Reflections on Distance Teaching and Learning

At a recent teacher workshop, I shared my experiences with distance teaching and learning this Spring.  One of the participants asked whether I had shared these reflections with my students’ parents, and when I said that I hadn’t, she encouraged me to do so.

This is a transcription of some of what I shared at the workshop.  I’ve only revised it slightly because I wanted to preserve the conversational tone.

Reflections on Distance Teaching and Learning

  1. I found that my authority as a teacher didn’t extend as far as it used to. I couldn’t project my ego in the same way. Parents sometimes had to step in as the authority to manage their children’s learning and work, or students turned to the internet as the authority on the subjects that they were learning. Perhaps this was good training for me for my journey into 7th and 8th grade, but I would have preferred to have done it more on my terms.
  2. I found that the online medium has many inherent limitations—the flatness of the screen, the dullness of the sound. And perhaps worst of all, the distractions of the environment.Also, technology created potential difficulties. Sometimes there was poor reception and those of us on the call couldn’t hear or see each other properly. Sometimes there was poor transmission and I couldn’t share materials the way I wanted to .
  3. I found that the nuances of my teaching were lost because of the medium and the setting. I could tell how awkward and clumsy I was feeling when I would start to raise my voice or to interrupt students while they were still talking. There’s no question that teaching wasn’t the art it is supposed to be; at best it was a craft.
  4. I had to place a greater reliance on the content of my teaching because I had so little control over the process. Also the medium we were using placed a much greater reliance on the eye than the ear, which required more content to hold the students’ interest. Students, therefore, took in what I presented much more as spectators than participants. And in order to make a deeper impression, I needed to highlighted or exaggerate the content.
  5. I couldn’t find a way just to speak to my students the way I do in the classroom. I couldn’t describe, explain, or share anecdotes. One way I dealt with this lack of opportunities for my students just to listen to me was to record stories that they could listen to each day.
  6. Having tried various ways of presenting the material, I ended up relying mostly on videos that I created about the subjects we were studying.There were plenty of problems with that as well: I had to learn what the camera could and could not do. I had to learn how to record and edit the videos, to deal with the different types of microphones each with its limitations.  Then there was lighting—how was I going to be able to be filmed without light reflecting off my glasses?  How close should I sit so that the students could see my facial expressions. And worst of all, I spent much too much time editing the videos to make them a little more professional, and I’m not sure that this was a good use of my time.
  7. I found that my teaching was much more coercive than in the classroom and at the same time, students had much more independence. I ended up relying more on worksheets and content created by others than I usually do, and we know how this diminishes the teacher’s authority and relationship with the students. Eventually, I did create my own math word problems, but I had to add answer sheets and explanations because there was no way that I could follow up with the students, and there was no way to know whether they understood the explanations.
  8. The overall level of accountability for the students was poor. And the tools that I used to check the student’s work were clumsy. I was using Google Classroom, but many students didn’t or couldn’t upload their work. And when they did, it was hard for me to move from one assignment to the next one and to make sure that my comments were posted with the correct assignment.There was one good aspect of Google Classroom, however, and that was that it gave me the opportunity to respond much more directly to the students’ work than I usually do in the classroom, and I enjoyed writing to them and showing my appreciation for what they had done and shared.
  9. I had to place greater reliance on students correcting themselves. This gave an advantage to the students who are more self-aware, who have more initiative, and who care more about becoming proficient. The students who needed my help, however, were often not able to get it in time or in sufficient quantities, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t providing what they needed.
  10. Finally, one of the main reasons that students attend school is to learn together in a group. Clearly, with distance learning and teaching, the social element of learning and teaching was greatly diminished. Students could only see muted versions of each other and have limited interactions.And I cringed to see how I came across on the screen. It just didn’t seem that I was seeing the person I imagine myself to be.

I imagine that we will be returning to distance teaching and learning again next year.  I am not eager to do so, but I am committed to putting what I learned about this method and the technology to better use.

I hope that the students and parents have recognized how education needs to be a fundamentally human process and have seen that machines and technology are inadequate bridges between us. Out of that recognition can grow a greater appreciation for the relationships we have and the opportunities to encounter each other in person.


Learning from the Bees


The sixth grade recently spent three days at Spikenard Farm Honey Bee Sanctuary in Floyd, VA.  Here is a description of our trip:

The ride down went better than expected, and the children enjoyed the chance to be together on a journey.  When we arrived, we ate lunch, unpacked the cars, and set up the tents, only to find that the original plan for which group would get which tent was not going to work.  In the end, every group but one had to switch tents, which caused some grumbling, but I told everyone that the whole trip was going to demand plenty of flexibility and accommodation, and that this was a good first challenge.

We had our first lesson with Alex in the classroom building where every beautiful detail shows the kind of care with which the sanctuary fulfills its mission.  Alex is a very gentle, warm, and earnest man, and he spoke with the children in a natural, engaging manner.  He began by asking the children what they thought a sanctuary was, and then elaborated on Spikenard’s mission to provide an optimum home for the honeybees.  He then presented the life cycle of the bee, gave us a picture of how the hive is an organism, and told us about their approach to working in partnership with the bees.

We had the first of our many snacks: carrots, pita, hummus, chips, salsa, fruit, and granola bars, and the students then got a tour of the farm. Alex pointed out some of the different plants (there are over 75 species) that provide the bees with a healthy, varied diet that lasts throughout the spring, summer, and autumn.  We also were shown the different kinds of hives and some of their distinctive features.  This was followed by the first activity: working in the garden, digging beds, turning compost, weeding, and gathering seeds, and then we had some free time before dinner.

Each tent was responsible for one meal—preparation, cooking, and clean-up—and the students were efficient and cooperative. Many of them would have enjoyed being able to work multiple shifts.  Dinner was black bean and brown rice burritos with fixings, and everyone got their fill.

After dinner there was some free time, and then we took a silent walk as an opportunity to listen to the sounds of the countryside and to appreciate the beautiful sunset.   They then played a game of flashlight tag, got ready for bed (which took a while!) and gathered again for singing and a story.  Bedtime went smoothly and most were asleep by the time the adults turned in.

Some of the children woke up early enough the next morning to see the incredible clear, star-studded sky. In Richmond we don’t get to see such a sight, because there is so much ambient light, and I imagine that some children had never experienced the true grandeur of the heavens.

Hot chocolate helped drive off the chills of the early morning, and everyone ate a hearty breakfast of cereal, scrambled eggs or omelet, and rolls.  We gathered in the classroom for our next lesson, and Alex continued to entrance us with his description of the many jobs that bees perform during their lives and how the queen works constantly to lay eggs to preserve the hive’s population (1,500 per day for 4 or 5 years!)

The students then got to experience Alex’s work with a hive, and they were impressed by his gentle, unhurried manner and his close relationship with the bees.  Alex told us that he talks to the bees and prepares them for what’s going to be happening so that they are not caught by surprise.  Seeing the thousands of bees working so harmoniously on the honeycomb and flying in and out of the hive made everything that he had told us earlier come alive through direct experience.

Then followed an artistic activity—drawing bees with chalk pastels—which allowed the students to review what they had learned about bee anatomy and to render their observations artistically.


Lunch was sandwiches and fruit, and then we had some free time before our next lesson, in which Alex continued to entrance us with his descriptions of the life of the hive and some of the characteristics that the bees pass along to the next generation, even though in the course of the year, every bee except the queen dies.

