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Trying again after a long absence

Friday, January 8th, 2010

I’m feeling inspired to blog again, after more than a year away.  I must certainly be the most negligent blogger in the blogosphere, but despite my absence, folks still seem to be checking in, and there is evidence that what I have written so far may actually be helpful to some.  That inspires me to continue on in my efforts to record our daily homeschooling activities, as sporatic as the entries may be.  Last year (Starling’s second grade year) was an incredible learning experience for all of us.  The momentum of our First Grade experience continued through the Fall of 2008, and into the early winter months , but after a main lesson block on the Golden Legend in January, I felt my energy waning and my momentum slowing.  Most of my planning was happening the night before a lesson, and it wasn’t long before I was exhausted, and feeling defeated.  For several months I sputtered along, trying to throw ideas into some semblance of a learning experience for my girls.  It was a difficult time, and I found myself really questioning my ability to educate my children at home.  The remarkable thing is, and this was a crucial discovery for me, Starling and Chickadee continued to thrive, despite my unfinished lessons and growing lack of direction.  A lot of Starling’s success in the second half of her second grade year was that she had the freedom to read for long hours in the day.  In my desperation, I just kept feeding her good books to read and she burned through them.  We also read together, every day for at least an hour.  By the end of the year, Starling’s reading habits were well established — she was reading everywhere, anywhere and as often as possible.  New rules had to be written.  No reading at the table, in the tub, or while going for a walk.  Safety first, even when it comes to good literature!  As for Chickadee, she grew increasingly frustrated at her sister’s interest in reading, complaining that her playmate had turned into a boring imitation of her former self.

Thankfully, spring came and the summer months provided a much-needed reprieve from the pressures of feeling the need to “homeschool”.  The girls swam, and hiked, and got to spend vacation time at the beach.  I enjoyed kicking back, and cleaning the cobwebs from my brain.  I resolved to be better prepared for the upcoming school year and seriously considered how I was going to find the time to plan, free from the daily interruptions of housecleaning, mothering and summer distractions.  I asked my mother to come and watch the girls for a week.  It was an awfully bold thing for me to do.  A week is a long time for someone who retired her apron strings long ago, but my sweet mother generously agreed to travel ten hours and tend to my children.  I locked myself in the back room, and worked my tail off from morning to night.  I put my guilt aside and let my mother and husband cook for me, and pick up the house, and all I did was plan.  I’m sure it will come as little surprise to any busy mother — I was in heaven!  The inspiration arrived, the creative juices flowed, and I poured through what seemed like tomes of curriculum and library resources.  I planned the whole year in one blissful, undisturbed week.  It has made all the difference in the world this year.  More on this to come . . .

Here comes the sun

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

After a wild day of thunderstorms and tornado sirens yesterday, we had a lovely, restful day at home. It felt like the first official day of summer. . . blue skies, bright sun and plenty of water! The girls have hardly been able to contain themselves since Toph put up the pool this past weekend. So after a couple of days of filtering, adjusting PH levels, and allowing the freezing hose water to warm in the sun, today was finally GO TIME. And go they did! Starling picked up right where she left off last summer, exhibiting her aquatic feats of daring and skill (and remarkable lung capacity). Chickadee, who can now touch the bottom with ease, performed water ballet, and received several unsolicited swimming pointers.

After our fun in the sun, we came inside to prepare dinner. Chickadee helped me to wash and cut the radishes that we received in this week’s CSA share, which were the most beautiful specimens I think I’ve ever seen.

Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right.


Enter stage right . . . the math gnomes

Monday, May 26th, 2008

OK, so I’ve come to the realization that there is no way I am going to “catch up” in my documentation of our first-grade year. Time is at such a premium right now, and what I really want to be able to do is blog about what is going on in our lives currently, not what we did months ago. So I’m giving up on my initial idea to record all of our main lessons from this year. Let’s face it, it’s just not going to happen in a timely manner.

But, before I turn over this new leaf, I do want to record our follow-up math lesson to the Quality of Numbers, mainly because I think it might be useful to somebody else out there looking for an inspirational launch pad. I had a great time preparing for this main lesson block. It was definitely a highlight in our year.

The first math main lesson, the Quality of Numbers, was followed by a main lesson block on learning the lower case letters, which we did by creating a 2008 calendar (For more on this see the Christopherus First Grade Syllabus). This was a great project to do in January and provided the opportunity for a lot of writing and copying from the board, as well as practicing the numbers and learning the months of the year. As a side note, I really like the advice offered by Live Education! that recommends allowing the child to copy from the board letter by letter; each letter first written by the parent-teacher, then by the student. Once we started doing this there was noticeable improvement in Starling’s written work. Her sentences were much neater, with fewer mistakes, and she was able to relax into the process of copying from the board.

