Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Exploring Underground

On Friday, May 18th, the Cincinnati Waldorf School sixth graders explored the underground world of caves at Carter Caves, Kentucky. After a 21/2 hour drive we grabbed our flashlights and headed for Laurel Cave for a self-guided tour! The mouth of the cave was rather large, so we sauntered in quite confidently. Flashlights quickly went on as daylight disappeared. As we walked in single file the cave became narrow and the weather got cool. Water appeared at our feet. We found that we could approach our cave walk in two ways: we could challenge ourselves and try not to get our feet wet, or we could walk through the water, which varied from an inch to at least a foot deep. I chose the former and found myself using my hands to balance on the walls and ceiling. I had to straddle the stream by applying equal weight on my feet and hands. At times the gap was too large or the wall incline too steep to straddle and I ended up walking in some water. Some passages were so narrow I had to get on my hands and knees and crawl. Even though I was being careful, I slipped into the water more than once. Everyone was amazed at the beautiful curves and lines and formations inside this limestone cave. We understood from our study of Geology that water erodes limestone to form caves as well as other natural formations. This natural beauty was exquisite. It took us about twenty minutes to get to the other end of the cave, and then we had to walk back. For our return trip we decided to divide the students into groups of 3 or 4 with one adult. We staggered ourselves and asked everyone to be quiet, or at least speak softly. What a great idea as this gave the tour a totally different feel. I was with 3 boys who wanted to move quickly. As a result I got a lot more wet on the return trip as I wasn't able to position my feet as carefully. Walking in silence proved difficult, but not impossible for my group. We periodically stopped and shut off our flashlights. Our eyes adjusted to total darkness. I would have liked to experience this longer, but my group-mates didn't and moved us along. My class and I had experienced total darkness during our Physics block, but then we were safely sitting in a room on campus. The experience is quite different in a cave. Although we had flashlights to turn back on, we were also deep underground!
We sat outside for lunch and then walked to a fifty foot high limestone natural bridge. The students scaled the steep sides and ran around in the fresh air and wonderful sunlight. We then headed for our guided tour of Cascade Cave. This time we didn't need flashlights and we were accompanied by a naturalist and about 15 other guests to the caves. Instead of simply walking in, this time the naturalist had to unlock a heavy metal door. This cave had lights, staircases, and metal railings. The guide told us that walkways had been created and that in the 1920s square dances were held in the cave. Although we got to see special cave formations like stalagmites, stalactites, and columns, for me the experience could not compete with being in the earlier cave with no guide and only flashlights to rely on for light.
Caving in the sixth grade provides an opportunity to live and experience what we learn in Physics and Geology. But in addition, it's a chance for social relations among the students to deepen and mature. I watched with pleasure as students helped each other with advice and even a hand. I listened with a smile as they talked about their experience. In Waldorf education we always strive to educate the whole human being: the head, heart, and limbs. Our caving experience did just that!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Medieval Games a Huge Success

Yes, it's been a month since my last blog post, and with good reason: this is a busy time for Waldorf teachers!

On Thursday and Friday, April 26/27, the Cincinnati Waldorf School hosted a Medieval Games for 80 Waldorf sixth graders from Michigan and Ohio. We began on Thursday evening with a feast and entertainment in a hall decorated with eight banners designed and painted by my talented students. Each of the four schools gave a presentation. My class sang 2 Gregorian chants in Latin and played a lovely duet on their alto recorders. Other schools also sang, played recorders and violins, shared scenes from class plays, and even performed a sword dance.
The feast, organized and served by the incredible parents of my class, included a hearty vegetable soup; crusty bread, smoked chicken, rice with vegetables, buttery pound cake; and fresh strawberries. Unlike Medieval times, where food would have been slurped and eaten with hands and knives, we decided to be more civilized and provide utensils, perhaps to the chagrin of some sixth graders.
Of course we held the event because Waldorf sixth graders study Medieval history. As I have written in earlier articles, my class took a critical view of the Medieval Crusades, and the knights' role in spreading violence in the name of God, in particular. Hence, as I reflected on what to say to the sixth graders that evening, I decided upon the theme of "21st century knights." I focused on the virtues of valor, steadfastness, and chivalry. I asked the students to consider the ideal of knighthood rather than the reality. As their "Queen" for the evening, I "commanded" that rather than fomenting war for their kingdoms, they must spread peace and goodwill. The four kingdoms (schools) made a pact of eternal friendship.
The games took place in the pristine woods of Meshewa Farm; a place so magical we all expected Robin Hood to appear at any moment. A few dads from my class spent about 100 hours setting up events in the woods. There were six events in all including a steeple chase (obstacle course) that included a log crawl in which students had to crawl into mud and a creek cross where they had to use a "zip-line" to cross a muddy stream; moat jumping; archery; and a huge tug-of-war rope that easily allowed 40 students to participate at once. Of course the area for the middle of the rope was a mud pit!
As I planned the opening ceremony I decided to elaborate on the theme of "21st century knights." I recalled the three virtues and asked students to give examples of each. Groups of 8 were divided into shires and I explained that these events were designed to promote the ideals of valor, steadfastness, and chivalry. I asked them to consider their behavior during the games and be able to report to the entire group at the closing ceremony how they demonstrated the virtues. What a proud and wonderful moment for the adults present as representatives from each shire spoke confidently about their achievements.
The event was amazingly fun and lighthearted, full of laughter and cooperation. Competition was absent and camaraderie ruled the day. In the midst of this joy, however, was the furtherance of a main tenet of Waldorf education, in my opinion: to enable students to use their heart forces when thinking, creating strategies, and simply playing. Why settle for Medieval world views of "let's conquer all who disagree," when we can educate "21st century knights" to create a new peaceful world order?