El Vuelo de los Ancestros

Under the guidance of Spanish teacher Has Pineda, the traditional Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos has become a part of our school’s annual celebrations. Last year, as part of the school’s festivities, our 8th grade class presented a wonderful play in Spanish to the student body, 3rd graders baked the traditional sweet bread pan de muerto, and we all brought mementos and photos to assemble a traditional Día de Muertos altar to remember departed loved ones.

This year, students worked with Maestra Pineda to create a beautiful altar in the Peace Garden (click here for photos). Below, Maestra Has Pineda describes the origins and meaning behind Día de Muertos celebrations.

El vuelo de los Ancestros
Return to the ancient path,
the roadmap of greatness,
the elders call must be obeyed,
thoughts of the ancestors is enough,
everything is hidden within it.
It is the beginning of healing
for all of us and our land.
Put your ears on the ground to listen
to what they have to say.
Tilt your head and look up for
the sky bears witness to this truth.
The air still sings their music,
even the waters also whispers their songs
for they drank from the same well as you.
Emeka Mokeme, The Elders Call
by Morgan Vierheller

Death has been in all cultures and throughout history, an event that invites reflection, rituals, ceremonies, the search for answers, which causes fear, admiration and uncertainty. The festival of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is a tradition that began long before the arrival of the Spanish. About 3,000 years ago, the original Aztecs left a legacy that shows, in the eyes of the world, a culture of great intangible wealth: the spiritual. Through these practices and beliefs they speak to us of respect and love for connections even after physical death.

Pre-Hispanic cultures shared the belief that there is an immortal and soulful entity that gives consciousness to the human being and that after death continues its path in the world of the dead, where it continues to need utensils, tools and food. 

Every year, as the fall season arrives Mexicans and many other people from around the globe turn their hearts and minds  to loved ones that have crossed the threshold and once more  enlighten the bridge between the dead and the living by celebrating “dia de los muertos”. The most representative element of the Day of the Dead festival are the altars with their offerings, a representation of the vision of death, full of allegories and meanings.

This year at Marin Waldorf school we will be honoring with respect, wonder and inclusivity this festival of remembrance. Each class will be offering a gift to the “ofrenda”. First graders cut out pieces of paper to make banners or “papel picado” that will represent the air element. Fifth grade will be making Cempasúchitl  flowers(marigolds). They are a symbol of the impermanence and fragility of life and have many uses in Day of the Dead celebrations. 7th graders learned about the history and the components of an altar while 8th graders will write biographies of a loved one they will be honoring during day of the dead. 

We set up an altar in the peace garden to allow all students to walk through and in reverence take part of this beautiful celebration. 

Meet the Globe-Circling Sally Li

Raised in Zhangzhou City, China, Sally Li has followed her heart around the globe and through diverse careers before she joined the faculty at Marin Waldorf School this fall, where she currently teaches Mandarin to grades 2, 3, 4, and 5.


“I don’t know how I make my decisions,” Sally says. “I just feel it. Something is calling me.” Those instincts brought her to Malaysia at age 20, prompted her to leave her corporate job in Beijing to pursue a career in filmmaking, and eventually led her to Waldorf education. Read about it all (and see her short film!) below.

Sally, we’re so glad you’ve been called here!

Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from and what was your childhood like?
I’m from Zhangzhou City. It’s in the middle part of China. I have some friends who say it’s like Nebraska.

My childhood was really free. In China, at that time, in my surroundings, moms tended to be very controlling and always focused on academics. My mom wasn’t like that. She trusted me. I could play with boys and I loved adventure. I was a wild little girl. 

We lived in a huge military compound and my dad was a teacher at the academy. There were people there from all across China, and they spoke many different dialects. I grew up in that type of inclusive surrounding, where people speak different languages but we are all neighbors. 

When I was 20, I moved to Malaysia.