After the calendar main lesson block we returned to math, and a continuation of our story involving the characters of Phaedra and Adira. Starling and Chickadee were very excited to hear about the Land of Numeria, and were eager to find out who the little men were in the picture.

[A word about my decision to use the ubiquitous Waldorf math gnomes to introduce the four math processes. . . At first I resisted the idea. Waldorf education often gets criticized for being overrun with references to elemental creatures, and the math gnomes seemed to me to be a bit too clichè. There were plenty of other options. Donna Simmons uses squirrels. Live Education! introduces a whole host of different characters. But after further thought I came to recognize that there is something special about introducing the math concepts via the personalities of these little men (or women, if one chooses), and I knew that Starling would immediately identify with these endearing characters.]

Once again, I looked to Marsha Johnson for inspiration. I love Marsha’s ability to create pictures with words. Shamelessly, I lifted some of her sentences and phrases for my own stories. Below is the tale that I told on the first day of our main lesson block on the Four Processes. It tells of Phaedra and Adira’s introduction to Gnome Share (division). Unlike the customary introduction of the Four Processes by way of addition, Waldorf education advocates introducing the process of division first, emphasizing the concept of “from the whole to the parts”. During the course of the story, Starling and Chickadee also got to meet Gnome Share, a needle-felted fellow who emerged from a basket at the appropriate moment. Gnome Share quickly took on a life of his own, as the girls incorporated him into our daily lives. Here he is with Gnome Times:

And here’s the story:

Phaedra and Adira did it! They answered the twelve ancient questions, satisfied Cipher, solved the code on the golden scroll, and opened the padlock on the great wooden doors. When the doors swung open the two girls stood in amazement, their eyes as big as saucers, their hearts full of anticipation and joy. What was this new world? Cipher called it the Land of Numeria. She said it was the key to all understanding about the magical world of numbers. But what did it all mean?

As Phaedra and Adira stepped forward through the threshold of the door they found themselves standing on a beautiful rainbow path that sparkled in the sunlight. Just near to the path, the girls saw a large hill, rising up with many rocks and gravel slides, and little narrow paths leading in and out of big stones, places only goats or dwarves could tread, perhaps little gnomes could squeeze by those big rocks and narrow passageways . . . and indeed do you know, there in the damp dirt of one of the paths, the children could see what certainly looked like small footprints!

Though the girls did not know it, the hill was filled with little caves and big caves, and inside those caves were tunnels leading to and fro, and open ones that led in and out of rocky hills, some way up high, overlooking the land, and others down below, just near the bubbling streams that flowed downwards into the green valleys. Built into one of the rocky outcroppings was a small wooden door, similar to the one the girls had just entered, but much smaller. The girls immediately walked up to it and listened. Standing before it they heard a tap, tap, tapping going on deep inside the hill. They couldn’t have yet known, but indeed inside the hill, the gnomes were very busy, as always, working day and night to dig beautiful colorful jewels and precious metals out of their rocky beds. Tap, tap, tap, crack, crack, crack, went the small hammers of the busy gnomes.

As the girls were standing, listening, the doors suddenly opened and there before them stood a gnome dressed all in red. He was a stout and plump fellow with a white beard, kindly face and sparkling blue eyes. He wore a red shirt, red trousers, a red hat, and big boots with thick soles, and on his wide belt he wore a lovely embroidered pouch, with a curious symbol on it. “Hello” he said, as he made a low bow to Phaedra and Adira. “Welcome to the Land of Numeria. My name is Gnome Share and I am happy to make your acquaintance! Do come in and I’ll show you around.” The girls bent down and entered through the small door. Inside, lanterns glowed and lit the way as Gnome Share led the children down a winding path. The girls looked all around as they walked. Piles of colored gems lay in large heaps on the rocky ground. Ponies with sacks tied over their backs trotted merrily up the path toward the girls and gnomes everywhere were busy at work. “I’m one of the Gnomes in charge here” said Gnome Share “There are four of us. I’m sure you’ll meet the other three during your stay.”

