How one parent found Waldorf education

Susan Corkran is an alumni parent and MWS board member. The following is a speech she gave at Meadowbrook during the 2013 New Parents Reception.

Welcome Dear Friends, to this beautiful place on this beautiful evening.  You have embarked on a journey which if you let it, will change your life. Through it you and your children will change the world. I know my little talk runs the risk of being as memorable as most speeches but I ask that you please keep in your mind one question, and that is “what brought you here?”

My name is Susan Corkran and I am the mother of a Meadowbrook Waldorf School graduate of the Class of 2010. My son, Jasper Romero is in his senior year at South Kingstown High School and he is what brought me here, not just to this podium on this night or to this community but to Rhode Island and, I have begun to believe to this life on this planet.

Susan delights Holiday Faire visitors as the Pocket Lady

When I was 21 and living in Colorado in a basement apartment working as a costumer at an opera festival I saw a picture of two hale and hearty farmers, a young Vermont couple loading hay onto a horse-drawn wagon. At the end of the opera season I packed up my Datsun F-10 and my dog and headed for Vermont. The car died in Connecticut and my sister drove me to Maine to work as a waitress in a national park. At the end of the national park season I made it to Burlington Vermont where I lived at the YWCA until I found a chilly apartment in an old house and started working as a baker in a subterranean cafe. There followed stints as a poster hanger, ice cream scooper, and brochure distributor. No farming.

Then I met a man who dangled tempting images of rural Rhode Island. I moved here to Charlestown to a cottage on a sheep farm adjoining the Merners’ property and resumed work as a costumer, this time at Theatre by the Sea. At the end of the summer theater season I found a job in the retail shop at a small herb farm just down the street from here, in Wyoming. Finally, farming. Or selling things in a shop attached to a greenhouse on a tiny two acre biodynamic herb farm, and occasionally working up a righteous sweat rubbing dried herbs from their stems while listening to the farmer wax philosophical about Steiner this and Anthroposophy that.

The pieces started coming together slowly over the next few years, when our landlords’ daughter Kate, a bright, engaging, always-smiling young person who had played the flute at our wedding in the sheep field invited an elderly lady, “Miss Gerri” to her high school graduation party. What kind of 18 year-old invites her first grade teacher to her graduation party? And who was this person who had so formed this young woman that she was revered in the household as a wise elder? The story came out that clever Kate had so wilted over a few weeks in public kindergarten that her parents, both PhD’s in one science or another, quickly scooted lovely Kate to the new-forming Waldorf School which was then in a church basement being nurtured by, among others, our very own Betty Merner. Their bright child rapidly returned with new songs and games to share with her little brothers on the vast farm by the swamp. Miss Gerri taught Kate through the third grade, a concept which garnered from me the usual concerns about “what if they don’t get along?” and “how can a teacher know how to teach different grades?”

Heading to the Olympics in grade 5

Enter Jasper, after his mother’s first seven years of wondering what the heck a big Western girl like her was doing in this tiny Eastern state where the trees blocked every view and people were just, well, Yankees. Swamp Yankees, even. Fast forward to our own public kindergarten experience: the teacher was lovely, the school as cozy as could be but when we sat down for our first parent-teacher conference and it all boiled down to the 17 words Jasper could read, a chill ran down my spine. I tried to maintain a respectful attentiveness but all I could think was “you do not know my child.” That teacher met the standards of her profession with grace and compassion, became a reading specialist because she wanted to make a difference for individual children. She would have made a great Waldorf Teacher.

In the midst of a divorce, we stayed at that school for first grade assured that we had the best teacher. And that teacher miraculously held the attention and affection of 30 busy six year olds, told stories, sang songs. Today Jasper says she was a “no-nonsense lady, very good at working with kids, at getting past things in a friendly way. She had a motorcycle. She was cool.” She would have made a great Waldorf teacher.

But when for the next year, Jasper’s 17 words  suddenly having become thousands so that he was testing at sixth grade level, we were offered the options of putting him into a computer-based accelerated reading program, advancing him to third grade instead of second, or putting him in a class of 10 “accelerated learners,” 10 “delayed learners” and four adults, we knew enough even as divorced parents flattered by this recognition of our son’s special cleverness, to become alarmed. It seemed clear that our child was being viewed as a feather in someone’s statistical cap. We had considered and decided against home schooling because Jasper had thrived in daycare while I was in nursing school; how would using a machine to make him smarter at something he was already smart at advance his need for human connection?

