Meet Dena Malon, Our Magical Grades Director

Today, we are beginning a new (mostly) weekly column in our school newsletter and on Grandmother Oak, focused on stories, lessons, and insight from our faculty and staff. For some, becoming a Waldorf teacher is a lifelong calling. For others, a more unexpected and circuitous path led to our school. We want to share these stories, as well as lessons and stories from our students in each classroom, from preschool to 8th grade.

Fittingly, we begin the series with an interview with our grades director, Dena Malon, whose life began in New York City, where she grew up the daughter of a professional magician—”an immaculate showman,” as she describes him—and eventually brought her to Atlanta, back to New York, and then to Northern California.

A former actress, a native New Yorker, and a longtime Waldorf teacher who joined MWS in the 2019-2020 school year, Dena Malon took the new role of grades director for 2020-2021. In the first month of school, she’s already taking a hands-on approach to the role, teaching lessons, mentoring teachers, and working directly with students in and out of the classroom.

How did you become a Waldorf teacher?
I was an actress, a long time ago. I’m from New York, and I trained there. Then I moved to Atlanta where I had a successful acting career. I became the artistic director of an educational theater company, because I always believed there were therapeutic and healing aspects in drama. I started working with children and senior adults and people in prisons and in all different kinds of communities, helping them to open up to the creativity within themselves. 

Then I started working in schools primarily, using drama to help students, in grades kindergarten to college, learn how to communicate better, to write more effectively, and to become more engaged in what they were learning. Imagining opens you up, and when you write, you’re just writing down what you have imagined. So it’s very effective. I did a lot of training for teachers in using drama to enhance the curriculum and classroom management.

I also created issue-oriented plays that explored sexual abuse, watching too much television, uncovering your own creativity. I was the artistic director of a theater company [pictured left] and our company toured all over the southeast, bringing the arts to education.

I first read about Waldorf education in Mothering Magazine, before I had children, and I thought, This sounds incredible. Years later, I had a three-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn, and we were driving down the street and there was a sign for “The Children’s Garden: A Waldorf Kindergarten”—and I thought, oh my gosh, that’s that school that I read about. That was the beginning. I knew very little about it, but I could sense that something extraordinary was happening and I wanted my children to be a part of it.

After a few years, I knew I wanted to become more a part of it. I wouldn’t have become a teacher in any other form of education, but this was so creative, and so different, and it fascinated me—to learn about a different way of working with students. I became a first grade teacher when Max was in the third grade and Jack was in kindergarten. 

How old are your sons now?
They are 28 and almost 32. And I absolutely adore them. They’ve been working remotely as creative directors for strategic communication firms for three or four years. In this capacity, they traveled all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. Jack, in particular, loves being in Mexico.

One of the most extraordinary times in my life is when I went to visit them when they were living in Tulum. We had beautiful dinners together, and the one day that they had to work when I was there they treated me to a “rebirthing experience” at a spa.

What was your childhood like?
My father was a magician. I grew up watching him perform. It was very exciting. When he did shows for children, I would get to go. He was an immaculate showman. I learned a sense of timing from him—to always leave the audience wanting more.

I always wanted him to call me up, to be one of the children involved in baking a magic cake. I would say, Please, call me up, I won’t tell anybody I’m your daughter! I just wanted to be under the spell. He never would. So when we got to the place in the act when I knew that no one else was coming up, I would say to whoever was sitting next to me, “That’s my father!”

I’ve often reflected on the fact that the first man in my life was a magician, who could make impossible things happen.

That’s very unique.
Right. So I thought I really need …

… to do something with that! I’d love to see what you do.
I have been working on a story about it.

Do you have any other ideas for writing projects?
I have been thinking about writing an imaginative one-woman performance that traces my own incarnations through history. I am married to one of the instructors from my Waldorf training, Thom Schaefer, who is the education director at Credo High School. When Thom was going to Israel to live and work—we were friends for a long while, before we were married—I told him to find the most beautiful spot in Jerusalem and shout out my name to bring me back, because I thought my story should start there, but thousands of years ago.

I love that. Did he do it?
Yes. He traveled a lot, and he began to call my name out in many places. He’d come back and he’d write me, or he’d call me, and he’d say, I was just in Turkey and I found this place… and he’d send me postcards from where he called my name.

