Rudolf Steiner’s verse The Healthy Social Life is often used at adult gatherings in Waldorf schools. It reads: The healthy social life is found when, in the mirror of each human soul, the whole community finds its reflection and when, in the community, the virtue of each one is living.
Undoubtedly, the verse has inclusive sentiments, but looking more deeply into it, what community is Steiner referring to? How would you read it? I used to think of the school community when saying this verse, but, over the last few years, I’ve widened my view to include the whole community. You can see that expansion in the school’s new diversity statement:
Bright Water School welcomes, values, and supports racial, religious, economic, and cultural diversity. Our school seeks a diverse faculty and student body and is committed to having our school reflect the abundant and changing diversity of the United States. We welcome, value and support single, dual or multiple parent households and LGBT parents, faculty and/or students.
Bright Water School does not collect demographic data on students yet, but may do so in the future. Many independent schools nationwide do collect that data and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) compiles and archives it. NAIS also separates the data out by region. Independent school demographics in our region are noticeably different than the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) district’s demographics. Below is a table of NWAIS (Northwest Association of Independent Schools) and SPS statistics detailing student diversity. The NWAIS region is comprised of 110 schools in 10 states. 69 of those schools are in Washington State, 43 of them in Seattle, Bellevue, and Mercer Island. So the comparisons are not direct, but they do illustrate a different picture for independent schools.
|Total Enrollment of Students of Color||4,989||48,496|
|Enrollment of Students of Color as % Total||27.3%||56.8%|
|Percentage of African American Students||3.0%||21.4%|
|Percentage of Hispanic American Students||3%||12.3%|
|Percentage of Asian American Students||11.2%||20.7%|
|Percentage of Native American Students||0.3%||6.4%|
|Percentage of Pacific Islander American Students||0.1%||0.8%|
|Percentage of Multiracial American Students||8.5%||5.7%|
|Percentage of Middle Eastern American Students||1.5%||Not Tracked|
|Percentage of International Students||2.8%||Not Tracked|
|Percentage of Unsure about diversity||5.1%||Not Tracked|
|Percentage of European American Students/White||64.9%||43.2%|
*NWAIS is the Northwest Association of Independent Schools. Statistics are taken from NAIS 2011-12
**SPS is the Seattle Public Schools District, District Summary from December, 2011
How and What Can We Change?
A friend of mine used to have a sign on the back of his door so that he could see it every time he left the house. It read: Keep giving what you’re giving, and you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. It was his rather brusque way of waking himself up to the fact that he had a lot to do with his own destiny. This is true for an institution just as it is for a human. If we truly want to reflect the community, we need to work to affect that change within ourselves, both personally and institutionally.
There are many reasons why independent school demographics, and Bright Water School’s family and faculty make-up, do not reflect our regional or national demographics. Some of those reasons are quite complex, some are under our control, and some are not. Two things that we can influence and change are financial accessibility and school culture.
Over the last few years, BWS has steadily made changes to the financial aid program to address the whole cost of attendance (COA), recognizing there are costs beyond tuition. Some of the changes we have made are structural. Thus far, we have:
- changed the maximum tuition reduction from a limit of 50% of published tuition to tuition reductions between 50%-95%
- reduced extended-day fees by the same percentage as tuition–ex. A student attending at a 90% tuition reduction would have an extended-day rate of 90% of the published extended-day rates
- a flat fee of $10 for all after school sports
- $10 band instrument rental, $5 refunded upon return of instrument
Why Do We Offer Financial Aid?
There’s also a philosophical element to financial aid distribution, and that had to shift in order to make the above changes. The size of the financial aid budget remains the same, but now the distribution is different.
Back in the days when the school offered a maximum of a 50% reduction in tuition, we didn’t take the COA into consideration. A family that qualified for the maximum amount of financial aid would still be required to pay at least $5,000 a year, and there was no reduction for extended day, and no real plan for after school sports fee reduction. When faced with a minimum monthly cost of at least $500, a large number of families were excluded from even thinking about applying to our school. Holding to a 50% model essentially meant that we were using financial aid to make our school more affordable, not necessarily more economically diverse. It became important to fully consider what a financial aid program is for. Our school has decided that it is to provide enough financial assistance to create economic diversity. Financial aid was initially offered by independent schools as diversity tool. Over the years, it has become an enrollment tool for many schools–offering reduced tuition to make schools more affordable rather than more economically diverse. Our school has returned to using financial aid as a means to expand economic diversity.
What Else Supports Working Families?
Other things our school has put into place to support working families and economic diversity are the all-day preschool and all-day kindergartens, with extended day care offered for both of those age groups. Although our all-day preschool is only 3 days per week, we hope to expand it to five days next year. These are some of the things that will help more families come to our school, and this was also a philosophical shift for our school. It is one that was made to support the needs of a variety of parents and students. Another puzzle we have yet to solve is how to provide before-school care for all students who need it. We are greatly hampered by space constrictions, and financing an appropriate program is also a concern.