For our afternoon activity, we went to the cow pasture to gather fresh manure, which was going to be mixed with straw, ashes, earth, and bound together with eggs to make the plaster for the cob oven, which needed repairing.  The students went from initially expressing disgust at the manure to enjoying finding especially fresh cow patties.  Hauling the containers back to the farm proved arduous, but everyone helped.  The students sifted through the manure to get out leaves, branches, and clumps, and then began to knead it and mix it with the other ingredients.  Their arms were covered with the plaster, and no one seemed to mind.  Then came the invitation to trample the cement with their feet, and almost all the students dared, and they enjoyed the squishy feeling on their feet and delighted in getting their legs covered with cow dung plaster.

The class worked on the cob oven, deciding that simply re-plastering it was not enough: they wanted to transform it into a bear, with the opening of the oven being the bear’s mouth.  They did a terrific job and were very proud of their creation.

After hosing off, we went down to the Little River for a snack and a swim, then returned to make supper—pasta with red sauce or with garlic and oil and butter, mixed salad, and rolls.  After dinner, we gathered for our campfire, checked out, and each student was given three sparklers. What a delightful sight to see students dancing across the field in the dark, waving their sparklers around!  We celebrated the day with smores, then they played another game of flashlight tag and went to bed exhausted.

The next morning students packed up everything before breakfast so that we could make a quick departure after the morning lesson. We had cereal, hot chocolate, and French Toast for breakfast, and then the students made their lunches to take along on the ride.

The last lesson was a chance for Alex to tell the students about other social insects—ants, wasps, and hornets—and to compare them with the honey bees.  Of all those insects, only the bees have been domesticated, and they have developed a close relationship with human beings.  Then came a wrap-up, with plenty of time for questions.  At the end of his presentation, I asked Alex to tell the students how he became a bee-keeper, and he told us that when he was 17, he had his first experience of a bee hive and completely fell in love with the bees.  He spoke so sincerely and earnestly about what the bees have meant to him throughout his adult life, and we were all touched.  He finished by giving us each a day’s dose of honey (about 1/4 tsp.), which he said should be taken as if it is medicine, not as a food, and he presented us with three jars of honey to take back with us.  I told the students that we can have a daily dose as a reminder of our time at Spikenard.

The trip back was quick and uneventful, and the students helped unpack the cars and enjoyed a final treat—ice cream sandwiches—while they checked out about the trip home.

Going to Spikenard was an incredibly positive experience for us all, and the lessons that we learned about how a society can work together for the good of all will resonate for a long time to come.  During one of Alex’s presentations, when he was describing the intelligence in the hive where every bee knows what is needed and what to do, I asked if I could say something to the class.  He agreed, and I told the students that my goal for them before they graduate, is that they become like the bees in a hive, where everyone knows what is needed, what he or she can do to support the group, and that we would have a chance to experience the mystery and the magic of truly learning and working together.

Before we left, Alex told the children that of all the classes he has worked with, this was the most engaged, responsive, and respectful group he had worked with, and that he expressed gratitude for our visit.  After singing a final Michaelmas song, the students said goodbye to Alex and thanked him for all that he had offered. As a final activity, we toured the farm again, saying goodbye to all the places that we had seen and worked in, and the students stood for a long, reverent moment before the hive that they had seen opened.

I am curious to see how what we learned and the work we did resonates in the coming weeks, months, and years, and how the bees will inspire us in our work together.  I am grateful that we had this opportunity, and I think that our trip to Spikenard will live as a precious memory of one of the most meaningful steps in the journey that we are taking together as a class.



Perseus the Bold – a play for Fifth Grade by Roberto Trostli


(CHORUS enters singing)

CHORUS: (singing)     Sing of the stout-hearted hero,
son of brave Danae of Argos,
Sing of the mighty adventures,
of Perseus, bold and courageous.

CHORUS: (speaking)   Far in the lands to the east,
on the blessed islands of Hellas,
Dwelled two brave brothers in strife,
sons of King Abas the mighty,

Each strove the other to master;
each sought the other to slay,
But Acrisius prevailed in the battle,
and banished his brother forever.

Scene 1                        The Temple of Apollo in Delphi

ACRISIUS:            Though ruler of this realm I be
My crown stands much in jeopardy,
For I must keep my wealth and lands
Safe from my exiled brother’s hands.

So to Apollo’s shrine I’ve come
To ask the priestess of the sun
What fate betides my future years,
O oracle—allay my fears!

PRIEST:                  Hail, O hail, Acrisius!
What question brings thee here to us?
What problem has thee hither brought
That thou the oracle has sought?

ACRISIUS:               Here I plead on bended knee,
Asking him who reigns on high,
What will befall my house and me?
Who will reign Argos when I die?

PRIEST:                   Thy fate will be revealed by her
Who doth receive the god’s own word
Inspired by Apollo’s well,
The future will she now reveal.

(The PRIESTESS comes forward.)

PRIESTESS:           Long may Acrisius of Argos
pray for an heir to his kingdom,
Long may he wait for a son,
leaving his daughter untended.

But let him watch over his daughter,
and let him beware of her son,
For he shall one day slay Acrisius,
the Fates have determined it so.

ACRISIUS:             What fate is this the gods have sworn?
That I be slain by one unborn?

(to the SOLDIER)

Return at once to Argos fair;
Without delay imprison there
My daughter Danae in a cell;
Alone she must forever dwell.

SOLDIER:              Indeed, O sire, what thou has willed
Shall by thy servant be fulfilled.

ACRISIUS:             The gods have planned this wicked deed
And warned me to take careful heed,
But like a bull I shall resist
The gods’ attempt my life to twist.

In prison shall my daughter lie
Where no man can her e’er come nigh.
There’s no way she a son can bear
Locked up in a dark dungeon lair.

CHORUS:               Angry and fearful Acrisius
imprisoned his daughter, brave Danae
But Zeus, the Almighty, espied her,
and to that sad maiden was drawn.

Raining in bright golden showers,
the god came to visit brave Danae,
And there in the dark gloomy dungeon,
her son, bold Perseus, was born.

Scene  2 – On the shores of rocky Seriphos

WIFE:                       Dictys, husband, can you hear?
What sounds are those approaching near?
Across the ocean’s waters deep
I think I hear a woman weep.

DICTYS:                  My dearest wife, whate’er it be,
By moonlight clear we soon shall see.

WIFE:                      Look there, husband—a chest of wood.
Go fetch it safely from the flood.
Let us see who within it lies
Who called us with her piteous cries.

(DICTYS fetches DANAE, who cradles the baby in her arms.)

DICTYS:                  Welcome maiden; now you are safe;
Come to our home to warm yourself.

DANAE:                  My humble thanks I give to thee,
Who rescued us from the raging sea.

(DICTYS and his WIFE lead DANAE into their house.)

DICTYS:                 I pray you tell what brought you thus
To the shores of rocky Seriphos?

WIFE:                      Here is some wine, and here some cake
Your hunger and your thirst to slake.
There’s time enough to hear your tale
When you have supped and drunk your fill.

DANAE:                  From far-off Argos come I here
To flee my father’s greatest fear
That made him try his fate to shun
By locking me in a deep dungeon.

Yet prison bars could not restrain
The shower of Zeus’s golden rain.
And thus I bore the son of Zeus
Whom I did name bold Perseus.