How do you envision your role as grades director? What will you bring to our school?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot through teaching the curriculum. I’ve taken two classes all the way through the grades, and through this, I’ve come to understand the support that teachers need.

Adult education is also important to me. I like talking to parents about the curriculum and how Waldorf schools operate. I am so grateful that at this time in my life I have been given the opportunity to share my experience with this community.

What’s something you’d like to share with parents about Waldorf teachers?
The teacher sees your child as who they are, right in front of them, but also their potential, for who they can become. You are working with the present and you’re also envisioning the future.

Finally, I wanted to ask, during this time—with the pandemic, the fires, the social unrest—any silver linings or takeaways?
We have the opportunity to learn to communicate in deeper ways. We are looking into each other’s eyes. Even unbeknownst to ourselves, we have to be more communicative with our eyes because that’s what we see. We’re learning to read more about each other, without the benefit of the whole face. Another benefit is teaching outside, which is something we will never give up!

With DEI, and the sensitivity that’s being brought up, this time is making us look at the curriculum and at our own attitudes. It’s making us even more conscious of who we are, which is very important— important for all of us.

*

Dena Malon is the grades director at Marin Waldorf School. Thank you for sharing your story with us!

Interview by Julie Meade. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Welcome Back, Classes of 2021 and 2022

At last we’re (almost) all back on campus together! Just yesterday, we welcomed our 7th and 8th grade back to campus for in-person instruction.

While school resumed for preK to 6th grade a few weeks back, our 7th and 8th graders have been meeting for instruction on Zoom and coming together in small cohorts on campus for recreational time, as permitted by the county. The 8th grade spent the past two weeks to constructing an amazing shaded classroom in the far east corner of school.

On the far right, Ms. Deason, our 8th grade class teacher, calls the front office from her walkie-talkie — our school’s new communication system now that our classrooms are scattered beneath the oaks and across the fields of our 11-acre campus.

Seventh grade has been busy preparing a beautiful display for Michaelmas in the Peace Garden, right in the middle of school. Although we won’t be holding our traditional Michaelmas festival this year, we are still marking the day with performances and decorations.

The 7th grade’s outdoor classroom is in a particularly beautiful spot, out in a part of campus we often refer to as The Magic Forest. Here’s the Class of 2022 practicing strings in their outdoor classroom.

So beautiful!

The Rose Ceremony, Reimagined

Our year in the grades always begins with an all-school assembly to celebrate the Rose Ceremony. In this beloved tradition, first graders are called one by one to the stage to receive a red rose from their new eighth grade buddy. Together, our school celebrates the first day of our first graders’ journey through the grades, while also saluting our eighth grade class, who are beginning their last year on campus.

It’s hard to imagine a school year starting without the Rose Ceremony. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a Waldorf school year without a robust calendar of community events, festivals, ceremonies, and gatherings… but reimagining is what we’ve been doing all year. Surely there was a way to mark the day without compromising our commitment to safety.

Working with our school nurse, our first and eighth grade teachers redesigned the Rose Ceremony as a safe, physically distanced event, which connected the two classes through socially distant waves and smiles (and without any intermingling of cohorts!). See below as one of our first graders passes under the rainbow bridge between our School Director Megan Neale and Grades Director Dena Malon, to stand beside her teacher, Mr. Baril. (And of course we had to have live musical accompaniment!)

The ceremony concluded with the very special delivery to the first grade of a basket of handmade gnomes from the eighth grade (pictured at top).

Gallery: Orientation Days

This week, we invited small groups of students and their parents to campus on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning. It was an opportunity for the children to use their outdoor classrooms for the first time and begin learning the new safety procedures for the 2020 school year. It was also an opportunity for our parents to see the classrooms they’ve worked hard to create one last time: When school starts next week, parents and visitors will no longer be allowed on campus.

We continued to put the finishing touches on our classrooms, learned how to use the bathroom safely, and spent a lot of time practicing our 6-foot distancing.

We also have a few adorable videos from our first days back. Here’s the second grade students and parents sewing cushions for their outdoor classrooms, and the third graders trying out their new outdoor balance beam.