If We’re All in Agreement, Can We Agree to Be Different?
Most of the families with students enrolled in our school were drawn here because of what they understand or know about Waldorf education. Some became curious about us for other reasons and decided to enroll after a visit. Having visited and spent time in a number of Waldorf schools, one thing I see consistently is that the parent body has shared values. Shared values are how we make a cohesive community, but cohesive does not necessarily mean that it is or should be always harmonious.
If the majority of those in the school are often in agreement, do we really have diversity in our school?
Shared values may not always be obvious, and understanding others requires work and a willingness to have uncomfortable, unfamiliar moments. Limited media use and screen time is a common expectation in most American Waldorf schools, with most schools having a written policy. If we were to have a discussion on what is behind that expectation, there would be many different answers such as the importance of movement, healthy brain development, and even the value of boredom. Within that range of expectation and understanding about media use and screen time, each family will have their own guidelines about use: some will restrict it entirely, some not at all, and then there is the middle. But the point is that even the media ‘policy’ is, and should be, moveable, and each family can explain why they have that view. Media use and screen time can be one of the biggest points of contention among parents in a class, and I use it as an example to illustrate a point: If we truly want to have a school that is reflective of the community, working to understand each family and their values, leaving judgements and suppositions at the door, will help our school to have a rich, diverse school culture and community where the virtue of each one is living, as Steiner says.
To have a more diverse school, we, as a community, will have to change, and not all of us will agree on what those changes should or will be. Not all of us will be comfortable with those discussions and changes, but many will become more comfortable as a result of them. And many of those discussions will be enlivening and joyful as we build a path that is wide enough for everyone. We want to do more than just attract economic and cultural diversity: we want to welcome and keep those new members, too! That requires creating more conversations within our community and building opportunities for understanding. These are conversations that can happen in many places, not just at school. The school will continue the conversation later this year in a community conversation, TBA. In the meantime, challenge your thinking and ask yourself how you can expand your philosophy and practices.
This year, our middle school students are taking part in the Seattle Kids Marathon. Many students in other grades are participating in a personal marathon challenge to log 26.2 miles by November 29th through walking, running, or playing. By participating in this event, students are raising funds for their school, and are thus taking an active role in supporting their own education and that of their classmates. We chose this fundraiser because it supports our values of healthy movement and healthy competition. But before settling on it, our board development and fundraising committee discussed the role of competition and what was appropriate for students. What follows is a sketch of some of the things our school does to prepare students for competition, both individually and in teams.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘competition’? Does it create a positive or a negative image for you? What if someone described you as competitive? Would you be flattered or dismayed? What is competition? Striving to be your best or the best?
We hear a lot about healthy competition, but what is that? Playing by the rules and respecting teammates and opponents are undoubtedly elements, but there’s another aspect to healthy competition in our school: how old are the competitors? Our school pays close attention to developmental stage and age, and that includes sporting competitions. Our end goal is to have students emotionally prepared for competition, both as individuals and as a team. In order to achieve that, we lay some foundational blocks with our curriculum that help students have positive experiences and a lasting desire to engage in sports. Some of these blocks are:
- Team Building
- Emotional Safety
- Personal Responsibility to Self and Others
- Emphasis on Participation
Sharks, Minnows, and Chores
The heart of the preschool and kindergarten play-focused curriculum is social education. Small-group and individual play develops social skills needed for children to work as a team, and large-group activities like circle and eurythmy give the children practice in behaving like a team. Group play requires cooperation, patience, and an ability to listen to others. Left-fielders of tomorrow can develop patience by waiting for a turn with a toy or a tool. Clean-up time and chores build a child’s sense of service to a larger group, meaning that they can be there for their team. Responsible execution of a regular chore builds good life-habits and actively engages kids in service to others. These are small steps, taken in age-appropriate context, and they build a positive staircase to give children skills to navigate through increasingly complex social systems. Focusing on others’ needs instead of our own also helps build compassion and empathy.
Most of us see compassion as a crucial component for life. In sports and competitions, it means we have the capacity to see our opponent as a person of value, not a thing to be destroyed.
Having compassion doesn’t mean you don’t have a competitive edge: it means you’re a gracious winner or loser, someone who picks up a player when they fall, whether they are on your team or not.
At school, we create a safe and familiar environment for students by having a schedule of activities for the day, week, month, and year. Within that framework, our youngest students are guided through transitions between activities by rhymes, songs, chimes, a particular way of lining up, or visual cues. These indicators, once students have learned them, are ways of instruction that require little or no verbal instruction. Kids become confident and comfortable as they navigate through the day knowing what to expect, and without a lot of verbal instruction. A familiar environment with a regular routine helps create an atmosphere of emotional safety. This is why you may hear your class teacher talk about regular bedtimes and mealtimes if that is possible for your family. Students learn best when they feel safe, emotionally and physically.
