Together, Apart: How Waldorf School of Orange County Keeps its Roots Intact During Distance Learning
In the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has been publicized as a contradiction in terms: it’s a tragedy, it’s an opportunity; it’s a portal to the vision of a new world, it’s a bottomless hole of deep despair. Working and schooling from home, we have had the gift of more family time. Less traffic, cleaner air, more visible stars at night. As people shelter in place, nature has been quick to reclaim what was hers. We hear about coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge and abundant fish in the canals of Venice; a friend’s grandparents in India recently posted that they can see the stunning backdrop of the Himalayas from their rooftop for the first time since they were in elementary school. Yet, fear lurks. Income loss, illness, and separation from our routines, friends and extended families are challenges many of us now face. What we can all likely agree upon is that we were caught off guard. Our Waldorf school was no exception.
Waldorf schools are generally thought of as institutions that eschew the Internet and shun technology; Luddites in Birkenstocks (or Lululemon, depending on the demographic). We were immortalized on The Simpsons, wearing sun hats in all seasons and singing before meals. It is true that we delay screens as long as possible to give our children’s bodies and minds the opportunity to expand at their own pace. We believe that a child’s imagination is far richer in scope than anything an adult creating children’s content could possible fathom. We do our best to teach our children and remind ourselves that technology is a wonderful tool but can also quickly become a master if its usage is left unchecked.
Founded in the early 20th century, Waldorf education is based on the insights, teachings and principles of education outlined by the world renowned artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. The principles of Waldorf education evolve from an understanding of human development that address the needs of the growing child.
Dance, theater and music, writing, science and mathematics, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate their intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world. They are encouraged to occupy the heart and mind of an explorer, a scientist, an artist. They are not limited to memorizing the correct answers for a multiple choice quiz.
Waldorf education is independent and inclusive. It upholds the principles of freedom in education and engages independent administration locally, continentally and internationally. It also prizes flexibility, adaptation, and connection. Many of our students arrive in Kindergarten and stay through 12th grade. Most classes have the same teacher for first through eighth grade. We are not just a school; we are a family. Our schools celebrate each child’s unique gifts, students create their own textbooks, and computers aren’t typically used on campus until high school.
Enter COVID-19. A little-understood virus with an insidious ability to swiftly infiltrate communities resulted in a national standstill. Our school leaders quickly shifted course to plan for a full scale quarantine. Many of our teachers, experts in their respective fields, had never set foot in a Google classroom. How could we shift from an experiential education which emphasizes a unity of the head, hands and heart to an online format without losing who we are?
Without hesitation, our teachers and administrative team gathered into groups. Those who were well-versed in online formats taught the others over the course of a few days. It reminded me of how our students who finish a project early are encouraged to help classmates who might need a boost. It is times like these when our community shines. Teachers gave up evenings and weekends to painstakingly assemble packets for each child to take home. Personal touches from teachers included window art to hang in homes, and sweet notes of encouragement. Our distance learning program, “Learning Beyond the Classroom” was ready for its maiden voyage.
This new journey into Google Classroom was not without bumps, but the assorted dodgy Internet connections, forgotten passwords, and miscommunications soon faded and a new semblance of order was restored. Our faculty received feedback that our families were adapting. Study nooks were fashioned and mini classrooms set up at kitchen tables. Along with plenty of outside time, children played their Pentatonic flutes with classmates via FaceTime, finished lessons with their teachers’ help on Google Classroom and knitted, planted and constructed projects in their bedrooms and backyards. My son, who is in 8th grade, happily brought all of his physics work into the kitchen and went to work on his experiments. I listened in on his main lesson teacher’s Zoom check in to inquire how his 8th grade project was going (he built a permaculture herb spiral at home, rather than on campus as originally planned).
It gave me great solace knowing that my son was deeply cared for, regardless of physical proximity to his teachers and classmates. What a powerful exercise in what we have been taught all along, since our days in the kindergarten classroom. There is magic in our cultivated human connections, however intangible they may appear. Our bonds have not lessened in the absence of a physical classroom. Our roots are deep.
My friend Niko Everett, a sixth grade parent, said,“We are so thankful to all of our teachers for helping our kids keep their education alive, all while also taking care of their own families. We are so very lucky to have our Waldorf education built into our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits beginning with our little guy entering Pre-K eight-and-a-half years ago. We are ready to hold the space to meet these current challenges and so much more, because of the Waldorf School of Orange County.”
