There were so many beautiful moments at our first community gathering in two years! It was a heartwarming day, filled with bright smiles, uplifting music, and joyous dancing. Our amazing caller kept the crowd on its feet till the end, while little ones bounced around in the hay maze (thanks to Ms. O’Ryan and all the students who helped set it up!).
Please enjoy these gorgeous pictures of the day by parent Michael Weber. Thank you, Michael!
Marin Waldorf School’s marvelous math teacher, Julia McIlroy, has always been drawn to mathematics and sciences, but she’s also seen the world from many other perspectives: as a teacher, as a prison volunteer, as a public defender, and as a mother.As a graduate of Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa (which she describes as a “beautiful experience”), Ms. McIlroy learned to have a complex view of the world—and that’s just what she thinks the best students can bring to STEM fields. Learn more about her upbringing, her Waldorf education, her life as a public defender, and her approach to math education in the interview below.
Let’s start by talking a little bit about your childhood and education. Where did you grow up? I grew up on a vineyard outside of Healdsburg, before Healdsburg was posh. My grandpa was a cardiologist, but he had a dream of owning a vineyard, so in the 70s he bought forty-five acres along the Russian River and transformed it into Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir grapes. So that’s where I grew up—wild and free, roaming the countryside and playing in a winery.
My mom is a microbiologist and food chemist, so she was working when I was young and they had to find a school for me. They eventually found Summerfield Waldorf kindergarten. I remember the first time I visited the kindergarten: the classroom was so warm and inviting. You wanted to stay there for the rest of your life.
My mom knew immediately that this is where we were supposed to be. My dad was not so convinced. But he came along. Eventually they both ended up going through the Waldorf teacher training and my mom is now a special education teacher.
I remember kindergarten vividly: making soup and honey buns, building fairy houses in the field, and climbing trees and rocks. I still have the birthday book of drawings from all my classmates!
I went to Summerfield through 12th grade. It was a rich experience and prepared me so well for college and law school. In fact, college felt a little easy after my rigorous high school classes. In high school, I read Emerson and Thoreau, studied Russian literature, and every year took physics and chemistry. The early and middle grades were similarly rich and I developed a deep love of learning and a strong foundation that is still benefiting me today.
Where did life take you after high school? In high school, I had amazing teachers and I wanted to do and be everything. My biology teacher was particularly inspiring, and I thought I was going to be a biologist or maybe a doctor. Then I went to college and I really loved learning about people and how people worked, so I became more interested in psychology and sociology. There was a program that was asking for volunteers to go to prisons and interview women who had been battered. A new law at the time allowed for women who had been battered to have their sentences reduced. Our job was to go into the prisons and take their entire life history.
First of all, it’s so hard to be in a prison. Even visiting for a few hours is awful. And then the women would share their life history with me. Every one was a life of trauma and abuse that started at a young age. And then they would encounter the legal system, and the legal system would essentially do the same. They were punished for having lived a life of abuse. It was traumatizing, just hearing it. I felt I had to help. I couldn’t let the system just keep going as it was.
So I went to law school and I became a public defender. I did that for many years. What I learned is that you can help individual people, but it’s much harder to change the system. I’d keep seeing the same situations — and even the same clients — over and over again, and every time I felt that, yes, I can make this person feel seen and heard, but I can’t affect the entire system. At some point, it becomes a burden. It weighs you down.
I was teaching all along, but I think that’s really why I started spending more time teaching. Because teaching is a creative, hopeful exercise. Helping students reach their potential was healing in so many ways.
What other teaching jobs did you have? I worked in the math department in college, and I worked as a high school substitute teacher and remedial teacher. When I was a public defender, I worked at Empire College in Santa Rosa teaching paralegals. And I helped create the San Rafael High School mock trial program.
There’s a really active mock trial program in the county, but San Rafael High School didn’t have one. We want more diversity in the legal profession, but if we exclude one of the schools in Marin that has a lot of diversity, you’re missing an opportunity. So we decided to start a mock trial program to get more students of color engaged and so they know that law is a possibility for them.
The students were remarkable—better than many attorneys that I knew. That’s how good they were! Every year there is a mock trial competition in Marin in front of real judges where the high schools compete against each other to go to the state championship. I encourage my students in middle school to go see it, because if they go to high school in Marin, they can participate.