The Grade One class teacher’s social work with the students is centered on class formation: coming together as a cohesive, supportive group. Outdoor games class may have the class teacher in the role of mild antagonist while the students work to outwit him or her, such as in Sharks and Minnows, when the teacher is the shark and the students are the minnows. Kids of this age love a game of chase, and here they can enjoy a good run and bond with each other as they make their escape from the shark. This is a very safe and appropriate way for them to engage with an adversary. Games and movement in Grades One through Three are cooperative, and may involve an academic challenge as well, such as small teams answering a math problem correctly before moving or throwing a ball to other players. In adding this extra component, students come to rely on one another to achieve a common goal. Eurythmy classes also bolster group work by building spatial awareness and the physical skill of moving together, honing an intuitive sense of where other team members are on the playing field.
Behold, the Frisbee Team Approacheth
Ultimate Frisbee, starting in the fourth grade, is the first after school team sport that students will play for Bright Water School. Ultimate is a self-officiating game–the players themselves are responsible for their own foul and line calls. The game stresses sportsmanship and fair play; and competition is encouraged, but not at the expense of respect for players, the rules, and the joy of the game. Ultimate is a great start in competitive sports because those values are overtly stated. Each player is called upon to be personally responsible for upholding the rules and for keeping the spirit of the game elevated: this is personal responsibility to self and others.
The Olympiad is a two-day pentathalon competition between fifth graders from local Waldorf schools. But our students don’t compete as Bright Water School against other schools: students from each class are separated into city-states to compete. All events are judged in two separate categories: performance (the farthest javelin throw, the fastest runner, etc) and grace and beauty (execution); competitors may win an event in the category of grace and beauty or in performance. They are judged on both, but each holds equal and separate value. Students’ overall behavior throughout the pentathalon is recognized with the presentation of a laurel wreath. Fifth graders are eager for competition, and the Olympiad is structured to be an emotionally-safe environment in which students can challenge themselves individually and work in a team.
That continues with the Medieval Games in sixth grade when regional schools compete again in a series of races and physical challenges. As part of preparation for the springtime Games, the class teacher assigns each student a Squire’s Challenge. This involves:
- service to the ‘lord and lady’ (keeping your room clean, helping around the house)
- learning a new skill
- service to the community in the form of helping a neighbor or a small child on a regular basis
Their success with this challenge, and their behavior at the Games, will indicate whether the student will be knighted at the Games. Each component of the Squire’s Challenge builds something different: learning something new puts the student a bit out of their depth, helping to develop empathy for seeing one’s competitor as someone who is striving to meet a goal, or by having patience for a teammate who is less-skilled; serving the ‘lord and lady’ translates into listening to your coach and responding to what needs to be done; community service builds the teamwork muscle.
Yes, there are some students who don’t achieve knighthood.
Bright Water School’s Movement Teacher and Athletic Director, Bryan McGriff, leads games and movement classes twice a week in each grade school class except Grade One. He also coaches and trains our students for the Olympiad, the Medieval Games, and the seventh and eighth grade track meet. The track meet is the most competitive event our students participate in within the curriculum. Our young adults in those grades are enthusiastic about the meet. It is an age that is defined by moving into independence, testing the strength of boundaries, and of themselves. These kids are looking to make a mark and define themselves as individuals and to explore their growing strength. The track meet is a good platform for them to test themselves against themselves and against others.
Up until this year, Coach McGriff coached every after school sport we offered! He will coach fifth grade boys basketball this year, and he oversees our entire after school activities program to ensure that the coaches we hire and the volunteers who help out all understand our philosophy of movement and sports. One of Mr. McGriff’s most deeply-held values is that all kids can and should participate in movement and sports for a lifetime of healthy movement. The best way to see that to fruition is to build a safe environment where students of all skill levels are welcomed and encouraged to participate. Coach knows that building regular movement opportunities into a student’s routine makes them more likely to participate in sports and movement for a lifetime.
Alumni students from our school have shown that Coach’s approach is a solid one: our alums remain engaged in sports when they attend high school, joining in football, basketball, volleyball, cross-country, swim, and track teams. They’re not all sports stars, but not many of us are. But they can experience the joy of saying ‘yes’ to a pick-up game of basketball, and that, we believe, is a winning way to live!
Growing up, possibly only a lucky few of us escaped the Disney version of Snow White. I know it was a favorite of mine, though I did find the evil queen scary. To my six-year-old self, Snow White was a story of a pretty girl, a mean lady, a gaggle of happy gentlemen, and some amazing bluebirds. It wasn’t until I saw Bright Water School’s eighth grade class perform the play a couple of years ago that I understood the tale from a different vantage point.
