Monday, December 31, 2007

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Getting Started

A continuation in a series of essays on Waldorf Unschooling during the teen years.

I have come to believe that it is more than okay for siblings to be best friends. I have come to believe that it is more than okay for parents to enjoy their teen-aged children. I think homeschooling allows you to really get to know your children and they in turn get to know you. I think it gives you time together to learn the dance of life so that you find yourselves enjoying each other’s company. I think it gives your children the opportunity to really get to know each other and work through their differences because of the sheer volume of time they spend together. That doesn’t mean it will be all sweetness and light; indeed it means there will be anger and spats as well as laughter.

Despite the challenges over the years, there were many more positives. I think I learned as much as they were supposed to learn as we traveled the path together. One of the most important pieces of our children’s education was helping them come to know and understand how they learn. Each one of our children has unique strengths, weaknesses, approaches. We never knew where we stood with the next one just because we had lived through it with another before. It was as important to be spontaneous as it was to be prepared. It was imperative to remain flexible. It was imperative to keep talking. It was even more imperative to keep our sense of humor intact. When I could laugh at myself and with them throughout the day, the days went more smoothly for us all. We gave our children respectful direction as they moved into the high school years. Perhaps the single most important gift we gave them was to get out of their way and let them soar always knowing they could come back to the nest and regroup.

So, how did we do this thing called Waldorf homeschooling into the high school years? I want to highlight our hurrahs but not gloss over the difficulties because I believe that every family has a mix of both to navigate on their journey together.

When we realized we might be homeschooling into the high school years, one of the first things we did was purchase a copy of Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook. I read this cover to cover even before my children were teens. They knew it was available and when they were old enough to care, they were encouraged to read it themselves. This became a resource that we all used frequently to get inspiration and ideas during times of doubt.

We used the Waldorf curriculum chart to guide us on the journey. Every fall we would sit down and look at the Waldorf curriculum chart to determine goals for the coming year. As the children got older, they became more and more involved in this process until they were in charge of their own educational goals. John and I would continue to support, offer suggestions and guidance. Because we spent so much time together, we knew our children’s strengths, weaknesses, interests. Many times suggestions fell on deaf ears and that was okay. Sometimes those suggestions would lie dormant only to sprout later on as something quite different but more powerful for them. Over the years, we have remained their greatest champions acting as resources they became the directors of their own education.

One year, Jenn didn’t know what she wanted to study so she spent the summer going to the library every other week and randomly walking around the non-fiction section pulling down a book from various places until she had 10 books. Then she would bring them home and leaf through them. Some sparked her interest; others she barely glanced at. One week her selection included a book on baseball rules/regulations, various card games, traveling through Europe, antiques, famous science couples, world religions, model airplanes, buying a stereo system, statistics and the Hopi culture. This exploration became a learning experience in and of itself opening her world wider than it had been before.

Along with the Waldorf curriculum chart, I would peruse the internet and study the websites of Waldorf high schools. Many display their block schedule, curriculum outline and inspirational essays on adolescence. This gave me a good overview of the high school curriculum which gave me good ideas for my own approach. It was most helpful to see that each high school was diverse and had a flavor of its own. That helped me to feel freer to allow us to develop our own flavor of high school in our home setting. Some of my favorite websites included the Youth Initiative, Viroqua, WI (http://www.yihs.net), Chicago Waldorf School (http://www.chicagowaldorf.org), Austin Waldorf School (http://www.austinwaldorf.org), and Watershed High School, Minneapolis, MN (http://www.watershed.org). I am sure many of the other Waldorf high schools have wonderful websites but these were the ones most helpful to me.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Waldorf Unschooling Through the Teen Years: Introduction

Over the next several days, I plan to share a glimpse of how we approached Waldorf Unschooling with our teens. This series of essays was originally published in its entirety on the Wonder Homeschool website.

