Meet Adam Neale, Mentor and Maker

Adam Neale, Marin Waldorf School’s woodwork and outdoor education teacher, has always had a fondness for making things. He brought that gift, along with his genuine kindness and affability, to Marin Waldorf School over a decade ago, and today is one of the most beloved teachers on campus. An outdoor enthusiast and sportsman, he is a veteran of many MWS class trips, as well as an alumni parent and father to twin girls.

In the interview below, Mr. Neale tells us about his childhood in Miami, first-day jitters as the new MWS woodwork teacher, and (as you hoped!) how he met his wife, MWS director Megan Neale.

What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Miami, Florida. I loved it. I was really into the natural world, being outside all the time, being on the water, in the woods, in the mangrove swamps. That’s where I loved to spend my time. 

My parents really enjoy being outside too. My mom studied marine biology. My dad was into fishing. They loved bird-watching. We spent our weekends out and about. 

I’ve always liked making things. One of my first memories of woodworking was from summer camp in North Carolina. We dug up these little sassafras trees and I made a cane with the wood. I spent so much time working on that walking stick—and it’s funny to think it’s the same thing I do today, something that I was really drawn to as a child. Now I work surrounded by all these sticks! It’s endless what you can do with that stuff. 

Young Adam Neale working on his sassafras stick.
Canoeing in North Carolina as a teen.

I went to a high school that had a week in the wintertime where you could take a class and make things, it was called Intersession. I made a fishing rod. There was a teacher and a fisherman, and he had kits for putting the guides on a rod. I never forgot that either.

You’re into fishing too, right?
Yeah, I’m into fishing too. I just made another fishing rod during the pandemic. I tie my own flies. 

Adam Neale and Megan Neale in 1990.

How did you find your way from Florida to California? Were there stops in between?
I met Megan at a wedding in LA. She had decided that she wanted to live in Miami before I met her. I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time. I told her I needed a ride from Phoenix to Miami to visit my parents—because I liked her. She was living in Marin and had just graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and she came through Phoenix to pick me up on the way to Miami. Our first date was driving across the country.

Later, she got into graduate school in Colorado. I ended up going with her, and it changed my life in a big way. I thought I would live in Miami forever. And then I was the Florida guy who moved to the mountains! I’d seen snow one time before I moved to Colorado. It was freezing cold. 

I got a construction job with a really good carpenter who took the time to show me how to use tools and really do things right. I was grateful for that. Megan was a junior high teacher. Later I taught snowboarding, I taught fly fishing, and I was a raft guide. 

Were these your first teaching jobs?
I actually started to teach at the camp where I got into woodworking. I was a camp counselor there, and I taught canoeing and whitewater rafting. So I had quite a bit of experience teaching kids at that point. I had really good mentors, people who taught me, so it was easy to teach what they had showed me. 

We bought a house, and then we had twin daughters. That’s when we decided we needed to be around family, so we moved here. 

Adam Neale fishing with his twin daughters.

How did you end up at Marin Waldorf School?
I was looking to get back into surfing, and I went to see a surfboard for sale at someone’s house. His wife ran a Waldorf preschool from their home, and their daughter went to Marin Waldorf School—she was a few years older than our daughters. Our daughters were just about the right age to start preschool, so they started going there, and we became very interested in Waldorf education. 

When our daughters started at Marin Waldorf School, I was doing construction, working with a friend. The woodworking teacher’s daughter was in the same class as my daughters, and we were good friends. I would help him out in class sometimes. A few years later, the next woodworking teacher left unexpectedly and the school asked if I wanted to take the class. I said sure! I jumped in midyear.

Was it challenging?
Very! I’ll never forget the first day—I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my life. I was nervous for so long—even on the outdoor ed hikes! I felt a lot of responsibility. What am I going to teach these kids? The people here are so bright, there’s such a high standard, so I felt I had to live up to that. [Current 8th grade teacher] Ms. Deason was our class teacher, so that was the standard that had been set.

My daughters were in fifth grade when I took the woodworking position, and that’s the first year of woodworking in the curriculum, so I taught my own daughters. I think I overcompensated by ignoring them. And they felt weird calling me “Dad,” so they called me “Mr. Neale.” Hearing “Mr. Neale” in their voices was always funny. But it was great. They’re very easy-going.

It’s surprising that you were nervous because you have a good, natural connection with the kids.
It’s an interesting position I’m in because the students have something in front of them that they’re working on. I give them the space to create stuff, and I get out of the way. They are very open. A lot of conversation comes naturally in that space.

And what about outdoor education, which you also teach?
That’s another place where I’m creating space, trying to help the kids feel comfortable outside. That’s my main goal: to connect them. 

I got a degree in environmental studies. It was a bachelor of arts degree, so I studied a lot of philosophy behind the environmental movement. I always wanted to affect change for the environment, but I always wanted to do it on an individual level. I felt that was more my style, because I have a peacemaker side to my personality, where I connect with people and I want to understand them. So my idea was to be an outdoor educator to connect kids to the environment so they, in turn, would want to do the right thing for the planet. 

That’s what I feel the Marin Waldorf School outdoor education program is about. Number one, making kids feel comfortable outside, so they want to go outside, so they see the value of it, without telling them that directly. There’s another word for it: coyote mentoring. In this philosophy, you’re bringing kids along but not telling them exactly what you’re doing—by playing games, having moments where you go outside and try to be as quiet as you can to listen to the birds—but what you’re teaching them is how to be self-reflective. Once they get quiet, they start to notice things about themselves while they’re trying to notice things outside. Trying to do that with young teenagers is really a challenge.