In Disney’s version, and in most American print versions of the tale, Snow White’s tormentor is her stepmother. But in the original Grimm’s version, Snow White’s adversary, the evil queen, is her own mother. It was this original version that our eighth grade staged. Watching this version as an adult, it was very clear to me that it was the story of a girl crossing the threshold into womanhood as her mother moves out of her childbearing years and into old age. Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but I’ll only look at that aspect here.
Now, we all deal with growing older differently, but Snow White’s mother seems especially perturbed by her waning looks. She vows to eliminate her rival and tries to do so in a number of ways: to have her killed by the huntsman, to poison her with an apple, to strangle Snow White with her own bodice-laces, to kill her with a comb. In the revised version, these actions are shocking and sad, but the subtext of the story is somewhat suppressed. The real value of the tale lies in the original casting of mother vs. daughter. This is much different than stepmother vs. daughter, because the evil queen mother disregards her primary role as parent and sees only her own needs and wants–not those of her child’s. As parents, we may understand this, but we may not voice such a sentiment. It may lie in one of the darker corners of our psyche. However, by engaging with the tale of Snow White as an adult, I am safe to explore the feelings I have about my own aging as my youth gallops over the horizon. This fairy tale brings me to a place of feeling about my own human condition. Is it just for kids?
Watching the play with grown-up eyes, I could see the themes from the vantage point of the queen: here, the blossom of youth unfolded while I looked on from my own little autumnal leaf pile. Unlike Snow White’s mother, aging hasn’t made me homicidal. But it does bring with it a dash of fear, a pinch of regret, and a splash of anger. While there are many wonderful advantages to growing older and gaining maturity, there are, for me, some negative feelings that go along with it. I could see that part of the Snow White story and understand it; something that I couldn’t grasp at age seven. This was very poignant, and I confess to shedding a tear at the sight of a 14 year-old Bright Water School student, with whom I had walked hand-in-hand when she was a kindergartner, now being strangled with bodice laces by her stage mother. I looked across the audience at the student’s real mother and wondered if she was having the experience that I was.
Snow White, of course, is a fairy tale. We know fairy tales and folk tales to be teaching (pedagogical) stories. We use pedagogical stories for the younger children at our school as a part of the curriculum, and to address anything from social difficulties to rule-breaking. This parallels how cultures around the world use these teaching tales. Fairy tales or folk tales aren’t the only pedagogical stories: as high school or college students, we’ve all deconstructed literature to wring some subtext out of it.
Steiner legend has it that pedagogical stories take forty years to fully unfold within the listener. Does that mean that your first grader won’t understand the story of Michael and the dragon until he’s 47? I don’t think so. I think it means that for some of us, it can take that long to fully realize the deeper message of a tale, or to be able to see it with different eyes, as was the case with me and Snow White.
At the end of September, our school holds its Michaelmas celebration, like many other Waldorf schools around the world. The lower grades children are busy singing about Michael and the dragon, pitching meteors, and trying to tame a fire-breathing beast made up of sixth graders. For most children, the story of Michael, the villagers, and the dragon, is about strength, hope, perseverance, humility, and heroism. The villagers, terrorized by a dragon, call upon Michael for help. Michael comes to their aid, but does not slay the dragon: he tames it, and the villagers put it to work for them. In short, they’ve taken a negative and turned it into a positive. The villagers faced a challenge and they met it. From the story come the activities of the festival, in which students can challenge themselves to accomplish a difficult task: strike a steel, saw a giant log, arm wrestle. Through the festival activities, they can have the physical experience of stepping up to a challenge; they are building their resilience.
For adults, we often say that the Michaelmas festival is a time to gather courage for the dark months ahead. But we’re not just talking about the impending change of season, though Michael’s sword of light can help us out with that. From a grown-up perspective, that dragon threatening the villagers is really the beast within all of us that can drag us into a place of fear and uncertainty, doom and depression. The weather doesn’t help, but our dragon lives on whether it be spring or winter. The tale of Michael gives us a tableau upon which we can take that dark side out and look at it a little bit, maybe even contemplate how we might tame it and put it to work for us. Do we have a sense of hope about our dragon? Will humility help us find some relief from our shortcomings or a way to work with them? The tale of Michael and the dragon can unite us as we admit our own struggle against fear or chaos, and search for our own sword of light to carry us through the dark times.
Did you ever have a moment of embarrassment when your parents hauled out your baby book and shared pictures from your life that you would have rather kept to yourself? Maybe you and your sisters were crammed into matching dirndls someone brought back from vacation for you, or you looked like the ‘don’t’ picture from a hairstyling tutorial. In simpler, less-digital times, it was easier to hide those unattractive or lamentable moments. But thanks to a preponderance of digital cameras, all kinds of things end up on the internet, some of which we have no control over. We worry about what our kids are posting online and how it will affect their future, but what about the trail we may be creating for them?
