The Hawthorne Valley Farm School
"In the Belly of the Dragon"
by Kathleen Young

 

When you're going to give a speech in our circles, you want to quote somebody. The most quotable act in town is John Gatto so I had a hard time tonight figuring out how I was going to start because you've got the man himself here.

So I was pondering about this and I thought I'd come up with a bit of a dragon - we always like to talk about dragons - you may not believe in them but I do. I have a feeling that all of us have arrived in the belly of the dragon. That we have, somehow, brought ourselves tonight to hear the ideals we all have (to give us courage). And I was working on this, and I was sitting at my desk, and I had a letter that I had opened. It was from France and it said, "Dear Director", or whatever it is that the book from French to English tells you to say when you're writing a letter to America, and it said: "We have heard about your school, and we have heard about the dream of Karl Ege, and we want the dream to come true in our little village in France."

And this I found most astonishing and most frightening. Because in a certain sense Karl Ege's dream has taken us to where we are - and as I just said, I think we're in the belly of the dragon - and I wondered how to answer the man.

Karl Ege was an educator. He was working here in New York City in the Rudolf Steiner school on East 79th Street. He and his colleagues thought that students in the city needed a country experience. He felt that the students needed the farm and the life on the land. He and his friends began to look for a farm. And they looked and they looked, apparently they looked at many sites, and they found a farm in Columbia County upstate, about two hours' drive, and they purchased this farm.

Now, if you go to this farm you will find a thriving, biodynamic place. The cows are well, the chickens are well, the pigs are well, the farmers are well, the apprentices are well... The farmers have succeeded. They make yoghurt; they have a bakery. They make quark cheese - which you can only get in Switzerland and Hawthorne Valley Farm.

Very soon after, the school started across the street from the farm. And the little school has grown to 300 students, a full nursery through 12th grade program. The dream of Karl Ege was to combine the work on the land with the work of education, and to "warm it up" - to supplement it, to make it live through work with artists and artisans in the community.

And so a painting school was started. And there's a little printing endeavor. There are many efforts to bring about an answer to this incredible artistic need we have. Farmers have it. Teachers have it. Students have it. Parents have it.

And there is this hope that one could integrate all these dreams together, to make one that would live.

In addition, we have this little house where children can come from all over, and they can stay for a week at a time in the visiting student's pro-gram. The students that visit love to get up and gather the milk and the eggs at 4 and 5 in the morning. Perhaps they study some geology, perhaps they study some botany, or perhaps they go cross-country skiing - but all have this life on the land which was part of the dream.

We have been there 18 years, and we have felt good and bad about what we do. Hawthorne Valley is a Waldorf School, and Waldorf schools have a whole theory about the developing child.

One day we had two or three visitors from the New York State Education Department, and we wel-comed them. They were lovely people, well-dressed and articulate, very warm and interested in what we do. And these visitors were spread out in the school; they stayed for the day. And they said to us they were looking for a developmental approach to education in New York State.

That we have. So we put them in various places, and we held our breath while they went around through the day. We tried to guide them into our school life.

If they went to the kindergarten they would have seen children playing. They would have seen children baking bread or making soup. They make the most remarkable soup. It's made with a pot of water and anything any child brings in that day. I have never understood how they make such delicious soup that way. But their mothers send in either what's very fresh or what's very unfresh, whichever the case may be, and they chop it and scrape it, and they put it in the pot - and someone comes along and adds something, because it's a wonderful soup.

And the kids learn to paint - they have water-color classes - and they do various things. But they don't learn to read, they don't have computer classes, and we hope to God they don't watch televi-sion. These children are guided through the day in play and in love and in the most beautiful surroundings we can create. They learn French. They learn German in our school. Both through song and poetry. Children are happy in our school.

If our visitor went to grades one through eight, they would have had eight different kinds of experiences. In our school the teacher carries a class through eight years. In our way, whatever happens between the students and the teacher has a strong element of a bond to it. So if I'm the teacher in the fourth grade and I've had the children for four years, I can say, "Remember when?" and "Remember when?" and, together, that moment is discipline enough. Both of us remember what happened then, and we can go on from there.