So let’s talk about middle school! As a teacher, how do you approach math? I am passionate about math education. My number one goal is to keep students interested and engaged in math so they will continue on with it in college and beyond. I want to have as many of our students go into STEM fields as we possibly can. Our students have a complex and ethical view of the world—I think having them in science and technology is really essential for our future.
Math education hasn’t changed in over 100 years. The timing has changed: Schools keep shifting the curriculum younger and younger because they think that will prepare students for harder math, but it’s actually backfiring. What colleges are finding is that students aren’t actually prepared because they’re advancing in math too early and their brain development hasn’t caught up.
If you look at the countries that are very successful in math, they often wait until kids are 7 years old to do any sort of formal math instruction. The other thing they’re doing is teaching math more conceptually. What I find is that once students figure out how to solve a problem, they’ll be able to repeat that problem 30 times. But they still won’t understand what it means. They can get a nonsensical answer and not even realize it because they’re not thinking conceptually.
How do I develop a conceptual understanding? What I do is encourage more problem-solving and active learning. I want them to be engaged in learning, so they have confidence in themselves to go out and solve any problem that they encounter.
Part of that is having more complex work. Not just having worksheets with repetitive problems, but having complex tasks, where there are no immediate right or wrong answers. This prepares them for higher education and the workplace and keeps everyone engaged. If you have rich tasks, the students who may be behind academically can do something, and the students who are really high-achieving can take it to higher levels.
Unfortunately students believe that math is procedural work like times tables and fractions. While those are important, that’s not how math is in the real world. I went to a training at Stanford last week with a professor who is at the forefront of mathematics education, and changing mathematics education here in California and in the world. She told us about how she went to a PhD defense presentation in which there wasn’t even one number involved. It was for a PhD in mathematics, but there wasn’t even one number!
Math is really a creative, visual subject. But it is not taught that way. In fact, one of the most incredible mathematicians – she was the only woman to ever win the Fields Medal, which is like the Nobel Prize for math – would draw everything she was working on. Her daughter, who was 4 or 5 at the time, thought she was an artist because she was always drawing at the kitchen table.
What we think of as math is not really what higher level math is. So I tell my students that just because you struggle with this one tiny aspect of math, it doesn’t mean that you can’t think mathematically and be a mathematician. It is so gratifying to watch my students become fully engaged in math and persevere with difficult material. Teaching is truly such a joy.
Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
(… And a recipe for a no-fuss fall soup to make at home.)
Gathering around a table to share a warm midmorning snack is an essential part of the preschool and kindergarten day at Marin Waldorf School. Each of our five classrooms have their own weekly menus for morning snack, and the children learn to recognize the days of the week by the food they share at school: Wednesday is “rice and beans day,” Thursday is “honey bun day” and so on. Soup day is special among them—a warming, handmade meal that all the children love. In fact, vegetable soup is the one snack that all five classrooms make every week of the year!
“Soup is a class community project, where everyone contributes by bringing a vegetable from home and then together transforms it into something that nourishes us all,” says Ms. Greta, lead teacher in the Manzanita mixed-age kindergarten classroom.
Tuesdays are soup day in the Manzanita room. Which means that every Tuesday children bring a fresh vegetable from home and then, together with teachers Ms. Greta and Mr. Rod, our 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old students use paring knives, crinkle cutters, and wooden cutting boards to help chop the vegetables into bite-size pieces for soup.
Added to a pot of browning celery, onion, and garlic, the vegetables are transformed into a colorful, aromatic, and warming autumn soup, which the children share with their teachers at snack time (and it makes plenty of leftovers for Thursday, too, which Ms. Greta tells us are “even tastier!”).
“It’s real work in the real world,” says Peggy Rock, our early childhood coordinator and a veteran kindergarten teacher. Part of that real work is using real tools, including small paring knives that fit in their hands and are sharpened to cut, a very good way to develop fine motor skills. “Children are more capable than you think,” says Peggy. “They may get a few ‘learning cuts,’ but that teaches them to respect the tool and learn to use it.”
Plus, she tells us, “Making the soup means you enjoy it more. It smells wonderful and it’s magical.”
Manzanita teacher Ms. Greta agrees. “It is practical work with their hands,” she says. “The children have a vested interest in something they’ve made themselves.” In fact, many parents are amazed that their sometimes picky children will enthusiastically fill up on two or three bowls of vegetable soup at school.
