Tag Archives: school

The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)


*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.

My School Bus Sedan

24 Jan

I’d be destined for jail if the supposedly existing seatbelt law were anything more than some distant formality that only exists on paper somewhere. In the states I’d have all kinds of extra charges, I’m sure, of reckless endangerment and who knows what kinds of other great stuff they could drum up. For now, though, I live in small town Southern Mexico, and I drive a 4-door school bus at liberty.*

I drive half of my kids’ kindergarten home in a four-door Nissan Sentra. There are only fifteen kids at this fabulous school, so the six- and sometimes seven- that I chauffeur around town is only minimally outrageous. It’s perfectly in keeping with that aspect of Mexican spirit that I so appreciate- making happen whatever needs to happen, despite the obstacles. It’s that spirit that causes folks to ride a motorcycle with a full-sized ladder, for example, or to tie a refrigerator on top of a taxi. It’s that spirit that made my mother-in-law encourage Conan to “just do some kind of home remedy” to fix the brakes on a borrowed car once: Extreme Driving, A Year- Round Oaxacan Sport. It’s why my weights for exercise are different sized plastic bottles filled with sand or concrete. Folks here tend to be much more creative in finding solutions when they don’t have the ideal resources or circumstances, and I love that about Mexico.


just waiting for the kids to get out of school

School buses don’t exist here, and vans use up too much gasoline. All four of us families in the carpool have small cars, so at least I don’t feel like we’re the only ones schlepping the kids around like sardines. I’m still so thrilled that we have any working car at all, I do a happy rain-dance sort of prayer/celebration every day I go outside and the car starts up.

It almost didn’t start on my second day of carpool, and my heart essentially stopped for several beats.“This cannot be happening already! We can’t be flaking out on the second day of carpool! This car cannot be as bad as the other one!” I might or might not have screamed at the trees and stray dogs. But then it did start and life continued to be well. Well, there’s a trick to it, and I think I’ve got it figured out. Good enough. 

I do a lot of screaming in the car, but not like you imagine with me as the bus driver. (I haven’t even cursed yet!) All of my screaming happens before the kids get in the car, when I’m screaming (aka singing) along with my music because (GASP) there’s a working CD player in the car! So I get 25 minutes of alone time with my jams before the seven little savages hop in the car. It’s really a brilliant set-up.

It takes me ten minutes to get out the door with all of them. The teachers help me get their shoes on, and even my almost-two-year-old (the 2nd youngest in the posse) can carry out his own lunch box. Despite that help, and despite telling myself that I’ll get faster at it with practice, somehow corralling them all is more time-consuming than I psyche myself up for it to be. Two weeks in, I’ve only gotten about one minute faster, and my measly minute is totally negated when one or more of the older kids are sleeping.

They hold hands in pairs to go out the door and get into the car. The baby of the crew (one year old) goes in the car seat in the back. Khalil and one other kid get strapped into the front seat (with the lap part of the seat belt). Then in the other two seats in back we squeeze in another 3 and sometimes 4 kids, obviously not with a seat belt because it just won’t go over all of them.

They are some very well-behaved savages, except for my two savages, of course, who feel more at liberty to throw tantrums because I’m the Mommy. So of course it’s always Lucia who’s screaming about something if there’s screaming happening. Sigh. It’s pretty easy to distract and entertain them all with fun games like, “Who’s not here? Raise your hand if you’re not here!” And we pretend that none of them are there. I love this age group (one to four). Mostly they entertain themselves, and if I really need to distract them, all I have to do is encourage them to talk about bodily functions and fluids. Poop is their number one idea of fun discourse these days.

The kids sometimes enjoy my music-fest as well. Lucia is currently obsessed with a Sleater-Kinney song. When I play it she and Khalil tap their fingers and wave their arms in time to the music. (I can’t imagine where they learned to dance in the car. Ahem.) A couple of the other kids mentioned that they liked one of the songs I was listening to, too. They will surely be finger-dancing with us eventually.

Lucia’s current favorite jam

Really, carpool with the kids is kind of a blast.

Thanks to the universe and Conan’s savvy in car shopping, we found an automatic car in the right price range- which is not the easiest task around here. The original plan was for us to get a standard, and I was going to learn how to drive a stick. I already had a teacher lined up. Being the brilliant procrastinator that I am, however, I didn’t get lessons before buying a car. So by the time we were buying the car I would’ve had about 2 days to learn how to drive it before rolling across town, navigating the countless speed bumps, the holes in the road, the motorcycles swerving around cars unexpectedly, with a carload of small children loaded in.  “And on top of that you want to be learning something new?” Conan asked, shaking his head at my shrug and grin. (Perhaps I’ve adopted some of that “I’ll make it work anyway” attitude. Thank you, you wonderful Mexican folks, for teaching me this important life skill.)