We’re so blessed to be surrounded by open space here. Trying to imagine what ancestors, what native people, the people who were here a long time ago were doing and connecting with that as well. 

In the Andes in Peru.
At the North Platt River.

What about class trips?
Again, it’s that experiential education. It was a big part of my education growing up—I learned most by doing—and I traveled a bunch when I got out of school. I always pushed myself on those trips. Academics are important, but putting that to practical use, seeing the skills they developed in the classroom and the social fabric that they have, then they get to go out into the world. I’ve heard a lot of different compliments from hosts for our groups who say, these kids are just amazing. 

The first five or six years, I never went on any trips. I went as a parent. But slowly, once my girls graduated, I start going on class trips. Iv’e been to Hawaii with Kathy Darcy’s class—that was an incredible trip. I went to Colorado, Arizona, the Four Corners area twice. I did the Eel River with Gail. They all were special. I went to Boston with Ms. Jackson. 

There are so many moments I remember, like traveling across the country on a train with Rising’s class and watching the kids interact with the conductor. It was so neat to see kids who were so polite and who weren’t afraid to put themselves out there and talk to people. 

Any trips in particular that stand out?
It’s hard to say. Every one! I’ve been so lucky.

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.

The Vortex: A 7th Grade Lesson (Video)

Throughout the grades, the Waldorf curriculum is interdisciplinary and experiential, helping students make connections between different subject matter and to understand their place in the natural world. This week, our gardening teacher, Ms. Betsyann, shared this example of how two subjects can be beautifully integrated in the 7th Grade curriculum.

Ms. Betsyann explains:

Kristine Deason asked for a small contribution about the marvels of the world of nature as they relate to the Fibonacci sequence or golden spiral. The common vortexes that we see in nature are tornadoes, dust devils, rivers, eddies, tidal action, hurricanes, and leaf swirls. In this video I chose to concentrate on the vortex created in a Biodynamic stir.

A Morning Hike With Ms. Lisa

Last week, Ms. Lisa, our Kindergarten Aftercare Teacher, shared a sweet audio recording with the kindergarten classes, inviting them to join her on a morning hike. As she walks, Ms. Lisa guides the children in imagining the sights, sounds, and smells along the way. At Marin Waldorf School, our kindergartners go for a hike every Friday, so this imaginative little story fits right into their weekly rhythm.

Here’s an excerpt from the note Ms. Lisa sent to families:

Greetings! I wanted to reach out and let you know that I have missed seeing you and the children, and that I hope you are well. I have a short, simple tale to share with the children–included both in a recording (5 minutes) and in writing (with photos) for you to share with your child if you would like… Many times the children in Bluebirds, and summer camp, have enjoyed the simple stories I tell them, either about my life away from school, or stories that I make up. So in that spirit of simplicity, I’d like to share my morning hikes in nature with the children. I describe what happens, though I do take some creative license to “include” the children, as though they are hiking with me. I am looking forward to seeing all of you again soon!

Here is the recording from Ms. Lisa.

And here are the photos of her walk …

Spring Blessings: New Family Joins MWS

Throughout the world, there are reports of wild animals roaming freely in what were once crowded urban areas or tourist destinations, from the bears strolling comfortably through Yosemite Valley to pumas in the streets of Santiago, Chile.

At Marin Waldorf School, we are always blessed to be surrounded open space, hawks circling overhead, and even the occasional wildcat sighting. But our campus closure has drawn in some new and beautiful visitors. Just last week, a doe found a quiet corner of the preschool play yard to give birth to twin fawns.

Here, kindergarten teacher Peggy Rock recounts her explosive introduction to the deer family that is now making Marin Waldorf School its home.

Last Sunday, as I was attending our Sunday morning coffee, in the Morning Glory classroom, teacher Nicole came to my door. She said to come out and look. I left the meeting and went outside our classroom to see a beautiful young doe leaping back-and-forth in the preschool play yard. We thought she was trying to get over the fence, as we couldn’t figure out how she got all the way into the play yard with the gate closed. A little fawn was lying nestled immobile against the fence. It looked like it might be brand new.

The mother continued frantically leaping back and forth back and forth. Suddenly she turned and took a great leap at the building and violently broke a window in the Morning Glory classroom with her hooves. It was only then that I realized that she was trying to distract us from her baby, and that we needed to go back into the room so she wouldn’t be so anxious.

When we had backed away, she and the fawn suddenly raced toward the kindergarten play yard.  Later that day I saw her munching leaves on the hillside, gazing through the window at me quietly and peacefully as if nothing had happened to make her frightened.  She hadn’t hurt herself a bit. We continue to see her every day that we are here. Although I have only seen her with one of her babies, I hear that there are two!

It seems our new Marin Waldorf School family is making itself right at home! Enjoy a couple more photos of our dear deer, snapped by kindergarten teacher Adriana.

Outdoor Ed: Portable Hand-Washing Station

The class: Outdoor Education. The challenge: to create an outdoor hand-washing station using everyday things you can find in your home.

In this video, our outdoor ed teacher Mr. Neale shows middle school students how he created a simple apparatus you can use to wash your hands when camping, on a kayaking trip, or at the beach.

Create a portable and water friendly wash station for field trips and camping trips.

Materials
Bucket or wash tub
16 oz plastic cup ( yogurt cup)
24 inches of string
12 inches of wire (coat hanger)
A nail or screw for making holes in cup
3 sticks 48 inches long or longer, broomstick size

The featured image at the top of this post shows the handmade station created by 6th Grade student Zoe at home! Nice work.