When father saw young Perseus,
He wanted to slay both of us;
But fearful of the Furies’ rage
He cast us out upon the waves,
Confident we’d both be slain
His hands kept clean from murder’s stain.
Yet Zeus protected my son and me
And brought us safely here to thee.

WIFE:                       Dearest one, how ill you’ve fared
Because the Fates your father scared;
But here with us we hope you’ll live
And share in all we have to give.

CHORUS:              So Danae and her son were rescued
by Dictys and by his kind wife,
Who opened their hearts and their home
and loved them as they would their own.

Polydectes, the king of the island,
soon noticed the beautiful maiden;
Bragging and blustering he promised
he’d win her and make her his wife.

Scene 3 – Polydectes’s court

POLYDECTES:    I am the ruler of this land
Polydectes is my name,
Both life and death do I command
My pleasure to obtain.

My subjects live in mortal fear,
None dares stand in my path,
And when I speak, heed what you hear
Lest you incur my wrath.

When my opponents try to flee
I always track them down;
Why should I spare an enemy
Who has defied the crown?

For I’m the lord of Seriphos
Of bright, undying fame;
I bid, I beat, I loose, I bind,
Forever shall I reign!

(POLYDECTES realizes that he is alone and that his slaves are missing.)

Slave girls, come! You’d best come here!
Do the wretches hide in fear?
Slave girls—come! Come when I call!
Must a king shout to be served at all?

(the SERVANT and DANAE enter)

SLAVE GIRL:       We beg thy pardon, majesty;
We came as soon as we were free.

POLYDECTES:    As you were free?  You are not free!
Not free enough to scorn my call.
When will you learn that slaves must be
Prompt to report whenever I call?
My lash will teach you, then you’ll see
That you must listen hard to me.

SLAVE GIRL:       We meant no harm, your majesty—

POLYDECTES:    Begone!
(after a moment)
                                    And bring my wine to me!

 (SLAVE GIRL leaves, DANAE remains at the king’s side)

POLYDECTES:    Well, well, my dear—how does it please
You now to bow your lovely head?
You could enjoy a life of ease
If you would be my wife instead.

                                    (to the audience)

As if she could refuse the king!
And I—the king of Seriphos!
Scorned? Rejected?  No such thing!
I will not stop short of success.

DANAE:                  My life is thine, for thou hast claimed
Me as thy slave to do thy will,
But all my love will true remain
To Zeus, whose arm protects me still.

POLYDECTES:    Out, out, out! No more from you!
Enough, enough!  But when I’m through
You’ll drop from work, you’ll weep in pain
And beg to be set free again.

SLAVE GIRL:       Here come thy lords to feast tonight…

POLYDECTES:   Begone…begone…BEGONE from my sight!

(three LORDS enter bearing gifts)

POLYDECTES:   Welcome, welcome, welcome lords!

1ST LORD:            O noble king, long may’st thou reign!
We come thy birthday to acclaim.
To show our love and constancy
These precious gifts we bring to thee.

POLYDECTES:   Excellent, excellent!  Let us see!
A silver goblet?  My thanks to thee!

What’s here? A scabbard for my sword?
Well chosen—thanks, my gracious lord.

Last but not least—a band of gold?
How well it will my arm enfold!

But who’s that standing at the door?
Come in, come in, there’s room for more. . . .

(PERSEUS enters)

O Perseus?  I never thought
That youwould come,
What have youbrought?

PERSEUS:             To find my mother came I, lord,
For from her I’ve heard not a word.

POLYDECTES:    No present have you for the king?
You have not brought a single thing?

PERSEUS:                   My gracious lord, pray do me tell
If Danae fares here ill or well.

2ND LORD:                 Come boy, come show us what on earth
You’ve brought today to prove your worth.

3RD LORD:                 (with mock indignation)
O let him be—for Perseus
Need only heed his Father Zeus,

1ST LORD:                  The son of Zeus—now that’s a laugh
Is that this poor boy’s epitaph?
Why does his father not provide
Him with the wealth to suit his pride?

3RD LORD:                 Yes, Zeus could give him wealth and more,
And make him rich instead of poor!

POLYDECTES:           Well—son of Zeus—could you not bring
Some gift to honor me, your king?
The sandals of Hermes, the lyre of Apollo
These would please me—dost my gist follow?

(thinks for a moment)

                                    But such gifts are not hard to get,
So prove yourself much braver yet
By bringing me the Gorgon’s head
And hon’ ring me with that instead!

PERSEUS:                   So full art thou of pride and hate,
Thy very mouth has sealed thy fate;
The Gorgon’s head that thou hast named
I will bring thee what thou hast claimed.

(PERSEUS turns to go)

1st LORD:                    Oh me!

2nd LORD:                  Oh my!

3rd LORD:                   Should we be scared?

1st LORD:                    (pointing in mockery) The Gorgon’s head!

2nd LORD:                  I’m so afraid!

3rd LORD:              Me too!
(the LORDS cover their eyes and laugh)

1st LORD:                Me too!

POLYDECTES:     And so am I!
(to PERSEUS) Oh I am struck speechless in my fright;
You’d better go . . .  (PERSEUS does not move)
                                    Begone, begone, BEGONE from my sight!

(the LORDS laugh and continue to act scared of the Gorgon; PERSEUS exits)

CHORUS:                    Far from the island he wandered
over the landways and seaways
Seeking the home of the Gorgon
but knowing not whither to go.

Perseus, bravest of mortals
thy quest will bring honor and glory
And the gods will give thee sure guidance
for they honor thee, bold son of Zeus.

Scene 4 – On the road to Athens

HERMES:                    Hail O noble Perseus—
Thou bold young son of Father Zeus,
To thee we’ve come to offer aid
To keep the promise thou hast made

PERSEUS:                   Who is this that addresses me?
For sure no mortal man is he.
Can I believe this precious sight?
A god all bathed in sweetest light?

ATHENA:                    Perseus, our brother fair,
Son of Zeus, lord of the air;
We have both seen thy suffering
At the hands of that cruel king
Thy promise made at his insistence;
Thou shalt fulfill, with our assistance.

PERSEUS:                   And who here now addresses me?
No mortal woman can this be!
Her radiant features shine so bright.
Filled with goodness, truth, and light

(PERSEUS kneels and bows his head.)

ATHENA:                    Arise now, brother Perseus,
No need to bend thy knee to us.
Sons and daughter are we three
Of Zeus, who reigns in sovereignty.
Thy sister Athena, the wise, am I
And here stands Hermes at my side.

PERSEUS:                   Blessed am I upon this day
Who met thee here upon my way.
Thou hast my thanks, my love, my trust,
But can’st thou help me on this quest?

HERMES:                    We will do all that thou dost ask,
Though this is not a simple task.
Far to the west there lies an isle
That thou must seek past many a mile—
But of the path that you must go
We cannot say, nor do we know.

PERSEUS:                   But how can I the Gorgon slay
If thou can’st not show me the way?

ATHENA:                    No one knows where the Gorgon lives
Except the three grey sisters old
Directions they to thee will give
Though they will try them to withhold.

HERMES:                    This sword thou mayest from me borrow
To keep thee safe from harm or sorrow.
And these, my sandals for thy feet,
Will make thy travels sure and fleet.