What brought you to Malaysia?
A lot of my decision-making is very ad hoc. I was studying hospitality at the university. A Crown Hotel and a Holiday Inn had just opened in the city, and they went to my university to pick a few students who would work in their hotels after graduation. I was one of the two who were selected. My parents were super happy! I had a job already, even though I was still in school!

One day I was riding my bike and I rode past a storefront that said something like, “Go Overseas!” I went in, they told me what they did, gave me some options of where I might go. The next day I brought my dad there with me and told him, “I’m interested in this.” That was the beginning.

My dad had a friend whose daughter wanted to go to Malaysia, but she was introverted. She didn’t want to go alone. My dad said, “Why don’t you take a break for the summer and go with her to Malaysia?” After that, there was no return. I came back to China and said, “I’m not going to take that job. I’m going back to Malaysia.” I really liked the tropical weather and the blue sky, and everything was new. It was mind-blowing.

Seven years later I went back to Beijing for a project assigned by the company I was working for in Malaysia. I fell in love with Beijing all over again. I decided to come back to China. I was in Beijing for 6 or 7 years. At that time, I was doing soft-skill training, teaching corporate people how to communicate, how to influence without authority, leadership skills, and so on. 

One day I was training a bunch of IT people on how to ask powerful questions. I used myself as a real case scenario. I told them I felt a little bit stagnant in my job and I wondered if there was anything else I could do with my life. There was just a tiny little bit of feeling in me. I still loved that job. I just brought myself as a case for them to practice on. I wasn’t expecting anything.

They asked me, “What is the thing you always wanted to do but you never had the chance?” I said, “Be a movie maker!”

The next question was: “What was the last movie that you watched that inspired you?” I told them Life of Pi. 

They asked,What do you like about that movie?” I said, “I like the feeling when he encounters the tiger. At that moment, I felt very connected to the movie.”

The next question came in. “What is the tiger in your life? The thing that makes you feel excited and also a little scared?” I said, “That’s a great question! I think being a moviemaker is the thing that makes me feel most sharply alive.”

I took one month off my job. I went to Beijing Film Academy to do a workshop led by the New York Film Academy. After that, I quit my job and I went to New York.

To New York City?
Yes, I went to New York City for a year to study fiction filmmaking. I learned the skills, but I wasn’t drawn to narrative filmmaking. I found I was more interested in documentary. I told my teacher, but it was too late to change course. It was a two-year program. For the final project, everyone made their narrative films and I did a documentary anyway, and many people were touched by it.

What was the film about?
It’s about mystical coincidences. It’s about 15 minutes.

Around that time, a friend invited me to San Francisco to film the experience of a tour group that focuses on spiritual learning. I fell in love with San Francisco! So then I came here. I got married, had a son, and when my son was 9 months old, I felt very disconnected. I almost went into depression. I thought, I need to save myself. I need something that connects me to myself. I emptied myself and I couldn’t feel myself anymore. 

I had a feeling it had to be something to do with education, because I’d just had a boy and I wanted to be a good mom as well. I found Waldorf Teacher Training. I went to the three-day Visiting Day program and after the first day I said, “I’m enrolled!” Life changed again, for the better. The teacher training really helped me to reconnect with myself.

How does it feel being a new teacher?
The hardest thing isn’t the content, it’s classroom management! I started teaching at the San Francisco Waldorf School, with the 2nd grade and the 6th grade. Even though they are just a few years apart, they are a very different group. 

I started handing out questionnaires—asking what kind of pets do you have, how many siblings do you have, what are you most scares you. I wanted to build a relationship. I want them to know that they can trust me and this is going to be fun. That act alone made them feel that their teacher wanted to know about it—and then they were really into Mandarin! (Below, see some of the beautiful work Sally’s students created at San Francisco Waldorf School.)

Chinese idiom: ma ma hu hu
Chinese story drawing

Now I’m starting at Marin Waldorf and I’m learning more every day. I just love it. The students bring me so many surprises. Sometimes, I take ideas from students in one class and apply it to another class. It’s not coming from me. I’m just a carrier!

