by Hazel Emery M.Ed.
During the first week of May, the fullness of spring and the impending arrival of summer are celebrated by cultures around the world with flowers, music, dancing, and singing. The Chinese and Thai New Year, the colorful Indian festival of Holi, and Walpurgis Night in western Europe are but a few of the diverse observations of this delightful period of renewal and hope. In ancient Europe, May 1 was considered to be the first day of summer, called Floralia by the Romans and Beltane by the Celts. This timeless celebration has evolved into modern May Day celebrations, with the maypole as a representation of the tree of life and the flowers and ribbons adorning it symbolizing fertility and rebirth.
At SGWS, May Day is one of our most cherished festivals. Early Childhood students dance around a Maypole early in the morning, while students in the grades wait until after Main Lesson, when an all-grades procession is led to the Sportsman’s Club adjacent to our property. There, students gather together to enjoy lunch and share lemon cupcakes lovingly made by class parents. After lunch, all students participate in a scavenger hunt, with teams made up of students from each grade. Following the scavenger hunt, students in the lower grades weave ribbons around Maypoles while students in the upper grades play madrigals on their recorders. When the dancing is complete, the celebration ends with a communal Blessing of the Garden.
Though it occurs during the course of a school day, we welcome families to our May Day Festival each year — we hope you can join us on April 29! Here is our schedule of events:
Students in Waldorf schools will ideally have the same main lesson teacher for first through eighth grade. There are three primary reasons Waldorf schools choose this method. First, it helps the teacher truly know the child and his or her family. Second, having a consistent class of peers with one consistent central authority figure has great benefits to social growth and class cohesion. And finally, these first two stabilizing forces – in-depth relationships and social cohesion — come together to support a focus on learning.
Knowing the Child
Waldorf class teachers have time to learn a child’s gifts and challenges, which helps them better teach and advocate for each student. Main lesson teachers can share their deep knowledge of a child with subject teachers and parents. This sharing of knowledge allows teachers to collaborate in the use of learning styles and techniques that suit individual children as well as for the class as a whole.
Teachers who truly know a child and how he or she learns can take a long view on that student’s learning. If a child tends to observe and work carefully for three months before leaping ahead on the learning curve, this is something the teacher will observe and account for within the coming years and within his or her teaching methods for this student.
The teacher will also get to know each child’s individual temperament and how this works both within the classroom and with the teacher’s own temperament and teaching style. Each child’s unique personality becomes essential and understood for its value within class. This class can come to feel like a family.
And as with family, if a teacher and a child are struggling to work together, no one considers resignation or replacement. The teacher assumes the responsibility of the work to make the relationship positive. One never expects this of the child, and Waldorf teachers are specifically trained to balance their relationship with each student. This includes a study of how to work with different personality types and learning styles, home visits to understand the child’s world, and regular parent teacher conferences and class meetings to better understand the child and his or her family.
The Waldorf model takes the long-term view that, as with academic learning, healthy social interaction must be self-motivated. Our teachers seek to provide students with a stable environment and important social skills that will enable to them interact compassionately with others and establish a sense of community. Children who learn together for eight years also learn to take on social problems, to value differences, and to manage varied work styles as they continuously collaborate.
Waldorf students don’t experience any of the yearly anxiety brought forth by new teachers or students within the class. Having the same children year upon year, along with the same authority figure who knows these children well, helps the students feel safe and confident.
This social cohesion, established in the early grades, brings the focus back onto learning. Children have the time and space, with three recess periods and in-class lunch and snack, to enjoy and learn from the social company of familiar peers. The social cohesion and stable authority figure helps students focus on learning during structured activities and class time.
Parent and Student Experiences
For more information, we offer these two shared experiences about Waldorf’s One Teacher method — one from a parent and one from a student.
Parent Experience: Tyra Scott
Student Experience: Sarah Welton
“Whenever I am asked about the influential people in my life, my thoughts immediately turn to both my parents and to Marie Paul, the wonderful person who served as my teacher for first through eighth grade. She is a beautiful person and a great friend, always there to listen and always there to help. I have much reason to admire her. Among her many talents, her ability to teach not only from the text but through her own actions shines bright. As a teacher she taught me in such a captivating and enthralling way. She encouraged me to want to learn and to enjoy learning. In the way she taught, she let us make our own conclusions and formulate our own opinions on the subjects we studied, and would always hear us out as we expressed these opinions.”
