Wednesday, February 26, 2014

First the hands, then the heart, then the brain

Today a friend from New York sent us this article by Ian Johnson in The New Yorker about the spread of Waldorf education in China. 

We're Waldorf-inspired (what education isn't!) – even more so when it comes to getting our hands dirty; drawing on myths from around the world; and the somewhat lighter-than-usual emphasis on symbol manipulation and screens.

This quote sums it up nicely:
The movement was founded by the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, who “believed that children should be guided slowly out of what he termed ‘the etheric world,’ where they existed prior to birth, and that education should engage first the hands, then the heart, then the brain,” Johnson explains. “Waldorf-educated children play a lot when they’re young, and often don’t learn to read until second or third grade.” The Waldorf curriculum “reflects Steiner’s belief that an individual’s development mirrors a civilization’s, so the early years include lots of creation myths and fables.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ways of responding to injustice

On Friday we discussed ways of responding when someone is unfair to you.

To prime the conversation we read The Goose Girl, a Brothers Grimm tale about a princess who was treated unfairly by her lady-in-waiting after being sent to marry a foreign prince.

The lady-in-waiting switched roles with the princess and married the foreign prince; but in the end the real princess was redeemed and the miscreant maid was condemned to exile (we used this somewhat languid but more defensible punishment in the Oak Meadow version of the story; in the original Grimm version she was thrown naked into a cask, stuck with sharp nails, and dragged from street to street till she was dead!)

It was obvious to the children that the princess was not treated fairly by her maid. But when I asked how they would have acted if they had been in her place, they had to think about it, and didn't agree at first.

Should injustice be tolerated? Of course not. Then why didn't the princess tell anyone? The lady-in-waiting had made her promise not to tell any living being, on pain of death. It was only when the foreign king overheard her lament her troubles to the fire that he caught wind of who she really was.

Should the princess have refused to give her word to the delinquent lady-in-waiting, and fought to defend herself? Or should she have pretended to go along with the scam, but broken her promise to the maid as soon as it was safe to do so?

And did she really keep her word in the end?

I plan to return to these questions later, when we do a unit on Gandhi and nonviolent resistance.

From garden to table

Earlier in the year we hired a professional chef, who used to own a vegetarian restaurant. She prepares breakfast and lunch for the school, and we love her cooking! Here's her menu for this week:

The lettuce, which the children planted earlier, is also now ready to be harvested for use in the school meals. (Last week they also planted strawberries, which you can see to the right of the lettuce in the photo below. The fenced one in the back is a tomato plant.)

There's something wholesome about the simple fact that the children grow the food they eat. And help turn them into delicious meals!

Thursday, February 13, 2014


The children had made Valentine's cards – almost 100 of them! – and today we put them all in baskets and went to visit a nearby nursing home with our friends.

They went around with their baskets like little elves, wishing happy Valentine's to the residents, handing them cards along with sweets and fresh flowers R had bought in the morning.

Even the grumpy grandpa got one.

Celsius and Fahrenheit

Since we split our year between the US and Europe, the children are familiar with converting measurements between euros and dollars, kilometers and miles – and of course, Celsius and Fahrenheit.

Yesterday we did a short unit on measuring temperature and the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales. 

I had attached a large thermometer outside the tower room window, and we had another one handy in the classroom, so the children could hold it and compare differences outdoors and indoors. 

They also drew their own thermometers with both C and F scales. Here are a few pictures!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Bows and arrows have not gone out of style.

On Tuesdays the children have been attending Trackers' Bay, an outdoors adventure program for homeschoolers, headquartered in the storybook style former Marmot Mountain Works building in Berkeley (which has a colorful history of its own).

One of the things they do at Trackers – and frankly we hope they would do more of it! –  is learn archery. They also have a special Bowmaking Academy in the summer.

The kids – E especially – are seriously interested in archery. I have made about a dozen bows and countless homemade arrows, progressively cutting down the juniper in the back yard.

We watched the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood (with Erol Flynn) and observed archers at the Golden Gate Park archery range.

After consulting websites, some books and Stewart the archery teacher at Trackers, I purchased a 20lb junior longbow from Trackers (you can also order a hand-made one from Etsy), portable target, plus of course arrows (and quiver) for practicing.

 E hit the bullseye on his third shot.

We're missing a good place to practice, though – our back yard in San Francisco is too small. It's definitely a summertime activity for Finland.

I don't feel like I'm doing a good job helping E and the others learn it on their own right now. My availability is a bottleneck, because the powerful new bow requires adult supervision. That was an unintended consequence – they may end up practicing less now because of this.

If you have suggestions, let me know!

