Our extraordinary autumn began with power tools and wheelbarrows, hammers and hard work, as faculty, students, parents, and staff came together in small groups to construct our outdoor classrooms. Right before campus opened, we were joined by two members of the Miwok tribal council to talk about the land and prepare the campus to receive our students.
On September 8, our preschool and kindergarten reopened with a new mixed-age model and a fifth classroom called Manzanita. Lots of time outdoors, plus our staple weekly hikes to the open space, made this year memorable.
Grades 1-6 also came back on September 8, and their learning began atop stumps and hay bales, nestled beneath the oaks and bay laurels. Two weeks later, our 7th and 8th graders joined us. We hiked to open space, observed the change of the season, and found monarch caterpillars in the Peace Garden milkweed.
An AQI-related closure postponed our Michaelmas celebration, but the dragon still came out the following week, with students watching each other’s performances from a distance.
The week before Halloween, children carved pumpkins in early childhood and the grades, and the 6th grade dressed up in pirate garb to serenade our school with a seafaring song.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, several members of our faculty and staff created a new committee focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in our community. Since then, the DEI committee has led our faculty and staff in workshops, shared readings, and deep discussions as we strive to bring strong anti-racist and anti-bias teaching into the Waldorf curriculum and our school community.
Among the other things we discussed at last week’s parent evening is how our faculty is examining the Waldorf curriculum, from early childhood through 8th grade, to identify the ways we can incorporate diverse characters, images, and stories into the classroom. Sarah Whitmore, a member of our DEI committee and the lead teacher in the Manzanita early childhood classroom, discussed the various ways she is incorporating diverse characters, images, toys, and stories into her classroom, among other efforts to create a more inclusive environment for young children.
We also heard from 8th Grade class teacher Kristine Deason, who discussed the way the Waldorf curriculum connects children in the upper grades with the greater world, teaching them to view history as well as current events with a critical mind and from different perspectives.
On November 14, 1960, our faculty remembered Ruby Bridges, who at just 6 years old became the first African American student to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Every day that year, federal marshals accompanied Ruby to school. Our music teacher shared the song “Ruby Shoe’s” by Lori McKenna (see her beautiful rendition in the video here).
Some of our teachers incorporated Ruby Bridges’s story into their classwork this week. In 3rd grade, Ms. Martin asked students to share words on the chalkboard that describe her.
After our campus closed last spring, our lovely 8th Grade class worked together to record the song “We Shall Be Known” by Ma Muse, under the direction of choir teacher Ms. Mallard.
May their beautiful voices and the poignant message of hope bring you of joy at this moment of great change!
We shall be known by the company we keep By the ones who circle round to tend these fires We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth It is time now, it is time now that we thrive It is time we lead ourselves into the well It is time now, and what a time to be alive In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
We shall be known by the company we keep By the ones who circle round to tend these fires We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth It is time now, it is time now that we thrive It is time we lead ourselves into the well It is time now, and what a time to be alive In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love — We Shall Be Known, by Ma Muse
A native of the Netherlands and a graduate of the Waldorf teacher training program in Stuttgart, Germany, Marieke Duijneveld joined the MWS family two years ago as a mom to four students before taking a place on our faculty last year as a parent-child teacher. In the fall of 2020, Marieke took the lead in the Morning Glory kindergarten class, whereshe leadstwice-weekly song-filled play-based hikes in the hills around school. Read on to hear how Marieke’s free spirit and a love for adventure has propelled her across the world and all the way to Marin County.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from and where did you grow up? I am from the Netherlands, from a little town close to the coast—right near the polders, or reclaimed land. In the Netherlands, a lot of the land is created, because it’s below sea level, so they pump the water out and create land.
My father was a teacher in a public school, but when I was two, he became a Waldorf teacher. I went to a Waldorf school from preschool through 12th grade. We biked to school every day. We used the car to go on vacation or to visit my grandparents, who lived two hours away, but we never used it for school—only on my birthday! That was very special, because on my birthday my mother baked a treat to share with the other children in my class, and so we had to drive to school to bring it. Otherwise, rain, shine, snow, we always biked.
I was a very dreamy child. I had a vivid imagination. I would go into the woods with my friends in long dresses without shoes. I always dreamed of traveling, my ideal was with a covered wagon pulled by a donkey.
Did you imagine yourself being a teacher growing up? Not at all, because both my parents were teachers, and they taught at the school I went to. I thought I’d never be in that same situation with my own children!
