Galanthus Nivalis

Three weeks ago we turned over the garden. At the time, and not being completely familiar with the growing season in West Yorkshire, I thought it a little optimistic, but then two weeks ago I saw flowers budding on a row of fruit trees, and just this past week outside Beechtree, I saw my first snowdrop flower of the season.

Spring is upon us.

We have retired the winter-warming Ringtime “Penguin” song in favour of the carefree and humorous songs of “The Flippy Floppy Pancake” and “The Farmer in the Den”. The new songs are suggestive of the abundance soon to come, of the return of daylight and fair weather, and most importantly, of the return of hope.

Tomorrow the Bluebells and the Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, the botanical name for Snowdrops, are also known as “Candlemas Bells” because they are quite often in full bloom on Candlemas Day) will celebrate Candlemas Day together outdoors under a gorgeous blue sky…. (wishful thinking, right?). Now I must admit that I wasn’t too familiar with Candlemas Day, but I am familiar with Groundhog Day, and with the case of the latter, I would have been hoping for clouds instead of sunshine. In fact I vividly remember being in a classroom as a fourth grader, fluorescent lights buzzing above our heads, watching the news on a cranky old television, hoping, hoping, hoping that the groundhog over in Pennsylvania would poke his head out of the ground, fail to see its shadow, and announce the speedy arrival of Spring.

Tomorrow, I do so hope for at least a dry day since the festivities demand it. According to my sources we will set our freshly made beeswax candles into the ground around the base of one of our grandfatherly trees, light them, and with every ounce of our being, hope that the seeds planted in the earth will begin to sprout, grow, and bend toward the light.

Cultivating a Learner’s Mindset

This is not a scientific study by any means but I’ve been watching, my son especially, and I’ve noticed that he and the other students with whom I work at Beechtree, generally speaking,  do not differentiate among toys nor do they compartmentalize their play.

Blocks, blankets, dolls, pencils, and anything else within easy grab gets thrown into the mix of the children’s play. A gender neutral doll can easily become a girl, boy, or even an aardvark according to a student’s needs. The most innocent of looking of dolls have even been known to become a monster or acrobat. And accordingly, in this case, whole worlds grow up around a doll’s personality or characteristics.

At first I thought it was a Beechtree thing and part of the reason why I teach and why my son attends class. Then I noticed it at home. I had always noticed it, even encouraged it, but then one day it really snapped into me. My child will incorporate any toy, any kitchen tool, blanket, or piece of furniture into his play. I haven’t asked my mother to confirm, but I do not ever recall mixing toys with such ease. Little yellow-headed figures and their accompanying pirate ships would only play with other pirates. Yellow-headed pirates would not mix with yellow-headed city folk and they definitely wouldn’t mix with intergalactic star figures. I had justifications. Different worlds and unrelated time periods did not mix.

It seems that this Steiner education model, with its emphasis on cooperative, imaginative, and creative play encourages a learner’s mindset. Our Head Teacher Ziggy is great at role modeling lateral thinking and flipped expectations: quite literally flipping a table upside down to become a rocket ship, rearranging chairs to become a bus, or reshaping a broom to become a robot arm. Ideas are embraced and incorporated rather than discarded or negated. Time and again I have witnessed this lateral thinking expressed in the children and their play. This play is in fact pretty awesome stuff if you think on how it might mature in the coming years. The children themselves are breaking down barriers both physically and psychologically, creating peace within themselves and in the world around them.

A Break in the Clouds

It had been raining off and on all morning. We were all well layered: hats, gloves, scarves, and maybe an extra jumper on top of the usual waterproof gear.

We managed to find a break in the rain and set off hand in hand, bound for Meanwood Park.

Daisy the horse was in her field, maybe, just maybe anticipating a visit from us. We sang our song, “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you!” (Cute bit of trivia: Daisy Bell also known as Bicycle Built for Two, was the first song sung by a computer.) Without any hurry she cruised over to us and with measured bites chomped up the carrots and apples we offered her. The children’s hands reached through the fence to stroke her curled and wet coat.

A few minutes later as we were under the protection of our adopted wet weather yew tree, the sun came out. It was low on the horizon and reaching through the leaves and pine needles, it lit up the face of one of the children. He closed his eyes and with a smile on his face and addressing no one in particular, I overheard him say, “When I close my  eyes I can see heaven.”

Singing Lanterns

Preparations for Friday’s Diwali and Martinmas Walk have occupied our activities for the past month.

We’ve paced it out so it hasn’t been exhausting, grueling, or even a slight hardship. Way back in early October we collected leaves from the trees around the yard and made rubbings with them on large thick sheets of paper. We made lovely impressions using all the materials available to us: crayons of yellow, orange, red, brown, and gold- the colors of Autumn.

The illustrations were then hand oiled by each artist before being folded, cut, glued, and pinned together to create the lanterns you all will see on Friday.