After a short distance the girls came to a large room, lit by lanterns and candles. It was all aglow in sparkling colored light. The girls had never seen so many precious jewels–rubies, sapphires, diamonds and millions of colored gems that reflected the lamp light. “It is my job,” Gnome Share said “to divide the gems, jewels and precious metals so that they are equally shared among the people of Numeria. I make sure that everything that is found is shared. There are so many gemstones to go around. Here have some yourselves!” and Gnome Share picked up a sackful of colored stones. “These are for the two of you. But do be sure to share them.” “Oh, yes . . . share them. . . of course we will. But how can we be sure to share them equally between us?” Phaedra asked. “Oh,” the kindly Gnome said “That is easily accomplished. Watch. . . . There are six gems in the sack . . . .here is one for you, Phaedra, and one for you Adira, another one for you Phaedra, and another one for you Adira, one more for you Phaedra, and one more for you Adira . . . as you see we now have two piles of gemstones with 3 in each. It’s as simple as that!” The girls smiled and looked at each other. What a wonderful little man! But how busy he was! “Could we help you in your work?” the two girls asked enthusiastically. “Of course!” came the reply. For the rest of the day, Phaedra and Adira busily counted and divided the gems. What a lovely man he was and how happy they were to be in his presence.

After telling the story I drew a chalk drawing of Gnome Share on the board for Grace to use as a guide for her own drawing. We then wrote the following verse adapted from Dorothy Harrer’s Math Lessons for Elementary Grades:

Gnome Share is a kind old gnome
With each one he will share.
The jewels which he gathers.
He divides with greatest care.

The following day, I presented Gnome Share’s symbol and Starling drew a large division sign in her main lesson book. We then did some dividing (sharing) with twenty-four glass gemstones that were stored in a little red flannel sack. Gnome Share wanted to share the gemstones between himself, Starling, Chickadee, and me. Starling divided the twenty-four gems between the four of us and was able to determine the number of stones in each pile. She then illustrated what we did by drawing four piles of six gemstones in her main lesson book. Under her illustration she wrote the “number sentence”: 24÷4=6

Next came Gnome Minus. Here’s his introductory story:
One day as Phaedra and Adira were counting and separating the jewels with Gnome Share a funny little gnome dressed all in blue entered the Treasure Room. He was more slender than Gnome Share, with a tall blue cap and the same merry blue eyes. Instead of a white beard, his was the color of coal.

“Minus!” said Gnome Share “How very good to see you! Come and meet my new friends, Phaedra and Adira. They have been helping me to divide the jewels.” The girls moved closer to the slight little man and shook his hand. “Oh,” he said “How delightful! What a joy! My name is Gnome Minus Takeway. How wonderful to make your acquaintance! I was just thinking the other day how much Gnome Share needs some helpers. He has so very much to do.” And pausing for a moment, Gnome Minus turned to Gnome Share and said, “Gnome Share I have collected some jewels for the Treasure Room. Twelve jewels to be exact. Now, where are they?” he said, and the small gnome began to search his pockets. “Now, I know they are in here somewhere. Yes, here are a few. One, two, three, four, five . . . . five? Well, for heaven’s sake where are the others?” The girls looked at Gnome Minus and then at Gnome Share. “Oh dear, it’s my awful pockets again! The gems have fallen out of my pockets, so that I only have five left!” And at that Gnome Minus pulled his pockets out of his pants to reveal several large holes. “I know that I should mend my pants, but I am so very busy and I never seem to find the time.” “Phaedra, Adira, would you be so kind to help me find the other gemstones?”

“Now, if I started with twelve stones and I only have five remaining. How many did I lose?” The girls looked at the little gnome. “Well, let’s use some of the jewels here to figure it out. I know that I started with twelve gems and now I have five. Let’s take five jewels and move them over here.” And the little gnome moved five gems into a small pile. “Now how many remain?” he said. Phaedra counted the remaining gemstones. “Seven!” she said. “That’s right seven. Can you help me to find the seven gems that I lost?” the funny man said with an imploringly look on his face. “I feel awfully foolish for losing them and I know that Gnome Share would like to have them. “Of course, we can.” Phaedra and Adira said in unison, and they began to search for the gems.

And here is lovable Gnome Minus himself (with Gnome Add): He quickly became our favorite. Starling and Chickadee particularly loved sliding gemstones out of the holes in his pockets.

His verse which I changed slightly from Harrer’s version is:

Minus is such a silly gnome.
He loses everything.
His ragged pockets are empty
For he subtracts everything.

The next day, and last day of our four day rhythm, I introduced Starling to Gnome Minus’ symbol and we did some subtraction scenarios with the glass stones. The most effective one was the removal of a certain number of stones from a sack containing twenty four gems. Starling then had to determine how many stones were remaining in the sack. We choose one of the problems to illustrate in her main lesson book accompanied by the subtraction equation.

And so our lessons went, for three weeks in total. Gnome Add made his appearance next, followed by Gnome Times. During week three we reviewed the four processes and the gnomes bid goodbye to Phaedra and Adira. The stories from weeks two and three can be found here.