Making soup with a young child is a wonderful way to spend an autumn afternoon at home, and the soup we make is super simple and incredibly versatile. Remember, we make it with whatever combination of vegetables the children bring to school — from mushrooms to eggplant to broccoli. Use whatever you have at home.
And, remember, of course, that the most important ingredient is love!
Warming Autumn Soup (adapted from the Hollyhock kindergarten and Manzanita kindergarten soup recipe)
1/4 cup olive oil 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped 1 medium white or yellow onion, diced 3-4 stalks celery 1 tbsp sea salt, plus more to taste 1 tbsp Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or tamari 10 cups of seasonal vegetables, chopped bite-size* (see note) 2 tsp fresh or dried herbs 16-18 cups filtered water
* At Marin Waldorf School, we make soup with a wide and wholly unplanned selection of vegetables, which are contributed by our parents. Carrot, broccoli, mushroom, potatoes, corn, kale, or spinach are delicious, but we find more atypical soup veggies work just as well. Try beets, parsnip, cauliflower, eggplant, or sweet potato.
Optional: cooked rice, beans, garbanzo beans Required: love
Work with your child to chop small pieces of carrot, potato, and other veggies you have at home. An adult should chop the onions, garlic, and celery.
Heat the oil in a large stockpot pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.
Add the onion, celery, and carrots (if using) to the soup pot and stir until golden, about 15 minutes
Add remaining vegetables and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes
Add water then turn the heat to high and let the soup come to a slow boil
Put the lid on the pot and turn the heat off. Let the soup rest until serving.
Serve a ladleful of soup in each bowl, topped with Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast. Serve with bread or crackers.
Warm homemade snacks are a part of daily rhythm in our preschool and kindergarten programs, one of the many details that make our classrooms feel like home. With homemade vegetable soup, you make home feel a bit more like school too!
The fourth graders enjoyed their trip to Live Power farm in Covelo, a beautiful valley near Willits. Live Power farm is a biodynamic farm (based on principles put forth by Rudolf Steiner) and is run by Steve and Gloria Decater. Passionate and dedicated, they commit to using power from the sun to produce food for 70 families that participate in their CSA program.
Sheep shearing, potato harvesting, building a biodynamic compost pile, removing brambles, chopping overgrown broccoli and shoveling cow and horse manure were just some of the chores the children completed during their visit.
Waking in the dark, layering up and donning their rubber boots, the children rolled out of their warm sleeping bags when the last stars faded in the dawn light. They gathered in front of the farm house to begin their morning tasks which included wood splitting, milking the cow and feeding the horses, steers, chickens, dairy cows and sows.
Once morning chores were completed, the breakfast bell rang for the children, who then enjoyed a warm breakfast complete with hot chocolate made with milk from the cows. Once nourished themselves, the children went to put the sheep and cows out to pasture for the day. Throughout the day, farm chores continued at a slow easy pace, which allowed children time to be on the land without feeling rushed and to watch the cows chew their hay and to be at peace with the beautiful still work horses.
For over 40 years, Gloria and Steven have generously hosted thousands of Waldorf students for a three night/ four day farm trip. Children leave the farm with an understanding that humans have been cultivating land for 10,000 years, and only in the past 100 years have they depended on fossil fuel. The children learned that everything on the farm is connected- the land, plants, animals and humans, and that without one the others would fail to thrive or even exist.
One of the many gifts we received at the farm was the benefit of sleeping in a new building that has been a dream of the Decaters for a long time. We arrived in the rain, and felt blessed to have an option to have a roof over our heads to protect us from wetness and the chill of morning frost. They are still fundraising for this beautiful conference room which will one day have a kitchen, bathrooms and a shower. Watch this video to meet Steven, Gloria and their work horses!
More farms we love:
Botany, gardening, and learning to cultivate and care for plants are all part of the Waldorf curriculum, with even our kindergarten classrooms caring for their own garden patches. Here are a few other community farms we love.
Bramble Tail Herdshare Program, Sebastapol, CaliforniaBramble Tail Homestead is one part of the Green Valley Farm + Mill land project, located in Sebastopol. Their herdshare program is an opportunity to co-own their herd of Jersey cows and become part of their mission to promote an ecological food web. Members of the herdshare get a portion of their raw milk. Learn more on their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in becoming a member of the herdshare!