ATHENA:                    And here, my shield, O son of Zeus
To aid thee in the battle fierce;
But at Medusa, do not look;
Not even one glance can’st thou take,
For unto stone she will thee turn
If thou this counsel wise dost spurn.

PERSEUS:                   But how can I Medusa slay?
Athena, tell me more, I pray.

ATHENA:                    Perseus, to do this deed,
Look into my bright shield and heed
Where thou with Hermes’ sword must thrust;
Thus to my shield thy fate entrust.

PERSEUS:                   O Hermes and Athena wise
Thy help will speed my enterprise!
I promise thee to do my best
To bring thee honor on my quest.

CHORUS:                    Far he went to the northlands
traveling alone on his journey
Seeking the three old grey sisters
they know where the way to the west.

One eye and one tooth among them,
are shared by the three old grey sisters,
Whoever would learn all their secrets,
must tooth and eye from them steal.

Scene  5 – The Land of the Grey Sisters

2ND SISTER:              Sister, sister, can you hear
The sound of someone coming near?

1ST SISTER:               ‘Tis but the wind, the wind I say,
For no one ever comes this way.

3RD SISTER:               No no, she’s right, I heard it too;
Give me the eye, to get a view!

2ND SISTER:              Give me the eye, I get it next
Don’t try to use a false pretext.

1ST SISTER:               Sisters, sisters, stop your squabbling;
It makes my very head start wobbling!

PERSEUS:                   Hail gray sisters gray, far have I come
To visit you in your lonely home.

3RD SISTER:               What’s there?  Who’s that?  Let me now see
Give me the eye—give it to me!

2ND SISTER:              Wait, just you wait, what rush is there?
I want to see who’s coming here.

1ST SISTER:               I heard a voice, of that I’m sure
Who can have come, whatever for?

PERSEUS:                   I am the son of father Zeus,
And men call me bold Perseus.

2ND SISTER:              Look at the stranger, lo, forsooth!
Give here, right now, hand me the tooth!

3RD SISTER:               The tooth is mine, I know its use
To keep us from his ill abuse.

1ST SISTER:               Sisters, sisters, won’t you cease?
Can’t we have a little peace?
Let’s hear all that he has to say,
Then we can send him on his way.

2ND SISTER:              Well said, well said; now I can see
A youth of true nobility.

3RD SISTER:               If you’ll just give the eye to me,
The tooth I will then give to thee.

2ND SISTER:              Take it; careful; take it here;
Now give the tooth—not in my ear!

1ST SISTER:               Now sir—we’ve kept you waiting thus
You say your name is Perseus?

PERSEUS:                   Yea, that it is, and I would know
Where I must travel, where to go
To find Medusa, the Gorgon’s, lair
For I have vowed to slay her there.

2ND SISTER:              You will not slay her with our aid!
We have not ever her betrayed!

1ST SISTER:               Give me the tooth and I shall show
This man the way that he must go
But not to the Gorgon’s hidden isle,
Away I’ll chase him for many a mile!

(As the 2nd SISTER  gives the 1st SISTER the tooth, PERSEUS takes it from her.)

2ND SISTER:              And give her the eye, that she defend
The life of our poor Gorgon friend.

(As the 3rd SISTER gives the 1st SISTER the eye, PERSEUS takes it from her.)

1ST SISTER:               Where is the tooth? Where is the eye?
How can I bite? How can I spy?

PERSEUS:                   I have thy tooth, thy eye as well
If thou dost want them, thou must tell
Me how to find Medusa’s home
Then will I tooth and eye return.

2ND SISTER:              We have no choice, tell him the way.

THREE SISTERS:        O woe, O woe, O woeful day!

Scene 6: The Island of the Gorgons

MEDUSA:                   Of all those whom the gods have cursed
I am the one they’ve hurt the worst.
For I was young and fair of face,
But they robbed all my charm and grace,
And made me hideous instead—
Ah would that they had struck me dead!

Will no one come to rescue me?
Will no one ever set me free?
Must I forever dwell alone
On this forsaken island home?

Enough O gods!  Enough I cry!
Forgive my sins—or let me die!.

PERSEUS:                   Medusa, I have heard thy plea,
And I have come to set thee free.

(PERSEUS and MEDUSA have a ritualized battle in which PERSEUS slays MEDUSA offstage and returns with her head wrapped up in his cloak.)

CHORUS:                    Guided by Pallas Athena,
Perseus slew the Medusa,
Death put an end to her torment,
Brought the relief she had sought.

Over the landways and seaways
Perseus returned to the island,
And went to see king Polydectes
Bringing the gift he had sought.

Scene 7:  The Court of King Polydectes

POLYDECTES:           Well, well, my lords—is it a year
Since Perseus went forth from here?
Yet from him have we not a word
Though of his death we have not heard.

3RD LORD:                 What can there be for us to learn?
For he will nevermore return.

2ND LORD:                 Ye need not fret, nor need ye fear
He will not be arriving here
To grace thy house and share thy feast;
Thy pompous guest is long deceased.

1ST LORD:                  So let us drink a hearty toast
To Perseus, who for a boast,
Went searching for the Gorgon’s head
And ne’er returned, for he was dead!

POLYDECTES:           Now Danae, have you thou naught to say?
Your brave young son went far away
And left you here alone to slave;
So when do you expect the knave?

DANAE:                      Polydectes, make no jest
About my son, whom I love best.
He will return, of that I’m sure,
For he is loyal, brave, and pure.

(Three loud knocks are heard.)

3RD LORD:                 Is that him knocking at the door?

POLYDECTES:           Joke not, joke not, don’t be a boor.
How could it be that young upstart
When he lies dead far from these parts?

(PERSEUS enters, carrying the wrapped up Gorgon’s head.
DANAE runs to greet him )

DANAE:                      Perseus, you’ve come at last!
O now my grief is fully past,
Each night of this long year I yearned
To know that thou wert safe returned.

PERSEUS:                   Dear mother, now to thee I’ve come
To rescue thee and take thee home.
Long did I seek, far to the west,
Medusa for whom I did quest.
And now, O king, to thee I’ve brought
The gift that from me thou hast sought.

POLYDECTES:           With lies you’ve sought me to betray,
For no man could the Gorgon slay!

IST LORD:                  Indeed, indeed, we know your kind
Who treasures does pretend to find
And with vain boasts would seek to cheat;
Come lad and show your little treat.

3RD LORD:                 Say no more, it’s but a joke
Whereby he seeks us to provoke.
We have no time for the devious dog—
                                    For telling lies you should be flogged!

2ND LORD:                 What did you bring, come let us see!
Perhaps it is a gift for thee.

PERSEUS:                   A gift for thee and thine indeed,
Who live in falsehood, pride, and greed,
Thou seest that I have come home—

(PERSEUS uncovers the Gorgon’s head)

And with this look, now art thou stone!

(The KING and his LORDS remain frozen in place.)

CHORUS:                    Thus perished king Polydectes,
whom Perseus mocked and mistreated,
The king who was cold and stone-hearted,
by Perseus was turned into stone.

To Argos bold Perseus then traveled
to find his grandfather Acrisius;
The king fled in fear when he found
that his daughter’s son still was alive.

Scene 8: In Argos

ACRISIUS:                  For eighteen years have I been hiding
every day filled with foreboding,
And dreading the time has come
for my grandsonwill come home.

