Stumps, Straw, and Chips: 2020 Classroom Building Begins!

Last week, NBC News ran a story that featured our colleagues at the Detroit Waldorf School, who are planning to open their classrooms entirely outdoors this fall. The writers pointed out that their back-to-school shopping list is a bit “unusual.” “The Detroit Waldorf School in Michigan is buying carriage bolts, berry bushes and 8,000 square feet of cedar wood,” the authors report.

Our own shopping list is somewhat unconventional too: In the past week, our campus has received shipments of wood chips, tree stumps, straw bales, shade sails, recycled wood, and Crazy Creek chairs. (We’re also stocking up on Humanity Shields and alcohol-based hand sanitizer.) Last week, we shared how work on outdoor classrooms had started, and now, as supplies are arriving on campus, that work has begun in earnest!

In the photo to the left, Ms. Percey gives the 5th grade classroom a test run, with masked students seated on hay bales and fold-up chairs. Their lap desks, which students may use on top of a folding table or on their lap when seated on the earth, seemed to work very well in our test run.

What a lovely spot for our 5th graders to learn this year—and especially appropriate for the 5th grade botany block!

Beneath the shade of the oak trees in the Magic Forest, the 7th grade space is clearly marked with hay bales along its border, and tree stumps are set up at 6-foot intervals.

In this picture, you can see the frame for the chalkboard at the front of the 7th grade class, with the branch of all beautiful valley oak tree serving as a natural wall.

Early childhood classrooms will each their own dedicated outdoor space, where children will spend a large part of the day, rain or shine.

In the photo at the left, a family in our new mixed-age early childhood classroom Manzanita helps prepare the new play space for our smallest students. Manzanita teacher Ms. Sarah imagines a big garden in this space, where the children will grow plants all year.

We can’t wait to see the way our classrooms take shape over the next few weeks, as our teachers and parents bring their goodwill and creativity to the great outdoor classroom build out of 2020. We will have even more pictures of the outdoor classrooms this week… so check back soon.

Imagining Grandmother Oak in Norse Mythology

This year, the oldest tree in our oak grove and the namesake of this website, Grandmother Oak, will shelter our fourth grade outdoor classroom.

“I painted Grandmother Oak on Monday when I was on the Faculty Planning call. I want to really get into the spirit of the tree and our fourth grade classroom,” says Ms. Stroud. 

She is already dreaming up ways that the tree will become a part of class lessons too. “I am also going to have to rename her after the great tree Yggdrassil which links the nine worlds of the ancient Norse cosmology,” she says. “Norse Myths are a central part of fourth grade!”

Building Teacher-Student Relationships Through Looping

When schools closed in March, it quickly became clear how important personal relationships between students and teachers are to a productive learning environment. For some schools, turning to the innovative idea of “looping,” or keeping the same teacher with a fixed class of students for two or more years, is a way to strengthen the bonds between class and teacher. Last week, KQED shared the story “How Teacher Looping Can Ease the Learning Disruptions Caused by Coronavirus,” in which writer Kara Newhouse discusses the benefits of looping.

Looping is common to almost all Waldorf schools, where class teachers stay with the same group of students through the grades, in some cases from 1st through 8th. In fact, looping was incorporated into the very first Waldorf school, which opened over 100 years ago in Germany. At Marin Waldorf School, the special relationship between each class is fortified by their growing relationship with the class teacher. (A case in point, the warmth exuding from our 8th grade teacher Ms. Percey in the picture above, as she speaks to her class at our outdoor/socially distant graduation for the class of 2020. Ms. Percey had been with this class in grades 5-8, and she’ll be starting a new loop as the 5th grade class teacher in 2020-2021!)

Ms. Weger took the class of 2019 from 5th grade to 8th grade. In the fall of that same year, she started first grade with a new class of students whom she’ll be teaching in second grade this coming fall.

While recent school closures may have brought the teacher-student relationship into the spotlight, there is plenty of research to suggest that looping is beneficial to students in any environment. In the article “In the Loop,” published by the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the authors explain, “Schools that have effectively implemented the looping structure point to the following benefits: improved relationships among students and between teachers and students, more efficient instruction, higher attendance rates, reduced student retentions, fewer referrals of students to special education programs and improved student discipline.”

Many experts are citing the importance of significant relationships in young people’s lives. As James P. Comer, who runs the School Development Program at Yale University, puts it: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” – JIM GRANT, IRV RICHARDSON & CHAR FORSTEN,
The School Superintendents Association Schools

There are similar takeaways in this piece, “Looping Leads to Long-Term Connections with Students,” at Edutopia, which credits Rudolf Steiner as the probable originator of the idea. “People are hardwired for long-term relationships,” the authors writer, “and emotional growth isn’t optimally possible without a permanent, supportive presence.”

We’ll be talking more about looping this week, as well as the other ways Waldorf education is adapting to a new educational environment… so please check back for more!