We started homeschooling our three children in the summer of 1993. At the time, Sarah, our oldest, had just finished the second grade, Jenn, our middle, had just finished kindergarten in a Waldorf school and, Josh, our youngest, had just turned two years old. Now in the winter of 2006, two have officially graduated from our homeschool, Roots and Wings Academy, going on to other educational endeavors. Sarah at 23 yrs is now in the middle of her third year of the four year program to become an eurythmist at Eurythmy Spring Valley. Jenn at 21 yrs is in the middle of her junior year at the University of Missouri, Columbia, majoring in Women and Gender Studies and a member in good standing of the Honors College. Josh at 16 yrs is now a junior in high school in our home setting already looking to the future having successfully jumped that first college hurdle, the PSAT. The journey of these past 15 yrs has been one of immense joy as well as intense challenge as we have navigated their education through moves, deaths, and other transitions. When we started homeschooling in 1993, we took one day at a time; as we continued through the years there came to be little doubt that we would homeschool with them through their high school years.

As we moved into the teen years, the thing I grappled with the most was the fact that I had never seen a Waldorf high school in action. I "knew" how to do Waldorf in the home in the early years. I had watched it being done and while we quickly veered from doing Waldorf school at home, I still had a sense of what Waldorf schooling meant. As we moved into the high school years, it was more important for us to live from an Anthroposophic impulse which provided an underlying essence of Waldorf to our children’s education. We kept the theme "head, heart and hands" uppermost in our minds and used that as a guide. Perhaps that was a simplistic way to look at things but for me, it helped if I could look over the week or month or year and say "yes, we touched on all of those aspects and didn’t just focus on the head."

While the five of us were in this together, I was the driving force behind our homeschooling journey being at home with the three children through the years while their father was the major breadwinner (though very involved in their education). It helped very much for me to solidify my own educational philosophy. The "why" was as important as the "what" and from these two the "how" flowed. For instance, if I wanted my child to learn a musical instrument, I would ask myself "why"? As the children got older we helped them ask these same questions so they could come to understand their educational goals and would know how to more effectively reach them.

The early teen years are a time of introspection even as they yearn to be part of the crowd. When something distances you more from the crowd (i.e. not attending school) it is easy to think that you are even worse off than your peers who seem to be surrounded by friends. But to quote from the Teenage Liberation Handbook (Grace Llewellyn) "Few people emerge from school’s obsessive popularity and conformity contest without scars." In his keynote address at the 1999 Sacramento Waldorf Education and Home Schooling Conference, Thom Schaefer notes: "The teen years bring huge polarities. They live with opposites. Progress is made between a balance of these polarities. Teens want constant activity but they need lots of sleep. Teens crave intensity but they need routine. Teens want to affect the world but they need to deepen themselves. Teens need to belong to a group but want to be alone. Teens need to be needed but they need to be able to ask for help." These were the guiding principles for us as we navigated our way through the teen years of homeschooling.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Temperaments in a Nutshell

A picture of the temperaments, in a nutshell (from my understanding of them):

Sanguine - associated with air, spring, yellow - the dominant thread of childhood. Sanguines are either socially aware or become superficial. Strengths: friendship is their forte, they bring sunshine to any room with their eagerness and smiles, their motto seems to be "let's have fun and be happy." Weaknesses: they can tend to flit from one thing to another without finishing, they can be fickle, they can be nervous or less than serious.

Choleric - associated with fire, summer, red - the dominant thread of adolescence. Cholerics can become selfless leaders or destructive dictators. Strengths: movers, doers, shakers, leaders. Weaknesses: can destroy as well as build with their energy, can become tyrannical, "my way is right."

Melancholic - associated with earth, fall, violet - the dominant thread of middle age. Melancholics can be either considerate/understanding or they can become incapacitated with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Strengths: thinkers, ponderers, deeply empathic, loving and kind. Weaknesses: sure that everyone is out to get them, their motto seems to be "why bother, it is too difficult or it won't be as fun as last time."

Phlegmatic - associated with water, winter, blues - the dominant thread of old age. Phlegmatics can be reliable/faithful or lazy. Strengths: reliable, "stick-to-it-ness", organized, impart a deep sense of well-being. Weaknesses: lazy, stuck, great procrastinators especially if the can stay comfortable, stubborn.