Recently, our practical arts teacher organized a “Mud Challenge,” encouraging everyone to create a structure using only dirt and water and submit it to share with the community. Our handwork and world language teachers have spent countless hours crafting creative online lessons to keep their students engaged; our class teachers maintain personal contact with each of their families. One of our kindergarten teachers, in lieu of an in-class birthday circle, drives to each child’s house on their birthday to drop off a handmade crown, a birthday candle and a bouquet with flowers from her own garden.
Early childhood teachers recently collaborated on a special newsletter series for their students’ families with recipes, crafts, pictures, gardening tips, and activity and movement suggestions. They recorded themselves reading (The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Spider Weaver) and emailed them to their families for a virtual storytime. The children gathered at home, wearing their silk capes from their classrooms, lit a candle, and listened to the reassuring sounds of their teacher’s voices.
“We extended the intention of creating a space of reverence, even while utilizing media,” said WSOC kindergarten teacher Ms. Terri.
Our high school and grades teachers organized personalized Zoom calls to check in and stay connected with their students.
“The week we went online happened to coincide with the moment the 11th graders finally got to find out what happened to Hamlet,” said high school English teacher Ms. Beka, who has known some of her students since they were three years old. “After a few months of reading the play through the lens of mental health, the students were ready to wage a campaign supporting students in their community through a series of healthy activities, mindfulness exercises, and mentoring support groups. Hamlet’s grief and subsequent choices impacted them as they made connections to how they and their fellow students internalize hardship and feelings of isolation. And suddenly, there we were isolated from each other in a way none of us could have ever predicted!
“Our online study group proved that a strong student community isn’t limited to time on campus,” she said. “While it may look a bit different than we might imagine, the spirit of togetherness and support is still very much alive.”
Added high school science teacher Kim Eijpen, “We keep our daily connections with our students particularly helpful is the breakout feature in Zoom for smaller groups, and each grade checks in regularly with their class sponsors. This is an important barometer of how the students are managing their workload and their mental health.”
“The other day,” Ms. Ejpen said, “My 11th grade class surprised me by performing a TikTok dance video while we were on our Zoom call. It was so fun, and it was a lovely moment of lightness in the midst of so many changes in our school lives.”
Ninth grader Hannah Lieberman weighed in on the COVID-19 quarantine.
“We all miss each other. It’s inevitable. We went from seeing each other every day, to only talking through a screen. It’s just strange. But what we do have, we’re making the most of,” she said.
“The other day, we had our first handwork lesson following the break we’re making marionettes right now and it had been a long time since we’d seen each other. We had a scheduled Zoom meeting, and with each new face that popped up on the screen, I could see our handwork teacher Miss Christine’s face light up. Several minutes, and many technical issues later bless Miss Christine we were all set, and worked for the rest of the class, chatting and asking questions when we needed to. The whole time, Miss Christine sat staring at her camera, smiling, every now and then cheerily saying something about this or that, just genuinely happy to be there. Happy we were all there together, in one way or another, connected.
“It’s so easy right now to feel disconnected. To close yourself off from the rest of the world, and lose sight of everyone who is cheering you on, and who are going through the same thing. In our case, I feel so blessed to be part of a community that, because of our relationships, and our education, can adapt to such a crisis, without losing our connection. The world is struggling right now. Everything is uncertain. But still, every day we wake up, we (sometimes) get dressed, and we see each other. And for the time being, it may be that it’s only through a screen, but if that’s the way the world works right now so we can all get through this, I’ll take a Zoom handwork class any day. Just so long as we’re together but apart we’ll do just great.”
The nature of Waldorf education, which in many ways emulates and parallels the natural world, has provided us with a surprising template for success in this unexpected digital immersion. Resilience. Flexibility. Adaptation. Metaphysics teaches us that separation is illusory. This experience has reminded me that although we are physically distanced, we remain a community with a shared beating heart. Like trees, we are not limited by our above ground physical structures. We are joined by what is unseen. Love unites us.
We miss each other. We feel the loss of parent events, class trips, graduations. We have gone wildly off script. It is unsettling and disappointing. Some of us know individuals who are ill with COVID-19. Some of us are friends with hospital workers and others putting their lives at risk to care for us. We can mourn together and acknowledge grief for what we have given up, what we have lost. We pray and send positive thoughts to those suffering and those working around the clock to save lives. This is resilience. This is community. This is who we are. Individuals ready to embrace growth and change and come out the other side of this crisis with our roots intact, our love blossoming, our arms still outstretched to meet the world.
Writer Credit: Alyssa Swanson Hamilton
Photo Credit: Terri Webster