“I want to know exactly what I need to do every day so that I can finish it and get on with my life.”
My oldest daughter, having reached the ripe old age of ten, finally eclipsed both of her parents in the organization department. Her room was neat, her work was neat, her ideas about what she wanted and did not want to do were clear. Her request could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather.
At heart, I am an unschooler. I chose to homeschool because it meant following my instinct. I get to spend the "good" part of the day with my children (as opposed to the grumpy morning and worn-out afternoon hours before dinner). We learn together and explore the world and its wonders. Always before, our days consisted of reading aloud, taking nature hikes, sailing, camping, baking and cooking together. We dabbled in art and music. Occasionally, a math panic set in, and for half an hour or so a day, my kids did math problems. It worked, we lived in bliss, sibling rivalry and housework excepting.
So my daughter's request was devastating, what did it mean? Was I really coercing her into learning that meant nothing more to her than a to-do check list each morning? Was she only participating in order to please us and to be left in peace afterwards? And I thought our way of life was so relaxed and informal. Discussion time, and many weeks of it, followed. It turns out she thinks right now that she really wants to go to college some day, and would like to have the skills to do so, because her dream of working as a waitress at Village Inn and letting Mama have her breakfast free each day has been replaced by jobs requiring higher learning; detective, veterinarian, librarian. She also wanted to expedite the work to be done in an efficient manner, thus leaving the rest of the day “free.” I felt better, a bit. I also felt sick to my stomach. I was expecting our fifth child and my energy level was at an all-time low.. My five-year old daughter wanted to read and “do math” as did the toddler who had become a two year old. My eight year old son did not want to do anything ever that one of us might have suggested he do. They were all quite vocal in expressing their desires. Our peaceful reading sessions had turned into situations requiring the negotiation skills of a union labor dispute specialist. Nothing felt right and it was all awfully noisy. I needed help.
I knew what I was looking for. We already had a daily and a weekly timetable consisting of hours during which we read together, did math, painted or played music. I did not need curriculum as much as I needed to bring intentionality to the moment; I wanted the moments we did spend together to be good on purpose.
I thought of my friends who had either put their children in Waldorf schools or "did Waldorf at home." They all had such very interesting lives; festivals and feasts, putting on plays, taking trips. I researched further. I found much that I liked. First an emphasis on the natural world. Perfect! Then on world cultures; teaching little ones through stories, verses and celebrating festivals from different cultures throughout the year. And finally, on handwork; knitting (right up my alley!) as a precursor to reading and then as a life skill to develop and expand upon, painting and music. There is also an emphasis on limiting access to media; television, computers and video games. That approach reflects my own philosophy. So it was that we looked to Waldorf for inspiration and eventually time management techniques to help us on our homeschooling adventure.
I spent hours online, looking at sample curricula from various publishers.. I talked to my good friend, Elizabeth, mother of three homeschooled children “extraordinare,” to find out what she thought. She knows me well. “You know, you can go ahead and buy a program, but that is not going to turn you into someone who will use it on a regular basis.” Harsh, but true. “If I were you, I'd skip the curriculum and buy the art supply list, that looks like a lot more fun.” I was not getting any closer to my goal.
I went back online. I unearthed more resources and checked out books from the library recommended for further information on both theory and activities. I read Rhamina Baldwin, Melisa Nielsen, Donna Simmons, and Barbara Dewey. I smiled with Betty Jones, I read Steiner. I found a marvelous world of beloved childhood, of observation, really looking at children to find out where they might be in their voyage and finding the way to meet them at that point and accompany them. Fairy tales, festivals and imagination form the basis for everything, how marvelous! This Steiner guy really knew his stuff.
I came up with a plan of action. I would not go with a packaged curriculum. Instead, I chose to work with a Waldorf homeschool consultant. What a cool concept! An expert, who would not judge us for our shortcomings, and who was in sync with our way of doing things, available for questioning all year long, both by phone and by email. There are quite a few offering their services, and after much debate, we found someone whose life experiences and views on family coincided most closely with our own. She has helped me explore the aspects of Waldorf and become more organized. Her plan “adds rhythm to the existing structure.” Our yearly rhythm is enhanced by celebrating more festivals throughout each season. Our monthly rhythm is enhanced by our chosen topic. Our weekly rhythm is enhanced by designating days for certain lessons or activities. Our daily lives are lent order by a morning routine. Our consultant has provided a precious perspective from a distance. She has been a source of novel suggestions and encouraging words in the face of bad days and disheartening moments.