Staying Balanced, Staying Healthy

By Mia Terziev, 7th Grade Class Teacher, Marin Waldorf School

In this time of great uncertainty and what, at times, feels like chaos, I have been focusing a lot of my time and energy on the external, precautionary measures we need to take in order to be safe and healthy in the midst of a pandemic. There are many critical behaviors for us to commit to and create as habits in order to keep each other safe: regular hand-washing, mask-wearing, social-distancing, disinfecting. These are all very clear and necessary and specific – rules that we must follow as we navigate the stormy seas together. We are all in this boat, every single one of us. For me, the outlook can easily increase my stress levels. In addition to the necessary precautions we all need to take to limit the risks of Covid, what about the other aspects of our health? In a phone conversation with a parent in my class last week, I was pleasantly reminded of a free, convenient, healing immune system booster: sunshine! When enjoyed in moderation, the sun has many healing benefits. So, I am increasing my daily dose from not much to more. 

This week I have decided to remember and focus on all the ways I can take action to fortify my health and well-being while sheltering in place. Really there’s nothing new here, just reminders about what we already know. But sometimes I need a reminder, it is so easy to get out of balance with diet or sleep or screen time, especially when I am feeling fear, grief, overwhelm, and anxiety about the world and all the things I have no control over. Now more than ever I feel the need to recommit to myself by doing what I can to strengthen my forces. 

Here are some thoughts and articles I have found to be very helpful reminders as I strive to cultivate healthy habits. This is meant in a general way regarding general good health. Some people live with acute health issues and preexisting conditions for which these ideas and resources may or may not be helpful. 

On balance: 

“The best protection against any [contagious] illness is to have a healthy and balanced lifestyle, diet and work/sleep rhythm. One’s mental and emotional balance is critical. One should be prudent, but not obsessive or fearful; confident and self-possessed, but not thinking oneself invulnerable.” Dr. Philip Incao

On thoughts: 

“Thought is a vital, living force, the most vital, subtle, and irresistible force there is in the universe…The “power of the word” is a literal scientific fact…The spoken word is nothing more or less than the outward expression of the workings of (our thought) forces…And in a sense love is everything. It is the key to life, and its influences are those that move the world. Live only in the thought of love for all and you will draw love to you from all. Live in the thought of malice and hatred, and malice and hatred will come back to you. Every thought you entertain is a force that goes out, and every thought comes back laden with its kind.” Ralph Waldo Trine

On healthy habits:

Your immune system hums with activity. Cells, tissues, and organs work together all through your body to coordinate attacks against invading pathogens. You can help to keep this system running smoothly and efficiently when responding to threats.” (Read the full article)

On finding the essential:

“So all one needs to do is spend time looking at the visions one has for body, soul and spirit, and this will help clarify our goals and guide us to those essential and most important activities in our life.” Susan Johnson (Read the full article)

In addition to spending more time in the sunny garden, prioritizing nutritious foods, finding ways to move my body often, and taking time to have fun with my family, I am listening to this audiobook by our own Jack Kornfield,  Guided Meditations for Difficult Times. I highly recommend it. From the beginning I was laughing and crying and feeling hopeful. Here’s a short excerpt from the introduction: 

“If you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.”

As a person who thrives on making plans and knowing what to expect, I am being forced every day to navigate life and work during a pandemic, a difficult task which includes accepting the unknown while remaining open and flexible. Any plan I make is almost immediately thwarted. Of course, there are preparations I can focus on, and I believe one of my most important tasks right now is to cultivate my health – finding balance, and living more fully in the present moment. 

If you have found great ways to stay healthy and balanced, please share them! 

Second Nature: Learning Outdoors in Waldorf Education

This summer, our faculty and staff are busy creating beautiful, sun-shaded outdoor classrooms across our 11-acre campus so that our students may more safely return to in-person education in September. (Read more here.) While outdoor classrooms may sound nontraditional, learning outside is, in fact, nothing new in a Waldorf school.

In Waldorf education, building a relationship with nature is central to a child’s development. Time outdoors teaches children about the Earth’s natural rhythms and cycles, allows them to experience natural phenomena before studying them in a classroom, and fortifies the child’s relationship with and respect for the natural world. To learn more about Waldorf schools and their relationship with nature, please check out this wonderful piece, “Waldorf Education and the Nature Connection,” from the blog Loving Learning by our colleagues at Philly Waldorf School.

At Marin Waldorf School students in every grade, starting in preschool, spend a large part of their day outside, rain or shine. Kindergartners take weekly hikes in the hills near campus and learn that, as the saying goes, “there is no such things as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Throughout the grades, the relationship with nature that was built in early childhood continues through gardening, environmental education, outdoor education trips, and weekly hikes off campus.

For many of our students, a snowy ascent up Mt. Shasta or jumping into nearby Miller Creek during an environmental education class may be among their best memories at school.

6th Grade class trip to Mount Diablo.

A group of kindergartners stops for a snack on their weekly hike to Dragon Mountain.
Third graders harvesting in our school’s garden.
A 6th grade social ethics class takes places in the shade of an oak tree on campus.
A group of first graders climbs a waterfall.

