Helping Your Child Get Ready for Reading and Writing

By Kindergarten Teacher Christine Pierce Inglis

GBRSS Early Childhood Teachers Christine Inglis and Michelle Kuzia Our early childhood program lays a foundation for writing and reading but does not begin formal instruction until the children are in first grade. What do we do in the kindergarten to prepare our children and what practical things can you do at home to further this process? Let’s take a look at some of the important skills and abilities involved in the process of learning to write and read:

Language Skills, including Speech Proficiency
Visual Proficiency
Auditory Proficiency
Physical and Sensory Development
Social and Emotional Intelligence

Language Skills

The richer and more varied the child’s vocabulary, the more clearly he differentiates sounds and words, the better foundation he will have when he needs to translate these sounds into symbols. We immerse the children in poetry and songs everyday at circle time and we use the important element of repetition to reinforce the learning. It is well known to linguists that a child needs constant repetition of new sounds and words before he is able to reproduce them himself. Unlike physical objects which the child is free to pick up and examine at will, as often as he likes, a sound or word is transitory; it is there for a brief moment in time and then gone again. If it is not repeated enough, the child has no way to grasp it and learn about it.

For this reason we continue for several weeks with certain poems and songs at circle time, and we repeat our stories and puppet shows many times in a row, to familiarize the children with the language, imagery and concepts. As teachers we have many techniques to ensure that the circles do not grow stale or over-familiar while at the same time keeping the repetition of the words. We can expand and add new gestures or imagery, add costumes or turn the song or poem into a game. And as teachers we know the importance of delving deeply into the imagery and meaning of the fairy tales and stories for ourselves to keep them interesting and fresh for us, which is the key to keeping them alive for the children.

GBRSS Early Childhood Storytelling

Speech Proficiency

Experience has shown that the child must have reached a point of maturity with regard to oral language before beginning to read. This is known as the “speech age” of the child and is determined by the child’s use of phonemes and his ability or inability to form a particular sound. It has been estimated that by the age of seven the average child is able to correctly articulate the consonants and consonant blends ninety percent of the time. The learning of the alphabet of sound is an important prerequisite to learning the alphabet of letters.

Children with reading difficulties frequently have problems in speech. Therefore, by helping children to overcome their speech defects one can assist them in their association of sound and letter/word, and their capacity for oral reading. The best situation would be to help the child to learn to form his speech correctly before he begins to write and read.

In a study made by Sonenberg and Glass, forty children with reading problems were tested for speech and auditory defects. All but two of the children had speech problems and nearly half had problems with auditory discrimination. The children with difficulties in auditory discrimination frequently made the following sound reversals: K to G, P to D, W to WH, F to T, T to L, P to M, P to G, B to D, T to K, M to S, D to T, T to unvoiced TH, F to unvoiced TH, F to V. These substitutions often show up as reading reversals.

Van Riper and Butler have set outlines for phoneme teaching that stress the importance of identifying each sound with a sound in the child’s environment, giving the sound a name, and identifying the sound with a picture. For example, “S” is described as the whistling sound of the teakettle. For our young children, it is enough to identify the sound without naming it; although on occasion I make an exception (Pattacake, or the folk song BINGO).

Speech Proficiency Tip:

Sing to your child! Sing songs that you remember from your childhood. When choosing a fairy tale or story for your child, think about the complexity of the conflict in the story. For a preschool child, a simple story about a child searching for, and finding, her cat can be enough of a conflict and resolution. For older kindergarten children, a story with more complex tasks or difficulties to overcome (such as three tasks to be performed to break the enchantment) can be considered. Always look at the level of conflict and tension within the story to guide you.

Three to four year old children are still coming to terms with their own bodies and the everyday life and world of objects and nature. (Also a primitive “animism” is still alive in the child, and there are many delightful folk tales that reflect this…the door speaks, the table speaks, etc.) Putting on boots and mittens, walking in the woods, helping mother knead bread dough or sweep the kitchen floor; these everyday activities are special events for the young child, and opportunities for learning. Watching the postman or the farmer at work, observing how grown-ups do things, are all very important at this age. Therefore stories which center around daily life, home or work activities are well-loved, and at circle time young children love to mime these activities in connection with the poems or songs. Try singing “Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush” with its endless verses of “this is the way we wash our hands” (or brush our teeth, or put on our boots) when you are doing these activities with your child. It is a great way to get happy compliance! Nursery rhymes are also wonderful and you can use them to accompany certain routine activities. Everyday when the children come in for lunch I stand at the door, holding it open and making a sort of bridge with my arm that they walk under, and I often sing “London Bridges”. Or when I pour the water into each of their cups at lunch it reminds me of “Jack and Jill” who went to fetch a pail of water and I sing that song each day as I pour the water. It is a simple little ritual but the children often like to join in, and the repetition gives them a chance to become very familiar with the sounds and rhythms.