Most of us have a mixture of all of these - with perhaps one more dominant and one receding to the far background. Sometimes it is easy to see what temperament your child has a leaning towards - other times it is quite difficult especially if they have two somewhat differing dominant ones. A task of adulthood can be to determine your own dominant temperament and strive to work towards the strengths rather than allow the weaknesses of your given temperament to take over. It is also important to bring your dominant temperament into balance with the other temperaments. I have found it helpful to use the temperaments as just another tool, another piece of the equation when working with myself or my children keeping in mind that it isn't the only thing that shapes me or my children.

The first lecture I attended on Waldorf Education was by Rene Querido on the Temperaments in the Waldorf classroom. I left that lecture flying high, talking non-stop, and "knowing" that this was for us. One of the little stories I vividly remember from that lecture may help to clarify more humorously the various temperaments.

The teacher in first grade brings an apple to class one day.
There is a secret in every apple! He tells a story about the star and the apple.
Then he cuts the apple to reveal this secret to the class.
The cholerics are intrigued and want to immediately cut open every apple.
The melancholics sit quietly and ponder:
"How did the star get in there?"
"Why is the star there?"
The sanguines will flit about the room excitedly,
commenting on this wonder to all in the room.
And, the phelgmatics will wonder aloud
"When will we start making the apple sauce?"

Originally posted to WE_HS 2001
Revised December 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Seasonal Gift to All

This conscious parenting, no matter the path we choose, is hard work. It is impossible to have it all figured out before our children are well onto their next steps in development. There is such a plethora of information out there that we cannot possibly know or even get our hands on. There are also so many "shoulds" in life: we should exercise daily; we should meditate daily; we should do a good deed daily; we should write three morning pages daily; we should spend quality time with our spouse and children; we should research the ways of educating, parenting and caring for the health of our families; etc.

We can look around and easily think that others really know so much better how to do all this. It is easy to get caught up in the quagmire of choices, questions, and doubts. Should we immunize our child or use steroids to clear up that eczema? Should we force daily math even though we want to allow our children the freedom to follow their interests? Heck, are we even doing circle right?

It is easy to feel guilty about what we do as well as what we do not do. We want to offer this developmentally appropriate main lesson daily right after a lovely circle and then flow to wet-on-wet painting or handwork before doing some recorder or violin practice. And, still have a neat and tidy house, person, children. And, be ready with all the accouterments of whatever season to be building traditions. And, serve nutritious meals with home-grown or at least organic foods. Not to mention keeping up with all the alternative health approaches when life throws us a curve ball.

Don’t we all feel guilty because we aren’t the Martha Stewart of Waldorf homeschooling?!

I come to a quote I carry in my journal by Barbara Ann Kipfer coined in The Wish List: "It is easier to keep searching - pretending I do not know my authentic self - because if I acknowledged I knew my authentic self, I would have to start acting on that and that is much harder than searching."

Maybe it is not what we do in our lives or our parenting so much as how we do it: with grace rather than kicking and screaming; with passion rather than apathy. No matter what we do we will sometimes come to know that we "should" have done it differently because we ourselves grow and develop, because new knowledge comes to light, because in hindsight it is often easier to know what we should have done.

There is always going to be that elusive better poem to include in circle. There is always going to be that elusive book that will have all the answers. There is always going to be that elusive butterfly of promise: of that perfect way to parent, the perfect community, the perfect Waldorf homeschooling plan. What we have to come to know and believe is that WE are that elusive butterfly of promise for ourselves and our children. We have to emerge from our chrysalis of fear, of indecision, of guilt. We must take wing and stretch our wings a bit more daily.

My wish for us all this season of searching for the inner light:
That our hearts be filled with peace on our path;
That we wake up daily and choose to live out of joy and not drudgery;
That we be gentle with ourselves and those we love
when we blow it as well as when we ace it;
That we all believe in ourselves enough
to let our beautiful butterfly wings fully expand so we can soar.