As our school name implies, Spring Garden places high value on the natural world. We turn our values into action by actively educating students about (and within) nature and by promoting sustainability on our campus and within our community.
Science education is multi-disciplinary when approached through outdoor exploration, and opportunities to teach other subjects, like math, are also explored through tending nature. This includes work on and within our school’s greenhouse.
One tradition to note is our Third Grade Garden. Each year, Class Three plants a garden in the spring, and tends it throughout the summer and early fall. When school resumes in the fall, the students who planted the garden — now in Grade 4 — harvest the crops and transform their bounty into a delicious meal, which they serve to current Grade 3 students.
Spring Garden works on several projects within our immediate community throughout each year. We are always looking for new collaboration opportunities and are currently collaborating for a Greener Akron, making community garden donations and serving student-grown produce at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s community meal.
Loving & Preserving Nature:
Children play outside, in all weather, at least three times a day. Younger children take daily nature walks through the woods surrounding our property, and these nature walks continue – though only on a weekly basis — as students move through the grades. Also, many classes in spring and fall are held outside when appropriate.
The school recycles, as most do, but also actively composts, which helps maintain our gardens and also shows children the cycle of nature. Children put leftover foodstuffs from lunch into their classroom’s compost bin, which is then taken to the school’s main compost during class chore time.
Spring Garden also collects rainwater runoff for gardening. And the food grown in our gardens, when not donated to the community, is used in our own community for school lunches.
At Spring Garden Waldorf School, children go outside to play three times a day in all weather. This can seem like a foreign concept in our modern times. Won’t they get cold or wet or overheat? Will this make them sick? Ruin their clothes? Shouldn’t they be inside spending more time on academics?
Waldorf educators have been following the science of outdoor play for decades, and research has demonstrated again and again that the benefits are overwhelming.
The National Wildlife Federation’s publication, The Forecast Calls for Play, has compiled 25 of the latest studies about what happens to kids who spend time in nature. The takeaway?
“Kids who play outdoors maintain healthier body weights, are less likely to be near-sighted and have healthier vitamin D levels. In addition, ‘green time’ enhances empathy, lengthens attention spans and improves critical thinking skills.”
In a Waldorf school, part of educating our students means building at least an hour of outdoor time into each day to enrich our student’s bodies and minds. We know that busy parents can have trouble making sure kids get outside the recommended hour per day. We are here to help.
Although being cold and wet does not make a children sick, our parents know that our Waldorf supply list is dominated by outdoor gear requirements to keep kids comfortable during their hour-plus outdoors.
Being comfortable outside is key to experiencing all nature-based play has to offer. This is also why, in addition to a set of both rain and winter coats, boots, pants, hats, scarves, and gloves, children must always have extra clothes on hand in the classroom if the gear fails to keep their clothes dry and warm. In our warm months, children are encouraged to come to school with their sun hats, water bottles, and sunscreen applied and ready to begin their day outdoors.
Of course, we hope children, especially the young ones, go outside to play at home both after school and on weekends. As it turns out, weather is what most often keeps parents hesitant about outdoor play for their kids.
According to a 2012 survey of 1000 parents commissioned by National Wildlife Federation (NWF), weather topped the list of barriers to getting kids outdoors. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed cited weather as most problematic, over concerns about strangers (38%), homework (31%), and a busy schedule (5%).
Luckily, Waldorf parents already have the necessary gear to send kids outside and the understanding that outdoor play is essential to their children’s well-being. Since Waldorf educators don’t load homework onto younger students, the kids have the time they need to go
outside for unstructured play.
So go ahead, send them out to play! Want to go with them and not sure what to do? Check out the National Wildlife Federation Activity Ideas HERE.