Of this life I am so weary;
all my days are dark and dreary!
Never can I truly rest,
because today may be my last.

This life can I no more abide,
so let me cast my fears aside
And go enjoy an hour’s leisure
at the stadium for my pleasure.

CHORUS:                    In his royal seat sat King Acrisius
saluting the proud discus throwers,
Knowing not that the champion before him
was his grandson, Perseus the bold.

From Perseus’ hand flew the discus
soaring as high as the heavens
Heading straight down towards Acrisius
killing the king where he sat.

Let no one attempt to evade
the fate that the gods have proclaimed;
For the gods will always find ways
to see that their will is fulfilled.

Sing of the stout-hearted hero,
son of brave Danae of Argos;
Let no man forget the adventures,
of Perseus, bold and courageous!

Scenes:       1.   The temple of Apollo in Delphi
2.   On the shores of rocky Seriphos
3.   In the court of King Polydectes
4.   On the road to Athens
5.   On the island of the grey sisters
6.   On the island of the Gorgons
7.   In the court of King Polydectes

Cast of Characters:

Acrisius, King of Argos
Danae, his daughter
Perseus, son of Danae and Zeus
A priest of Apollo
A priestess of Apollo
Dictys, a fisherman of Seriphos
Dictys’s wife
Polydectes, King of Seriphos
A servant
Lord 1
Lord 2
Lord 3
Grey sister 1
Grey sister 2
Grey sister 3
Medusa, the Gorgon

The Web of Life


In our fourth grade nature studies, we focused on the human being in relation to the animal world.  This year, we considered the plants in relation to the earth and sun, water and air.

We began our block by examining the changes in plants during the course of the seasons, comparing them to the stages of a single plant’s life cycle.  In spring, germination and growth forces predominate; in summer, plants mature and flower; in autumn, they bear fruit and seeds; and in winter, plants die or are dormant.

Then we examined the life of the soil and the distribution and types of plants in the different zones of the earth. The poles and sub-arctic regions have stunted vegetation which grows slowly during the short growing season; in the tropics, trees and plants grow in luxurious abundance all through the year; the temperate regions, with their balanced seasons, have rhythmical cycles of growth and dormancy.

An animal or a person appears as a summary of all that has been experienced in his or her life.  In contrast, we can never observe the whole plant; we can only see it at a particular stage of development.  These stages have an alternating rhythm of contraction and expansion.  When the plant is a seed, it is in a state of contraction, for all the possibilities of the future lie locked within its shell.  When the seed germinates and sprouts, there is the first expansion, as the shoot reaches upwards towards the air and light, while the roots reach downwards seeking water. As the plant forms its stalk and leaves, it alternates between contraction and expansion, the dense, hard stalk contrasting with the light, airy leaves. When the plant forms buds, there is another contraction, followed by an expansion again when the flowers open. With the formation of the seed there is a final contraction as the cycle ends, ready to begin again.   

We began our study of the various plant families by considering the archetypal plant, where root, stem, leaves, blossoms, fruit, and seeds exist in harmonious balance. Then we explored the world of fungi, which are not plants but whose mycelia have much in common with roots.  Next came the algae, which lack true stalks or roots but are able to photosynthesize. We examined the simpler plants—mosses, liverworts, and ferns—which do not flower or bear seeds—and compared them with the more complex plants. We completed our studies by learning about coniferous and broad-leaved trees and other flowering plants, learning about the complex structures of root, stem, leaf, and flower and some of the ingenious ways that plants propagate.      

As interesting as these topics were in and of themselves, they were also explored as a means to an end: to help students develop new ways of thinking. Through our studies students learned how to draw clear distinctions; how to compare and contrast; how to recognize changes and patterns of development; and, most importantly, how to consider the part in relationship to the whole.

To balance these cognitive demands, students engaged in activities that nourished their feelings and strengthened their wills. They went outside to sketch the gesture of trees and shrubs and came inside to draw detailed drawings of leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds. Some topics were summarized by diagrams; others by beautiful illustrations or evocative paintings. The students sprouted beans, charting their germination and development, and collected and pressed leaves and flowers.  Such activities deepened their knowledge and appreciation of the plant kingdom and strengthened their connection to the natural world.

A wise man once said, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.  All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
(Chief Seattle)

What a privilege it is to work with students in a form of education that integrates knowledge and imagination with practical activities and artistic expression!  May this holistic approach to learning help our students develop a sense of themselves and of their place in the web of life and strengthen their commitment to treat the earth and all living creatures with respect and love.



A Sample of Students’ Main Lesson Book Work









Why Study Grammar?

We began fifth grade with a block examining the parts of speech in great detail. “How boring!” you might think. Yet the students approached the topic with interest and enthusiasm, perhaps because it called on them to exercise their growing cognitive faculties and to learn to discriminate in the best sense of the word.

Each of major parts of speech performs a specific function. Verbs tell, expressing action and states of being, and they also establish the sentence in time. Nouns name people, places, things, activities, and ideas. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, answering questions “When?” “Where?” “How?” and “How much?” Adjectives describe, identifying, qualifying, and quantifying nouns.

Pronouns refer to and identify nouns, sometimes precisely, sometimes more vaguely.  Prepositions express relationships, especially of time and place. As one students said, “They are like more specific adverbs.”  Interjections—words like Wow! Hey! or No way!—convey strong feelings.  And true to their name conjunctions join, linking together words, phrases, or clauses.

To become better acquainted with each of the parts of speech, we played games and performed exercises, and the students had to pick out the parts of speech in the context of spoken and written sentences.  It wasn’t always easy.  But what better work to do at Michaelmas time, when we are asked to develop crystal clear clarity of thought!

Almost every day we considered questions which required discernment and flexibility of thought. “Why is running a noun?  Doesn’t it express an action?” (There is a special category of nouns based on verbs called gerunds.) or “How come so is an adverb in the sentence ‘It is so wet outside.’ but a conjunction when it links two clauses, e.g. ‘She wore her raincoat so she wouldn’t get wet.’

To prevent our studies from becoming too dry and cerebral, students wrote compositions highlighting one part of speech, for instance: What they did during the summer (verb); Telling about a special person (noun); or Describing a favorite place (adjective).

One of the major tasks of the grade school (and, for that matter, of all education) is to teach students to think.  But in order to learn to think, a person needs something to think about. Language provides us with plenty to think about as we raise our instinctive and habitual use of language to consciousness.

Grammar requires students to examine words in terms of their function and to recognize how a word’s meaning depends on its context.  I hope that this capacity to recognize function, context, and meaning will stand them in good stead as they confront increasingly complex topics in school and in their lives.



Nature Study – the Animal World and the Human Being

We recently completed our Nature Study block that focused on the animal kingdom in relation to the human being.  This was our first foray into science proper, and it had a very different quality than the nature studies of the first three grades, which were dreamier and more imaginative. Students were now asked to observe more carefully, to describe more accurately, to draw comparisons and contrasts.

Rudolf Steiner suggested that fourth graders study animals because children of this age need to find ways to connect (or re-connect) with the world so that they can overcome some of the isolation that arises out of their growing sense of self.  By strengthening their interest in the world around them, children can experience greater joy and a new sense of meaning in existence.