The Quality of Numbers

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

And there it is, in a nutshell . . . one of the reasons why, in my opinion, the Waldorf approach stands apart from all other educational methods. The first formal lesson a child receives regarding the complex world of mathematics — the Quality of Numbers. In this lesson the numbers one through twelve are presented to the first grade student, not just as abstract signs representing a quantity, but as symbols with an essential identifying nature, a quality. For example, the number ‘one’ is presented along with its quality of wholeness, unity, individuality, ‘two’ with its relationship to duality, as well as to the concept of opposites, and so on.

As I presented this main lesson block to Starling, I witnessed for the first time what I had read about regarding the importance of teaching to a child’s feeling life. Steiner said in a lecture devoted to the teaching of Arithmetic, “It is essential that you have some understanding of the real essence of every subject that you teach, so that you do not use things in your teaching that are remote from life itself.” It quickly became apparent that abstract explanations would be ineffective. Try explaining the concept of a “unit” to a first grader. It’s rather difficult. Instead, it is much more useful to say, “One is the sun!” and then to stand back and watch the child come to an understanding of the number one through their own life experience, through a soul connection.

As I was planning out the details of this main lesson block, I kept coming up disappointed. By this time, I had accumulated a few new curriculum resources, but it seemed that every one of them was lacking in substance when it came to this important block. We had just finished an exciting three week block on capital letters and I was really hoping for the same kind of rich story line to carry us through the next three weeks. That’s when I discovered Marsha Johnson’s yahoo group waldorfhomeeducators and the amazing archive of files she has created (free of charge, I might add). Adapting Marsha’s idea about a journey to the Land of Numeria, I wrote a three-week block designed to capture the imaginations of my two girls. I choose two characters, sisters, who I named Phaedra (‘bright’ for Starling) and Adira (‘mighty’ for Chickadee). Here is the beginning of their adventure:

Once upon a time in a land not far from our own, there lived two sisters, Phaedra and Adira. Much like the two of you, these two sisters liked to spend their time together. They played together and ate together and slept in the same bed under a thick warm blanket. On beautiful autumn afternoons they would take long walks, exploring little worlds that existed under the rotting logs and leaves. They would watch the activities of the ants and the beetles readying themselves for the long winter ahead. One such afternoon as the two girls walked through a sun-lit meadow, quietly listening for the rustle of animals, they heard a crunching sound just a short way off in the distance. “Ssh,” said Phaedra, “let’s walk as silently as we can and see if we can spy the tiny creature that is making that noise.” The two girls walked slowly and silently and looked for signs of movement. Under a fir tree, not far from where they stood, they spotted a brown rabbit, busily munching on a green leaf. He seemed not to notice them, but as they moved closer the observant rabbit froze with caution. Phaedra and Adira made another step toward the rabbit and as they did, up he sprang, bounding away through the tall grass, his white tail flashing as he ran. The girls ran after him and as quick as a whip the rabbit darted under a large stone and disappeared. Phaedra and Adira followed after him and when they came to the stone, they knelt down. Each girl wanted to look under the stone first. When they lifted the stone they found a large hole. “Phaedra, let me look!” said Adira, as she tried to peer deeper into the hole. And as she did so, she toppled over the edge of the hole and fell in. Phaedra reached for her sister’s shirt in order to save her from the fall, but despite her most strident efforts, she could not grab her sister and she too began to tumble. Down, down they fell until they both landed with a thump on the soft ground. And suddenly, it was as if someone had turned out the lights. The sun-filled meadow was gone and in its place the girls found themselves in a dim and unfamiliar world. All around them the flat grey landscape stretched for miles. In the distance they could see nothing but a single hill rising from the flat land, illuminated by a bright white moon. The two girls looked at each other in amazement. They were not afraid, after all they had each other, and there was something peaceful, albeit strange about this new world. Adira reached out her hand and helped her sister up from the ground. Then the two sisters brushed themselves off and without saying a word started walking toward the distant hill. They travelled over the landscape, enjoying the view of the large moon, and resting once in a while. At sunrise, in the pink and gold light of early morning, they came to the hill. Rising up the slope in front of them was a long series of steps, which the girls immediately began to climb. Something was urging them onward. It took many minutes for Phaedra and Adira to reach the top of the hill, each sister pausing to help the other. At the top of the mound they came to a large wooden door that was held shut by a heavy metal padlock. Phaedra looked at Adira. Now what would they do? Just then, as if out of the mist, a woman appeared before them. She was dressed in long billowing robes, that sparkled in the light but had no color.