At age five and six the children have developed to a different stage and their drawings are indicative of their awakening consciousness. The sky and the earth are now often separated on the page, the child is no longer living completely “at one” with the world but is beginning to connect to the concept of separation in a new way. This shows his readiness for slightly more complicated plots, such as some of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These creative pictures feed his imagination developing a capacity for rich imagery. The children are now less dependent on the visual props of the puppet show (we do mostly puppet shows with the younger nursery children) and can listen and independently picture the happenings in the story.

Speech Proficiency Tip:

All children love to hear stories about what their parents did as little children. Try to remember some – it doesn’t matter how mundane they are, your children will be delighted! Also, it is great to observe something in nature and share it with your child at mealtimes. I store up memories of things that I have seen on the way to school that morning, for example, a cardinal flying across the road, or a bunny hopping into the bushes, and of course endless stories about my cat, Kippy, which children love. (“Tell us about Kippy!”). Once I have shared a short story/observation from my day, the children quite naturally follow my lead and often will take turns telling things that they have seen. It is a nice way to begin a mealtime conversation, and these conversations are a great place for the children to practice their language skills.

Visual Proficiency

The eye becomes structurally complete at about eight years of age. Before that time, the eyes are still in a process of development. The unnatural hand and eye movements required for writing and reading must be learned. In writing, the hand must be able to move across the page from left to right in a controlled manner. In reading, the eyes must be able to make this same movement, over and over. In daily life, one would rarely (if ever) move one’s eyes in such a way for any length of time. Instead, the eyes would be constantly moving back and forth, up and down, near and far, in a very different pattern. Emerald Dechant (author of “Improving the Teaching of Reading”) asserts that the child of six is usually too farsighted to see objects as small as a word clearly and with ease. Some authorities have even suggested that children are made myopic (nearsighted) through premature attempts to adapt to the demand of close vision.

Visual Proficiency Tip:

At the end of clean-up time I ask the children, one at a time, to use their “eagle eyes” and find anything that is out of place. You can do the same at home, and make a little game of it.

Auditory Proficiency

Unless the child is able to differentiate the sounds that make up a word, he will not be able to form the proper association of spoken sound to graphic symbol. In fact, it has been found that listening is generally more effective than reading as a learning device for children under eight years.

Listening is the first language art that the child develops. This power of mastering new sound discriminations decreases as one grows older. A baby will easily pick up the language with which he is surrounded and imitate the precise intonations necessary. Contrast this with the adult trying to learn a foreign language; it is much more difficult for him to master, partly due to a fixation of the speech organism, but also in a large part due to an inability to distinguish sounds. Often an adult retains an “accent” in the foreign language because he doesn’t perceive the subtle difference in the phonetics or cadences of the new language as compared to his native tongue.

Research has shown that good listeners rated higher than poor listeners in intelligence, reading, socioeconomic status, and achievement, but not on a hearing test. This indicates that the activity of listening is not necessarily bound up with a person’s physical, auditory acuity. Listening occurs only when the child organizes and remembers what is heard. It requires the active engagement of one’s thinking processes. Obviously, a hearing impairment would create difficulties for a child, but clearly, the physical capacity only provides the basis for the activity of listening to take place.

The ability to listen is basic to the learning of reading. It is generally recognized that this ability must be consciously fostered, as children enter school with quite varied degrees of listening ability. Dechant names several ways in which listening can be taught: through storytelling, conversation, dramatization, singing of songs, reading of poems and reading or speaking rhymes. Some schools have so-called “listening centers” with pupil-operated devices consisting of a CD player, earphones and response sheets which are filled in by the pupil. It has been noted that the listening center equipment does little to improve empathic listening, reactive listening, projective listening or interpretative listening which seem to be better fostered in face-to-face situations, which is what we emphasize in Waldorf Schools.

Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School - Helping Your Child Get Ready for Reading and Writing: Auditory Proficiency Tip

Auditory Proficiency Tip:

Find a stringed instrument such as a lyre or guitar, or a chime bar or xylophone that rings. Play one tone (by plucking the string or chiming one bar) and have your child tell you when they can no longer hear it. Or get a big conch shell and hold it to their ears to see if they can “hear the ocean” in it. Or go outside in the woods and listen for the birds calling. And when you despair that you have to call them at least ten times before they come, start training them to come the first time you call them (let them know that you are going to call them and you will only say their name once – then go get them silently and take their hand if they weren’t listening. Eventually they will get it, and then you can give them a lot of praise!)

