Archive for February, 2008

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