Tell me a little bit about the things you teach, and how you build a connection to Chinese culture.
The first class I had with them, I brought pictures to help create more connection to China. You never know who has a connection to what—food, Kung Fu, panda. I did a puppet show for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. I received so many compliments from the students. I’m still exploring new and different ways to teach. I see them having a good connection with me. They are learning! There are still things I want to improve. I want to make my lesson more beautiful.

Pandas by Sally Li’s students at Marin Waldorf School.

I’m going to bring more Chinese literature and storytelling to the class. I’m preparing The Monkey King’s Journey to the West—it’s a spiritual journey, in a way, a Chinese version of the Odyssey. And later we’ll bring more ancient idiom stories. Which is super fun! Because they have to draw the character. Like “the pot calling the kettle black.” Each four-character phrase has an ancient story behind it. I did it with the 6th grade at San Francisco Waldorf School and they loved it. That can create beauty! 

MWS Boletin Escolar: Primera Edición

As part of his advanced study of the Spanish language, eighth grader Luca is working with Maestra Pineda to write articles and essays in Spanish about things happening on campus this fall. In the first edition of the Boletín Escolar (School Bulletin), Luca describes how 8th graders constructed their own outdoor classroom in the Magic Forest.

En este año escolar, a causa de Covid 19, construir aulas al aire libre era la única opción que teníamos para regresar a la escuela. Muchos grados armaron sus aulas debajo de los árboles grandes que nos rodean, a excepción de la clase de octavo grado quienes no teníamos un lugar físico bajo la sombra de los árboles. Construir un aula y proveer la sombra con una lona fue el comienzo de nuestro año escolar.

Durante las primeras semanas de escuela construimos nuestra aula en el Bosque Mágico.  Los estudiantes nos encargamos  de construir casi toda el aula.  Sacando  la corteza de los troncos, cortando  ramas y excavando varios pozos de dos y tres pies de profundidad fueron algunas de las muchas cosas que tuvimos que hacer. A pesar de los días de mucho humo, calor y además de todos los protocolos que tenemos con respecto a Covid logramos levantar la lona que nos cubrirá del sol.   Durante los días siguientes, agregamos otra lona y construimos un pizarrón para el aula, además El Señor Neale trajo troncos que usamos como asientos.  

Fue muy lindo ver que nuestra aula empezó con una pila de troncos y después de unas semanas se convirtió en la estructura completa que es ahora.  Fue mucho trabajo, pero con la ayuda del señor Neale y toda mi clase trabajando juntos pudimos construir el aula que vamos a usar este año. Empezamos el año escolar el Martes, 29 de Septiembre al aire libre con la vista de las colinas de fondo. 

In this school year, because of Covid 19, building outdoor classrooms was the only option we had to go back to school. Many grades set up their classrooms under the large trees on campus, with the exception of the eighth grade class, which did not have a physical place under the shade of the trees. Building an outdoor classroom and creating shade with a tarp was how we began our school year.

During the first weeks of school, we built our classroom in the Magic Forest. The students were in charge of building almost the entire classroom. Removing the bark from the logs, cutting branches, and digging several two- and three-foot deep pits were some of the many things we had to do. Despite days with lots of smoke and heat, and in addition to all the protocols that we have regarding Covid, we managed to lift the canvas that will cover us from the sun. Over the next few days, we added another tarp and built a blackboard for the classroom. Mr. Neale brought logs that we used as seats.

It was very nice to see that our classroom started with a pile of logs and after a few weeks it became the complete structure that it is now. It was a lot of work, but with the help of Mr. Neale and my entire class working together we were able to build the classroom that we are going to use this year. We started the school year on Tuesday, September 29th outdoors with the view of the hills in the background.

[p.s. We have more pictures and stories from the 7th and 8th graders’ return to campus here.]

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!