It was hard to escape the attention that the Reasons My Son Is Crying tumblr received last spring. The micro-blog was cute and funny, and helped many to laugh away the feelings of frustration that parenting a young child can bring. My own family was amused by the entries, and my husband and I shared stories with our son about some of the seemingly reasonless outbursts that punctuated his preschool and kindergarten years.
While many parents have no online social media presence at all, they are rapidly becoming a minority. If you’re a parent with a social media account, you may share special moments from your child’s life with a limited or an unlimited online audience. To some degree, the choice is yours, though it is impossible to completely control who’s photographing and posting or sharing pictures of us and of our kids.
An increasing number of parents and grandparents are sharing pictures and anecdotes, embarrassing or endearing, with an online audience. They are authoring their kids’ and grandkids’ stories. It’s no longer a story that’s created entirely by the subject, like the old days of MySpace or the early days of facebook: the ‘peripherals’ are now weighing in, too. I’m not sure how I would have felt about my mom posting a picture of me with my broken leg and the caption, “Good thing we didn’t name her Grace!”. But if I were growing up today, that’s the type of post I might see from one of my parents. I also wouldn’t want those around me to be tweeting my every accomplishment or blunder, but I wouldn’t really have a choice.
My personal facebook feed is peppered with foibles and achievements of the under-eighteen crowd, posted by their parents. I’ve even seen medical information posted–something I’d consider might be best kept confidential. Is this really fair to our kids? What happens online stays online, and as we’ve seen with the numerous missteps of politicians and celebrities, there’s no way to scrub cyberspace clean no matter how hard you try.
I saw my own hypocrisy after a short session with Reasons My Son Is Crying: I thought, ‘Wow, what is this kid going to think and feel about this when he’s older?’.
Then I realized my own facebook page, indeed, my own blog is leaving a little digital vapor trail of my under eighteen son that he can’t control. And here I was worried about what he was posting.
Last week, New York magazine published an article about the ‘media elite’ making Twitter accounts for their babies. It won’t be long before we see some trickle-down on this. Is making sure your child has a Twitter handle or a domain name with their name that important for newly-born? It is when it’s about branding, says ESPN sports business reporter and ABC News correspondent Darren Rovell:
“It was just a simple strategy,” said Rovell. “Before I announced her name to the select people — before maybe it could get out — I locked down her name at Gmail, her dot-com, her Twitter handle. It was just an intellectual capital investment.”
Before he announced her name. He was already protecting her brand.
And this from CNBC reporter John Carney:
“These are the tools that I didn’t have growing up. It’s important to have your dot-com for your entire life. It’s part of your brand,” he said. “When do you become a brand? Some people say it’s for people who achieved something. I would argue that in some sense you become a brand the second you’re born.”
Okay, I can see how you might want to secure a domain and an email for your youngster, though I do think it’s a tad over-the-top. I know having your own domain comes in handy when you’re looking for work. At our school, we’ve seen a few professional websites from applicants that gave us an excellent picture of the prospective employees and their teaching skills. The sites included videos and lesson plans and allowed us to have a more effective interview. So I can go along with owning your domain name and your name-specific email account, though I don’t think it’s so vital for the majority of mortals to have that locked in at birth. Sidenote: I might have been glad my folks secured my domain so that I was the Laura Crandall of the internet–domain still available, I see!
But I might not be so pleased if my parents did what little Harper Wolfeld-Gosk’s moms did with her infant Twitter account:
“First doc appt tdy. Big success.” … “Pooped AND pee’d on Dr’s changing table. Everyone laughed. Will have to try that again tmrw at home.”
Sure, I could delete their tweets when I finally inherit my account. But could I eliminate all the other things they posted about me online? Probably not. My digital vapor trail by the time I turn 18 would be too long, and too dispersed for me to clean it up.
Maybe John Carney is right: maybe we are all a ‘brand’, or at least those of us who choose to have an online presence are. If this is so, do we have the right to shape our kids’ brand from birth? What digital vapor trail are we leaving for them? We give thought about what our kids are posting online, but how much have we considered what we are leaving behind about them? Will it resurface when they grow into job seekers? Are we negatively impacting our child’s future? Maybe it’s not so dire as all that, but if we’re posting about our kids online, we are certainly affecting their right to privacy. They’ve gone ‘public’ without any choice in the matter. I know I’ll be taking a moment to think before I tweet about my son in future. In the meantime, I hope my sisters don’t mind that I’ve posted the family-famous photo of the three of us dressed in, yes, dirndls.
