoy this magical time, your children will sense this and follow your lead. Young children are extremely observant and a short walk in the woods or yard will reveal many treasures to them. Take the time to pause and observe what nature has to offer. I like to pick one tree or plant and take a careful silent observation of it daily.

My nursery class begins the day outdoors with a walk in the forest. We take the same route every day and have a few little stopping points where the children play by climbing on rocks and fallen trees. The trees and rocks become fire engines, cars, boats, trains, banks (yes the kind that handle money—usually leaves) and homes. We gather fallen sticks and lean them up against each other to build tee-pee style houses with the children. This is a simple activity that uses only found objects yet creates many hours of enjoyment.

When we see fresh animal tracks in the snow we imagine that the bunny, deer or squirrel is busy looking for acorns or pine cones to nibble on for dinner. It is fun when we come upon a half-eaten acorn or pine cone that has been taken apart by a hungry squirrel looking for the seeds. As adults we have to take the time to quietly observe, or these little nature offerings will be missed by us.

Back in our play yard we enjoy shoveling snow into big piles to make snow houses, sledding, making snow cakes and muffins; and simply shoveling paths through the snow. Even a small hill can be transformed into a magical sledding experience for young children.

Feeding the birds is a good way to enjoy nature from indoors. A simple bird feeder hung outside the window can offer hours of entertainment to both the young and old. It is fun to place the bird feeder so it can be seen from the table allowing your children to eat breakfast with the birds. It might take the birds a while to find your feeder, but once they do your children will be delighted to watch them. So bundle up and get outside to enjoy what nature has to offer! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Letter to the Shepherds

Written by David Barham, High School Humanities and Drama Teacher

David wrote this letter to the high school seniors playing the parts of the shepherds in our upcoming Shepherd's Play.  It illustrates beautifully the depth that lies behind this joyous production.  

Dearest Gallus, Huckle, Muckle & Crispin~

As your director, there is much I can do to help you bring to life a wondrous, funny, warm and profound performance as the shepherds. I can help you with the singing and the blocking and a more effective way to say your lines. I can help you find your character in the way you move your feet, or the way you sit on the bench or the way you listen when others speak.  Thursday.

But there is one profound thing I can not do for you and this one profound thing will make all the difference in the world on Friday, December 19.

I want to try to explain that one thing:

You three Shepherds represent something very profound. This deceptively simple script actually is speaking to the greatest of all mysteries- and it is given to the shepherds to communicate to the audience the profundity of that mystery.

The first part of the shepherds interactions are meant to warm up the audience to you. You are funny, you are goofy, you are warm. You bicker with one another like old friends which is actually endearing.

But then

But then the Shepherds have a revelation. You can say an angel comes to them in their sleep if you want. But do you know what that really means?

It means that these simple, uneducated people of the Earth are among the first to understand the true meaning of being human.

You shepherds, as "men of good will" are the true teachers and leaders of humanity. And what are you leading us toward?

Love. Kindness. Seeing the true worth of all people despite their station in life. Fulfillment of all one holds dearest and deepest and more profound. The secret you don't even dare utter to yourself about what you truly hope life to be and to become.

Substitute the child in the manger for a world free of lies and deceptions and all that separates one from another. A world that is True and Free and Noble. A world where you love and are loved- no holding back.

The feeling you should all have at the crib should just about bring tears to your eyes. In fact, tears would be fine. The audience already loves you and will follow you as you reveal the true meaning of life: everything is possible! We don't need to protect ourselves from a cruel and cynical world. It is love from top to bottom!

When you are working to transform yourselves into shepherds, these are the thoughts and feelings you must hold nearest and dearest so they flow through you and the specific words you speak. The true meaning of Advent, Christmas, Chanukah, Winter Solstice and Life Itself is that we descend into the darkness AND we ascend into the light at the same time and we are never again the same!

Your real job as shepherds is to communicate all this profundity to an audience of all ages. They all want to be moved and filled with hope. Your job is to give them that.

You can only provide that for the audience if it first becomes real for you.