(Update: we found a nice, safe spot for kids' target practice - yay! If interested, join our Meetup! Also, another homeschooling dad recommended joining the Redwood Bowmen, which seems like a great archery club)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Working with clay

One of the children's favorite classes is ceramics at Kids N' Clay Pottery Studio in Berkeley. Over the past few years they have made tens if not hundreds of clay figures, dishes, and art pieces under the direction of studio owner David and his staff.

There's something inherently satisfying about molding soft clay – you can close your eyes and it feels alive.

The jobs we have

Today we discussed what jobs people have, and the roles in a household

We read a story about George Washington as a child (from the Oak Meadow 1st Grade curriculum) and discussed it, and drew pictures of the members of our households and their jobs.

It was a great conversation! We discussed (and debated) questions such as:

  • what it means to be responsible for something
  • what is fair to ask others to do and what's not
  • when someone is being a good or bad leader
  • how to motivate others to accomplish things as a team – we all agreed the best way to do that is by example!

It was fascinating to hear what the children see as their jobs, and the jobs of the other grown-ups in the household; and even the pets! Some examples:

  • Mother "works at the office to make money so everybody can buy things"
  • Father's job is to "be a dad and be a teacher"
  • A boy said his job was "to play drums, do my workbook, and listen to my dad"
  • A girl said her primary job was "to decide whether to play with [her brother] or [her sister]"
  • A girl said her job was "to steal butter all day long"
  • Mom's job is to "have conferences so she can talk and say her work"
  • A toddler brother's job is "to eat and eat and eat"
  • The dog's job is "to keep company to R [the assistant]"
  • Girl: "my job is to listen to mama and play, play and play"
  • According to a girl, her father's job is to "play TV to get more money for me"

Shadow theater

Over the past two weeks we have been working on the art of playwriting: inventing characters, describing scenes, making up a plot, writing a script, and making storyboards.

We started by making shadow puppets (the week's poem was also about the shadow theme). I bought the Moulin Roty Fabric Shadow Theater Set so we had an example to study:

We then made our own characters and props. We traced the outlines of interesting images from books, transferred the outlines to crafting paper, cut the shapes out, and taped chopsticks and straws on the back.

We then wrote our first simple script together as a group (the children came up with the story and I wrote it down):

Then we performed it! Each child also performed an improvised robber story using the Moulin Roty characters (I let them choose if they wanted to perform solo or in pairs):

The following week we learned about making storyboards. We looked at some examples (including this Alice in Wonderland sneaker commercial storyboard I found on DeviantArt), then made our own ones. The template used here is the 3x4 aspect ratio template 01, available for free download from Flying Animator:

We're now ready to create our first play! Hopefully under the direction of a friend who is an award-winning playwright and actor. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

From Linda Stone: The Time We Have (in Jelly Beans)

Re-blogging a wonderful post by our friend Linda Stone:
My friend’s 16 year old son stopped playing video games. Cold turkey. From hours a day in front of the screen one day to those same hours spent with friends ever after. 
“Why did you stop?” his mother asked.
“Jelly Beans. My life in jelly beans.” 
Thanks to Ze Frank for creating this powerful video!

Studies of Hindu gods and goddesses

As a follow-up to the statue hunt, each child picked a Hindu god or goddess to study in more detail. Here are some of them:

Kali the goddess of Time and Change, death, the annihilator of evil forces

Shiva as Daksinamurthy the perfect guru

Shiva as the dancing Nataraja, destroyer of the universe

The studies above were based on drawings in Hindu Gods and Goddesses by Swami Harshananda. We have also been using The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion as a teacher's resource, and read aloud from Tales of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, along with material I've adapted from online sources.

Gardening lesson

We decided to work with the children to plant a vegetable garden, to provide the veggies for the school lunches, which our new chef has taken to a new level. 

The Rhizome Urban Gardens team were eager to help us, and last week Jamie and Asha from Rhizome came to teach our first gardening lesson, which was a great success! 

Jamie introduced some key gardening tools and we learned about different types of soil, what worms do, and planted various kinds of lettuce. This week we'll continue with a focus on weeds and climbing plants, and also plant peas. 

Here's a video of Asha explaining to the class how micro-organisms in the soil help plants grow:

My Shadow

Most of the children can now recite the poem we learned last week: My Shadow – our longest one yet! It is by Robert Louis Stevenson, who also wrote Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. 

Here it is, coupled with a cursive-writing exercise (I write the cursive and the kids trace it. I also ask them to sign their sheets in cursive).

My Shadow
By Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow--
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes goes so little that there's none of him at all.
He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close behind me, he's a coward you can see; 
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
Here is a recital of it by Billy Connolly, with clips from Disney's Peter Pan (the audio is way better than the video, imho).

Yesterday they picked a new poem to learn: At the Zoo by William Makepeace Thackeray. We will be working on memorizing it this week.