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Ostheimer St. Martin, Horse and Beggar
Archives, Family, Festivals, Sunday With Sarah, Waldorf Education

The Festival of Martinmas

Martinmas, or the festival of St. Martin, is celebrated around November 11 in Waldorf schools with a nighttime lantern walk–often with songs followed by autumn treats.

Like Halloween, Martinmas is rooted in Christian ritual but is now more of a cultural event, anticipated by children in many European countries. The essence of the holiday—marking the end of the fall harvest and the advent of snowy weather—reminds us that through all of life’s outward changes we maintain within us the warm light of our spirit.

Martinmas dates back to the Middle Ages and the veneration of St. Martin, a 4th-century bishop who founded an abbey in Tours, France. Martin was a Roman horse soldier who converted to Christianity; according to legend, one wintry day he encountered a shivering beggar and cut his cloak in half to give the poor man warmth. That night, Martin had a vision of Jesus wearing Martin’s divided red cloak. Martin is now the patron saint of tailors, as well as that of France.

Traditionally, Martinmas coincided with the many busy activities around farms in late fall. Any remaining late crops in the fields, such as winter squash, would be harvested before the deep snow falls; it was also the time to plant winter wheat, which came up in early spring and provided flour for the new year.

The bounty of the late harvest, fresh wine, and the slaughter of animals naturally suggested a feast day. As such, Martinmas was a precursor to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and is still marked in Europe with sumptuous meals, often of roast goose. In Germany, suckling pig is prepared in the town square.

Centuries ago, bishops in some European countries ordered fasting for several days a week from Martinmas to Epiphany—a period of 56 days. Among the more unusual Martinmas traditions no longer observed was the invocation in Ireland that no wheel shall turn on the feast day—in respect for the fact that Martin was killed by being tossed into a mill stream and crushed under the paddlewheel.

lantern-walk_t20_jXGbav

Today in many European countries, the Martinmas festival culminates in a lantern walk at night, followed by a bonfire and songs. Traditionally the lanterns were carved out of newly harvested squash gourds, and illuminated with a candle—the origin of our jack-o-lantern—but can also be made of paper or jars. The lanterns and the bonfire symbolize light in the darkness of winter, and give hope to the poor through the good deeds of St. Martin.

In America the holiday is not commonly observed, although the city of St. Paul, Minnesota has a public Martinmas lantern parade around Rice Park. The tradition of Martinmas has been maintained in the New World primarily by Waldorf schools.

From a child’s point of view, the best part of Martinmas may be the sweet treats at the end of a lantern walk. In some countries, children go from house to house with their lanterns, “begging” for treats—certainly the origin of our modern Halloween ritual.

If you are not part of a Waldorf school community (or don’t live in St. Paul), you may wish to organize your own family Lantern Walk with friends and neighbors. The books All Year Round and Crafts Through the Year have instructions for making different types of lanterns. The Autumn volume from the Wynstones collection of seasonal books has a number of lantern songs that can be softly sung on your quiet procession.

Last, but not least, don’t forget to have some treats ready when you come inside to get warm after your walk, like hot cider, ginger cookies and apples.

May the generous spirit of St. Martin be with you through the season!

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Have you celebrated the season with a lantern walk–either at school or at home? If not, are you inspired to try one? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

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Archives, Education, Sunday With Sarah, Waldorf Education

What is Waldorf Education?

When I explain that I am a Waldorf teacher and now sell Waldorf toys, I am often asked to describe Waldorf education “in a nutshell.”

Waldorf education is so multi-faceted and can take years of study to comprehend, but in this new “Sunday with Sarah” video, I do my best to give the viewer an overview of some of the primary differences between Waldorf education and mainstream schooling.

If you have questions after viewing the video, please post your comments and questions below, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Nice to be back with you!

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TRANSCRIPTION:

Today I want to try and answer the question “what is Waldorf education?”

I get this question a lot from people who are new to Waldorf. They want to know, briefly and in a nutshell, what Waldorf philosophy is all about. It’s so hard to describe it succinctly because it’s so deep and multi-leveled, so I’m going to sum up five aspects of Waldorf philosophy which make it unique from “traditional” education.