And now you work at the school where your children go! Well, at least I don’t teach them.
What did you parents teach? My father was a class teacher—but in the Netherlands, there aren’t many subject teachers, so the class teacher also teaches subjects, like form drawing, music, English, German, gym. My mom was the woodwork teacher.
When I was 16, my father took his sabbatical and we moved to Sweden for a year where we lived on a farm with adults with special needs. I went to a school that wasn’t a Waldorf school. It was a huge shock! But it was good for me, and helped me to appreciate Waldorf education.
Then you went back and graduated from the Waldorf school? Yes, and then I went to college and I met my husband while in college. We were in the students’ choir, and one weekend we were all on the train and someone found out I went to a Waldorf school.
He called to Jasper, “Hey, Marieke, also went to Waldorf school!” So we sat together and talked about woolen underwear and no TV, and so on, and that was it!
How did you end up in California? When we were both 28, we wanted to move abroad. I had a dream: Let’s start an orphanage in Argentina! I was looking for something adventurous—something that sounded very far away. My husband is a bit more realistic. A friend of his worked at Weleda and it’s an international company, so Jasper applied to Weleda, and was hired in a role in Germany. Moving to Germany did not feel as adventurous as Argentina. And there were no palm trees!
Since we’d moved to Stuttgart, I decided to attend the Waldorf teacher training. I didn’t speak German very well, so I needed to find something to help me learn the language. I loved it. I studied to be a class teacher, and I taught in a local Waldorf school after graduating. Then our first daughter was born, and our second daughter soon after that.
When Jasper was asked to lead Weleda North America, we had to decide whether we would move to the United States. At first, it didn’t sound appealing to me. But we both like adventure, so we said, let’s do it and see what happens. We moved to Chestnut Ridge, New York, a little north of New York City.
We loved it there. I didn’t know much about the U.S., and the people were so helpful and so nice. It was nice to live close to New York City, because we could just go there for a night, for instance to Carnegie Hall. We loved the Waldorf school our children went to. In the Netherlands, all Waldorf schools are public charter schools, none of them are fully independent, private schools. So children have to take tests and the curriculum is heavily influenced by the public school system. The education at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge felt so much closer to what I think Steiner intended with Waldorf education.
I worked as a parent and child teacher, and later as a kindergarten teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School. After a total of 10 years in New York, it was time for something new. I still missed those palm trees and wanted to go to California. So we chose to move across the country and embrace yet another adventure here in Marin!
Tell me about being a mom to four children. That’s a lot of kids! Yes it is a lot. And I love it!
I always wished for a large family and am so grateful to have four wonderful children. There is an anecdote about how to deal with a large family. With one child, both parents have their hands full, with two, it’s really, really busy but at least you have two hands, and in my case a partner. Three is stressful because you’re trying to stay in control, with four you just have to give up trying to keep everything under control.
Working with children in kindergarten every day inspires me to be a better mom. And vice versa, my experience as a mom probably also helps me professionally.
Kindergarten is different this year, but are there any upsides to early childhood during COVID? It is wonderful to be outdoors more than before. We added more hike days to the program, which I otherwise maybe wouldn’t have done. Being on these hikes in nature with the children is so sweet. We go to places where there aren’t any toys, and they just play! They play for an hour and a half without taking a break, and they enjoy being in their dreamy worlds.
It’s lovely to be in kindergarten and to help create a world that is good, and forget about everything else that is going on.
Also, I love that the groups are smaller as a result of the Covid pandemic. It seems to benefit the children socially. It feels more natural.
On Monday, our students came together to create a colorful altar in observance of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), overseen by Spanish teacher Maestra Pineda. (You can read her description of Día de Muertos by clicking here.)
As an assignment for Spanish class, 7th and 8th grade students created beautiful individual tributes for the altar and wrote biographies of their loved ones to accompany them.
Their work was on display in the Peace Garden on Monday, November 2. Throughout the day, different classes visited the altar with their teachers, viewing the pieces and leaving their own photos and mementos.
In the morning, the 7th and 8th graders gathered to sing together. Enjoy the beautiful video below.
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 Muertosaltar 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.
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.)
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.
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!