On September 3, 1935, Sir Malcolm Campbell set the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in his car Bluebird. Having lived my teens and early twenties in England, I knew Sir Malcolm’s story and embraced it as a part of my enthusiasm for all things British. Those images of Campbell grinning widely while leaning against his spectacular, salt-covered car, so cool in his bright white jumpsuit, made an impression on me. The landscape of the salt flats began to occupy a small corner of my imagination. When many years later I saw The World’s Fastest Indian, the story of Burt Munro’s land speed record, the Bonneville Salt Flats officially went on my list of places to visit.
This summer, I made it to the salt flats with my family. Our vacation was a roundabout western road trip that went through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, more Idaho, and Oregon. The trip centered around collecting my son from his month-long outdoor leadership program in Wyoming. My husband and I knew that the best way for us to hear about our son’s trip would be to drive out and get him and strap him into the car for a multi-day trip home. This vast expanse of unscheduled, captive time would allow his stories to unfold, and his wilderness experience to settle more deeply and thoroughly into him. We knew this would be a much different ending, and perhaps a gentler and more meaningful one, than for him to take a plane back to Seattle alone and plug into his electronic teenage universe upon landing.
So off we went to Wyoming, my husband and I, taking a slow, manageable route of four days and beautiful scenery via the back roads and Yellowstone to Lander, Wyoming. In planning the post-pick-up portion of the trip, I put the Bonneville Salt Flats on the itinerary.
Desert landscape is my favorite. I think it is because I spent much of my life in a deciduous and evergreen world with too much rain or too much snow. There was no big sky, there were no giant red rocks standing stoically alone, and certainly nothing as strange or captivating as cactus or lizards. Such barren landscape is time and space represented in the physical rather than the abstract. Within that landscape, there is enough time to do anything and nothing, and enough space for the same.
It is an offering of nothingness; an opportunity not to fill something, but to leave it empty and to be in the emptiness. This is something I find harder to come by, or perhaps I wish for it more these days.
As I’ve gathered more obligations and constraints on my time, I sometimes feel I have become a human doing and have lost the human being. When I’m not on vacation, it can be difficult to create space or find those moments of solitude that fence out the routine and dry up the drizzle of the day to day tasks. Clearing the clouds of the mundane and sweeping away the detritus of worldly expectations is not easily done. Yet it is often through unscheduled, empty time that creativity, inspiration, and innovation appear. Our usual noise has to stop before a new sound can be heard. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience.
During our driving vacation, I could sense the trail of the trivial disappearing on the road behind us. Our conversation wasn’t about scheduling, cello practice, meeting times, or other responsibilities. It was sometimes meaningful and sometimes not. And much of it was silent.
The rhythm of our lives can sometimes get out of balance, with too much doing and not enough being. Here at school, we talk about the rhythm of the students’ day, and look to balance moments of breathing in with moments of breathing out. It is during these ‘out breaths’ that learning can take root and grow into understanding—the space of the out-breath allows the lessons to unfold. When my son was younger, he would sometimes say, ‘Mom, I’m bored.’ ‘Good,’ I would reply, ‘Boredom is the canvas of creativity.’ He doesn’t report boredom anymore, perhaps because he’s tired of my response. But he does see the value of balance and naturally finds a rhythm to his day and week.
Each year in mid-August our faculty reconvenes to begin preparations for fall. We always start our time together with an out-breath: our faculty retreat, at which we share about a selected topic. This year, we shared stories of our summer activities and talked of how we each might keep some of our ‘summer self’ throughout the year, as obligations increase and our reserves decline. The long days of summer give us time to take a swim in the lake after work, have a late-night dinner al fresco, or give us more energy in general. The shorter days of fall tend to coincide with greater demands on family and work schedules, and it’s easy to lose that sanguine summertime feel. Having a verse or an image for the year ahead helps me keep focus and perspective when the load gets heavy. This year, the image of the wide-open space of the salt flats will stay with me to help me unfold into emptiness to retain my balance and creativity. As you step into the autumn, how will you hold space for yourself and your family?
Well, there’s usually quite a bit on my desk, but what I’m focusing on these days is a book I picked up while at the Special Education Conference this spring. It’s called Learning From Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success.
Are Head of School skills similar to Head of State skills? In some ways, perhaps. But more specifically, there are traits and skills that Lincoln developed that made him an effective leader and a memorable communicator. As Head of School, I strive to improve my leadership skills each year. Inspiring leaders such as Yong Zhao and Rosetta Lee have changed not only my thinking, but have caused some policy changes as well, as a direct result of their work. I look forward to similar inspiration from this book, and begin each day by reading a portion of this book or completing one of the writing exercises.
Summer allows me time for reflecting on the year just passed and brings into focus a theme for my year ahead. I generally work with a whole-school theme and at least one professional goal for myself each year. I’ll be learning from Lincoln what I can improve on in the days ahead.