Originally posted to WE_HS December 2000
Revised December 2007

The Gifts of Homeschooling

Sometimes while walking this path, it is necessary to be reminded of why we chose to do this in the first place and be re-inspired. It is no secret that when we first started homeschooling, I did not want to be doing it. We took one year at a time at the beginning and for many of our early years I was on a quest to find the perfect-fit-for-us-Waldorf-school. There was no such perfect fit, however, and year after year we continued to choose homeschooling. While I cannot put my finger on the definite moment when I knew this was working for us but there was a time when I stopped looking for a Waldorf school and came to realize how very right for this path of Waldorf unschooling was for us.

Why did we start homeschooling and why did we continue? Initially, we chose to homeschool for almost purely financial reasons. We could not afford to keep sending out children to the local Waldorf school but we also could not see our way to sending our oldest to a traditional school setting after her four years with the local Waldorf school. Looking back on our 15 years of doing the homeschooling dance together, I cannot imagine having educated our children any other way. I came to realize the many gifts that homeschooling offered to all of us

The greatest gift of homeschooling is the gift of time.

Time to relax into the day. There was no frantic getting ready for the bus; there was no intense commute of many miles to the local Waldorf school through rush hour traffic. There was time to get to know our own biological rhythms at an early age and to learn to work with and use those rhythms. And, yes, now as they are older, they can and do make it to their work and classes on time. My oldest is usually the first to school ready with her eurythmy dress on and practicing before most of her peers are on campus; my middle has never skipped a class unlike many of her peers in college; my youngest has now faithfully and consistently clocked two hours of community service for the past three years.

Time together as a family. Our family unit and family relationships grew stronger even as we were able to give back to the larger community. Our children had time together to develop their sibling relationships into friendships. Now as the miles separate us, they stay connected daily. I firmly believe that my three, who are separated by age, gender, interests and now geography but have solid relationships with each other because of being homeschooled. Yes, there were daily, sometimes hourly squabbles; yes, often I felt more like the referee than mom or teacher. But they had to rub elbows with each other sometimes quite tightly; they had to come through the arguments and find a place of mutual respect for their good and the good of the family unit. And, they had time to do that.

Time to day dream. To look at the stars. To dig in the sand. To swing on the porch. To build a blanket fort in the house and snuggle with a good book. Time to think about who they wanted to become without even realizing that was what they were doing.

Time to be bored. Agatha Christie said "We owe most of our great inventions and most of the achievements of genius to idleness -- either enforced or voluntary." Most often when my three were bored, if I did not jump in and rescue them, their boredom led them to their greatest discoveries about themselves, about academics and about life.

Time to take advantage of traveling opportunities that came our way without the constraints of a school calendar. Time to take advantage of various other experiences and lessons because they did not have to spend so many hours in school much of which is wasted time.

Time to freely delve into their own interests without the constraints of bells or a teacher’s decision about the flow of their day. I firmly believe that because my three children had this freedom, they came to their own inner motivation which has propelled them to achieve goals they have set for themselves and in the process have come to know what they want out of life.

Time with us and others as their teachers that often was one-on-one. Because my three did not have to vie with 20+ other children day in/day out, I believe it was easier for them to take their turn and share when they were in those kinds of situations.

This is not to say that homeschooling is without its challenges and difficulties. No matter what educational path is chosen, there will be thorns as well as roses along the way. It is not always an easy decision and it is sometimes a decision that must be made over and over again. While homeschooling may not be for everyone, I do believe that anyone can succeed at homeschooling despite the challenges and hard work.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Story of the Very Bright, Very Red, Very Plastic, Very Noisy Fire-Truck

Thanksgiving 1994 was the first Thanksgiving we celebrated in our home in the Phoenix desert. We had moved there the previous spring relocating from Minneapolis and leaving behind all of our family in the Midwest. My youngest had just turned 3 that August '94 and he loved trucks. I can still recite from memory his favorite truck book "How Many Trucks Could a Tow Truck Tow if a Tow Truck Could Tow Trucks".