Physical and Sensory Development

In addition to what has already been mentioned in the way of physical development, there is a great deal of new information available in the area of brain research. As Carla Hannaford, Phd., says in her book “Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head”: “The notion that intellectual activity can somehow exist apart from our bodies is deeply rooted in our culture. It is related to the attitude that the things we do with our bodies, and the bodily functions, sensations, and emotions that sustain life, are lower, less distinctly human…Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest moments right through to old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world… And it is our movements that express knowledge and facilitate greater cognitive function as they increase in complexi…”

Einstein once said: “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” So much of what we learn is taken in through our senses, especially as young children. The more we can give our children hands-on learning, the more we are allowing them to learn through experience. If we are constantly talking at them, and explaining, we are robbing them of the possibility of learning through observation.

GBRSS Early Childhood

Physical and Sensory Development Tip:

Children often ask: “What are you doing?” or “What are we going to do now?” or “What are you going to use that for?” Often adults feel that they are obligated to explain what they are doing. Try saying: “Watch and you will see.” And then carry on with your work. When the child sees that you are not going to tell him, he starts to pay attention and his interest shifts to a whole new level. It is very satisfying for him when he figures out what is going on through his own observation. Sometimes a child will ask “what are we having for snack?” I might say “what do you smell?” or “what did we chop together this morning?” If I just quickly answered “bread” or “soup” they haven’t been encouraged to pay attention to their own senses. When we quickly provide very detailed and complete answers to all of their questions we are training them to be inactive and always look to someone else, rather than trying to find their own answers. Of course, there are certainly times when you want to use the “teachable moment” to explain something; but don’t be too quick to jump in or too detailed at first. They need time to take it in and process the information. Start with simple, pictorial explanations. The child will continue to mull it over and think about it more if you leave something for them to discover.

Physical and Sensory Development Tip:

Since children don’t get to move as much as they used to (it is popular and sometimes easier to take them everywhere in the stroller or the car) give them as much time walking as possible. And if your child missed or hurried through the crawling phase, play crawling games with them! (Mama Bear and Baby Bear, or Papa Turtle and Baby Turtle, etc.) Walking over varied ground (such as hikes in the woods) is fantastic. Go to the beach in the summer and let them experience walking barefoot on the sand.

Physical and Sensory Development Tip:

Games to play for developing sensory awareness…Place three familiar objects under a cloth. Ask your child to reach under the cloth and identify the objects through touch alone. (This is a great game to play when you are waiting – in a doctor’s office, or a restaurant, or an airport.) Another game for the sense of hearing is to have your child close his eyes and then you play different instruments (for example a flute, or bell, or drum) and have the child identify the different instruments. Another game for the sense of smell is to put three pungent substances in three containers and (with eyes closed) have your child identify them (for example, lemon, ginger, cinnamon). You can keep the same objects and do them over and over, every time you play the game, so that your child can get confident in the identification. They love repetition! When you have done it many times you can change to new objects. Just remember to keep these games light and playful rather than “instructional”.

Physical and Sensory Development Tip:

Any songs or games with “body geography” are helpful, such as “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” or the finger game “Two Fat Gentlemen”.

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Although research has shown that a mental age of six and a half years is the optimal age for beginning reading, intelligence is not the only factor that should be considered. Emotional and social maturity is also important. Mason and Prater found that: “…younger children make less progress than older ones of the same intelligence when they are exposed to the same program…” Although many studies have shown that it is possible to teach children under the age of five to read, it is important to consider whether this is desirable. Research has shown that the teaching of reading in the kindergarten tended to increase negative social behavior among the boys, and that learning was a much slower process than with first grade children.

It would therefore seem unwise to push children beyond their emotional or social maturational level, since reading disability is often caused by starting a child in a reading program before he is ready. As Dechant asserts: “Such a child cannot handle the day by day learning tasks and finds himself farther and farther behind as time goes by. He becomes frustrated and develops antipathy toward reading. He actually learns not to read.”

The relationship between reading disability and emotional and social maladjustment is often a “vicious circle”. If the child has difficulty reading this leads to a loss of self-esteem and a stigmatization which can become a tremendous social difficulty. But it is equally true to say that if a child comes to school with emotional problems or social handicaps, it is very possible that he or she may experience difficulty in learning, and this includes writing and reading.

In her book “Is Your Child In The Wrong Grade?” by Louise Bates Ames, Phd., of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, the author makes the point that a large proportion of school children are being forced to perform at levels beyond their ability, thus creating behavioral problems, and antipathy toward school and learning. Ames asserts that a high I.Q. can give the illusion that a child is ready for more advanced work at a higher grade level, when in fact, the child’s emotional and social behavior is not capable of more demands. Clearly, it is important that a child’s emotional and social behavior be considered in deciding when to begin writing and reading; and any activities which foster this maturational development would seem to be beneficial to the development of the child’s reading capabilities.

