The high school was delighted this fall to have the opportunity to arrange a unique and special experience for the senior class. In the middle of September, the 18 students, accompanied by 5 chaperones, traveled across the country to Maine to join with 120 seniors from six other Waldorf schools in a week-long course on invertebrate zoology. Held on a private campground on Hermit Island, a few miles south of Bath, this course has been taking place for over 20 years. The unique setting coupled with the chance to meet, study with, and play with students from other schools resulted in a week rich in learning of many kinds.
A key feature of Waldorf Education is bringing specific topics at appropriate developmental times. As we prepare our oldest students to step into the next phase of their lives, we explore with them, from varied vantage points, what it means to be human, and what our place is in the world. Prominent among the blocks offered in 12th grade is Zoology, the study of animal form and evolution. Life on earth began in the oceans, and a full treatment of the subject starts with consideration of simple marine organisms. We were so pleased this year to be able to include hands-on opportunities with those creatures. Two other features of the high school curriculum, particularly the science courses, are an emphasis on observation, and belief in the importance of direct experience with the phenomena under study. The Hermit Island course offered ample time for both. There is no comparison between looking at pictures in a book or on a screen and standing in a tide pool actually holding an animal one has just found.
Hermit Island is a stunning setting for this gathering. There are private, treed campsites with the sound of the surf in the background. The island has many varied settings – sandy beaches, rocky shores, grassy dunes, forest, and tidal mud flats – with large tidal swings revealing distinct life forms. The campground has a large building – the Kelp Shed; it is used for campers’ amenities during the summer season, then taken over by the schools, providing a comfortable space for the course. This year, we were even lucky with the weather; we set up camp on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, but the rest of the week was sunny and warm, allowing those that wished the chance to swim daily in the ocean.
The rhythm of the days was determined by the tides and the students quickly adapted to early risings (5:15 the first morning) in order to be on the shore at low tide. They had three sessions in the tide pools, identifying organisms and learning about which ones inhabit the various tidal zones. As is so often the case when one is confronted with a new situation, the first experience of life in the tide pools was a confusing jumble of color and form. By the end, though, the students were confidently naming different species of crabs and snails, and could make much more sense of this vibrant ecosystem. The remainder of the day featured a classroom lesson for all the students together, each one devoted to a specific animal phylum, and afternoon labs in the arts and sciences, with plenty of time between for relaxing and socializing. The students worked in groups with members from all the schools, and faculty from each school collaborated to do the teaching. It was good for everyone to learn from new instructors and to work with new students.
The course overall was a fine balance of scientific and artistic activities. Lecture and discussion-based analysis of the structures and behaviors of the animals was complemented by sketching from live samples, both naked eye and microscopic views; everyone marveled at the intricate barnacle feet filtering the water, both their ingenious function and their exquisite forms. A colored pencil sketch of the rocky shore accompanied the tide pool inventory. Study of dune ecology on one day was followed by painting a delicate watercolor seascape the next. Every student spent an afternoon with the English teachers writing sea-based poetry, and most lessons included singing. In good Waldorf fashion, left brain and right brain were equally nourished.
Evenings featured conversation and music of a different kind. At campfires for the whole gathering, classes, small groups and individuals had the chance to share something artistic, and forge new social connections. One night also involved representatives from each class relating their classmates’ thoughts on the week’s theme, earth as an organism. The talent and thoughtfulness of these young people was inspiring. Another night we were treated to engaging readings from two local authors, and the final night involved a dance, stargazing and moonlit beach walking. The students returned home enriched with new friendships, with an appreciation of the broad reach of Waldorf education, and with insight to the many ways that different schools and classes manifest that education.
Nick Hilliard and I have deep gratitude for the many people who helped make this experience possible for our students. In this capstone year of their time at Shining Mountain, the gift of this trip was a valuable addition. To the parents, colleagues, staff and chaperones who contributed money, time, support and encouragement – Thank You!
Watercolor renderings by: Sarrah Claman, Gray Hill, Téa Speek and Katharine Wilson
by Dr. Lawrence Mathews