1. Non-Academic Preschool

Being an early childhood teacher myself, the first thing I want to mention is that Waldorf early childhood education—nursery and kindergarten—is conducted in a non-academic environment. We don’t teach numbers, math, the alphabet or reading.

However, Waldorf preschool students build those pre-math and pre-reading skills through storytelling, hearing fairy tales and playing circle games. They are exposed to enriched language and, through repetition and memorization, are developing large vocabularies but we let their imagination unfold and we don’t push it in an academic way.

There’s a misconception that because of this, Waldorf schools are anti-reading. This could not be further than the truth. In Waldorf schools, reading simply comes later. A lot of children aren’t ready to read in the early childhood years; they’re brains need to be ready for the difficult decoding work and that happens at different ages for different children. We just allow those skills to develop naturally. Reading is like walking: kids will learn at their own pace and they don’t need it to be forced upon them.

2. Storytelling

Another unique aspect of Waldorf education is the emphasis on storytelling. Starting in the early years, teachers tell many stories by heart (I prefer to say “by heart” instead of “memorized,” which is a little colder). We learn the stories and we tell them with eye contact, heart to heart, teacher to child.

Storytelling continues throughout grade school. When children are studying history or legends they’re still hearing stories told by heart from their grade school teacher. It makes subjects come alive.

3. The Arts

Another interesting aspect of Waldorf education—and it’s the first thing which struck me about Waldorf—is that the arts are integrated into all subjects. Coming from a theater background and being a creative person myself, this really piqued my interest and appealed to me. I thought if I had had that kind of education, how much richer my own
schooling experience might have been.

For example, when a class is studying a particular subject, it might be approached through movement, rhythmic games, music, drawing, painting, etc.

My son, Harper, who’s now grown was sharing with me recently how the artistic application of color helped him learn math. Each number had an associated color with it, which helped him to learn the relationships between them and their individual properties. He still sees the number 5 as green and the number 12 as purple!

You may have heard of Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Many decades before Howard Gardner developed his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, the founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, prescribed this way of learning: approaching different subjects through different artistic media which reach all the different types of learners. The kinesthetic learners learn through movement, maybe learning math through clapping and stomping games; visual learners will learn by creating art in their main lesson books, which I’ll talk more about
in a minute; and so on.

4. Class Teacher Staying with Same Class through the Grades

Another thing that makes Waldorf education unique is that, ideally, a class teacher will stay with the same group of children from first grade through eighth grade. It doesn’t always work out that way but that’s the ideal.

A lot of parents who are new to this concept question it: “Well, what if you have a bad teacher?” I’m not going to lie, it is a possibility but in my experience the teachers who are drawn to Waldorf education and who are willing to make this commitment to a class are incredibly dedicated, devoted and capable.

When a teacher stays with a class for such a long time, the group becomes a family and that teacher becomes an expert in those children. Traditionally, when a teacher gets a new class of students every year they spend the better part of that year just getting to know their knew students: how they learn and how to reach them. Then, as soon as a relationship begins to develop, the child moves on to another new teacher.

The other benefit I see to looping is that the class teacher learns with their students. They might spend their summer studying and refreshing the subjects to be taught in the upcoming grade, which makes it fresh and exciting for them. Their enthusiasm is sure to be shared with their students.

More and more public and mainstream schools of incorporating this idea of “looping.”

One thing I should add is that in the early childhood years, teachers do not progress with the students. Looping only begins in first grade.

5. Main Lesson Books

Finally, there are no textbooks used in Waldorf education. Instead, children make their own textbooks called “Main Lesson Books.”

A unique aspect in itself, Waldorf students study one subject at a time. A class will have one Main Lesson block for a 3-4 week period where they will cover one subject in depth. In sixth grade it might be Ancient Roman history, in second grade it might be Legends and Heroes. They’ll study that topic for about two hours every morning and then take write and illustrate those lessons into their own textbook.

This makes subjects so much more meaningful and helps the information penetrate to a deeper level where it’s really embedded in their memory for life, rather than just quickly memorized for a test and soon forgotten.

There’s so much more that could be said on the subject of Waldorf education, this is just my attempt at summarizing the core tenets of Waldorf.