GBRSS - Helping Your Child Get Ready for Reading and Writing

Social and Emotional Intelligence Tip:

Young children are constantly learning through their play. They learn a great deal when they play on their own: including working through and digesting many sense impressions and emotions and reflecting on things. Children also learn an enormous amount when they play with others: how to interact, how to share, how to stand up for themselves, how to be compassionate. It is a constant give and take. Provide opportunities for both solitary, creative play and creative play with others. Don’t overschedule your child with school all day, and then provide constant, structured activities and playdates after school. They need time to digest their school experiences. But if your child is having social difficulties it can be helpful to invite another child over for a playdate so that social skills can be practiced in a relatively quiet, focused way, in a familiar and secure setting.

Some basic social skills include:

  1. Learning to say “No Thank You” to someone who is bothering them (pushing, taking a toy, speaking rudely, etc.)
  2. Learning how to enter into other children’s play, for example, knocking at the door of their “house” and saying “knock, knock, knock, may I come in?” and conversely, inviting in friends who want to come in and play.
  3. If two children are fighting bring them together rather than separating them. If one has hurt the other, let him go and get a tissue and cup of water for his friend. Let them take hands and say “sorry, friend” then give them a task to do together.

A shortened version of this article was published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

GBRSS 3rd Annual Science Fair – a Must See April 2nd

By Kate Staples

GBRSS Wind Turbine Science  Fair ProjectLearning through hands-on experience is a core principle of Waldorf education. One way for friends and family to see the fruits of that education is at the annual GBRSS Science Fair. For the 7th and 8th graders, the fair is a great opportunity to present their projects. Meanwhile, the parents and the community learn more about the Waldorf approach to science because each project – from the topic chosen by the student, to the research put into its exploration, to the visual and oral presentation tying it all together – is an indication of how the years of participation in art and history and nature and all the other experiences of a Waldorf education coalesce into each student’s presentation.

GBRSS Science Fair ProjectHelping children become familiar with the interconnectedness of all things in the universe is central to the Waldorf philosophy and science is one of the avenues through which kids learn to understand and appreciate that concept. Science instruction might not be obvious in the early childhood or the beginning grades, but it’s there every day. It’s in the walk in the woods, observing nature and habitat; it’s in the baking of bread or the mixing of colors. Years of observation and exposure to scientific concepts, without actually calling it science, helps students become comfortable in all different disciplines, so that when they first see experiments or begin to study biology there is an underlying familiarity. In a sense, they have been sharing experiences with earlier cultures by making discoveries based on observation and an inner logic rather than outside instruction.

In the classroom, this takes the form of observation first. Without specific instruction from the teacher, a concept or reaction, such as convection or combustion, is demonstrated. The student’s job is to focus on observing the phenomena. Later, the students share their observations and with guidance, attempt to conduct their own similar experiments during which they observe and note the reactions and deduce the principles at work. In this way, they are not memorizing a concept, they are experiencing it themselves, leading to a deeper understanding of what they are learning and a curiosity about what they don’t know.

GBRSS Science Fair DemonstrationScience projects allow students to dig deeper into a field that they learned in school or to explore one which wasn’t touched on in class. In the past, students have researched exoplanets and built wind turbines. In the course of researching and presenting their projects, they get the opportunity to learn more about scientific methods and methodology.

Students begin exploring project ideas early in the second semester and choose their own topic from any field, including Earth Science, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy or Biology. The project can be an experiment (does lemon juice prevent fruit from browning?), an exploration of a given topic (observe, keep a journal, and research crows) or students might build something (a generator).

GBRSS Science Fair ProjectEach student is paired with a mentor; it could be science teacher Shawn Green, their class teacher, or another adult who has expertise in the area. Students write a hypothesis or goal, research the topic, and put together the 3-panel display, which is shown first to the class, and to the lower grades. Then, at the Science Fair, students have the opportunity to show a larger audience the results of their months of research and their years of underlying experience. Mr. Green, Ms. Brennan, and Mr. Sblendorio are excited about this year’s projects and look forward to seeing you at the 3rd GBRSS Science Fair on Monday April 2nd from 7-8:30 pm.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Science Fair from the Student’s Point of View

By Kate Staples

GBRSS Science Fair Project 2011Eighth graders Dylan O’Malley and Mollie Van Sant are no strangers to the Science Fair. This will be their second year participating and, after encouraging results last time, both are looking forward to trying out new projects.

“I like doing the experiments,” said Mollie, who last year put together a project based on electroplating coins. “Some things I tried worked better than others. I had to try different variables, changing the saturation of the solution. Zinc plating didn’t work very well.” This year, Mollie will be making cheese using different types of ingredients and monitoring the results.