Parents of Waldorf students get to see their children perform a play every spring. But why? Don’t tell the kids, but it’s not just for fun. Class plays are grounded in each grade’s individual curriculum and the appropriate developmental level of the students. Students act out what they’ve learned throughout the year in the language arts and bring their curriculum to life. This not only helps children truly remember what they’ve learned, but also gives students an opportunity to showcase other skills and employ teamwork.
Class plays incorporate music, recitation, memorization, acting, and visual arts (via set and costume preparations). Also, the play meets children at a place of their age’s unique social development — both in story and practice. The practice and performance of a play requires age-appropriate finesse in social learning and group dynamics. The play’s topic, or storyline, also seeks to address the struggles felt by the particular age group.
In grade 4, for example, a play about Norse mythology and the troublemaking of Loki reminds children of the consequences of their own budding morality and of their choices as they emerge from early childhood into an expanded worldview.
The parts within a play begin mostly as chorus in younger grades; as the children grow, so do the expectations for bringing individual characters to life. Waldorf teachers, who have been with their students through all the grades, know them well and give parts that challenge or complement each student’s personality. Through plays, students can be guided to emerge or develop from a comfortable place within themselves or perhaps play a part of someone very different and challenging.
Perhaps most importantly, the children feel exuberance and joy bringing their lessons to life for their loved ones during the class play. It is a culmination and presentation of much of the hard work done that year for the students. And they are understandably proud of their work.
Facebook has been abuzz lately with articles about the benefits of musical training on the brains and learning abilities of our children. The influence of music training on learning has long been cultivated in Waldorf Education, where musical instrument training begins in Grade 1 with pentatonic flutes and moves to stringed instruments by Grade 4. Students also receive choral training, study music reading and notation, and learn Solfege.
This latest round of internet excitement comes from a new study released by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. They found that children between age 6 and 18 had both physiological and behavioral benefits from musical instrument training.
According to this Washington Post article, Music Lessons Spur Emotional and Behavioral Growth in Children, James Hudziak, Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, says, “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument [the more it] accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.” When children played and practiced playing an instrument, it thickened an area of the brain related to “executive functioning, including working memory, attention control, as well as organisation and planning for the future.”
This new study is also layered on top of three additional studies published late in 2013 by The Society for Neuroscience. According to the press release, those finding show that “[l]ong-term high level musical training has a broader impact than previously thought. Researchers found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight” (Julie Roy, abstract 550.13).
The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact (Yunxin Wang, abstract 765.07).
Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the rain (Ana Pinho, MS, abstract 122.13).
Music Training at SGWS
Here at Spring Garden Waldorf School, musical training is seen as a layering of abilities. What is taught in the early grades is built upon each year, as more and more is expected musically from the students. Children are given regular opportunities to perform their music, at monthly Assemblies and also at Concerts and Festivals.
Grades 1 & 2:
In the early years, music is an expression and embodiment of imagination. In Grades One and Two, children learn music from the pentatonic scale both in song and on their flutes or recorders.
In Grade Three, during the nine-year change, children are ready to begin learning the language of music. A diatonic scale is introduced with a new recorder, notes are named by letter, and children learn basic music notation such as the scale and clef. Third graders also begin Solfege – a music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing.
Grade Four brings fraction studies, and fractions bring quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, which then leads to teaching rhythms, rounds, and some simple harmony. Now that the language of music has been introduced, children begin to play musical instruments, starting with the violin.
Students in Grade Five are ready for three parts in choral music. Accidentals are also introduced in this grade, and new keys are taught beyond the key of C. Students also continue to master the violin with regular training and performance.
In Grade Six, children can choose to expand their instrumental repertoire by selecting a different stringed instrument to master beyond the violin. They also learn and master written music from the Medieval period, aligning music with the Main Lesson curriculum. Acoustics are also studied this year.
Grade 7 & 8:
Middle School layers skills and practice upon all that has been learned before. Ensemble choirs read music and sing in harmony and rhythm. Sight singing also begins and Solfege study continues, and Orchestra is part of every student’s curriculum. Students can also begin training on woodwind instruments in the upper grades, if they so choose, or they can continue to master their stringed instrument choices.