Cheryl Dressler

By Victoria Temple

“If you want to raise intelligent and compassionate children, tell them stories.  If you want your children to be more intelligent and more compassionate, tell more stories!”  Albert Einstein

Waldorf education is traveling diverse paths as it inspires and informs public education in the United States today. A five-year-old initiative in Massachusetts offers a unique approach, one that has roots in the accomplishments of its neighbor – the Waldorf School of Lexington.

Cairn Hill is an educational cooperative currently serving elementary school children in the towns of Malden, Somerville and Lynn, MA. “Cairn” is a Scottish Gaelic term for a pile of stones built to mark a pathway created by many individuals over time, one that serves as a traveler’s guide.

In early 2012, the image of a cairn spoke to three Boston-area educators who were meeting in a café in the town of Malden to discuss the best way to bring the gifts of Waldorf education to local public school children.  Those collaborators were:

Daniel Bekele, Ed.D (Harvard University), a program administrator for Tri-City, Malden’s community development program, which was successfully organizing immigrant communities to receive needed educational and social support.

Cheryl Dressler, Ed.D. (Harvard University), an educator with a focus on creating literacy programs for English language learners, who has a deep appreciation of Waldorf pedagogy and its healing potential.

Mararet Ris, M.Ed. (Antioch University), an experienced Waldorf teacher, mentor, evaluator and administrator, who is dedicated to working with inner city children.

The outcome of this conversation was the decision to form a non-profit organization, named Cairn Hill, after an historic spot in the town of Malden’s beautiful and rugged Fells Reservation. The image of a cairn spoke to the founders as they envisioned a new approach to helping guide public school children along their lives’ paths. Their mission statement thus became:  Cairn Hill brings the transformative power of the arts to young learners in urban and multi-ethnic communities using nature, story, music and the hand-on approach inspired by Waldorf education.

The strategic approach to bringing the Waldorf pedagogy to culturally diverse, urban populations in the State of Massachusetts was the after school program.  It met the needs of working parents, enriched the children’s school day, was welcomed by school leaders, and introduced the vision and values of Waldorf education into the public realm.

In September 2012, the team piloted their first after school program at the Salemwood School in Malden. The centerpiece of the program was an arts- and nature-oriented storytelling curriculum called The Art of Word Weaving. This is a resource they developed to make oral comprehension and word retention easy, memorable and fun. The heart of the program is vocabulary-rich storytelling, which provides a framework for related verses and art activities that include beeswax modeling, handwork and drawing. (The Cairn Hill website offers a terrific articulation of “The Art of Word Weaving”:  http://www.cairnhilledu.org/the-art-of-word-weaving.htm)

In September 2013, Cairn Hill partnered with the Somerville Community Schools to offer another version of the after school program curriculum entitled Story Play, designed as an afternoon of arts, music, crafts and drumming, built around story themes. Like Malden, Somerville is a highly diverse community with over 71 languages spoken, the most prevalent being Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian, Creole and French. Somerville is a vibrant and changing community in which the Somerville Community Schools District welcomes outside specialists and activity club providers to offer enrichment opportunities.

In 2016, a new step was taken, with the decision to open Cairn Hill Nature Preschool. The preschool will be located in Lynn, MA, home to families of diverse ethnicities, incomes and languages, which boasts a majestic expanse of 2,200 acres of woodlands, marshes and ponds with vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. On this perfect location for a nature preschool, a year-round program is being established that will offer full and partial-day enrollment for working parents, utilizing a five-level tiered tuition scale and offering parent support programs. The developmentally aligned curriculum offers a comprehensive foundation for school success, featuring language arts through storytelling, puppetry, and music, and arts through painting, clay modeling and crafts. Nature education includes rain-or-shine outdoor exploration and a gardening program.

In addition to the three founders who gathered in Malden back in that coffee shop, Lauren Smith has been involved with Cairn Hill since 2012 when the initiative was begun.  That was the year she volunteered to teach in the first program at the Salemwood School in Malden. At the time, Lauren was on her sabbatical year after graduating her eighth grade at The Waldorf School of Lexington. Today Lauren remains involved with Cairn Hill now that she has returned to class teaching at the Waldorf school.

The collaborative spirit of community is alive and well in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!

Victoria Temple is the Administrative Coordinator of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and a Managing Editor of the Confluence Editorial Board.

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