GBRSS Science Fair Project 2011Dylan also likes chemistry, though he has been focusing on physics-oriented projects. Last year, the steam cannon he built launched a cork 49 feet. “It was my favorite part of the project,” he said. This year, he will be building a catapult based on a design by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Both students’ work will be on display at the Science Fair, Monday, April 2nd from 7-8:30pm.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Faculty Profile – Science and Math Teacher Shawn Green

Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School science and math teacher, Shawn Green, teaching in science classroom
GBRSS science teacher Shawn Green’s interest in science grew directly out of his fascination for the intricacies of nature. Growing up on Long Island, he and his family used to camp in the Catskills, where he had the chance to experience nature close-up. As a young adult, Shawn realized that he wanted to know more about the birds, the plants and other aspects of the natural world.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, that curiosity, along with a desire to learn about other cultures and effect positive change in the world, led Shawn to join the Peace Corps.

He lived in Thailand, where he worked in education; primarily health and environment. He also helped village schools procure grants for projects such as libraries and playgrounds. It was a tremendous learning experience, he says. Shawn and his wife, Chaba, travel back to Thailand every other summer to visit her family.

Rudolf Steiner’s holistic approach to education – the incorporation of hands, head and heart – attracted Shawn to the Waldorf teaching philosophy and he received his Masters from Sunbridge College in New York, joining the GBRSS staff in 2008.

Science and nature are never far from Shawn’s life. In his spare time, he likes to hike and swim and he and his wife recently bought their first house and are learning how to maintain and improve a home.

Some of Shawn’s favorite aspects of teaching 6th through 8th grade science and mathematics are seeing the students’ reactions to experiments, and the class discussions they trigger. He also enjoys the students’ enthusiasm during the Science Fair and finds that, in addition to mentoring his students, he is also learning from them.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Everything Waldorf – A Parent’s Perspective

by Suzi Banks Baum ©

It all started with a shower gift from a lawyer friend of Jonathan’s. We were childfree, though very pregnant, living in our one room studio in Manhattan. You Are Your Child’s First Teacher was the book.

The gift was the message within the book, which took us both reading it to glean.

We are both children of teachers. We are familiar with teaching, with the importance of teachers in children’s lives. We’d grown up with education being highly valued in our homes.

But here, in this book there was a very different perspective on how, as parents, we shape and contour the lives of our children. It was here that we learned about Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education. We learned about silks and homeopathic remedies and over stimulation and the onset of the first teeth as that event relates to the right time for kids to start learning to read.

So, this book, curious and strange in its new approach to parenting had an impact on us. Equally curious and at times strange, Waldorf Education has had a major impact on our lives.

I could tell you about the journey of our 17-year-old son, now a student at the Great Barrington Waldorf High School. I could also tell you about the journey of our daughter Catherine, about to graduate from her 8th grade class this coming June. Instead, I will tell you about my journey, because that has made all the difference.

Sitting in the beeswax scented early childhood building across from Miss Becki Rozhon in the Rose Room of Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School was where we began. Since moving to Hillsdale, New York from Manhattan, we had met a few families affiliated with the Hawthorne Valley School. We had a baby sitter, then a senior at HVS, who we both liked. Her manner with us, her ease with baby Ben, and the wealth of joy in creating that she shared as a babysitter made us curious about where she had been educated. When we moved from Hillsdale to Great Barrington, Ben enrolled at Gail Mullen’s in-home day care with a few other children who were to become his life long friends. Ben held his new baby sister Catherine up for his day care mates to see, standing in front of Gail’s beautiful handmade Advent calendar and the impression on me in that moment was wanting both of our children to be held in this gentle, colorful, grace filled way of Waldorf education.

So, we enrolled Ben with Miss Becki. He spent one semester at GBRSS, until Miss Becki left to start her own Waldorf kindergarten, Kinderhof, in North Egremont on a small farm in the woods.

Everything Waldorf - A GBRSS Parent's Perspective

It was there that I sat around the short legged wooden table and knit, felted, embroidered, make Advent lanterns, crocheted, peeled, sanded and polished things to be used by the children in the days they spent on that small farm. They played out in the woods, answering Miss Becki’s singing with their chorus of voices along moss lined paths, with horses and a fine set of chickens making days for them that I could never have created on my own.

I was called upon as a parent to not only support the school but to learn about how our children were learning and what we could do to enhance that experience at home. Miss Becki and Mr. Terry expanded what we learned in that first book and created a setting for our whole family to flourish.

When Mr. Sansone came to visit Ben’s class, the big kids of the Kinderhof, I was sure that Ben would be finely set for first grade at GBRSS. We made the transition to the grade school with ease and found that bigger community quite welcoming. Now, our skills were called on in bigger ways. Jonathan joined the Board of Trustees and offered his legal skills to the administration. We both took the training in Non-Violent Communication skills and Consensus Building. We helped build the maple sugar shack and made stuff for the Little People’s shop. We did all the things we were asked to do because it was so obviously valuable to support this school that so well supported the lives of our small children.