I began this quest for the sake of my eldest, but I discovered a daily ritual that would help the youngest first, with the incorporation of circle time. We come together after breakfast and a walk to do movement to verses and rhymes, whole body and finger plays, and perhaps sit-ups or yoga (something for everyone!) Circle time for the older ones is a gathering, around a candle for us, in order to share, thoughts, gratitude, verses and whatever else one wishes to put into it. In our family, it has become a daily moment of sharing joys and sorrows. The youngest one has been happy about the pool and sad about his shot (a rare immunization, he still doesn't understand why) for the past five weeks. The older ones sometimes use it to vent. Sometimes we switch to appreciation, focusing on the positive and how fortunate we are instead of becoming mired in the complaints. It is also a lesson in reverence for this special ceremony each morning and a lesson in respect for one another. We continue in this moment to recite a poem together, and maybe work on math facts; tossing a bean bag back and forth between each line or math question; this has worked well for memorization work.
We set up a nature table near our meeting spot, to treasure the highlights of the season and allow for hands-on exploration of rock and shell collections that were previously in a cupboard or on display up high. A Waldorf nature table is a reflection of the season and of the four kingdoms.
I had a sweet baby boy in May, and then spent the summer reading, dreaming and scheming. We began our journey of intentionality; inviting friends over to celebrate obscure and well-known festivals; anyone up for a lantern walk for Martinmas? A bonfire and marshmallow roast for the summer solstice? Poems about nature and the seasons have become part of our circle. We've learned some new knitting stitches. Each day we read and illustrate stories from the Old Testament, Grimm's Fairy tales, and folk tales and legends from the world over. Daily walks happen, lessons are planned, written down and followed through upon.
I have to admit though, that by February, the whole three different lessons per day went right out the window. In the middle of the dreaded math block we took a week off and started over.
However, the dreaded math block was lovely; truly! It has to be the biggest triumph of this whole experience. We had fun, we built, measured, drew pretty designs, and learned stuff (to misquote David Albert). Following Eric Fairman of Australia's suggestions, we took a walk through measuring history (third grade) and the history of geometry (fifth grade). We were all fascinated, entertained and enlightened. Our very first project was to explore biblical measurements, tying in with Old Testament studies and farming. We used our thumbs to measure out twelve “inches” or “thumbs” translated from French. We decided we'd better come up with a standard “thumb unit” before making our own rulers. So we found that Mama's was the closest to what looked like a standard inch and used it to mark off twelve units on a stick. We measured the room, the backyard, and Noah's ark; 300 cubits! It just happened to be a rare, rare day in January in Iowa when the temperature hit 50 degrees. We set out to see just how big this ark might have been, and were amazed when two hours later we found that it spanned from one end of a city block to another; eight houses and garages long. The baby was snug in a carrier, the younger two played happily on their bikes, and my older son and daughter measured. The best part of planning on purpose a math block was the opportunity it afforded me. Math-phobic since my algebra days in high school, I had many issues to work through. As parents, we inevitably communicate our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes to our children. I did not want to be the source of an inane math aversion for my kids. Waldorf's “whole to parts” way of approaching math was healing to me.
When it became clear that I was over extending by attempting to read every single lesson aloud with each child each day, we chose to modify our schedule a bit. The children and I sat down and looked at what was on our schedule for the rest of the year. We extracted the elements we most loved and were interested in. Then we looked at a way to proceed that would best meet the needs of our family. We are currently exploring China together, then on to Greece. Sometime in May we will return to botany and farming via our family vegetable plot. We love our newfound world of Waldorf. For us, it fits right in with our unschooling ways. Things have not changed so much after all. The basic structure remains the same; read, draw, paint, bake, innovate, celebrate.
First published in the September-October 2008 edition of Home Education Magazine
(1); A Journey Through Waldorf Homeschooling, Grade One, Melisa Nielsen, (part of a series of guides per grade for homeschoolers wishing to explore Waldorf, that cover preschool to grade five, currently. Blog: alittlegardenflower.blogspot.com)
Christopherushomeschool.org (a website by a family in Wisconsin, who writes books for use by homeschoolers and runs online seminars, Donna has written a lovely book on Nature Studies, among others)
alittlegardenflower.com (a website that includes a radio program, a weekly newsletter full of tips, and ideas for fun lessons, crafts, etc., run by Melisa Nielsen, author of the aforementioned grade by grade guides, and the person who accepted the task of homeschool consultant for our family this year.)
waldorfwithoutwalls.com (by Barbara Dewey, a well-known expert on Waldorf, author of many books, speaker and consultant for homeschooling families)
waldorfbooks.com (this is Bob and Nancy's Bookshop; to obtain Waldorf-related materials; books, anthologies and videos)
_http://www.waldorflessonplans.com/_ (one of a number of resources from Kristie Karima Burns, author and naturalist, Kristie has excellent videos on many topics, from home organization to creating homeopathic candy. She speaks on Waldorf in the home and temperament and Waldorf all over the country.)