Rudolf Steiner also said that children of this age are ready to develop a new way of thinking: learning how to relate the whole to its parts. This type of thinking, which develops the capacity for analysis, is also developed by the study of fractions, grammar, and geography. Here are some of the ways we worked on this:

We examined the human being in terms of our form—head, trunk, and limbs—and explored which animals were more ‘head-like’ – for instance, mollusks; and which were more ‘trunk-like’ – for instance, reptiles. Most of the animals we studied use their limbs to provide for their bodily needs, e.g. locomotion, food gathering, or defense. While our lower limbs serve us in this way, our upper limbs are left free to create, to work, and to serve, all of which express our humanity.

We also examined the human being in terms of our major physiological functions—thinking/perception; respiration; and metabolism/movement—and explored how different animals express these functions.  In the cow, for instance, the organs of metabolism are the most highly developed; in the lion, the chest and the organs of the rhythmic system predominate; and the eagle shows a highly developed nerve/sense system.

Students also saw how families of animals express a spectrum of characteristics in terms of size, coloring, habits, etc., and our exploration of commonalities and contrasts helped them begin to think in terms of variations on a theme.

Finally, we explored how animals develop–those that go through metamorphoses and those who are born as miniature adults.  As humans we have an inordinately long period of physical and psychological development. And while human beings are not as fully developed as animals in specific capacities, we have the ability to use tools and machines to achieve our goals.

Our nature studies block provided a wealth of opportunities for artistic work.  Every morning children chose what they wanted to recite from an anthology of animal poetry, and during the course of the block they wrote their own poems, composed narratives, drew pictures and diagrams, painted, and sculpted.  Each of these artistic experiences provided a different way to know and relate to the animals we were studying.

Rudolf Steiner exhorted teachers to develop their artistic skills, not to become better artists, but to become more artistic in their approach to teaching and working with their students. During this block, I decided to focus on blackboard drawing in order to stretch myself and to find a new relationship to the animals I was teaching about.  Every drawing offered an opportunity and a challenge, and each day the students were inspired to stretch themselves as well.

Waldorf teachers are ‘students of the highest class of all.’  With this in mind, here is a gallery of this student’s blackboard drawings during this block:

















Thor the Bride – A Play for Fourth Grade


This play intentionally oversteps some boundaries of propriety, mirroring the fourth graders’  delight in mischief and irreverence.  

Scene 1  in Asgard

Thor stretches, yawns, and lies down to go to sleep. Thrym quietly enters, goes over to where Thor is sleeping, gently removes his hammer from his grip and exits. Thor wakes up and realizes his hammer is missing.

Thor:  Where is my hammer? I had it right here!
Loki, you rascal—you’d better come clean!

Loki:  What’s missing? Why ask me? You always accuse me
Of being at fault when something goes wrong!

Thor: Stop stalling; just tell me: Where’s Mjolnir, the mighty?

Loki:  Well I didn’t take it; I promise; I swear!
But I’ll help you search if you say ‘Pretty please.’
Throughout the nine worlds will I fly till I find it,
But to do so I need Freya’s fine feather cloak.

Thor and Loki go to Freya

 Thor: Freya, my friend, my hammer is missing,
And Loki is willing to try to go find it;
But he needs to borrow your cloak of fine feathers
To speed up his searching throughout the nine worlds.

Freya:  (to Loki) Of course you may have it; good luck in your searching,
And when you are done, please return it to me.

Freya gets her feather cloak.

Thor:  Thank you, dear Freya, I am in your debt.

Loki:  And I will return the favor someday.

Scene 2 in Jotunheim

Loki searches and spots the giant King.

 Loki:  Who’s sitting there so proud and so grim?
Don’t tell me—I know—it’s the giant king Thrym!
Though he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed,
He’s looking quite smug, so let’s see what he knows.

Thrym:  How fare the gods? How fare the elves?[1]
Come tell me Loki, what news have you brought?

Loki:  Ill fare the gods; ill fare the elves
Thor’s lost his hammer, and the gods are afraid.

Thrym: Well might they fear for now they have lost
Their surest defense against all their foes.

Loki:  Do you know where it is? If so, tell me plain,
And I will reward you and give you my thanks

Thrym:  I don’t need your reward, and I don’t need your thanks,
But here is the secret you’re dying to know:
Mjolnir lies buried eight miles underground.
Never shall Thor see his hammer again!

Loki: Please reconsider. Can I not persuade you
To ransom the hammer for a reasonable price?

Thrym: Here is the price, no less will I take—

Loki:  Yes. . .

Thrym: (teasing Loki by stalling) I’ve been meaning to marry, but I just can’t decide. . .

Loki:  (more insistently) Yes. . .

Thrym: Thor will never get back his hammer
Unless Fair Freya becomes my bride.

Loki shakes Thrym’s hand in agreement.

Scene 3 – in Asgard

Thor and Loki rush to Freya’s house. She greets them wondering what is the matter.

 Thor: Come Freya, get ready, you’re leaving right now!

Loki:  Put on your wedding dress, necklace and veil!

Freya:  What are you saying?  What is this—a joke?

Thor: No joke, my dear Freya, a bride you must be,
For the giant king Thrym has demanded your hand;

Loki:  That’s his condition to give Mjolnir back;
I’m sure you’ll agree that we need to do that!

Freya:  You cannot be serious!  You’re out of your minds
To think that Thrym I ever would wed!
Go both of you, go—and I will be glad
If you never darken my door anymore.

Scene 4 – In Asgard

Odin:  Gods and goddesses, Aesir all,
Assembled in our judgment hall—
Gathered are we today to decide
What must be done to get Thor’s hammer back.

Thor:  There’s no question about it, we must meet Thrym’s demands,
And send him Fair Freya to be his bride.

Loki:  It’s the only way he will give Mjolnir back—

Freya:  Never, never, never I say
Will I ever be that giant king’s bride!
You cannot just give me away to be wed
As if I’m a thing to be traded or sold.
Command all you want, but there’s not a chance
That I will marry against my will!

Heimdall: Now here’s an idea—though it might sound strange—
To get Thor’s hammer back from Thrym.

All the gods look at Heimdall, who waits, enjoying the suspense he has created.

 Frigga:  What are you thinking, Heimdall, my son?
Don’t keep us waiting, come right out with it.

Heimdall:  Thrym wants Freya to be his bride. . .

 Gods: Yes. . .

Heimdall: So let us send her down to him!

Freya:  No!

Heimdall:  (To Freya) Wait till I’m done, for here’s the best part:
Not you, but Thor shall be sent as the bride,

The gods all laugh and point at Thor, some of them mimicking him being a bride.

 Thor: Heimdall, my brother, you get the prize
For the worst idea I ever have heard!

Loki:  I like it, I like it, I like it a lot!

Thor:  I don’t want to hear it; Loki, be still!

Odin:  What do you all think of Heimdall’s idea?

Iduna: It seems like a clever, ingenious plan.

Bragi: We’ve got to do something to get Mjolnir back!

Tyr:  Come, Thor, agree—
You’ve got nothing to lose.

Sif: (teasingly) I won’t tell a soul that you like to dress up!

Thor: You cannot imagine that I will agree—
Dress up as a woman? Not in your dreams!

Loki: Don’t be so proud, Thor, and don’t be so vain;
Nobody doubts your manhood and strength.
(thinks for a moment)
As your bridesmaid I’ll go and I’ll stand by your side
When that big handsome giant makes you his bride.

 Thor: No!

Gods:  Please!

Thor: No!

Gods:  (louder) Pretty please!