This is your real work over these next weeks. Not just learning your lines (though that would be important!), but inner transformation. When you peer into that cradle and SEE (truly see- even though there is no baby there), we need to see/feel/sense that in your entire bodies and beings.

In that baby's eyes, you need to see the world as it ought to be, as it could be, as it needs to be- no longer as it is. You are to be transformed and changed. Made new and whole.

And then you can offer that as a true gift of measureless worth to your audience.

Only these shepherds, whom the audience has already loved and laughed at/with, can offer forth such a gift.

If you do this inner work over these next weeks, you will communicate this to the audience and we will have done something priceless for the world.

I will accompany you every step of the way, but you have to go deep.

I am laying down the glove here- are you up for the challenge?

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Media and Waldorf Education: Part One

By David Barham:  High School Humanities Teacher and Chair of the College of Teachers

Waldorf education takes a developmental approach to education.  By that, we mean at certain phases of human development, there are windows of opportunity to develop particular skills and capacities. Missing these developmental moments means a child has to work that much harder to develop what is needed. It is similar to this notion that one can, in fact, grow a tomato in northern New England in the middle of winter- but it requires more resources and energy than if one grew it in summer, when earthly conditions are just right and the tomato needs only support to grow itself.

We look at the period of childhood as subdivided into three seven-year phases: birth to seven years, seven to fourteen and fourteen to twenty-one. During each of these phases, the child or young person is busy accomplishing a wide variety of important tasks that will lay the foundation for healthy growth, development and learning for the whole of life. If the child is thrown off course from the work to be done because of too much time immersed in media, one has to ask the question- "What is lost?" and more importantly, what impact does that loss have on the rest of the life journey?

During the phase of development that takes place between birth and age seven, the child has his/her plate filled with physical developmental tasks. Learning to crawl, sit up, walk, talk and continuing the shaping of our internal organs are among the largest and most significant life projects we will ever take on! And we do all of those without being taught, without direct instruction! At this age, the child learns primarily out of imitation- carefully observing the actions of the adults around- doing as they do, not as they say. This is also the time the child learns to form and sustain human relationships, to develop a connection to the world of living nature, to develop healthy habits, and to lay the foundation for all future academic learning.

What happens to a child who spends more time in front of a screen instead of with other human beings engaged in human activity, or immersed in nature? We need to learn to think about what opportunities for growth and healthy development are being lost as we weigh what might be being gained. We can ask ourselves, which will give my child a firmer foundation for future development: time spent in climbing, running, skipping, and playing with friends and in nature or time spent swiping and clicking?

Also during the years seven to fourteen ("the class teacher years") we must weigh time on the computer, game console, cell phone or tablet with time spent working with bread, beeswax, clay, making things of wood or wool or cloth, drawing, painting, learning to play an instrument, singing, reciting beautiful poems, acting in plays, working together with classmates, and doing harmonious movement activities. We must imagine the difference between digesting already finished media images versus creating one's own inner pictures. Try remembering the images you had from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings before you saw the movies- can you ever retrieve those once you have seen Hollywood's version?

The years of seven to fourteen are also an important time for the development of a healthy emotional life. Using stories, the Waldorf teacher, is trying to work subtlety to strengthen and deepen the emotional life of the child and give him/her the vocabulary to express the wide variety of emotions that exist between happy and sad. Contrast this with the surface quality and intensity of what one experiences in a Hollywood movie or on television. If a large part of the education during this phase is learning to feel and be aware of one's feelings and the feelings of others, how might this learning be impacted by the emotional bombardment we get from mainstream media?

Media use in the early years of life can impinge on children's developing capacities to deal with frustration, follow tasks through to completion, and to work together with others. Such skills are harder to learn after the fact. In the middle years of childhood, the emotional life is going through enormous development. Children are learning what it means to be an adult. We need to take care with the images of humanity we share- that they are deep and nuanced- as things really are. A diet of superficial images leaves children emotionally unmet.  The second part of this article will focus on the impact of media on the development of thinking in the adolescent and young adult in the years fourteen to twenty-one.