Jasper, right, jams with fellow alumni during a visit to Meadowbrook

And so we found ourselves on a May afternoon in a dimly-lit room draped in pink silk, trying to sell ourselves to Betty and Miss Su. Jasper’s dad was reassured by whatever they said about the academic rigors of Waldorf education, the statistics indicating that children who participate in this education go to the high schools they want to, the colleges they choose. My only agenda at the time was that my son, who was struggling with the sadness and anger of our divorce be a nice, happy person. (I have since learned by the way that as altruistic as that sounds, I really had no business having any agenda for my child but that he be himself.) The delightful irony of the ironclad ‘six-by-June first’ rule meant Jasper,  who had been five when he started first grade would be repeating first grade and not skipping second. He was invited to visit with the kindergarten class he would be joining as a first grader the next year. To this day, Jasper thinks he attended kindergarten at Meadowbrook so indelible an impression did Miss Su make in that week of visits.

And so there we were, and here we are. Here we are in a place where you pay money so that your child has a chance to break her arm at recess. Because she will be in a tree or on a rope, or riding on the back of a bigger child. In a place where instead of being suspended for a physical disagreement with another child, your child will be sentenced to community service alongside that child weeding gardens, or stacking wood, or moving risers. So that when they are high school seniors they will sit in your living room together and play their guitars. Or yes, their video games.

Here we are, where you do not have power over what happens in the classroom because this is not a democracy; it is an exquisitely planned and executed pedagogy that recognizes, perhaps better than you will sometimes, what your child needs and offers it cleverly disguised as a walk in the woods, a wooden flute, a knitted sock, a math poem delivered in unison while marching in a circle, a violin lesson and the attendant torturous 15-minutes-a-day practice (I recommend viola; not as squeaky), a Shakespeare play, “Farmer Boy”, wet-on-wet watercolor (all yellow? Just yellow?), Diwali, Michaelmas, eighth grade projects (ask Lorna, board president, about that log cabin), the eighth grade trip… Savor it while you are in it, friends. It flies. Congratulate yourselves for having the wisdom to let the universe bring you and your children here.

And please bring what you have. If it’s money, great. We can always use more of that. If it’s time, that’s good too; let your skills and interests be known and used. Build a fence. Sew a costume. Weed a garden. Drive another child to and from school. Bake cookies. And more cookies. Show up for everything you can show up for. Don’t argue about technology policies; they are there for a reason, and it’s a good one, and it has to do with the long-term health and functioning of your child, not their short-term pleasure or their grandparents’ disappointment about not being allowed to buy the latest gadget for Christmas. Watch plays instead of filming or photographing them. Be here. Drive for field trips, or buy gas for someone who is driving for field trips. When the teacher asks for your help, give it if you can. He or she is tending the soul of your child and the future of humanity. Learn about Steiner and Waldorf education; attend adult ed programs. This is more than just an alternative to public school; this is a movement, and its goal is the evolution of human spirituality, one little human spirit at a time. We are in the business of equipping human beings to meet the world they are in; it’s going to take all of our energy. Please bring your trust in this process; these teachers and administrators are meticulous professionals who are very serious about their tasks. And it is a joyful, beautiful process. If it makes you want to quit your job and become a Waldorf school teacher, please do so.

Here I am, a big Western girl in a little Eastern state.  I have thought of leaving many times, moving closer to family, or someplace where the views are better and land cheaper. This idea was, of course, emphatically vetoed by my son. The Meadowbrook Waldorf School community has been the village that has raised and continues to embrace my child and be his home. Jacquelyn tolerated my endless late tuition checks (do not take that as an endorsement of late tuition); Lorna was Jasper’s Thursday mom; Charlotte the Administrator sang him nonchalantly off a stone wall his first day of first grade while I was panicking that he wouldn’t obey my direction to get down off the wall; Jeremy the strings teacher almost succeeded in getting him to continue viola past 10th grade. Amalia corralled 19 very different children into a cohesive class that still meets for birthdays, breakfasts, musical jams, Three Kings’ Day, hiking trips, going-away parties, and to remember their beloved friend and classmate Allie.