“Welcome” the mysterious woman said. “My name is Cipher and I am the guardian of the land that lies beyond this door.”

“Hello” said Phaedra, “My sister and I are lost. Could you tell us please how we can open this door? We are hoping to find our way home.”

“The only way through this portal is to answer twelve ancient questions.” said Cipher.

“Twelve questions.” said Adira. “We can do that.”

“Each question will be put forth in turn and must be answered by sunrise of the following day.”

“O.K.,” said Phaedra, “What is the first?” and she looked at the lovely woman in the glistening garments.

“The first question is: What is ONE?” and as she posed the question, the lady in the gossamer gown disappeared before their eyes.

The two sisters sat down to ponder the question.

Propped on a chair next to our story chair was a set of “doors” that my husband had built for me the week before. They were closed with a latch and padlock. My idea was that Starling and Chickadee could discover what was “behind the closed doors” just as Phaedra and Adira would do in the story. What I didn’t anticipate was Starling’s initial desperation to open the doors right away. She worked to open the padlock for at least an hour. When that didn’t work, she tried to pry the doors open. Finally, near tears, she said to me, “Please tell me how to open the doors!” I was a little nervous that my attempt to recreate the mystery of the story for Starling was going to backfire. How would she last for three weeks until all the questions were answered? I simply said, “You’ll find the answer. Give it time.” She kept prying. . . .

Sometimes, quite unexpectedly, we find ourselves teaching our children lessons that we had not planned for. It’s very satisfying I think, when life lessons and “school” lessons coincide.

The next day Starling had resigned herself to being patient; she and I recalled the introduction together. I asked her if she had thought about the question that was posed to Phaedra and Adira and if she had any ideas about the answer. The concept of number quality was not discussed directly, so I received answers like “Well we have one table.” or “There is one window in our room.” We continued on like that for a few minutes and then I said, “Let’s see what Phaedra and Adira have come up with.” Here is the continuation of the story into the second day:

The girls were eager to discuss Cipher’s question with each other.

“What is ONE?” said Phaedra “What could the answer be?”

“Well,” said Adira “One is the least of all the numbers. No number is smaller than one. Numbers get bigger and bigger. Even two is greater than one.”

But Phaedra had a different thought. “But isn’t it true that all the numbers are made from one. To get to two we add one to one, then to go on to three we add another one. Every number is one more than the one before it.”

“In this way,” said Phaedra “One may seem like the smallest number, but in so many ways it shows us that it is the greatest of the numbers!”

“And think of this,” said Phaedra. If we have one loaf of bread, and we divide it in half we can make two. If we cut those two pieces in half, we end up with four. We can go on and on in this manner for a long time. When we considered it in this way, all numbers can be contained within one!”

“Yes! Yes!” Adira joined in. “When I think of one I think of the sun. The sun is one! But hundreds of rays come out of the sun. When we were in the sun-filled meadow, I felt the sun’s rays. Sometimes I feel as if the sun sends one special ray just to warm me.”

Phaedra smiled, “Yes, I’ve felt that way too! I like to think that each of us carries our own beautiful ray of light, because each one of us is so different and special. Yet all together we are one people – one humanity”

“Yes,” Adira said, feeling her own special light, “One world!”

And then, as she was known to do, Phaedra made up a verse on the spot:

One is the sun, one is the sky,
One is the world, one am I.

“But how shall we answer Cipher’s question?” said Adira “One can be so many things.”

“Let us sleep on it. Perhaps we will know in the morning.” said Phaedra

The two girls layed down on the soft ground and quickly fell asleep. In the morning they awoke feeling refreshed. They were surprised to find a simple breakfast laid out for them. When they finished eating, the beautiful woman appeared to them again.

“So my dear girls, are you ready to answer my first question?” Cipher said.

“Well,” said Phaedra “Adira and I discussed it last night,” “But we have come up with so many answers. We do not know which one is correct.”
“Tell me what you have discovered during the course of your discussion.”

The girls told Cipher what they had determined. One is the sun, it is the world, it is man. One is the whole. It is the individual. It is unity.

Cipher looked pleased. “Yes,” she said “One is all these things. I was not looking for only ONE answer.” She said with a chuckle.

Then Cipher looked at Phaedra and Adira and said, “The time has come for you to learn the first secret symbol that will help to unlock the door.” The lovely woman knelt down and began to rub some of the sandy dirt away in front of her and there, in the rock were two forms. [1, I]

“Record these in your memory” said Cipher “They will help you on your journey.”

“Now,” she said “Are you ready for the second ancient question?”

“Yes!” the girls exclaimed eagerly.