Three Springs Community Farm, Bodega, CaliforniaLast year’s third grade class visited this beautiful 80-acre educational farm in Bodega, California, goats, pigs, chickens and biodynamically grown produce. The children were assigned tasks like digging and sifting compost, harvesting radishes, garlic scapes, and peas, planting potatoes, and using hand scythes for cutting grass and then getting to feed the pigs, chickens, and goats.
The early fall is often gloriously beautiful in Northern California, and last Friday afternoon the deep blue skies, brilliant sunshine, and leafy green canopy of Grandmother Oak were backdrop to our annual Michaelmas pageant—a festival that reflects the mood of the season itself. Through song and verse we celebrate the arrival of the autumn season and kindle our inner light as winter approaches. Below, we’d like to share some clips of the children’s performances at the pageant.
In her message to the community last fall, our school director Megan Neale wrote, “In many Waldorf schools in the northern hemisphere, Michalemas is the festival that celebrates and honors this transition and inner preparation. Many of the native people in California also celebrate this time, honoring the harvesting of the acorn that brings life and sustenance throughout the winter months. For the farmers, it is a time to begin to put the land to rest after an active growing season through the summer. There is preparation required for this transition to take place.”
Second graders play an important role in the pageant as the knights who tame the dragon. “In the Michaelmas pageant, the second grade plays the role of the knights. The seventh grade comes in as the dragon, and the second graders tame the dragon and save the people of the community,” explains second grade teacher Mr. Baril. In preparation for the pageant, second graders make their own swords, which, Mr. Baril explains, “are raised upwards to the heavens for strength, not downward, toward the earth, as a weapon.”
On a deeper level, we can each think of the dragon as those things that prevent our awakening to our own humanity. Michael’s qualities of courage, compassion and steadfastness are the qualities second graders are learning to live into as part of the larger second grade curriculum, through which they study the lives of inspiring people from around the world.
The school year began on one of the warmest days of the year. Ms. Mallard played the harp in the breezeway as our preschool and kindergarten families arrived, while grades students waved goodbye to their parents and crossed campus to class.
Once everyone was settled in their new classrooms, we gathered in the oak grove for the rose ceremony, in which first graders were paired with their eighth grade buddies and officially welcomed to the grades with a beautiful rose and a walk under a rainbow silk (pictured below).
After that, campus was alive with activity. Fourth graders helped move picnic tables and haul hay bales from the truck to their new outdoor classroom.
First graders got some healthy exercise in the first games class of the year.
Fifth graders worked with logs and axes in their first woodwork class.
And this was just day one! Please check back for more photos and stories from the 2021-2022 school year.
At the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year, our director, Megan Neale, shared the following letter with our families. We hope you will find optimism in her message.
Life is not always easy. Even for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in this beautiful land with an abundance of food and clean water, there is still illness, death, separation, and loss. The past year has reminded us, sometimes in the most painful way, that it takes strength and courage to meet the challenges of the world with compassion.
In 1919, the first Waldorf school was created in response to the devastating loss and destruction of World War I. Founders Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt wished to educate children who would be incapable of inflicting violence on others and who would be inspired to create a more peaceful world. Many things have changed over the last 100 years, yet there is still war and we still work for a better world. And we still have hope.
Our job as educators, and as parents, is not to fend off the pain and loss in life, or to eradicate it, but to strengthen the inner forces within young children so that they may meet life’s inevitable challenges with love, care, and strength. Over their years at Marin Waldorf School, students develop resilience in ways both overt and subtle. It is a process that is slow, incremental and deliberate, and that we approach with different means at different ages. This week on campus, you could see a four-year-old Sunflower preschooler diligently sweeping sand out of the breezeway, gently guided by his teacher, while, in the amphitheater, a fourteen-year-old 8th grader was hauling heavy boards to build a set for this year’s class play, The Tempest. Here, we do not shy away from discomfort, we value the lessons that come from challenges, and we know that hard work is part of a meaningful life. We can observe the Sunflower’s pride in the freshly swept hallway and the 8th grader’s satisfaction in their elaborate set. It is after the hard work and the difficulties we face that we are able to stand a little taller and shine a bit brighter.