My parents and a beloved aunt came to spend that first Thanksgiving in the desert with us. We planned a splendid 10 days. They drove up to the Grand Canyon and Sedona; we took them to our favorite ice cream place (about the first business establishment one must search out upon a new home, right!); they spent time watching our kids play through the day and sitting outside in short sleeves even though it was November while we had long talks. And, we shopped! Yes, Mom and Aunt Lorraine loved to shop - and my daughters really got their first taste of "shopping with Grandma" that year.

Since Christmas was coming and we were not going to be back to MN for Christmas that year, my mother/aunt decided that they would do as much of their Christmas shopping for my family as they could while in Phoenix so they wouldn't have to spend any money on shipping and handling. So bags and bags came home and were squirreled away into my closet. I offered to wrap them later but they would have none of that - their name must be handwritten by them on each gift. My mother/aunt spent an afternoon in my bedroom happily wrapping while my father and I watched the kids antic through their normal day.

All too soon it was time for my parents/aunt to board a plane back to MN. Despite always knowing that this move was for the good of our family unit, I was always homesick in the desert but never as much as when I would have to say good-bye. The house seemed empty without these beloved 3.

And, then about the next day, every time I would open my closet door, the wrapping paper would rustle enough to set off the very noisy red fire truck which was carefully wrapped and on the top shelf of my closet.

Flashing Lights "(Siren sound!) Engine 36 Rolling! (Siren sound!)" Flashing Lights

This phenomenon continued after it was unwrapped on Christmas morning. If the cat got too close or if there was lightening from a storm as well as when Josh played with the truck, "Engine 36 Rolling!" would come blaring on - scaring the cat, annoying his sisters, and sometimes awakening us from a sound sleep. It became a family joke.

Over time, as Josh's interest in trucks waned, the batteries had worn out and were never replaced. But the red fire truck was not donated to Goodwill even during another move cross-country. It was lovingly packed right along with all our other belongings. If Joshua doesn't take the red fire truck with him when he does finally move out then it will have a home with us. And, even if my children continue to embrace Waldorf ways and prefer wooden/natural over plastic for their own children, when their children come to Grandma's house the big, noisy, plastic red fire truck will be among those toys they can choose to play with complete with new batteries.

Flashing Lights "(Siren sound)! Engine 36 Rolling! (Siren sound)!" Flashing Lights

You see that memorable Thanksgiving was the last and only time that both my mother and aunt were ever in our Phoenix home. Five years later on Thanksgiving my beloved aunt lay dying of ovarian cancer at home in MN. Seven months later, my mother succumbed to the same illness. My father made it to our Phoenix home one more time and lived two and half years beyond my mother's death. But just before Thanksgiving 2002, he died of a massive heart attack, 8 short years after that first memorable desert Thanksgiving.

They never understood or supported our attachment parenting ways. They never understood our attraction to Waldorf Education and indeed thought we were crazy to send our children to such an alternative "weird", expensive private school especially for preschool/early grades. They never understood or always honored my desire for wooden, natural especially when the plastic was often less expensive and lasted longer. They never understood our decision to homeschool. They never understood why we didn't force our children to learn to read at 5 and allowed them to play all day even into their pre-adolescent years.

But they loved us and our children and I miss them terribly every day.

There are no more exciting, sometimes "forbidden" packages or Halloween cards with a couple of dollar bills tucked carefully inside coming to our house from Kellogg Square, St. Paul, MN. That big, bright, noisy, plastic red fire truck symbolizes much more for me then mere words can articulate. I am forever grateful it blared its way into our lives and hearts.

(Originally posted to WE_HS December 2004)

Waldorf Unschooling: Oxymoron or Fusible Dichotomy?

When we lived in the desert, our front room had a southwestern motif from the wallpaper trim to the colors, the Native American pottery we collected during our travels in the southwest to the Navajo weaving and pictures. It was a room with a theme. But our cuckoo clock, carefully carried home from our time in Germany, graced one wall and two small Japanese prints were on another. Disparate pieces that fit together because of their meaning to us.