Grade 7 (Jasper with guitar) winners of the 2009 German play competiton at Mt Holyoke.

A week ago Jasper came out of the bathroom in distress, pointing out to me his receding hairline. Sadly, he was correct; my brother started balding at 17, so the hand is dealt. Then, we got in the car and headed to Michaelmas. There I was, driving to my son’s grade school, with my son and his receding hairline. At Michaelmas he met up with his reading buddy, who showed him forts in the woods. One of my colleagues on the board, Mikhail, who has younger children, asked me what my son looked like; “Like a man,” I said, “with a receding hairline.” In the blink of an eye, this community has nurtured and sent forth a young man who will spend a Saturday morning walking through sunny woods with a 10-year old boy; a young man who fills my living room with music, who writes like he’s on fire, who scores well on standardized tests but won’t take them over to see if he can score even better, who knits hats for extra money, who can mastermind a backpacking trip or a charity concert, who says the entire take-home message of his grade school education was “nobody’s perfect, but everybody has something to offer,” and who above all, loves his friends fiercely. I am deeply grateful to the forces that brought us here.

 

 

 

 

Nonviolence at Meadowbrook

Eighth grade student, Sasha Wilhelm-Hart wrote this article about an eighth grade class in nonviolence held at Meadowbrook recently. The course was led by Su Rubinoff, MWS early childhood teacher and Faculty Chair and Meadowbrook alumna, Gillian Bell. Su and Gillian both studied Kingian nonviolence conflict reconciliation at the Center for Nonviolence & Peace Studies at URI where they also received training certification.

Our classes, which were weekly for six weeks, mainly focused on nonviolence, discrimination, the civil rights movement and the life and teachings of Martin Luther King. We also talked about conflict.  We focused on three levels of conflict which are normal, pervasive and overt. For one activity we were divided into groups and given a level of argument and we needed to create a skit about it and the rest of the class needed to guess what it was.  We could see how important it was to try to keep arguments at the normal level verses having conflict escalating and getting out of hand.  We talked about how to respond to conflict situations and having the courage to see and stand up for what is right.

One of the first times that we met, we brainstormed about what words described violence and then nonviolence.  Everyone then created their own definition and then together, taking bits and pieces from all the definitions we created just one and here it is:

Nonviolence

Is a safe peaceful community, where everyone is treated equally.

Loving people even though you have your differences.

A place where a person is not judged by the color of his or her skin.

To not use verbal, mental, physical, or sexual abuse to harm others because you may make someone think something about themselves that is not true.

Take charge. Have initiative.

Don’t point a finger; extend a hand.

The 8th grade watched a documentary entitled the ‘Children’s March’ which occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 60s.  It was very eye opening to the class about the kind of abuse the people were put through no matter if they were men, women or children; it was a huge stain on the fabric of America.  As part of understanding this time, we read the entire ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ by Dr. King and all of us were amazed at the emotional drive and intelligence behind his writing.  Each time, we had lively discussions about what we saw or read.

Many thanks to Miss Su and Gillian for their generous time and wonderful knowledge; they were both fascinating and riveting.

Su Rubinoff responds:  “The 8th graders were amazing… they really responded and participated in an inspiring way.  For me, knowing so many of them since kindergarten, I glowed with their responses and how we, the teachers at Meadowbrook and the parents have really planted the seeds of kindness and compassion. We start in the early years by putting a ‘protective sheath’ around the children but each year we open it more and more and eighth grade is the time for this kind of program and the awareness that it brings.  Emerging adolescents have a clear sense of themselves and their capacities so the Waldorf curriculum at this stage helps the students come to an understanding of the world they live in.  Their change in perspective is reflected as they study the Industrial and French Revolutions, the American Civil War and more, allowing them to think creatively and to make judgements.  I have no doubt that these teenage graduates are going to make a difference in whatever high school they attend and beyond”.

Kingian nonviolence conflict reconciliation education is based on the philosophy and strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. To learn more click here.