We began singing the two songs associated with Diwali and Martimas at mid term, and for the past week each Kindergarten class has been practicing the art of walking with a delicate, yet surprisingly hardy lantern. There have been a couple tears shed after lantern breakdowns (yes, we can repair those), but on the whole the processions have been reverent, fun, and I for one can’t wait to see the lanterns all lit up at dusk accompanied by the voices of the Beechtree community.

The De-Constructors

There are moments of clarity:

 

Following snack on Friday I sat down to construct. Soon there were five boys sitting around myself and the blocks. I began simply with an idea to build. A boy asked, “What are you building?” Stacking another block I replied, “I’m not sure yet. I’m just building.” “Well, it looks like a house. Can I put this here and add another room?” “Sure thing. Please do.”

Another boy reached an arm over and dropped a block on top of the building. The building toppled but rather than let anyone get frustrated I suggested, “Looks like we need some reinforcements on that end of the house…” And then they were off. I heard the words “pirates” and “cannon” mentioned and figured that the house had metamorphosed into a pirate hideaway. I pulled over a blue cape and draped it on the floor like the surface of a body of water. “Hey guys, this looks like an ocean or a river…”

Soon there were boats on the ocean, the pirate hideaway was then transformed into a Pirate Boat, and the three other younger and less experienced boys were making additions and watching the narrative unfold before their eyes.

Now it must be said that these two older boys are usually of a de-constructive nature, granted I don’t see them too often, but as I usually see them, they are more apt to stomp and growl and knock over a building project or smash around as warriors in a carefully arranged china shop than be a part of constructing. They are exuberant boisterous boys. Rarely slow and concentrated.

So to be so close to their carefully constructed storyline was simply awesome.  There was a quiet hum of activity where I caught myself thinking, “Wow this is fantastic!”

I turned to see how the younger boys were doing.

 

Then there is the accompanying chaos…

 

From behind me, CRASH! Crumble, tumble, shove .

“Hahaha! The pirates are back!”

And the boys were off. Howling, laughing and leaving nothing standing.

Beechtree Punk

My eardrums are still ringing.

It happened Tuesday afternoon. From afar I noticed some boys organizing themselves in a suspiciously quiet manner. Soon I saw chairs disappearing from under the pushchair shed to be relocated in neatly ordered rows over by the Play House. Sure enough, no more than three minutes later three children were offering tickets to the concert. Tickets came in the form of green leaves; they were in high demand, but all of us who weren’t involved in the band managed to get ourselves a ticket.

The band members scattered.

As we leisurely ambled over, the band members prepared. I heard hushed directions, some last minute shuffling of stage props, and when we were seated under the chestnut tree in front of the Play House, the band was standing above us on the tabletops air guitars at the ready.

I called out, “What’s the name of your band?”

One of the boys thought for a minute then called back, “The Band!”

What an opener! I have never heard “We will rock you” sung with such precision or such animation. The children were red in the face with exertion, rocking, leaping, performing.

After a while, and coinciding with the arrival of parents, the concert harmonies again drifted into birdsong and I found myself thinking of last year’s band, of the cyclical nature of life and learning, and of the beauty of improvised music. What I had seen on stage wasn’t soothing to the ears, it wasn’t well rehearsed or choreographed either, but it was fascinatingly beautiful to see how well the three boys worked together. Until this point in the year I hadn’t even seen the three of them playing together, but here they were collaborating, harmonizing (sort of), and responding to each other.

The beauty of punk.

The creative genius of play.

Friday is spelled “P-I-Z-Z-A”

Friday has long been talked about by the children in the Kindy because it is inextricably linked with pizza.

And as everyone knows, pizza is just about the best thing in the world.

Come to think of it, my personal favorite is a thin crust pizza made in Malta; on the island of Gozo to be exact, that is topped with sliced potato, goat’s cheese, onion, and sausage. It’s just about the best pie I’ve ever eaten and constantly resurfaces in my daydreams.

But I digress.

Coming back to the topic at hand, two Fridays ago (apologies for the sluggishness, I had a sick household and a trip south that congested my writing regimen…) was my first Friday in the Kindy and not unlike the children I found myself looking forward to pizza for lunch. I was looking forward to it so much that the morning kind of drifted by in a doughy, yeasty haze.

Mid morning: the sun was streaming through the windows, children were creatively constructing and deconstructing imagined lives in every corner of the room, and with the pizza baking in the oven sending the mixed tendrils of rye bread and melting cheddar and a hint of tomato into the air….  I must admit, it was especially hard to stay focused. But we all kept it together and made the hike down to Meanwood Park- picking blackberries the whole way.

It had been a long, salivating sort of day, and an excruciatingly long hike for some of the smaller ones, but once inside the park we made ourselves at home, laying a few blankets on the damp ground. Some of us kicked off our Wellies and Ziggy handed out a pizza so tasty that it rivaled the best of the world.

The Art of Cooking

Jaime Oliver’s got nothing on me.