Despite my nonchalance, I was a train wreck of nerves the first day I had to go get everyone. I had to call my mom to talk myself back into calm (okay, this might be a frequent occurrence). She reminded me that I do actually know how to drive, AND it’s far from being my first day driving in Puerto. And I’m certainly not worried about dealing with the seven small savages; two of them are mine, and the rest are sweet and lovely little savages, too. I got this.

So I didn’t panic that first day when there was some random rerouting lane-share happening for no apparent reason. The traffic cop didn’t even look twice at me when I passed again with a boatload of children. Totally rocked it. All was fine.

I sweated a bit that first Friday, though, when I thought I picked up a kid by mistake. There’s one little boy who goes to his dad’s house some days and his mom’s house other days. When he goes to his dad’s, he’s part of our carpool, but not when he goes to his mom’s. Well, another parent asked me to pick him up one day, and I thought that maybe his dad hadn’t been able to get ahold of me or something. I stopped at the usual spot but no one was there. I called his dad and he assured me that no, it was not his day. I pictured the little boy’s mom going to pick him up, frustrated that I’d taken him by accident and possibly questioning my faculties. The parent who had called me about him didn’t answer the phone. I wiped the sweat from my brow and drove on to the next drop-off spot, where, luckily, the boy was, indeed, supposed to be going, to go play with another girl in the carpool.

It’s true that driving here is not at all like driving in the US, but it’s not as tricky or scary as Conan might make it sound. Nobody can drive all that fast, thanks to all the speed bumps, pedestrians in the street, animals, bicycle carts, and other random road blocks. One day last week half of the highway-two lanes, for about a block’s stretch- was closed off for what appeared to be some kind of festival they were having in the middle of the road. (Highway is a loose term, I guess. There are two lanes going one direction and two going the other direction.) It’s never a dull moment on the road but it’s not rocket science to navigate, either. Many folks around here do it without ever having lessons even.

Of course, there are other things to navigate additionally, like the situation with the folks on the side of the road/in the middle of the road. Sometimes there are street performers who are juggling or spinning fire or hula hooping or something. Those are the traveling kids, I presume. There’s been a family selling some kind of blow-up toys at one big intersection. There’s another guy on crutches with only one complete leg who is often at one intersection asking for money. There’s another kid (adolescent, I suspect, although he could be in his twenties) who often asks for money at an intersection, who calls me “madre” and blesses me, even the days I haven’t had any change to give.

Then there are several different guys who seem to take turns at a couple different intersections, cleaning windshields for change. Now, this is a great service in our dusty, sandy town, as pretty much everyone’s windows need cleaning every single day to be in optimal condition. Furthermore, they are working, providing a service, and not just asking for money, and I get that for many people that encourages them to give. (Not that I have drama with people asking for money because they have no other options. I think that’s a hard and nasty job in its way, and I am not judging them, especially when I don’t have a clue what circumstances have forced them into that position.) But apparently I have a sign on my head that says, “Please wash my car, no matter what I say,” because almost all of these guys are aggressively insistent with me. Is it because I’m a woman? Because I’m light-skinned? Because I look foreign? Some of it is just them, perhaps, because it does happen to Conan some, too. I’ve learned to have a few coins ready every day, like a “highway” toll I pay to someone or the other every day. I feel pretty lucky that I can spare a few pesos every day now.

In general, I’m thrilled about so many aspects of my mini school bus drive. I’m pleased to be one of the school bus drivers for our kids and their friends. I’m so pleased that Conan and I are now able to share the burden of labor and gas money. I’m so happy that my kids are stoked to see me, and that now Lucia isn’t the only ones whose parents never go to school to get her.

I miss my daily walks and bus rides with Khalil, in which we grunt and scream at the sight of every dump truck, bus, and other large vehicles/heavy machinery. My body doesn’t much appreciate driving in place of walking, but it’s still a totally worthwhile tradeoff, for my kids to go to a school we all feel good about. I’m ecstatic for Khalil to be in “school” with his big sister, instead of at home destroying my house out of boredom.

All in all, getting this carpool thing down is another daily adventure. Similar to riding my bike to and from work- navigating through the sand and around the rocks and without splashing mud on my clothes and carrying rocks to scare off the mean dogs- driving the carpool is another daily task that makes me feel like I’m living a video game.  I can only hope that your daily commute is half as interesting and fun as mine. And if not, I humbly suggest that you change it up, and at the very least, add some finger-dancing to the mix.



*Don’t get me wrong: I am a seatbelt fanatic under other circumstances. My dad, a photographer for the police department, used to bring home pictures of accidents to teach us about the importance of seat belts if we were in rebellion over it. My parents wouldn’t start the car if we didn’t have seat belts on.  And it makes good sense; it’s an easy, simple, free thing to do that is likely to save your life. And yet that is not the reality that we live in; it’s just not always possible, as I’ve written about before.