Here are some happy third graders with their harvest of fresh grapes. Gardening is always a central part of the third grade curriculum, and a small garden space on the east side of campus is usually set aside for the third grade to plant and tend. This year, that garden is their classroom!

2020 has been a year like no other, and as we head into Labor Day weekend, going back to school, and all the simple pleasures that come with it, has never felt quite so grand!

Outdoor Classrooms Across the Country

If you’ve been following along on this blog or are already a member of the MWS community, you know we’ve been working hard all summer to prepare our school’s outdoor classrooms for a safer reopening of campus this fall. Last week, our school applied for a waiver from the county and state to reopen to in-person learning on September 8.

While distance learning was a challenge for our close-knit, tech-free community, spending time outdoors is right within our element as a Waldorf school, where building a relationship with and respect for nature is an integral part of education. While we wait for a response to our application for a waiver, we’ve been feeling inspired to be a part of the nationwide movement to move learning outdoors. From Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Burlington, Vermont, teachers are pulling out whiteboards and setting up umbrellas and shade sails to create new classroom spaces. Just yesterday, New York City shared a potential plan to move classrooms outdoors, taking students to nearby parks and even into (closed) city streets!

In this story from PBS News Hour, Sharon Danks, co-founder of the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, says, “Schools have a lot of potential to use their grounds that they’re not tapping.”

“So in this case, in the COVID context, we think they have plenty of space outside that can augment the inside space when they’re looking to spread kids out for social distancing,” she continues. (You can read more about Danks’s project, National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, here.)

Here in California, we have mild (if, hopefully, rainy) winters, but Danks says it’s possible to move education outdoors across climates. “We have great examples from Canada and from northern Scandinavia where they can go outside in the winter. And actually in Chicago in the pandemic in 1918, tuberculosis and the Spanish flu pandemic, they did go outside even there all winter in some schools,” she tells NewsHour.

We love seeing so many other Waldorf schools across the country redesigning their programs for outdoor learning. Just this morning, the Lake Champlain Waldorf School was featured on the Today Show segment about outdoor classrooms while a fourth grade teacher at Prairie Hill Waldorf School was featured in the national news for her unique outdoor classroom design.

Is this the beginning of a new movement in Waldorf schools and education in general?

A Visit to Our Summer Garden

This year, our fortunate 6th graders will spend their school day in our beloved campus garden, which is being transformed into the 6th grade outdoor classroom.

One of the most special spots on campus, it is a true cooperative project, tended by faculty, parents, and students throughout the year. Just last week, our gardening teacher, Ms. Betsyann, shared some pictures of our school’s beautiful garden in bloom over this warm and sunny summer. See the photos and read her update below.

The Waldorf Garden is thriving this summer thanks to the watering help of parents. Sunflowers are blooming!

Taking a picture of a butterfly is hard as they don’t sit still. The bees are a little easier to photograph. Here, both these pollinators, are visiting the milkweed.

Elderberries are ripe and grapes are ripening. 

Bubbles the turtle misses everyone.

Gallery: Our Campus in Transformation

Every Monday this summer, our faculty has come together on Zoom to discuss our plans for the upcoming school year. During our meeting this week, each of our class teachers took a few minutes to describe their progress on and vision for their outdoor classroom. We heard about a planned arbor at the entrance of one room, a planting project atop the straw bales that form a classroom’s border, a wall made of twined willow, spaced tree stumps, and more. With each class, our excitement grew.

At Marin Waldorf School, we have always been grateful for our beautiful campus, with its big grassy field, abundant working garden, surrounding open space, and groves of redwoods and valley oaks throughout. As we approach the next year, this beloved space is becoming all the more essential as we re-envision our students spending their days almost entirely outdoors.

On Sunday, we shared some photos from the first few weeks of our classroom build out. We’re back today with some gorgeous shots taken by one of our parents. Look at these beautiful classroom spaces for the fall of 2020 (that’s 5th grade under the oaks in the first three pictures, 1st grade nestled amid the redwoods, and 7th grade in the last picture on the bottom right).

And here are a few more fun action shots from the building.

We’ll keep posting photos, so please check back for images of the arbor and willow walls, the new plants and the new chalkboards very soon!

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!