I admit that he’s good, and there’s nothing quite like snuggling up with my wife after a long week and indulging in one of his instructional Youtube videos from his younger years, but I think I’m the better chef because really, when’s the last time he had to share his kitchen with twenty or thirty children?

I am the soup chef this school year. Every Tuesday I chop, mix, and blend a soup for the Kindergarten. The ingredients vary slightly from week to week, but usually  the soup consists of butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, sweet potato, cauliflower, leeks, and lentils. As the children are arriving in the morning, I begin with a vegetable stock, and then with the help of the children, we chop up the veggies. In sensible fashion, we toss in the dense butternut first, followed by the potatoes, carrots, leeks, and just before blending it, finish up with the lentils. My secret touch involves going outside to the garden and cut a few leaves of sage as well as some thyme. I feel this brings a delicate touch of sophistication to the meal, a touch that the children need for their culinary development. Together with freshly baked bread and a finishing course of freshly chopped fruit, we all leave the table happy and satisfied.

Last Tuesday I started prepping the afternoon snack. It consisted of halved Beechtree bread (one of these posts I intend to share the recipe) with an olive-based spread and pear and apple jam. One child became intrigued and wanted to help, so I asked that she wash her hands and select an apron to put on. Within minutes five children were lined up shoulder to shoulder smearing the olive spread, and then the jam on each of the pieces of bread. There was concentration, smiles, and jam everywhere, but I think I can say with conviction that the overarching feeling was unanimous in that it was the best snack ever!

Autumn Beginnings: The filling of the sandpit

The air was crisp this past week marking the transition from summer ease to fall business with a clarity that only comes from the onset of cold weather.

I anticipated a rough transition back to school and yet was nicely surprised to find that I woke before my alarm, refreshed and excited for our return to Beechtree. My son was stoked as well; nicely efficient in getting himself packed and ready for the trip to school. This year we are within hiking distance so instead of an arduous commute by car we took the wooded ridgeline trail and said hello to all the dog walkers and foot commuters.

The week was magical.

The moment that was most remarkable for me was the filling of the sandpit. Twenty exceedingly heavy bags of cement… well they definitely felt like bags of cement, but they were actually bags of sand, arrived in the early afternoon on Tuesday. They were so heavy that just one bag was too much for the children’s wheelbarrow to handle and squashed the thin metal tub right down onto the wheel making it topple over lopsided. In the end, I hauled the bags by hand and set them strategically around the rim of the sand pit while being directed by the children as to the bag’s best placement. When the bags were all placed, I cut a big hole into each of them, and from there the children took the initiative, scooping out sand with hand, trowel, or cup to fill the sandpit (and I suspect, their Wellies too).

They were all immersed in the task. The older children occasionally helped the younger children, but largely each child dug into her own bag, with her own unique style. One child took little spoon-sized scoops and scattered them around like sugar while another pushed and pulled and squeezed the sand out. One child was inspired to start “cooking” with the pots and pans while another child kind of relaxed into his sand bag as if it were a lounge chair.

Time and time again, I find myself so amazed to see such individually focused attention expressed amid a group’s overall rhythmic harmony.  Especially at such a tempestuous time of year, all of these children working harmoniously within such a relatively small space suggested to me the real potential for world peace.

Rain or Shine

So when the sun had finally started to emerge from behind the clouds in mid May I was ecstatic. I totally enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face as I worked in the Beechtree sandpit or ate snack. I did not wear a hat as I would normally. Instead I welcomed the sunburn. I dared the sunburn. I willed the sun to stay out longer and longer each day.

I shared my thoughts with the children while we ate snack one day and received a mixed and noncommittal response. But before I could follow up, the conversation had moved on. Later, I asked three children independently which they preferred: sun or rain, and surprisingly three out of the three children responded with the answer “Rain!”

“Why?” I asked, trying to replace my disbelief with curiosity.

Each replied in their own way, “MUD!”

There are two things that I have since gained an appreciation of since: foul weather gear and mud. I’ve been outside in all types of weather, but growing up in Rhode Island, when it rained we stayed indoors. Kids generally stayed indoors and built forts, wrestled, read books, or played games. It didn’t rain too frequently, and if it did we knew enough to avoid it. Here at Beechtree we are outside every day regardless of the weather and it’s cool. Through our bodies we experience the seasons. On a subconscious level we understand the world as it changes each day. We see the insects crawl, we hear the leaves rustle, we feel the sun warm and the rain cool. One day we got hail, sunshine, and rain. None of us minded. My feet were dry and well, I was impervious thanks to my foulies. The dramatic shifts in weather enlivened the moods of children, but more than that, it was the puddles and mud that got everyone overwhelmed with glee. I watched as child after child jumped with both feet and utter abandon into a deep puddle of muddy water. They were sheltered by an evergreen tree from above so while the storm whirled around us, the children were free to splish and splash. I did not try to fit my water resistant but not water proof feet into the splash hole, but I did make a note to buy a pair of Wellies so I could the next time.