“The second question is: What is TWO? I will return again at sunrise” and as she finished speaking Cipher disappeared, leaving the two girls to another day of thought and discussion.

For the second day’s story and all the days after that, I relied heavily on Live Education. It was very useful in offering ideas related to each number. I also incorporated Marsha Johnson’s idea of the wise woman revealing the symbols related to each number. Such great imagery!

After the story, on the second day, we started a series of drawings in a new main lesson book. Starling decided to draw a sun. I drew it on the blackboard and she used my drawing as a guide for her own. On the opposite page she wrote the word ONE, the number itself, and the Roman numeral. And so it went every day until all twelve ancient questions were asked. Here’s the rest of the story.

Very long story short . . .

Three weeks later, the twelfth question was answered, and Phaedra and Adira received a golden scroll from Cipher. I handed Starling a “golden scroll” wherein were written the words, which I helped her to read:

To open the door to the Land of Numeria, first turn to the right III times. Stop at the number IX. Turn left one full turn, passing the first number to stop at the number XXIII. Then turn right and stop at the number V. Pull the shackle.

Starling had to translate the Roman numerals into Arabic in order to dicipher the code. It was so exciting; and what a reaction when the doors opened to reveal the Land of Numeria! It was priceless.

The girls (all of them!) had received the code! We made a final drawing to celebrate.

Making the cut

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

I’m the first to admit it — I’m a Waldorf curriculum junkie. I just can’t help myself. There is such a wealth of good material. This was always the problem for me in my research. I simply don’t know when to stop collecting information and to start integrating it. The good thing is, in homeschooling, one eventually has to make a decision about how to approach the next day’s lesson.

I began our homeschooling year with only two main resources. After long consideration of what curriculums to use, I settled on Live Education and Christopherus. I like the contrast of the two, and how they compliment each other. Donna Simmons’ Christopherus syllabus is exactly as she advertises it — practical Waldorf at home. I love the structure of Donna’s materials, the clear indication of how a homeschooling first grade year might proceed. I have relied on her framework to guide us through the year, and enjoyed the security of knowing what will likely come next.

Live Education has been the frosting on the cake. When I first received the curriculum I nearly swooned at the beauty of it. Now, I know, I am a sucker for packaging. Given the choice between a glass of water and a glass bottle of water with a pretty label, I’m all about the latter. But in this case the beautiful presentation is not superfluous. It offers inspiration. And inspiration, in my opinion, is the most essential ingredient to successful homeschooling. At first, when going through the Live Ed guides for the first year, I was a bit overwhelmed. There is so much content and visual material that for a newbie like me it was hard to know how to organize all of it. But working with the Christopherus syllabus has helped tremendously. I can get a general idea of what I want to present and then use the Live Ed to expand and embellish the lesson.

Our first main lesson block, after a week of beginning form drawing and establishing our daily rhythm, was an introduction to the capital letters of the alphabet. This was a critical first lesson for us. It was an ‘unveiling of the goods’, so to speak — Starling’s foray into the world of learning. She was beside herself with anticipation. And me? I felt like a stage actor about to go on a very important audition. Would I make the cut? I so much wanted to set the tone for the year, to make it magical, to draw her in. So on the first day of our lesson, she entered the room to see the blackboard draped with a silk. We said our morning verse, did our circle activities, lit the story candle and settled in for a story. I could tell she was desperate to see what was under the cloth. But she controlled her urge to look. Even little Chickadee didn’t sneak a peek. Before I started the story I took the silk away to reveal a blackboard drawing.

It was met with wide eyes and complete silence. So far, so good, I thought.

The drawing was a visual summary of a story offered in the Christopherus First Grade syllabus about a young Prince who sets out on a journey with a Wise Woman and learns life lessons that will eventually make him worthy of becoming king. The story is divided into two parts. The first episode of the saga introduces most of the letters. Then the main lesson block is allowed to “rest” for several weeks until it is revisited and finished with the presentation of the remaining letters.

The first episode lasted for three weeks. Each of the consonant letters was presented in the form of an image which I had drawn ahead of time and hung on the wall the night before, to be discovered by Starling in the morning. The letter images were created with beeswax crayons and looked very similar to the chalk versions found in the large blackboard drawing, but with more attention given to the definition of the letter. Only two or three letters were shown at a time. After hearing the account of the Prince’s latest adventure, Starling made her own drawings in a spiral-bound main lesson book, using my pictures for reference.

She was really proud of the results.