The teacher who carries the class, grades one through eight, has the task of changing himself or herself every day because he must meet a growing human being. And if you don't change, you're the one who gets out. The children tell you instantly if you haven't understood. And you know that there's nothing wrong with them, there's something wrong with you.

You can figure it out. You go home and cry a little bit and you figure it out. And the next day there's something else that you have to figure out. And so for eight years you grow together.

The children make their own books. They create their own literature. And they find reading their own literature the easiest thing in the world - because it comes from the inside out. If a child cannot read in our school, we work with him to see what else he can do. And we work on that a lot. He can sing or he can play music or he can draw beautiful pictures. And we work with that until the moment when he decides to read. And then he reads, to us. In this way the children grow strong in their confidence.

The main material is taught in a two-hour stretch of time in the morning. The academic work is in the morning when the children are awake and the teachers are awake. Then we try to flow through the rest of the day with much artistic activity. The children are very lively.

I taught a class for eight years, and I ran into some of the girls in the hall today. They were quite surprised that their teacher could get dressed up and look decent enough to "go out" in the world! I said, "I'm going to talk about you a lot at Carnegie Hall," and they said, "Please don't!" I said, "Ohhh, remember, remember the second grade," and they got fear on their faces. And then they lightened up when they realized I wasn't really going to tell you what happened in the second grade!

These children were strong, sturdy, healthy children. A mother described these children in an interview as "having creative leadership potential". And I had a whole class of children with creative leadership potential! And in the kindergartens when I first went to just look at the children and try to see whether I would be able to take on such a job, some of them were under the cupboards, and some of them were under the chairs, and some of them were out in the halls, and some of them had run into the little bathrooms... because they knew who I was. And I said (to myself), "This is the group I want." So the first day of school they came and sat down in lovely little wooden chairs at lovely little wooden desks in lovely little rows and I thought, "Of course, this is what children love to do."

After about 15 minutes sitting at these desks they started wiggling, and I started learning how to teach.

Now we have a very fine possibility to learn about Man through history and fairy tales, as well as through current events. The classic literature is available to us. But we have the freedom to choose within this literature curriculum, this history curriculum, what actually will meet this individual child's needs, or this group of children, - what will speak to them, to their hearts, so that they will know who they are when we finish the story.

We tell stories and try not to read them. It's a very interesting thing - if you've experienced the difference when you tell a story or read a story - because the interaction is so strong in "telling" that you're building this bond.

Mathematics? Through all the different ways of trying to find the mystery of numbers, the mystery of fractions: Cake, pizza, whatever the teacher loves the best, starting with cutting it into fractions. And you find these metabolic ways, if you're a teacher like me, to find these ways to teach whatever the children need to know.

Now, if you've done your job rightly, whenever the children are in the eighth grade they say, "Mrs. Young... you're so weeiirrdd!" And then you know that they are ready to move on.

And if you've done your job right, and the student feels comfortable with the practical arts, they will feel... I...CAN...DO...ANYTHING. I can be anybody. I can go anywhere. I can stand on my feet in the world and I can make a difference.

Now, at the end of the day when our visitors were finished with their inspection, I sat down with them. And I wasn't sure what they would have found in the various places because a variety of things could have happened. I thought perhaps it would be the music or the painting... and we sat together and I said, "Well?" They shook their heads and began to look very doubtful, and I thought, "Oh, Lord, what did they see?!" And they said, "The problem is you seem to like the children."

I'm not kidding, that's what they said. And they said, "Furthermore, you seem to like each other." And they said they had actually seen us talking in the halls together. They thought that was the most astonishing thing that could not be translated to the New York public school system.

I think we are in the belly of the dragon. I think we led ourselves there. Maybe out of fear of being on the outside of the dragon because they are so ugly. We have to get together to lead ourselves and our children out. We connected with some of John Gatto's ideas in relationship to young people finding their way in the world through apprenticeships, through community service, through a connection with the world. In our quiet valley in upstate New York it's critical that we help some young people come to adulthood with the confidence they are with us in the way out. We can't do it unless we join hands with all the rest who see that.

We feel that if it, the dragon, has come even to Columbia County, and we can see it, that the hour is probably late and we must move together.

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