And so, on an overcast morning in March, Chocolate and the third grade students took the ferry to Whitbey Island. Gretchen and Hal Schlomann welcomed the third grade class to their farm. Students met the many alpacas and several llamas of the farm, and even had an opportunity to learn about some of the daily chores involved with caring for alpacas. Under the guidance of our friendly hosts, one group of students prepared breakfast for a group of hungry female alpacas. Another group helped to weigh another adolescent alpaca. These students were surprised to find that all three of them only came close to the total weight of the alpaca. Chocolate used this time to reacquaint himself with some relatives, and to catch up on all the latest llama gossip.
After breakfast, the rain began, and it was time to head to the yurt for weaving, spinning, dyeing and felting. The students from grade three learned how to use a wheel to spin alpaca fiber, and practiced using a loom. They also experienced dying alpaca yarn with a variety of natural sources. The students were surprised to watch how a brilliant red dye came from the crushed shells of Cochineal beetles, and how the yarn took on various shades of yellow from the onion skins they had collected and brought to the farm. And of course, there was needle felting to be done. Students enjoyed working with the alpaca fibers, felting miniature flags, flowers, hammers, and many other things. Chocolate sat out for these activities, as sharp needles and spinning wheels tend to make a very furry creature nervous.
As the rain lightened up, it was time for grade three to say goodbye to all their two and four legged friends. And so, with waves of farewell and llama kisses, Chocolate bid his camelid brethren a fond farewell. As the car pulled out onto the driveway, he was already planning his next visit.
How does Bright Water School teach reading? What is Bright Water School’s approach with students with learning disabilities? These are just two of the questions that came up in our recent parent survey regarding adult education topics. I often answer questions that have a universal appeal on the blog. I find this is a better format than the newsletter for exploring questions in depth. Once I’ve written about a topic, it will remain here for future readers; the newsletter does not allow for that sort of permanence. So let’s talk about reading and our approach to learning disabilities at Bright Water School:
For some students reading seems to come naturally. Yet in the timeline of human history reading is a relatively new human skill.
Taken in historical context, it is only in the last two hundred years that written material has been widely available and that education of more than just a privileged class has been put into place. Given that context, it is understandable that this relatively new skill has to be overtly taught to many students. It’s not an innate skill set. In acknowledging this, we also acknowledge that offering a class specifically for reading is not a sign that anything is ‘wrong’.
The acquisition of reading skills is a vast topic with a wealth of information available in print and online. I won’t attempt an exhaustive treatise, but will highlight a few points about how reading skills are developed and the steps we take to assess skill acquisition and address reading lags.
Reading skills development begins in the early childhood classes. One of the skills teachers develop is visual memory via the use of recall. For example, after a class has been on a walk to the park, the teacher may ask the children what they saw. By recalling things they saw on their walk, their visual memory is strengthened. Another way the teacher might accomplish this is by showing children several objects in succession from a ‘treasure basket’ . Children are then asked to recall what they saw. (By the way, children of this age are much more able to talk about what they saw as opposed to what they did. If you want to hear about your young child’s day, ask them “What did you see today?”, rather than “What did you do today?”) Part of reading is visual memory recall. If you were to think about how you read, you will realize that you are not sounding out words as you see them, you are recalling from memory words you have already learned. However, when you come across a word unfamiliar to you, such as stultiloquy, something different happens and you apply different skills to decode that word. Reading certainly involves much more than just visual memory.
Exposure to language through reading, story, and conversation also helps build reading skills.
A rich use of language and story is a part of our school’s program from Parent and Child classes through Grade Eight. The early childhood programs also employ fine motor activities, such as finger knitting and sewing, to prepare them for writing in first grade. Students enter Grade One with a range of literacy skills. Some are already reading, many are not. The alphabet is presented in stories about each letter, and the teacher provides varied opportunities for students of differing skill levels to participate. As a small example of this, a student who is already a reader may be asked to read the daily class schedule that is written on the blackboard.
In a Waldorf school, academic learning begins in Grade One. Developmentally, this is when children are ready for academic learning in the classic classroom format, but this is viewed as ‘late’ in the U.S. A recent article on the Finnish school system, using the same timeline and an approach similar to U.S. Waldorf schools, ranked the best in the world. Many educators in the U.S. struggle against the trend of bringing academics further into the early childhood years, yet this trend continues despite mounting evidence that such programs are detrimental to students and have a negative impact on their school performance, to say nothing of truncating their childhood experience. At Bright Water School, we support the principal of academic learning beginning in Grade One while also acknowledging that reading is a skill to be taught, not a developmental stage.