Thor: No!

Gods:  (louder) With sugar on top!

Thor: (grudgingly) All right, but . . .

Loki taunts Thor by singing “Thor and Thrym were sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G”
Thor chases Loki off the stage.

 Scene 5 – in Jotunheim

Thrym blows his whistle, summoning the giants.

The giants enter marching to the tune of Oh, Oh, Oh, the Dwarves March in a Row

Giants: Oh, oh, oh!
We don’t march in a row;
And when the giants are going out
They stamp and stomp and mill about
Oh, oh, oh!
We don’t march in a row;

The giants march about in a silly way. They then sit or loll about as Thrym tries to direct them. They clearly refuse to do what he wants.

 Giants: Oh, oh, oh,
We like to take life slow
And when Thrym tells us “Hurry up!”
We shake our heads and shout, “Shut up!”
Oh, oh, oh—
We like to take life slow.

Giants finally sit down at the table and begin to eat.

 Great Grim: We gobble and guzzle;

Weak Winn: We belch and we burp;

Trusty Trim: We don’t have no manners;

Tiny Tim: We curse and we swear;

Dainty Dim: We do what we like,

Foolish Finn: And we like what we do,

All: Because we are giants, and giants don’t care!

The giants laugh and act rowdy.

Thrym: Come my companions, you need to calm down,
Because in a moment my bride will be here.

Great Grim: Don’t waste your breath

Weak Winn: Telling us to behave

Trusty Trim: We don’t follow orders;

Tiny Tim: We don’t give a hoot;

Dainty Dim: We do what we like,

Foolish Finn: And we like what we do,

All: Because we are giants and giants don’t care.

There is a knock on the door.  Thrym gestures to Lazy Lynn to open the door.
Thor and Loki enter. Thrym greets them wanting to give Freya a kiss on the cheek but Thor pulls away

 Thrym:  Welcome, Freya, to our hall;
Come sit down and partake of our feast.

The giants begin to eat.  Thor eats ravenously.  Thrym and the giants stare in amazement.

 Great Grim: Look how she’s eating and drinking so fast!

Weak Winn: A gobbling, guzzling, huge hungry sow!

Dainty Dim: Hey Freya, you pig, two oxen you’ve eaten!

Foolish Finn: And four cups of mead you have poured down the hatch!

Loki: Be courteous and kind, and do not badmouth
My lady who’s dying of hunger and thirst;
For Freya’s been fasting for a nearly fortnight,
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.[2]

Thrym: Come my majestic, magnificent goddess,
And give me a kiss so tender and sweet;

The giants all make an exited ruckus. Thrym lifts up Freya’s veil and is startled

 Thrym: What fire is this from Freya’s eyes flashing,
Like embers a-glow in the dark of the night?

Loki: Freya’s has not slept a wink for a fortnight
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.

The giants all laugh.  Thrym seems doubtful but calms them down.

 Thrym:  Let Mjolnir be brought now to hallow our nuptial
Bring in the hammer our union to bless.

Great Grim: The hammer!

Weak Winn: The hammer!

Trusty Trim: Go get the hammer!

Lazy Lynn: I don’t want go ’cause it’s buried so deep.

Tiny Tim: Go find it!

Dainty Dim: Go fetch it!

Foolish Finn: Go get it quickly!

All: Get going, get going, you lazy slowpoke!

Lazy Lynn: I’m going, I’m going; you don’t need to tell me;
(delaying) I’ll go get the hammer, (aside) but I’ll take my time.

One of the giants chases Lazy Lynn out.

 Sweet Slym:  We’re going to be sisters, O Freya, my darling
We’re going to be sisters, O Freya, my sweet.
As sign of our sisterhood, give me a treasure—
Your bright golden bracelet our kinship to seal.

Lazy Lynn comes dancing in with the hammer, taking her time and brandishing it as if she were going to throw it or use it to kill the giants.

 Giants sing “Here Comes the Bride” raucously to the words “Ta da ta dum”

Great Grim: The hammer, the hammer!

Trusty Trim: Here comes the hammer!

Tiny Tim: Mjolnir the mighty, Thrym’s wedding to bless;

Dainty Din: How lucky we are that Thor can’t possess it

Weak Winn: For he’d break all our bones,

Foolish Finn: And bash out our brains!

Thrym: Here is the hammer, my dearly beloved;
Let us now put both our hands on its handle;

 Thor grabs the hammer and begins to kill the giants

 Thor: Death to the giants! Death to the Jotuns!
Death to the pigs who swill at their trough!
Now you, and then you, and then you too, my hearty,
Death to the giants, to you giants all.

All the giants lie dead except Sweet Slym, who doesn’t yet realize that it’s not Freya

Slym:  But Freya, dear Freya, you were once so lovely
What’s come over you, my sister, my sweet?

Thor:  Here is the present I’ve saved for you, Slym:
You wanted bright gold, but hard iron’s my gift.

Thor kills Slym with a blow of his hammer and surveys the scene.

Thor: Back now we travel in triumph and glory
Home now we go, back to Asgard’s bright halls.

Loki looks at Thor appraisingly

 Loki: That hammer looks good in your hand, my companion,
It matches your dress and your veil very well!

Thor: Be quiet, you scoundrel! Loki, I mean it—
And nevermore mention these clothes that I wore!

Loki:  Of course not, don’t worry, I won’t share your secret. . .
But I really think you should get shoes that match!


[1] These words are from the original poem Thrymskvitha

[2] These words are  from the original poem, Thrymskvitha

The Gods:

The Giants:
Thrym – King of the Giants
Sweet Slim –  Thrym’s sister
Great Grim – Thrym’s brother
Tiny Tim – Thrym’s cousin
Foolish Finn – Thrym’s cousin
Trusty Trim – Thrym’s uncle
Dainty Dinn – Thrym’s niece
Weak Winn – Thrym’s nephew
Lazy Lynn – the Giants’ servant


Developing a Sense of Self

When children are around nine years old, they go through an existential phase of questioning—a kind of a mid-childhood crisis.  They no longer feel at home in the world as they once did.  They are racked by doubts.  Everything is up for question.  Everything’s wrong.

In light of this, we are currently reciting Mr. Grumpledump’s Song by Shel Silverstein:

Everything’s wrong,
Days are too long,
Sunshine’s too hot,
Wind is too strong.
Clouds are too fluffy,
Grass is too green,
Ground is too dusty,
Sheets are too clean.
Stars are too twinkly,
Moon is too high,
Water’s too drippy,
Sand is too dry.
Rocks are too heavy,
Feathers too light,
Kids are too noisy,
Shoes are too tight.
Folks are too happy,
Singin’ their songs.
Why can’t they see it?
Everything’s wrong!

The fourth grade curriculum addresses this fracturing of the child’s world in several subjects.  In arithmetic, for instance, students study fractions, where the whole is broken into parts. In grammar, they learn how each part of speech serves a specific function in the context of the sentence.

Another subject addresses the child’s sense of separation: the study of local geography and history which helps students begin to redefine their relationship to the world by establishing themselves in space and time.

We began our current geography and history block by doing an exercise called “Where am I?”  Students aaffirmed that they were sitting at their desks in the fourth grade room of Richmond Waldorf School in Richmond, VA, in the U.S.A. . . out to the farthest reaches of space. From this exercise the children recognized that each of us is the center of our universe.