This journey holds so many chapters. I gardened with Ben’s class for 7 years and learned about biodynamics and seed saving. I learned about threshing grains that we’d grown and to make healing salve that we then sold. I learned to harvest calendula and dye our Michaelmas silks with the blossoms. I took on leading the Parents’ Association for 3 years, co-leading with Adrian Alcala for two of those years. I led the Parent’s Education committee creating a lecture series and special events for the parents. I wanted for others to enjoy the learning I was engaged in. The wealth within the school can be accessed at so many points, whether through working at the Fair or participating with Paul Marguiles’ study group or attending the Morris Men’s Solstice gatherings.

Everything I did had a direct impact on my mothering. My needle skills, already strong from my years doing couture and theatre work in NYC, were completely enhanced by sitting next to inspiring knitters at meetings, knitting squares for the Fair quilt and by offering increasingly excellent items to the Silent Auction at the Fair. As my children progressed in the grades, so my willingness grew.

Everything Waldorf - A GBRSS Parent's Perspective

To list all that I did, the lectures and workshops I attended would be dull. But this quote, above all the learning I have done in these 17 years of exposure to the Waldorf way of learning, captures it all:

“Enthusiasm is the light wings that carry us.”
Margaretha Eichenholz, Waldorf Handwork teacher

I have met the enthusiasm of my children’s teachers, Becki and Terry, Andrew Sansone and Tracy Brennan, with gratitude and been inspired by all they have offered my children. I have felt my own enthusiasm for Waldorf Education flourish as my learning expanded and my skills increased. How good it is to make things, to do these things well, to understand the wider implications of history as it relates to human development. What a joy to see a plant and see in that plant, the cosmos. What a blessing to celebrate the rituals of the calendar year with appreciation for the human qualities that they honor.

Everything Waldorf - A GBRSS Parent's Perspective

This journey has not been all joy and golden silks. There has been significant pain and loss. You enter in to class when the children are small and precious and move through periods of growth that are confusing and hard to navigate in a community. And, as each class is a family, you also suffer the losses of others and learn to hold and honor them as a community. Prayer shawls and food chains, phone trees and car pools connect us, but it is that enthusiasm that carries us through.

Not only have my skills been enhanced by this 17 yearlong journey, but my heart has learned many things too. I have stepped in to leadership and learned the grace of stepping out of it. I have grown to love people for the gifts they have offered me and my children in the way a family learns to love and accommodate members who are not your favorite, people who call out parts of me that I’d rather ignore.

None of this deeper learning is possible in a community with loose ties and low expectations. I don’t learn when all I am asked is to show up for parent teacher conferences once a year. I do learn when I am asked to accompany a class to the Egypt exhibit at the MET in NYC and spend hours sketching ancient eyes. I do learn when I am challenged to let go of ways of being that are not harmonious with what my child is learning in school.

You Are Your Child's First TeacherWhen I look back at that book by Rahima Baldwin, I hold it as I hold a key to a kingdom. I hold it in gratitude for the world it led me in to. I hold it in sadness for all I could not do to make things better than I did. I hold it in grace for this key is now firmly settled in to my children’s way of being, they are now the children I admired 17 years ago- tall, upright individuals who can look adults in the eyes and offer their hands in greeting.

Enthusiasm has carried us thus far in our lives as parents of Waldorf educated children. It has carried us as members of this community. And it has carried us as a family who share songs and grace, celebrations and ways of being we could never have learned anywhere else. This kingdom of childhood grows and expands with every year, offering stunning new vistas without and within.

Blessings on this day.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Waldorf, Silicon Valley and Technology

By Kate Staples

Last October, an article in the New York Times about the decision by some Silicon Valley employees to send their children to a Waldorf school sparked nationwide discussion about the place of technology in the classroom. Executives at Google, eBay and other large technology corporations were quoted in the article endorsing the gadget-free, hands-on approach to education, particularly in the early grades. Families committed to a Waldorf education for their children found many of the points familiar.

After reading this article and others in Chicago and San Francisco newspapers, GBRSS Interim Faculty Administrator John Greene organized a meeting at the school of parents whose work directly involves technology and media. The group got together to discuss their impressions of the function of technology in the school and in their children’s lives. The meeting was also attended by a reporter from the Berkshire Record, who wrote an article about it for the paper.

“The most impressive thing to me, as someone who has been involved at the school for a long time, was how articulate all the parents were,” said Cathy Fracasse, who works in software development and has a son in the 6th Grade, “Everyone was extremely passionate about their jobs and also about Waldorf education.”

The parents were in agreement that their decision to limit technology and media in their homes was not a rejection of the Internet. They want to allow their children the opportunity to think critically and develop relationships – with themselves, other people and the world – before their focus begins to shift towards a screen.

