Nurturing students, nurtured by the land
By Viviann Kuehl
an article from the March 21, 2012 issue of Living on the Peninsula magazine
Most days the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. for Beth Ann O’Dell, Waldorf teacher, parent, and farm caretaker.
“Sometimes I have to push the snooze button,” she admits, but even so, she loves to do her early morning chores.
Getting up to take care of the livestock on the Olympic Music Festival grounds, where she lives with her teenage daughter, not only pays the rent, but gives her an hour of solitary working meditation.
As a Waldorf teacher, O’Dell practices a nightly connection to the unconscious to help with the spiritual life of her class. She goes to sleep with a question in mind, and lets her sleep become an arena for problem-solving.
All the while that she cleans out the stalls of a pair of horses, mixes up their morning feed, gives them breakfast and lays down clean straw bedding, walks down past the orchard and the yellow barn to tend to a flock of five sheep, ducks and a flock of about 30 chickens, giving them food, making sure they have fresh water, collecting eggs, and taking in the beauty of the peaceful morning, O’Dell keeps an open mind.
“The best ideas come when I’m working early in the morning,” she says.
At 6:30 a.m. O’Dell starts to get ready for school, along with her youngest daughter, a high school student. Her oldest child is a son with mental health issues. Another son is living in the South Pacific, near where he was born. Her older daughter lives in the area with her son, a grandchild dear to O’Dell.
By 7:10 a.m. she’s off to what she calls her “real job,” as a combined fifth/sixth grade teacher at Sunfield Waldorf School in Port Hadlock.
“It’s a wonderful job, and I have an amazing group of students. I am really blessed to be here doing Waldorf education,” said O’Dell. Many of her students have been with her for five years; the Waldorf ideal is to have the teacher move up through the grades with their class.
By 7:35 a.m. she has dropped her daughter off at Chimacum High School, and is in her classroom, turning on the heater, making sure everything is in place for the day.
Class starts at 8:30 a.m. with a handshake greeting for each student, then a main lesson block for two hours.
Waldorf education follows a block schedule, with main lesson blocks lasting four to six weeks, to create a cycle of deep involvement in a particular subject, then that subject matter is left to rest, while another subject is taken up.
Although it’s been around 100 years since Waldorf educational founder Rudolph Steiner invented this form of education, current brain research shows that this cycle of deep involvement followed by a period of rest is effective in learning.
Currently, O’Dell is teaching an Ancient History main lesson block, covering India, Persia and Egypt, and leading the class through a class play experience.
“It’s not like the student just gets information about Egypt, they really live Egypt during the block,” said O’Dell. “In Waldorf education, you really get involved with the subject, and it’s that way from first grade. The class play is a really big thing in Waldorf education. We work in a social and creative way, and everyone is needed to pull it off.”
After costuming, at 10:30 a.m. it’s snack, a social time, followed by recess out on the school commons at 10:45 a.m. O’Dell stays with her class for these, and at 11 o’clock it’s farm chore time.
The student body gathers in a big circle, singing a garden song and welcoming the resident farmers. Sunfield is a farm school, and all grade school students are expected to participate in farm chores, including animal care, composting and gardening in mixed age groups, with weekly changes in groups and chores.
O’Dell is supervising Groundskeeping work this year. Today, she’s working in the perennial garden.
“It’s actually been pretty successful,” said O’Dell. “The plants are not overcome with weeds. Kids get tired of it, but they love to do real work, and I tell them we have to weed before we get into shoveling mulch. We’re tending the place where we are, making it beautiful for us and everyone.”
At 11:45 a.m. it’s skills time. Three days a week, O’Dell teaches math and language arts, and two days a week, she has time to correct papers while the students are in Spanish classes.
O’Dell eats lunch with her class at 12:30 p.m. in the classroom.
“It’s just what we do together,” she notes. “It’s fun.”
Then she supervises recess until 1:10 p.m.
After recess, the activities vary with the days of the week. Monday it’s watercolor painting, and at two o’clock, the class prepares for a regional Olympiad to take place in May, with participants from other Waldorf schools around the Puget Sound area. O’Dell’s students are carving the ends of a javelin, which they will continue to use through eighth grade. They run the perimeter of the five-acre school commons to prepare for relay races. They practice long jump and discus throwing.
Tuesdays and Thursdays bring music lessons taught by another teacher, and handwork, another important part of the Waldorf curriculum proven by recent research to develop mental capacity.
O’Dell teaches handwork to her own and other classes. This year her class is learning to knit with four double-pointed needles, making socks, and using wool spun from sheep on the farm. Last year, they did cross-stitch, developing their fine motor skills. In third grade, they learned to crochet. In first grade students learn to knit, and in second grade they learn the purl stitch. The handwork is tied to child development, explains O’Dell. An accomplished knitter herself, she enjoys helping the students; sometimes they listen to a story while they work.
Wednesdays are ‘Out and About on the Farm’ days.
“It’s more than a walk,” explains O’Dell. “They explore, interact, and make keen observations. We have a couple of what I guess you’d call wildlife charmers, students with a knack of interacting with wild creatures. They can get creatures to stick around for a longer look, and are appreciated by the group.”
Students notice things like water saturation patterns over time, and where tadpoles are, on the land and in their development, notes O’Dell.
“You’d think they were kind of like tadpoles, in the excitement and pure joy of discovery,” she notes with a laugh.
Also on Wednesdays, O’Dell has a class meeting, a sacred circle to discuss social issues.
“It could be gossip, things heard on the playground, or events in the world,” explains O’Dell. “Whatever the topic, we build understanding and social skills.”
At the end of every day, O’Dell’s chore wheel for cleaning the classroom gets used.
We all participate in taking care of our space,” notes O’Dell, with students sweeping, putting things away, polishing desks, and neatly lining up the waterproof boots each student needs for wearing on the farm.
At the beginning and end of each day, O’Dell shakes each child’s hand, with a polite exchange and eye contact. She also shakes hands with any parents arriving to pick up students. (Carpools thrive at Sunfield, which has no transportation service.)
After school, O’Dell takes a breath, then is usually off to a school meeting— board, finance, or faculty. She has been a member of the Sunfield board for three years, and attends weekly faculty meetings. She continues on the Finance Committee but has recently cut back on other school committee memberships to make more room in her life for things beyond school.
“I love Sunfield and Waldorf education, but my opinions don’t need to be everywhere, and I can take some time for other things,” she notes.
Back at home, O’Dell gets dinner ready while her daughter does the evening farm chores. They eat together, and then after dinner she spends the two to three hours before bed correcting papers and getting ready for the next day.
“If I’m not in bed by 9 or 9:30 I suffer, and everyone around me does, too,” she notes.
It’s a great life, one she wouldn’t trade for any other.
As a young mother, O’Dell lived on a tiny tropical island in the Pacific. She worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She has followed her calling to be a Waldorf teacher. Now, she feels lucky to be on the beautiful and special land where she lives and works.
Her days are full; this is the best place yet.