How a Grade-less Environment Made all the Difference

By the time I’d gotten to the sixth grade, I was entirely confused.  Access to my spiritual being and intelligence seemed positioned between layers of homework, grades, church attendance, tests, and assessments.  I had a terrible time at my schools: Saint Claire, Saint Paul, Saint Ambrose, & Saint I don’t remember (but I know there was another one in there). My papers were predominantly covered in exasperated red pen marks.  My mother was at her wits end because I continued to fail my subjects miserably and had increasing anxiety, fear, and behavioral problems. After another failed attempt in the sixth grade she finally, in exasperation and desperation, sent me to The Detroit Waldorf School. I was finally home.

photo credit: Monica Rodgers

Waldorf Education was different than anything I had encountered.  Mistakes were encouraged and so was the exploration of my inner self: who was I? And how were my head, my heart, and my hands connected in learning and contributing the gifts I would bring to the world?  This was my classroom, and my friends and I visited this inner world through handwork, woodwork, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theatre, music, and outdoor play.

Our morning lesson focused on subject matter that all schools explore but we did it differently. We focused on this subject matter intensively for 2 hours each morning (main lesson) and the rest of the day was spent moving, exploring and creating.  Our main lesson each morning, might last for a few weeks on a particular “theme” such as geometry, or science, American history, and so on. Once those intensive weeks were “completed” they would be built upon or reflected upon as the years wore on.  Each treated as a building block to the next related or inter-related subject matter.

The lessons were presented at the front of the room by my teacher, Mr. McNair (the Waldorf teacher is usually with you throughout all eight grades), through an interactive format that included beautiful chalk drawings depicting his content for the morning, which we copied on blank paper with beautiful colored pencils our interpretation of the lesson.  We then bound our own books filled with our drawings and insights at the end of those weeks of subject matter. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and I still have the beautifully illustrated “text” books I made by myself.

There were no tests and no grades, and very little homework. I developed a love of learning in this environment.  I was free at last to be me, without competing with those who surrounded me. We were all unique, valuable, and valid.  There was no more shame for a D+ paper turned back with angry red slashes and comments in the margin (if only Monica would apply herself) and no endless hours behind my desk listening to the drone at the front as I darted my eyes from clock to window using my imagination as my escape from the confines they called my “education”.

The things that distracted me in my former schools were so much less of an issue at the Waldorf School. Most remarkably, children were not petty, hostile or vying for position.  There were no “In crowds,” “jocks,”  ”geeks,” etc. I think this is largely in part by the fact that Waldorf School’s have a non media request for families whose children attend. The majority of students who lived media free at home learned to role model heroes from books, school and community. There was very little pressure to “fit in” and have the “right clothes”, “body” or “hair” so my anxiety went down and my self esteem grew. I was appreciated just for being me. This was an amazing environment which fostered my individuality, respect for others, and co-creation and collaboration with my classmates and teacher.

After my few short years at  the Detroit Waldorf School (we moved to Maine) I went on to attend 2 more high schools before my final crowning achievement: MY DIPLOMA.  As my parebts sat proudly in the sea of parents and grandparents I held my diploma (it was a good visual) while inside I held the better part of ME I had discovered someplace else entirely, a place that did not need the proof of a paper certificate. I give Waldorf Education the credit for allowing me to find myself, my own pace, and to excel in a way that was suited to who I was as an individual. From that experience on, I had the unshakable faith that I was *perfectly ok* exactly as I was, and that my intelligence had very little to do with the grades. I have gone on to build a successful career in writing, marketing, and business.  Sometimes I wonder where I would be today if I had continued to “fail” on paper.  Even though my Waldorf years were a small respite in the whole of my academic life, I consider those three years to have been the most valuable as they built the foundation for which to build upon- an unshakable platform of self confidence that I could do anything, achieve anything if I put my head, heart and hands to it.

I’m starting to wonder if we have this educational thing all confused. We seem to be so preoccupied with preparing our children for life in the modern world yet we place emphasis on only one aspect of that child’s development: the mind. There’s so much more to education and schooling. I’d like to emphasize that an individual person’s education is about so much more — developing self-esteem, personality, and a love of learning, community, and mostly the ability to be introspective and secure with one’s self. Only then will we raise happy, healthy, well-rounded, and truly intelligent young people who have the confidence to bring their unique gifts to the world.