Christian Williams, an IT/network administrator who has a daughter in the 3rd grade and a son in early childhood, treasures the conversations he has with his kids on their hour-long commute. “These conversations, always based on an inquisitive co-pilot in their spot in the backseat, I attribute to the desire to learn and wonder which I personally believe is nurtured and inspired by a push to creatively ‘think outside the box’.” He added that he doubts this would happen if his kids had access to a TV or video screen.

In both the New York Times article and the parent meeting, the consensus among Waldorf parents was that there is plenty of time for technology later. Technology was compared to learning to read and write; children evolve into it based on their maturity and readiness. According to one of the 284 comments on the Times website, “Computers today are easy to learn to use at any age, quickly and effectively. But there are only a few short, critical years of early development in which to teach a child the basics of being human, how to love learning, and the best ways of working with others. There is no app for that, and there never will be.”

The clear reasoning for setting technology and media limits for young children goes beyond Waldorf pedagogy. Attention spans, creative thinking and socialization can all be affected by too much screen time. And there’s plenty of time for kids to learn to use a computer later, after they’ve had time to be kids. As one of the parents quoted in the Times article said, “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Welcome the 2012-13 First Grade Teacher

Rebecca Morrison returns to GBRSS as the 2012-13 First Grade teacher, formerly teaching Eurythmy. She brings with her a wealth of life experiences and a great deal of Waldorf training. Born in Wales, Rebecca spent most of her childhood in Africa and, she says, “The heart of her education attending boarding schools in southern England.” In early childhood, under the influence of her father, a mechanical engineer, she spent many hours observing, assisting and exploring the workings of things through projects such as dam building, go-cart making and tree house construction. As a result of her childhood in the 1960’s in Central Africa, she developed a reverence for nature and of discovery, and suffered no excess in material comforts! Life in boarding school, on the other hand, was an adventure in academics; Latin studies and all the classical subjects filled many days and nights. Biology, which was taught in a phenomenological way, was her favorite subject. Later, Rebecca received her Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Elementary Education Certification in Pennsylvania and supported herself through college as the Director of Youth Activities at the YMCA. One of the highlights of her time there was a play, that she co- authored and directed, which was performed by the children in the woods. In 1992, Rebecca moved to New York to attend Sunbridge College, embarking upon Eurythmy training. During this time Rebecca met her husband and two step sons. After completing the training, she taught Eurythmy at Hawthorne Valley School and at Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School. She continued her Waldorf studies at Antioch in Keene and at ALKION in Harlemville. Ask Syona, in the Sixth Grade, to point her mom out and welcome her to GBRSS!

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Reflections on the 2012 Annual Appeal

Dear Parents, Alums and Friends,

Cast your mind back 40,000 years. Your ancestors lived in small kinship-oriented tribes, were close to the land and in tune with the seasons — living much the same as generation upon generation before them. They dealt with the exigencies of their present, felt strongly connected to revered traditions and worshipped their ancestors.

Things are different now. The pace of change is breathtaking. Cultural and social forces are fractured in hundreds of directions. Our children are not likely to succumb to the saber- tooth, but we feel vigilance is required to enable a path toward their full human potential.

GBRSS Early Childhood ProgramThank goodness for GBRSS, our partner in this worthy endeavor. For forty years our teachers have worked to “provide students with the foundation to create lives of meaning and purpose” and to build the school. But, in our own daily struggles, we too often take the school for granted. It is just there – by chance at the right place and time for our children to pass through on the way to their futures.

Please take a moment to consider the School’s future. Everyone reading this page already supports the school in myriad ways, and for that we are truly thankful. I believe that supporting the school is one of the highest and best things that we can do for the future of humankind. Please consider the Annual Fund appeal in that light. The school needs every penny you can give, and I promise we will use it wisely and well. The extra $10 or $500 you add to this year’s pledge could be the tipping point.

Max Dannis, President of the Board of Trustees

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Me and Meow

Review by Sally Michael Keyes

Me and Meow by Adam GudeonAdam Gudeon, parent of two children at the school, published his first book, Me and Meow, with HarperCollins this fall. Adam was inspired by a drawing by daughter Iris, a student in Mr. Coulter’s class. True to its origins, the book is sweet, full of spirit, and a delight to read….but I am crazy about kids books, red cats and lots of color, so don’t take my word on this… here are excerpts from national press outlets.

From the School Library Journal, “Simple childlike pictures and a minimal childlike narrative describe a day in the life of Me and her constant companion, Meow, a red cat. The primitive figures are expertly posed and arranged with simple props on color- saturated spreads to reflect the joy and devotion the companions share. Children as young as two years will appreciate the brevity, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and repetition in the text.”