Soon we will complete the school year and send off our beloved 8th grade class. We know they need strength, endurance, and fortitude to meet life and remain open-hearted, even under the best of circumstances. They are ready to take the next step. They have been prepared by their teachers, parents, and life itself with a willingness to work hard, to strive, and to bring an open heart to the world.
As we approach summer break, we find ourselves, and our school community, is in many ways strengthened and bolstered by the unexpected challenges of the past year, as well as by its many moments of joy and beauty. Educating children to lead us through the next generation is a deeply optimistic act. We have learned that hope is an action.
With that, we wish you a joyous summer with your family and look forward to continuing our journey together next year.
Before our 8th grade students departed, they worked together to create three large abstract sculptures to be displayed in our school’s Peace Garden, a central courtyard filled with native plants and flowers—and a hub for migrating monarch butterflies. Below, the director of the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, Ken Smith, who oversaw the project, describes the creation of this unique gift to our school.
There has been some unusual activity in the corner of the Peace Garden as the 8th Grade students are busy creating 3 concrete sculptures as a leaving gift for the school. I worked with the whole class to create a sequence of shapes that capture something of the experience of the last 8 years (less for some students and more for others if they began in Kindergarten) of learning and growing at MWS.
We began with trying to bring back memories of the 4th grade to recall key moments and strong memories and then to put these into sculptural shapes. The next class we moved back in time to find a shape for the earlier years. Then we worked to discover how to make one shape after the other in a sequence – something unfolding and developing in time. One of the challenges for the students was to work with nonfigurative shapes – pure form and gesture – which leaves the viewer free and will allow the sculptures to have many meanings and interpretations in the years to come.
Lastly the class was asked explore the present – coming to the end of their time at MWS.
Then a smaller group of students worked to bring the many ideas together into a sequence that could represent the experiences of the whole class.
These 3 shapes were then enlarged into wire armatures, set into position on concrete foundations and finished in cement.
It was a pleasure to work with the 8th Grade on this project and to be able to harvest their many years of artistic and sculpture work with Ms Deason.
Ken Smith Director Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training
At Marin Waldorf School, 8th grade students spend a full year planning, researching, and working to complete an individual project, which, at year’s end, they present to their classmates and the school community. Below, our 8th grade class teacher, Kristine Deason, shares more about the process.
Eighth grade projects allow students to reveal their capacities as inquirers, investigators, researchers, explorers, inventors, artists, and communicators. Throughout the course of their projects as well as in the culminating presentations, students reveal themselves. No other pursuit more clearly demonstrates how important it is to be “original”—that is, to be the originator of the interest, the question, and the direction that leads to creating something new.
The long process of shaping these projects began in June 2020. Students were asked to read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as inspiration for finding something they wanted to learn how to do or make. Over the summer, they were also asked to create a “Rube Goldberg” machine, again with the objective to work at making and creating something, not just researching. At the start of the school year, they submitted a well-crafted proposal to our middle school committee for approval. For many, just choosing a project drove home the reality that discovery always begins with the question, not the information!
Over the course of the year, students worked with outside mentors, conducted background research, wrote annotated bibliographies, and shaped a long research paper as they simultaneously worked on their physical project. They were asked to maintain a project journal to track their progress and submitted this journal often. On a regular basis, they also reported to the class and supported each other in shaping their final projects. Everyone made changes on a regular basis as they all encountered unforeseen challenges. In fact, no one carried out their project exactly as first proposed, and this provided an honest picture of the very real and uncertain world of original research and exploration!
In the end, over the course of two evenings, we were graced by a wide variety of in-person presentations, delivered with articulate confidence. The subjects were wide-ranging, revealing the broad interests of the students:
No question that May Faire was different this year. Our dear parents weren’t able to join us. The children wore masks below their May Faire crowns. And there wasn’t any strawberry shortcake or a popsicle run to enjoy with friends after the festival ended.
… But there were many things to celebrate: abundant smiles and laughter, joyous dancing, and a strong bond between our student community that made this May Faire special.
You could feel the strength of our school community as the students clapped along to the music played by our 7th and 8th grade orchestra. You could feel it as they cheered raucously for the 8th graders as they performed the final dance around the may pole! You could see it in their smiling eyes as they went back to their classes.