This was followed by an exercise called “Who am I?” where students established themselves within the context of their family, school, community, nation, etc.  From this came the recognition that each of us is unique, and that all of us exist in a web of relationships that includes all of humanity.

To further orient the children in space, students were taught how to read a compass, and each of them was given a compass to take home to establish in which direction and what side of the street their house was on. To further orient them in time, children interviewed their parents to find out what brought them to Richmond.

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West

For the first introduction to mapmaking, we created a map of our classroom, accounting for its major features.

Then we toured the school to see where everything is—classrooms, offices, community spaces, and storage areas—and students sketched a map of their discoveries.  Because a proportional floor plan of our school building would be beyond their capacities, I provided one for the children to color and label.

To orient ourselves further, we went on mental tours of parts of the building each day, or I would pose questions such as “What rooms in the school do not have windows?”  or, “Which rooms look out on the inner courtyard?” Yesterday the class readily accepted the challenge to fill in a blank floor plan without physically exploring the spaces, and the students felt very proud of themselves for knowing the location of every room in the school.

In the past few days we’ve expanded our circle of awareness to encompass the school neighborhood and are in the process of learning the major highways and roads in Richmond.  The AAA generously provided us with road maps, and each of the children took one home to study.  I also posted a series of satellite photographs from various heights—100 ft to 5,000 ft—and challenged the children to locate the school in the ever-more complex photographs.

We’ve also been studying a bit of local history, learning about the James River, the Native Americans who lived in this region, the early years of Jamestown, the growth of tobacco farming, and the introduction of African slaves to the Virginia Colony. In future lessons we will be learning more about Richmond’s history and geography, and in the second geography/history block, we will expand our horizons to encompass the state and the region.

The Susan Constant, one of the three ships that brought settlers to Jamestown

The children have been fascinated and delighted by these studies, and their curiosity, enthusiasm, and joy in learning are contagious. Developing this kind of interest in the world helps children deal with their doubts and affirms their sense of the rightness of life.  As for me—it’s a privilege to help children discover that everything’s not wrong and that we can learn to know who we are and to find our place in life.

Working with Polarities in Fourth Grade

Like Adam and Eve in Paradise, young children live in peace and harmony with their surroundings, full of trust and confidence in the world. When children are around nine or ten, this secure relationship to the world begins to change. Rudolf Steiner says that at this time, “children, though they do not generally express it in words, nevertheless show through their whole behavior that they have a question—or several questions—that betray an inner crisis in life” (Human Values in Education).

Many fourth graders live strongly in polarities—they alternately love or hate something (or someone); they are easily enthused or bored; they are eager to work hard but can readily give up; they can be quiet or loud; active or lethargic; critical or forgiving; selfish or generous.

When explaining how to work effectively with children, Rudolf Steiner urged teachers to work with—rather than against—their students’ temperaments.  By letting children experience and express their temperaments fully (and seeing how extreme their own temperament appears in others), they begin to find the path of moderation to true selfhood.

I have utilized the same principle  in working with polarities.  Rather than trying to moderate my students’ impulses, I deliberately move from one extreme to another and hope that the process will instill a yearning for greater balance.  I practice this both in the larger and smaller aspects of our work.

For instance, our main lesson block rotation moves between juicy pictorial subjects like Norse mythology, local geography and history, and nature study, and drier, more conceptual subjects such as arithmetic and grammar. In our daily reviews,  factual details are interspersed with lively discussions.  In their main lesson book work, students create expressive compositions and flamboyant drawings, and they write concise, accurate dictations and draw carefully guided pictures. Fast activities alternate with slow ones; loud moments with stillness; self-awareness with the recognition of each other.

While form drawing lessons demand poise, balance, and moderation, our painting classes this year have already offered several opportunities to work with polarities. The students have painted Muspelheim and Nifleheim, the lands of fire and ice; they have represented the battle between the light of Michael and the darkness of the dragon; and they have expressed the nature of Hel, the goddess of death, whose body is half-healthy and half-decayed.

Each of these painting exercises offered the challenge of living fully in the extremes as well as the opportunity to find a balance between them. I hope that when students achieved that balance, they experienced some moments of calm amid the sudden storms that rage within them.

Form Drawings – Striving for dynamic balance




Paintings – Polarities in action

Notice how differently each of the students expresses the contrast between health and decay of the goddess Hel









Creativity in Action

In a lecture from  Soul Economy and Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner spoke about how a teacher’s creativity feeds the students’ souls.

“If you tell students what you found in books—no matter how lively you may be—if you tell them what you have read and perhaps even memorized, you will talk to them like a dry and desiccated person, as though you did not have a living skin but were covered with parchment, for there are always death-like traces in one’s own being of what was thus learned from the past.

If, on the other hand, you are creative in your work as a teacher, your material will radiate with growing forces, it will be fresh and alive, and this is what feeds the souls of children.”
[p. 162]

Throughout my career, I have found this to be true.  Whenever I create something original—stories, plays, birthday verses, blackboard drawings—the students respond differently than when I re-create something from another source.  Not only that, creative work feeds my soul as well.

In fourth grade, students develop their writing skills by copying the teachers’ compositions from the board; by creating their own compositions, play scenes, or poems; and by taking dictation.

When I create a composition for the students to copy, I try to render the topic in clear, succinct, expressive prose, so that the children will absorb those important stylistic aspects and become better writers.

When the students create own original work, they prepare by talking about the subject, so that when they write, they are just ‘talking on paper.’

When I create a dictation, I write passages that benefit from repetition, since each part of the dictation needs to be repeated until the children can write it from memory.

In our current language arts block, the students have been hearing some of  the Norse myths.  During this block I decided to challenge myself to compose dictations in the form of poems that reflected the Norse poetic style that features half lines with two stressed syllables and alliteration that is sometimes reflected in succeeding lines. The strong rhythms of Norse epic poetry reflect the Norse peoples’ search for power; the alliteration their search for resonance between people, objects, and events.

Here are poems I wrote for the children during the past two weeks:

Gullveig the Golden
Haughty and gleaming, the beautiful maiden
Entered the hall where all the gods sat.
Grief had she brought to the dwellers of Midgard;
Gold lust and greed, unhappiness great.
Spears threw the gods, but they could not pierce her,
Three times they tried to burn her alive;
But Gullveig the golden could not be vanquished;
Curses and war she brought to the gods.

The Duel
Swift through the sky rode Thor the Thunderer,
Ready to battle Hrungnir, the huge.
Fast flew the hammer, Mjollnir, the mighty,
Seeking the giant’s enormous hard head.
Straight flew the hone hurled by the giant,
Hit by the hammer, it broke into bits.
Down fell the giant his head burst asunder,
Pinning the god beneath his huge leg.
Furious Thor lay there held fast by his foe,
Until his son Magni released him at last.

Miraculously, each of these poems was ‘composed’ quickly in the morning at school before the children arrived. I say ‘composed, ‘ but I take little credit for their composition. Like in many other instances,  I simply served as a voice for the muse that whispers her wisdom in the ear of all teachers who are privileged to drink from the living spring of the creative word.

And here are some more examples of creativity in action: blackboard drawings from this block.

Viking Ship

Yggdrasil, the World Ash and the nine worlds

The Giant Suttung and the dwarves who killed his parents

Odin, Father of the Gods, disguised as a traveler

Thor, the God of Thunder