The Housatonic Valley Waldorf School

Starry Meadows and Felted Puppets

Housatonic Valley Waldorf School

Our journey of visiting holistic schools couldn’t have started in a more fitting way as Camden and I had the opportunity to meet with my pre-school teacher, Melissa Merkling, and visit the K-8 Housatonic Valley Waldorf School in Newtown, CT. Melissa was one of the founders of Star Meadow Nursery-Kindergarten School which began in 1989, and has since evolved into the HVWS. I still have memories from the days at Star Meadow of sunflowers growing in the garden and walking around the building at the start of the day singing:

We’re going on a journey, this journey is so long. Our legs carry us, ’cause our legs are big and strong…”

Table Story by Fern at Roong Aroon School

Much of my experience at Star Meadow stayed with me through the years and I can see the impact it has had on me even today. I still remember when I visited River Class at Roong Aroon in Thailand and saw Teacher Fern tell a table story. She used felt puppets moving in an enchanting manner atop a small table. The children were swept away as the story unfolded during this warm and sacred time. When I became a teacher for River Class just a few months later, I was excited to engage in the same method of story telling. Waldorf inspired practices such as wet on wet water color painting, singing beautiful songs about nature, and engaging in various hand crafts are incredible gifts for early childhood. 

During our time at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School we had the chance to see some children on the playground who were there as a part of their summer program. The natural structure and materials used there invited the children to be a part of the outdoor world. We observed one child who was working hard to peel some bark off a large log in the center of the space. Instead of discouraging this behavior, one teacher kindly acknowledged what he was trying to do and offered him an alternative log on the outskirts of the playground. That same child then took the initiative to try and repair the place on the log where he had peeled off the bark. The children were happily engaged in their play and they all had a sense of connection, ease, and comfort in their natural setting. 

Removing the bark
Repairing with sand

Melissa explained to us that every Waldorf school will be slightly different and sometimes there is even discussion of what makes a Waldorf school a “Waldorf School.” In our discussion, we learned that the Waldorf curriculum is quite set for the various ages. Rudolf Steiner suggested that we teach a certain set of knowledge at certain ages because it corresponds to an understanding of child development. For example, Melissa explained that there is the 9-year change, at which point the child goes through a sort of individuation and they realize that they are separate from the world. That is when Waldorf will teach fractions and the notion that the perfect whole can be fractured or divided into parts. There are profound reasons for why the curriculum is designed in a particular way. 

Similarly, Melissa shared that in 7th grade they will teach about the Renaissance in which people started to trust their own judgments and see with their own eyes rather than forming understanding based solely off of what others tell them. It was a revolutionary time that corresponds to what the 7th grade students are going through at that point in their own development. “This is the core of what makes a Waldorf school a Waldorf school, the ability to recognize the truth of the journey of the child, see child development for what it is, and meet it.”

Another key element that Waldorf brings to the education of the whole child is the acknowledgement of the child as a spiritual being. The way spirituality makes its way into the classroom depends on the age of the child, such as how there is an animism that arises in kindergarten, for example, referring to “the broom lives in the corner,” and recognizing that everything has a soul. They will also say grace before meals:

    “Dear Earth who gave us all this food, dear sun who made it ripe and good, by you we live, our loving thanks to you we give.”

In faculty meetings they begin with a verse:

Children of every age, bring something new to the world, from divine regions and it is our task as educators to help remove bodily and soul obstacles out of their way, so that their spirits may enter with full freedom into life.”

Melissa offered insight into how children are spiritual beings slowly incarnating into a body. This is connected to the various stages of development that Steiner laid out, as well as recognizing the various parts of the child (physical body, etheric body, astral body, and spiritual body.) It is a more implicit rather than explicit venture that attempts to nurture all these bodies of the child’s being. Melissa shared, “That through it all, the child’s spirit is shining down like the sun and you have to trust that it is there.” 

The Waldorf teacher also embodies a certain calm but highly aware presence. At the HVWS, teachers undergo training, such as at the Sunbridge Institute, as well as continuing teacher development workshops, such as two days a year that are dedicated to teacher workshops. Three times a year the teachers fill out a questionnaire about what their goals are for the year (in classroom preparation, interpersonal communication, and anthroposophy.) It is a way for teachers to reflect on and consider their own development. The staff development department will support teachers and meet with teachers to discuss their progress. There is a sense that both the children and the teachers continue to learn and develop themselves during their time at the school. 

Camden and I feel blessed to have had the chance to be in Melissa’s warm and loving presence during our time at the HVWS. We completed our time together by asking Melissa to be the first educator to participate in our gesture activity in which we asked her to represent the essence of the school in a movement or gesture. To our delight, she responded with great enthusiasm and was more than happy to oblige our request. She first explained to us that this task is something they will often do in their school and is referred to as “free rendering.” It is a type of pictorial thinking that challenges us to represent a larger concept in one image. Her gesturewas about protecting childhood while opening to the future and the possibility of the divine. She then found some small colored stones to create an image for the essence of the school. She created some concentric circles in which the spirit of the child was in in the middle, around that lies the warm heart force, and finally the physical world on the outer most layer.

We extend our deep gratitude to Melissa and the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School for the inspiring work they are doing to bring forth and support the flourishing of the whole child.

Early Childhood Classroom

Collaborative project, each class made a part of this dragon

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