The vowels on the other hand were presented in a different fashion. Instead of being associated with an image, each vowel was connected, through the story, to a feeling — A (ah) with a feeling of awe, E (eee) with a feeling of fear, etc. [Rudolf Steiner referred to the importance of gesture in teaching the vowels, for “the vowels are an expression of man’s inner being”.] Each time the Prince experienced a new feeling the Wise Woman gave him a golden star with the vowel printed on it for him to keep close to his heart. In order to help create a feeling of expectancy in Starling, I had a satin purple sack (just like the one carried by the Wise Woman) that I kept hanging beside the story chair. When the Prince received a golden star from the Wise Woman so did Starling for her main lesson book. The special stars would only appear on the day a specific vowel was presented, otherwise the sack was empty.

We worked with a two-day rhythm for this block. On the first day of the week I told the story and Starling made the drawings in her main lesson book. On the second day Starling helped me to retell the story from the day before, and then we worked with the letters. We did some outside activities–‘walking’ the letters, games with the letters on the sidewalk, finding shapes in nature that echo the shape of the letters. Indoor activities included speech work like tongue twisters (Starling’s favorite: The queen quickly questioned and quietly quarreled with quite queer queries and quibbles.) and songs (Chickadee’s favorite: the ‘Wave Song’ from Xavier Sings of his Alphabet friends by Mary Lynn Channer).

By the time we returned to the second episode of the story (in early December) Starling was eager to say that she had learned the whole alphabet. She also wanted to do more copy work from the board, so we wrote longer sentences to accompany the letters. A really lovely detail of the second part of the story from Christopherus is how the letters X, Y and Z are presented. Part two of the alphabet main lesson block is presented right before Christmas, so the letters X, Y and Z are connected with the image of the three shepherds. Tied into the story of the Prince and the Wise Woman is an account of the Christmas story as experienced by the three shepherds. The creation of these three letter images left quite an impression on Starling, and tied together our homeschooling work with our preparations for the holiday in a very meaningful way.

By all accounts, our first main lesson block was a success. And great news . . . I made the call backs!

Our own little sanctuary of learning

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

I remember the first time I stepped into a Waldorf classroom. I was visiting a Kindergarten class, twenty or so of the most delightful little beings I had ever laid eyes on, all sitting around a long table coloring with square crayons. My best friend Cie was their teacher. She had invited me to visit for my birthday; she knew I would love it. At snack the children sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Some of them colored pictures for me. All of them were open and affectionate as they wished me, a relative stranger, happiness. I remember telling my mother at the time, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before . . . the children were playing, Cie started singing a song about a dusty gnome and they all started cleaning up!”

Entering that classroom was like walking into a magical rosy world flooded with natural light. It embraced the children, held them in safety as they carried out the activities of their day. I was enchanted. Still am . . . every time I visit a Waldorf school. And it’s not just the aesthetic beauty that captivates me. It’s that every brushstroke, every handmade toy, every carved block bears the mark of purpose and intention. Everything is placed in the room with care and with consideration of the impact it will have on a child’s senses. There is a meditative quality about the classrooms; they are like little sanctuaries of learning. I wanted this for my girls too.

So this summer my husband and I created it.

We live in a pretty small ranch-style house. It is a cozy home, with plenty of space for all of us. But this summer, when I decided that we needed a “homeschooling room” for our main lesson work, I had to figure out how to empty out my study in order to make room enough for new bookshelves, a table, a story chair and a large blackboard. It wasn’t easy. The first thing I had to do was move the existing bookshelves (four floor to ceiling models) into our living room. I did this all by myself one morning while Toph was out. (I’m not very good at waiting.) Yep, all four bookshelves and the whole library of over-sized books to boot. Did I mention that I have degrees in art history?

Over the course of the summer Toph built the furniture. I was in heaven! Solid wood, custom-made furniture crafted with a perfectionist’s eye to detail. How’s that for purpose and intention? It was more beautiful than I could have ever dreamed. After the furniture was built, Toph made all kinds of lovely classroom accessories . . . blackboards, paint jar holders, a drying rack for our painting boards. All I had to do was say, “Oh, I saw this on-line. Think you could make it?” I sewed curtains of plant-dyed silk, made a weather tree weaving to hang on the wall, framed prints and pressed flowers. And the best thing of all . . . the girls watched it all come to life.

And now we get to enjoy it every day.