So, too, the way we have homeschooled over the years. Many say that Waldorf and homeschooling is an oxymoron; certainly then, Waldorf and unschooling seems impossible. And, yet, for us, the two became intertwined, merging as one in the way we approached our lives and the education of our children.

We stumbled on Waldorf education while we were exploring educational options for our oldest who was then four years old. Mainstream preschool had not been a good match for her and we found the gentleness of the Waldorf preschool/kindergarten to be inspiring. As we learned more about the Waldorf approach to the education of children as well as adults, we became more and more enamored. While I fell in love with the aesthetics my husband was encouraged by the depth and breadth of the curriculum. We decided to put both of our daughters, then aged 4 years (almost 5) and 2.5 years into a Waldorf initiative. The next four years were one of joy and wonder but also tumultuous challenges and difficulties. After four years with the school we decided to homeschool our own using a Waldorf-inspired approach.

About the same time that we decided to homeschool, I was also introduced to the writings of John Holt and became increasingly intrigued by what he coined unschooling. His writings about how children learn resonated deep within me. But I continued to learn more about Waldorf education; the writings of Rene Querido and Torin Finser resonated deep within me as well. How could it be that both would resonate?

So we plodded along. In the beginning we did try to replicate as much of the Waldorf classroom in our home as possible but I soon learned that I could lead my children to a main lesson block but I could not make them learn. My oldest had been through second grade in a Waldorf school and she "knew" how things should be though she did not really want me to be her teacher; my middle had always been quite self sufficient and independent; my youngest just needed to be allowed to be two years old.

Support for me was limited during that time. Our old Waldorf circle did not embrace our decision to homeschool; our extended families were concerned at best and critical at worst. I helped start a small homeschooling support group which enjoyed a few wonderful festivals together. Soon enough we moved cross country and so did not even have that little bit of support.

The daily grind of circles and main lessons was difficult to maintain. Family and friends were skeptical. My third grader still was not reading. So I turned more and more to John Holt’s writings and began subscribing to Growing Without Schooling. Here I found testimonials from those in the trenches whose children did not learn to read until 12 or 14 years. Here I found support for being at home doing this thing called homeschooling. Here I found Holt’s thoughts and ideas carried out by real families. Again, at the time, there was little support or resources for Waldorf homeschooling. It was sometimes hard for me to grasp the fullness of the Waldorf curriculum from the few resources that were out there. The internet had not exploded yet into the instant resource it has become today.

I still loved the richness of the Waldorf curriculum. We believed in the importance of the arts. We based our daily living and learning on my essence of Waldorf, simply: head, heart and hands. I was ever aware of the need for in-breath/out-breath to our days and weeks. I embraced the inner work that is part and parcel of a Waldorf teacher’s life. But we relaxed our daily rhythm. We let our children be free to pursue their own passions, curiosities and interests. We offered educational experiences in language arts, math, history, science, music, etc. as part of our daily life but not as lessons at the kitchen table at a prescribed time of day. I continued to read both Waldorf and unschooling authors and found kernels of truth in both. Gradually we became a Waldorf unschooling family.

We have always had family rules to live by; rules that allow us to live, play and work together for the good of all not at the expense of anyone of us. We approached our children with respect and awe; we strove to bring them beauty and wonder. Some years we were more structured than others; sometimes we did main lessons or kept main lesson books as the spirit moved us. When my children did not want to form draw, I did it for me. We used a variety of resources, some Waldorf, some not. We would use textbooks and lessons when it suited our purpose. We learned to dance together in a Waldorf unschooling way, as dichotomous as that may sound to many.

I do believe we all live with more contradictions than we might be aware of in our own lives while it is easy to see the contradictions of others. Over my many years of homeschooling combining both Waldorf and unschooling it has been bemusing to see how much both groups seem threatened by the other even as many find themselves combining both in their daily lives. For us Waldorf and unschooling became a fusible dichotomy with the ways and means of both guiding our lives of learning together.

My reason for starting this blog is to share our Waldorf unschooling journey looking back over the last 15 years and forward to the next many. I hope that some of what I say might be an inspiration and support to those who are following on this challenging but joyful way of living and learning.