To support this conviction and our student’s academic achievement, we screen all second grade students for reading skills acquisition. This screening consists of five parts: oral reading, phonogram knowledge, nonsense words, diagnostic word patterns, and sight words and it aids in determining a need for additional student support. When a student exhibits a delay in skills acquisition, parents of the student are notified and the student is enrolled in reading class with Ms. Rall. We also screen fourth grade students who were in reading class with Ms. Rall in third grade when they begin their fourth grade year.
When students exhibit signs of dyslexia, we recommend off-site screening. We also know that reading skills acquisition can be affected by physical issues such as eye tracking and auditory processing; when we see sign of either of those conditions, we likewise suggest outside assessment or evaluation.
Signs of dyslexia may be detected before formal reading instruction begins. Some of those signs are reversal of sounds, inability to repeat rhymes, difficulty with fine motor activities such as buttoning a coat or pulling up a zipper, and difficulty with colors or shapes. Our school recognizes there is a difference between skill acquisition timelines and learning disabilities. Because much of academic success often hinges on reading, experts recommend that students showing signs of dyslexia should receive intervention as soon as possible. Effective intervention means that students can keep up with their school work and feel successful. To learn more about dyslexia, visit the Washington Branch of the International Dyslexia Association.
We take a team approach to student support.
This means the entire grade school faculty, with parental permission, is informed about any students with learning disabilities at a special group meeting called Student Success Team. Teachers who work with the student are informed about what the student is working on and strategies and techniques for student support and success. Students who are the topic of a Student Success Team are often also working in programs outside the school that address dyslexia, sensory integration, or auditory processing disorder.
Our school has a commitment to being informed about special education topics. As Head of School, I seek out opportunities for teachers to learn about special education topics relevant to their classroom or to their wider duties in the school. The school obtains funding for certain workshops and trainings through Seattle Public Schools. Next week, five Bright Water School faculty will take part in the Special Education Conference in Shoreline. This is Bright Water School’s second year of attendance at this workshop, and is a part of our continued commitment to be informed about student learning needs and continuing to build our list of education support providers. As part of this special education focus, Cindy Lehman of Lehman Learning will make a presentation to the faculty.
Below is a detail of attendees and their respective workshops:
- Nazneen Kateli-D’Souza, Grade Four: Visual Learning in an Auditory World
- Jo-Ann Climenhage, Grade Eight: Intervention Strategies for Older Readers: Issues of Fluency AND Comprehension Teaching Strategies for Middle and High School Students Struggling with Mathematics
- Skye Chamberlain, Grade One and Darlene Rall, Reading Teacher: Addressing Reading Difficulties in Younger Readers: Issues of Phonological Awareness and Decoding AND The Typical and Atypical Reading Brain: Developmental Evidence from Infants, Preschoolers and School-age Children
- Christi Byrd, Math and Reading Tutor: Evidence-based Teaching Strategies for Students Struggling with Mathematics
- Laura Crandall, Head of School: Visual Learning in an Auditory World, AND Behavior and Language: Behavior is not Discipline
Bright Water School is delighted to announce Michael Preston as the Grade One teacher for 2013-14. Mr. Preston has thirty-three years of experience as a full-time grade school teacher; thirty of those years have been spent teaching in Waldorf schools in England and the United States. He is currently teaching Grade Eight at Three Cedars Waldorf School.
Mr. Preston holds a Bachelor of Education, a Master of Education, and a PhD from London University. The majority of his class teaching was at Honolulu Waldorf School from 1990-2005, where he was also responsible for the ukulele program for Grades Six through Eight, and for lyre and introductory violin in Grade Three. Mr. Preston has taught adults in Waldorf teacher training programs; most recently, he taught courses in the summer of 2012 at the West Coast Institute in Vancouver, Canada. He has published numerous articles for the Waldorf education journal, Renewal Magazine.
Team Read is an independent non-profit that works in Seattle Public Schools to help students in grades two and three with reading. The program trains students in grades 8-12 in reading tutoring and then pairs tutors with students. The pairs meet twice-weekly for in one and a half hour sessions at elementary schools around Seattle. Tutors in grades 9-12 can choose to receive pay or community service hours for their work. Eighth grade students may tutor for community service hours only. This year, Team Read began tutoring programs at Lowell Elementary and Stevens Elementary, both of which are within walking distance to BWS. We’re hopeful that next year, some of our eighth graders will choose to join Team Read for their community service project. You can see some of the past projects our eighth graders have worked on in this blog post. Program Developer Bill Eisele will meet with our Grade Seven class in May to talk about Team Read and recruit for next year.
Because they are a non-profit, they need support in the form of books or cash donations. If you’d like to help Team Read with their mission, send an email to info at brightwaterschool dot org and we’ll give you some of the book titles on their list–they have specific requests, so please ask. We’ll collect the books here and deliver them to a Team Read location. You can also donate directly to Team Read on their website.