I know that a lot of people don’t like the idea of having a separate room for home learning. They believe that it should be integrated into the family’s daily life. To some extent, I agree. But for us, a “homeschooling room” really works. When the girls enter it in the morning it’s clear what will take place. I like the tone it sets. I like that everything has a place, and that at the end of a night of preparation, when I flick off the light, I can set my own intention, make a mental note of our purpose for the next day of learning.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

Like I said, I like to start at the beginning. But in order to do that, I’ll have to backtrack a bit, back to last summer when it became clear that we were not moving to Pennsylvania, and we were not going to be sending Starling to a Waldorf school. I have to admit I had a hard time accepting the reality of our situation. I had already begun to play the lovely scenarios in my head . . . Starling, blissfully happy in first grade with a “Master teacher” and two dozen well-rounded bright classmates; Chickadee and I attending parent/tot classes, baking, singing, painting; my own participation in evening Anthroposophy study groups, knitting circles, workshops and lectures; our family celebrating festivals with a close-knit school community. . . you get the idea. I concede that the pictures moving through my head were more than a little idealistic, but the point is I wanted a Waldorf school . . . for all of us.

So that’s when I decided (we decided) that if we weren’t going to be able to bring Starling and Chickadee to a Waldorf school, I would bring Waldorf to Starling and Chickadee. Luckily, Waldorf-inspired homeschooling already had a foothold in the town where I live. I know a few mothers of teenagers who homeschooled their children using a Waldorf-inspired approach, at least one of them through the high school years. And a new generation of Waldorf-inspired homeschoolers has been emerging in the last five years or so, some as a result of a Waldorf school initiative that was afloat here for three years.

As homeschoolers we are well-supported. Our local homeschooling group (which I just recently joined) is very active and has many members who are committed to the homeschooling path. In addition to this, we are a part of a Waldorf homeschooling co-op with four other families, dear friends who work well together and share the same goals of attachment child-rearing and holistic learning. Oh, and the on-line support network for Waldorf homeschoolers is amazing! Forums, on-line resources, even a radio show. It boggles the mind.

And it’s been fun! This is the most surprising thing of all . . . I’m loving it. So many times when telling friends or family our intention to homeschool, the response came back, “Wow, I could never do that! It will be so much work. When will you find time for yourself?” But, the wonderful thing about the creative Waldorf curriculum is that my creative side is being nurtured too. I love writing the stories, drawing the pictures, doing the handwork. These things are right up my alley. And as the girls grow I will even be able to put all those years of university study to work. It turns out Art History degrees will offer a great foundation for teaching with the Waldorf method. Thank goodness I’ll be getting my money’s worth out of my graduate school education. Ha!

And now look at me . . . a homeschooling blogger! Who’d of thunk it?

I’ll close this entry with words of gratitude to Sara and Aleisha, two inspiring friends who have become my blogging muses. Thanks for the inspiration. You ladies rock!

tell our daughters

Friday, February 15th, 2008

The first paragraph is always the hardest. In all my years in academics, writing research papers, preparing presentations, the first paragraph has always been the hardest to write. Toph, my husband, advises “Start in the middle. Start with what you know and then go back to the beginning.” Good advice from a gifted writer. I have a hard time following his suggestion, even though I know he hates to see me struggle. I like to start at the beginning.

So where do I begin with a new blog? Something I never thought I would do . . . blog. The sound of the word is rather unappealing, like ‘smog’ or ‘fog’ . . . uncertain, clouded. Yet, I hope to gain insight by doing it. I want to record the moments of our doing, to reflect upon them, even get feedback about them.

This homeschooling journey has been so unexpected, but what a blessing it has been to my life, to our lives. We are all basking in the joy of being together, learning together, working out the gliches together. Of course I still have those moments of doubt. I still sometimes wake up in the early hours of the morning and worry if what we have chosen to do is the “right” thing for our girls, in the long run. One thing is absolutely certain — homeschooling has been wonderful for our family life, and for now that is more than enough.

I love knowing that the large majority of messages the girls are receiving have been preordained by my husband and I, that the lovely bubble of family and friends that we have created around them is filled with messages of love, encouragement and guidance. I am not under the illusion that this will last forever. I am aware that the days that this will be true, especially for Starling, are numbered. But for now I am relishing the control. It is a gift to have the job of protector. I fully accept the role of mama bird, tending to my little hairless chicks, their mouths wide open and hungry for life, knowing that in the blink of an eye they will fly from the nest that we have built. But oh, how glorious they will look in flight!

This reminds me of a lovely poem by Besmilr Brigham.

tell our daughters

each is beautiful

a woman’s life

makes it (that awareness)

through her touch


of strict age

set against vanity

not secure in loveliness

a girl is born

like a little bird opening its wing

she lifts her face

in a down of feathers

a rose

opens its leaves

with such a natural care

that we give words for

petal deep

in the imagination

a word becomes

a bitter thing

or a word is

an imagination

tell our daughers they are

fragile as a bird

strong as the rose

deep as a word

and let them make

their own growing time

big with tenderness