In the second installment of our interview series, we’re introducing the delightful Manzanita early childhood assistant teacher Rod DeRienzo. Mr. Rod is known to many children on our campus as the famous voice of the Gold Monkey and Jeremy the Giant, two characters from an original story series he created for his daughter (if you aren’t a fan already, you can listen to one of his stories by clicking here). To grades students, he’s Mr. DeRienzo, last year’s lead aftercare teacher and the creator of stories about Phillipe, Suzette, and the mice of Córdoba.
Below, Mr. Rod shares how he began making up children’s stories, how he found Waldorf education, and what he likes about working in the Manzanita classroom.
Tell me about your background. I grew up in New Jersey, in suburbia. My father was the mayor of my little town for 30 years.
Wow! Yep. Proud Democrat! And I got my first job before I was a year old.
And what was that? I was a male model. I was the “dry baby” for the Pampers commercials that ran for about three years between 1972-75. You can still find them on YouTube.
That’s amazing! Yes, millions of people have seen my rear end.
How do you even get cast for something like that? That was my mother. She thought I was such a cute baby.
Did you see yourself as a teacher growing up, or is that something that came later? Again, with my father being mayor, he was always involved in Scouts and coaching and all that, so I think I inherited his interest in helping children. For a time I was the adult leader of the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, when I was 18 years old. Yup, I’m an Eagle Scout.
I’ve always been interested in education. I helped tutor my niece and nephews before I had my own family. I went to a Montessori grade school so I’ve always appreciated alternatives to the standard.
After college, I went right into the family business, which was corporate moving in the New York–New Jersey area. I ran crews of 100+ men, big trucks in and out. I got to yell a lot. But that experience probably helps with staying calm amongst herds of children.
What brought you to Waldorf? My wife. She found it for my stepdaughter, Oona. To be honest, at first I thought it was silly. I thought the children would know nothing but churning butter and knitting. But when Oona was in kindergarten I volunteered in the woodworking class, as a father volunteer, and that’s when I started looking around and realizing how wonderful it all is.
Dave Alsop, who was involved in the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, was running a new dad circle where we would meet at the school once a week, read a book, and talk about how to be good fathers. It was through him that I learned about the teacher training and my wife suggested that I take it. She knew my destiny long before I did!
I enrolled in BACWTT in 2013. That year BACWTT was moving their summer session from the East Bay to the Marin Waldorf campus and they needed someone with moving experience.
You’re kidding? No, I’m not.
So since 2013, I’ve been on BACWTT’s board of directors. Actually, now I’m the president of the board. So I’ve come a long way from my initial what are these hippies doing?
My first Waldorf job was in the kindergarten with Ms. Lisa, even before I graduated from the teacher training. I was the early childhood aftercare assistant. I’ve taught a combined 5th/6th grade at another Waldorf school and have substituted in all the classes here at MWS and was the grades aftercare teacher here for a few years. During training, I wanted to be in the high school track, because my college degree is in medieval history, but fate seems to bring me to the little ones.
What’s the best part of the day in the Manzanita class? The best part of the day? Hmm, it’s hard to say. I think the best part of the day is observing the children during free play. I’m part referee, part lifeguard. And to see them—how they interact, how they’re growing, how they work through their dilemmas—it’s just wonderful to see.
What’s it like working in early childhood and having your son right across the way? It’s perfect. We want him to be independent and not always with Daddy, but I get to look over the fence and see him playing. I can hear the teachers singing, “Ozzi, put that stick down!”
You know, it’s precious, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Our children grow up so fast. Oona is already in 8th grade! And here we are, starting from the bottom up again. It’s kinda nice.
That’s where all the stories come from—it’s from Oona. Because I would tell Oona stories every night, and the books we had—the standard Doctor Seuss and whatnot—I thought I could do better. I started telling her stories and we would be giggling and laughing away in the room and my wife Tanya would wonder, What are you telling her, is it appropriate? What’s going on in there?
To provide proof of my appropriateness, I began to record our stories. It then became a tradition to record all of our bedtime stories. For Oona, I have 800 or so recorded. And for Ozzi, we’re on 604 as of last night.
So Tanya could hear them too? Yup, she trusts me now. After a decade or so!
Well, now your stories have made you famous on our campus. For years I’ve told the children stories in aftercare, both grades and early childhood, as well as during the distance learning last year. I also recorded stories during the summer for my fans.
Are you sure you don’t want to write a book? No, you know, it’s the sound and the voices. I like uploading stories to my Patreon site. I intend to add some more stories for November. Actually, my wife and I do have a rough draft of a historical romance we’ve written together. But that story is not for the kids!
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.]
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.