Publishers Weekly says, “Gudeon’s first picture book uses naïf stick figures and candy-colored backgrounds to create a book that feels as if it might have been drawn and written by an actual child” and its “lighthearted devotion to everyday pleasures should please the youngest readers.”

It also received a Kirkus starred review, “Gudeon’s…debut is high on style and charm…boldly colored illustrations follow the characters through their daily routine. Minimal backgrounds include just a few items rendered in the naïve style.”

Me and Meow can be found locally at Bookloft, and can also be ordered online. Adam is presently at work on his second book.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).

Jessica Ryan
, Class of 1999

What were the forces behind your decision to join the Peace Corps?

There were several forces behind my decision to join the Peace Corps in 2010. First, I’ve always been curious about the world and its different cultures. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve had the unique privilege to intimately know a foreign culture and lead a completely different lifestyle for two years in the farming community of Cuisnahuat, El Salvador. Second, my career goal is to work for the Foreign Service and Peace Corps is a natural stepping stone with its emphasis on international public service. Third, I believe that a worthy life is defined by meaningful work and for me there is no work more meaningful or inspiring than helping others improve their lives. Despite the many hardships during my service, I’ve never doubted that my time in the Peace Corps was well spent.

Could you describe what your overall mission is in El Salvador?

1999 GBRSS Alumni, Jess Ryan & her girls, Lake Suchitoto

1999 GBRSS Alumni, Jess Ryan & her girls, Lake Suchitoto

The focus of my Peace Corps work is youth development, which means I design, organize and manage activities to help children and adolescents develop healthy lifestyles, gain life skills, learn strategies to successfully navigate the workforce/generate income and be more active in their community through involvement in local organizations/public service. One of my favorite projects was an empowerment camp I helped design/organize/manage for 19 at-risk Salvadoran girls to teach them knowledge/skills in goal-setting, leadership, self-defense, sexual health, family planning, HIV/AIDs prevention and self-esteem. I am currently working on a parent-child reading program in the local school to help combat the 60% illiteracy rate in my community and mentoring 5 recent high school graduates to receive USAID scholarships in order to go to college in the United States.

What is it like on a day-to-day basis?

Everyday I eat beans and tortillas for all three meals, use a latrine full of roosting chickens, shower with a bucket of cold water and gossip with my neighbors in Spanish about everyone’s business. Every morning I rise at dawn to the crow of roosters and wait in the street with the other women to buy fresh bread delivered to us by kids on bicycles. Once a week I ride the bus for two hours to shop at the market in closest city of Sonsonate, which happens to be territory controlled by the infamous drug gang MS13. Every night I tuck in my mosquito net against the scorpions and fall asleep to the sound of the choir singing in one of the town’s seven churches.

What has surprised you most in your time there?

The most surprising thing I’ve learned while in the Peace Corps is how much our culture accounts for defining who we are. I used to believe that cultures were just different ways of living and now I realize they’re also different ways of thinking— about oneself and the world. For example, I know my family and my Steiner education were very influential in cultivating my love and respect for animals. However, in Salvadoran culture animals are seen as tools, not members of the family like in the United States. A dog is for guarding, not for playing. A cat is for killing mice, not for petting. It still upsets me to see my neighbors “mistreating” their animals, but at least I now realize it’s cultural, not personal. In other words, my neighbors don’t feed their dog because they’re mean. They don’t feed their dog because they can barely afford to feed their own children. I am privileged to have grown up in a culture in which most people have the luxury of caring for and thus about animals. Unfortunately, most people in El Salvador are too busy worrying how they will care for themselves and their children to worry about feeding the skinny dog hanging around their house. My biggest challenging while serving as a volunteer in El Salvador has been adapting to the local culture and respecting it even when I don’t agree with it.

Has your view of the world changed? How?

I used to think I was going to make a difference by changing the world. However, my time in the Peace Corps has taught me that “making a difference” doesn’t have to be global to be meaningful. My most successful projects in El Salvador have focused on helping a few people in very select ways (i.e. college scholarships). The projects that tried to help too many people solve too big a problem were the ones that failed (i.e. no more teen pregnancy). I still think it’s possible to change the world, but now I realize that real, sustainable change must first start small with local support to solve specific problems and then, eventually, can grow to a global scale.

Also, could you give me just a brief sentence on what you were doing before you went to El Salvador.

Before joining the Peace Corps I graduated summa cum laude from Smith College and did a post-graduate teaching fellowship for a year in Spain. I also spent 6 months over two summers at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in the Amazon Jungle of Ecuador.

Do you have any general ideas of what you’d like to do after your mission is completed?

My time as a PCV ends this April 2012, however I am planning to stay with Peace Corps in El Salvador for another year as a regional leader in charge of volunteers. I hope to visit the Berkshires later this year to see my family, eat a good home-cooked meal and take a hot shower.

Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).