Like Marin Waldorf Schools, many Waldorf school across the country are finding its an easy transition to create safer outdoor classroom spaces for fall 2020. Sanderling Waldorf School in Vista, California, was recently featured on their local CBS station for creating an outdoor program. Watch the story here.

Atlanta Waldorf School was featured in the CNN article “More than ever, we need nature. It makes us and our children happier.”

The many benefits of connecting with nature and learning outside have been studied by scientists and psychologists—long before the pandemic made the reality of outdoor classrooms even more urgent. Here are a few of our favorite recent stories about outdoor learning.

The Great Outdoor Classrooms

At Marin Waldorf School, we nourish the relationship between children and the natural world. Starting in early childhood, our students spend ample time outdoors, playing, hiking, and lunching beneath the oak trees. As grades students, they hike in the open space that surrounds our school, care for and study our campus flora, and work in our school’s abundant garden.

We are building on that foundation now. This summer, we are creating open-air classrooms for each grade, scattered across our 13-acre campus. (In the drawing above, you can see a snippet of our reimagined campus map, with outdoor classrooms for each grade level.) The classrooms will allow for fresh air and maximum social distancing—and of course they will also be beautiful! To the left, our woodworking teacher Mr. Neale paints one of the blackboards that will be installed in each of the classrooms. Lap desks, hay bales, and sun shades will follow.

There is strong research to suggest that outdoor classrooms would be safer for students during a pandemic, but are they effective places to teach?

Last week, many people in our community noticed this fascinating story in the New York Times (right), which documents the use of outdoor classrooms in early 20th century New York to fight rampant tuberculosis infection in the city.

The article outlines the compelling safety reasons for building outdoor classrooms (“one of the few things we know about the coronavirus with any degree of certainty is that the risk of contracting it diminishes outside — a review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission”). However, it also outlines the emotional and pedagogical benefits of being outdoors.

Among other compelling research, author Ginia Bellafante shares the following: “A 2018 study conducted over an academic year looked at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges facing 161 fifth graders. It found that those participating in an outdoor science class showed increased attention over those in a control group who continued to learn conventionally. At John M. Patterson, an elementary school in Philadelphia, suspensions went from 50 a year to zero after a playground was built in which students maintain a rain-garden and take gym and some science classes, the principal, Kenneth Jessup, told me.”

This morning, the Marin Independent Journal shared another story, “Marin school finds pandemic workaround: the outdoors,” about the local Terra Marin School in Mill Valley, which is going to be operating outdoors this fall.

We’ll be sharing more photos and updates of our classrooms this summer, as well as more research about the benefits of outdoor learning, so please follow along.

Inspiring Music From Kusi Kawsay

A few months ago, we shared some gorgeous pictures and an update from our sister school, Kusi Kawsay Andean School, an indigenous nonprofit educational project in the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Pisac, Peru. Today, we are delighted to share that Kusi Kawsay has released its Pukllay album, a beautiful compilation of student songs for the fertility season of the traditional Andean Calendar.

Kusi Kawsay’s mission is to foster personal and cultural self-esteem based on respect, reciprocity and dignity while providing its students with the skills to navigate both modern and traditional worlds. 100% of proceeds from this benefit album will go to Kusi Kawsay School. Let’s support their important work! Click here to listen to a sample and purchase the album.

You can learn more about Kusi Kawsay and their unique community on their website.

Audio Story: “The Fairy Helpers”

Mr. DeRienzo, our school’s aftercare lead teacher, is a storyteller extraordinaire. This summer, he’s sharing a series of original audio stories featuring an imaginative cast of recurring characters, appropriate for preschool-and-kindergarten-age children (appropriate and enjoyable for older children too)!

In our first tale, Gold Monkey and Jeremy the Giant accompany Mr. DeRienzo’s sidekick Ozzi to help the fairies in the forest. It’s fun work … but silly antics always ensue when our friend Gold Monkey is involved!

Story #1
“The Fairy Helpers”

If you liked that story, subscribe to the whole series on the registration page here! New stories will be posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from June 22 to July 17.

All material © Rod DeRienzo 2020. Please do not share or distribute without express permission from Mr. DeRienzo and Marin Waldorf School.

Teachable Moments in the MWS Parking Lot

In this sweet excerpt from our 2020 alumni panel, alumna Marissa Meyer (class of 2020) explains how her eighth grade teacher used a parent’s flat tire in the school parking lot to help bring their study of the Industrial Revolution to life.

“There wasn’t necessarily a right answer or a defined objective. It was, how do you figure it out?”

A Puppet Show in Spanish

To practice comprehension and review vocabulary with MWS third graders, our Spanish instructor Maestra Pineda created this lovely felt puppet show for her students. Follow along as grandma, grandpa, dad, and the whole family try to pull a giant carrot from the ground.

¿Cuantas zanahorias recogen los abuelos?

Feature image: “carrots” by The Bunny Maker is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0