If you want to learn more about Waldorf education, and I hope you do, there are a lot of great books and resources available. One book I highly recommend if you’re a parent of a young child is You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, written by my friend and colleague Rahima Baldwin Dancy (no relation). It’s a wonderful introduction to the early childhood years with ideas for how to incorporate Waldorf philosophy into your home.

Also, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) has a great website with lots of links to resources and lots of information. You’ll find that at www.waldorfeducation.org

You might also want to check out www.waldorfshop.net which has many resources as well: books, art supplies, toys, everything and anything related to Waldorf education.

Have a day full of play!

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Archives, Festivals, Waldorf Education

Celebrating Michaelmas

What is Michaelmas?

Michaelmas (pronounced MI-kel-miss) was originally a Christian festival in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It is the feast day of the archangel St. Michael, and is celebrated on the 29th of September each year.

Michael is an archangel in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but his festival is one that can observed by people of all faiths and spiritual paths.

Michaelmas falls near the autumn equinox, marking the quickly darkening days in the northern hemisphere. It comes at a time when the weather is rapidly changing and the days are noticeably shorter, and we have a natural instinct to prepare for the colder months ahead.

It marks the end of the harvest and the time to begin to put away food for the winter. It is a time of apple picking and cider making, a time to make warm soup and gather round the hearth. It is the time to put our summer clothes away, and pull out our sweaters, hats, and mittens.

Michaelmas marks the season when we feel the impulse to turn inward after the long, warm days of summer, and gather up strength and fortitude to face the colder days and long nights of the winter ahead.

Celebrating Michaelmas at a Waldorf School

Michaelmas is typically the first festival of the new school year celebrated in Waldorf schools. The festival usually includes a harvest theme with food such as apple cider, fresh baked bread, and pumpkin muffins, as well as games and activities of courage. The grade school children will usually perform a play of St. George taming a fiery dragon with the spiritual help of the archangel, St. Michael, who gives him courage.

Photo by A Mountain Hearth

Photo by A Mountain Hearth

Taming the Dragon

St. George, the patron saint of England, is the human manifestation of St. Michael on earth and their stories are closely related.

The story of St. George taming the dragon symbolizes the inner courage it takes to face our human challenges. As the days grow colder and the nights grow longer, we must find and bring forth our own inner light when the sun, warmth and growth of the earth are fading.

St. Michael, who gave courage to St. George, gives us courage to uphold what is right and true, and the strength to face the challenges that lie ahead. The story speaks to children in a deeply symbolic way, feeding their innate need for truth and justice.

“Michaelmas is a great time to ponder our own inner dragons and to cultivate the courage and strength necessary for self development.” – from Waldorf Publications newsletter

St. Michael and the Dragon

Celebrating Michaelmas at Home

If you are not part of a Waldorf community, here are some ideas for observing the festival and the season at home:

  • Create a Seasonal Nature Table depicting St. George and the Dragon. You could display autumn leaves, small pumpkins and gourds to represent the harvest. Or you could display the Black Knight with Red Horse, Dragon, Cave, and Large Angel wooden figures from Ostheimer of Germany. Orange and red play silks can represent the colors of fall and the courage of St. Michael.
  • Tell stories about St. Michael or St. George. One of my favorites is from the beautifully illustrated picture book St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.
  • Read “The Most Beautiful Dragon in the Whole World” from Reg Down’s charming collection of autumn stories, The Festival of Stones.
  • Do fun outdoor activities that require strength, courage and bravery: take a hike, have a tug-of-war with friends and family, have a scavenger hunt for “dragon eggs” (these can be small gourds spray painted gold).
  • Make a dragon candle for Michaelmas. Instructions can be found in the book All Year Round.

Of course, preparation is as important a part of a festival as the day itself. And Michaelmas is the beginning of the fall season. These activities can be extended and enjoyed throughout the month of October.

As adults, we can use this time to focus on our own inner work and spiritual growth. Take time for meditation and journal writing, and think about the areas in which you would like to grow.

Wishing you strength and courage this Michaelmas season, and may all your dragons be tamed!

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Have you celebrated Michaelmas at a school or at home? Are you inspired to begin a new tradition? How do you prepare for the coming season? As always, your comments are always welcome!

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