Encouraging Excellence, Empathy, and Response-ability

by Karin Almquist, School Director

This article first appeared in Hawthorne Valley’s 2021 Annual Impact Report: the 50th Anniversary Edition. Click here to view the full publication.

Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School (HVS) is excited to be joining HVA this year in celebrating 50 years of collective striving while also anticipating our own 50th anniversary in 2023. Our school was originally founded to meet the needs of our local Camphill Copake community, whose own kindergarten had outgrown its space and whose co-workers were seeking a Waldorf education for their children. In September 1973, the school opened with a kindergarten and four grades, as the Camphill co-worker children were joined by the children of our farmers and those from our wider Columbia County community. By 1978, enrollment was at 150, and we graduated our first 8th grade class. By 1980, through the hard work of parents and teachers to literally build a space for it, our High School opened with 12 students. These pioneering days were marked by incredible commitment and imaginative collaboration as the core faculty and students engaged their collective will force to continually build and improve their school, campus, and classrooms.

A 12th grade student at Hermit Island, ME, in September 2021.

It is interesting to contextualize our first years at HVS within the founding impulses of the worldwide Waldorf School movement. Our educational framework was spearheaded by Rudolf Steiner a hundred years ago in response to the profound upheavals of World War One, a moment of total cultural disintegration and despair. Included among the very first Waldorf teachers were individuals who had direct experiences of the trenches, poison gas, starvation, and unbelievable suffering (including Hawthorne Valley founder Karl Ege). It was a moment in which it was clear that the status quo of social, political, and economic order was not sustainable. What was the future asking of us?

Both the original founders of that first Waldorf School in Stuttgart, Germany, and our own pioneers in Ghent, NY, were seeking new answers to the imminent problems they were confronting and were actively tuning their response to their direct experience of the age. How do we educate the next generation to be our future problem solvers and leaders at a time when we are so easily disconnected, how do we find our inner humanity when all forces encourage us to focus on materialism, and what does it mean to be truly free?

The details of the climate out of which the first Waldorf schools sprang to life may differ significantly from the context of our specific school’s founding or that of our current age of global pandemic. Yet, Steiner’s impulse to educate in a relevant and innovative way is a common thread and remains cutting edge today. At HVS, we continue to work towards the awesome goal of social renewal and towards graduating the next generations of young adults who might be part of the creative solutions their future will demand. We remain aware that our current social, economic, and political culture is not so sustainable. This requires us to craft our Art of Education intentionally with the recognition that our own students, like the traumatized children of Steiner’s age, need so much more than the dry, factual rote instruction typical in the schools of our past and our present. They need more than the factoids they can download off the internet.

A 12th grader studies a starfish at Hermit Island, ME

Artwork by Dezjuan Smith ’22

Students participate in an on-campus Black Lives Matter protest

Ours is a developmental approach, then, in which the specific needs of each age of childhood are taken into consideration with the understanding that a healthy and secure early childhood is essential to nourish the human being in our later years. Our teachers work together to help remove any observable hindrances that might get in the way of our students’ true potential, as we aim to help them develop balance and equanimity. Our curriculum from early childhood through lower school, middle school, and high school builds upon itself, grounding our students in the natural world that they can see, hear, and experience with the aim of producing secure individuals who will feel a sense of belonging to the world and responsibility to it. Main lessons and subject lessons are formed with a goal to integrate the thinking, feeling, and doing realms with the awareness that the chaotic forces children face each day cannot be absorbed only by the intellect—rather they are best processed through artistic working and through practical activities that help students build focus and encourage them to develop a deeper connection to their inherent moral impulses far better than any intellectual argument would. Our students learn better by doing and feeling as they think.

So, what are the evident needs of our time? A big fear during Steiner’s age was that young people would just give up, check out, and disengage from the world around them, a world that seemed to offer so little comfort. This fear is continuing to come to fruition today as we see a generation that has had their childhood impacted by the overstimulation of screens, that increasingly engages through social media rather than direct person-to-person contact, that is inheriting the consequences of climate change, that is navigating school during an age of pandemic, and that is coming into citizenship in a country that is finally opening its eyes to the fact that our foundation was built on the backs of enslaved peoples and genocide. It is an intense world indeed that we are encouraging our students to embrace, and to not disengage from. And that is a tall order.

First and foremost, Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School is working to teach our students to open their senses, so that they can better experience authentic reality, notice the world around them, and find meaning in their important achievements. We hope to guide our students to find a sense of belonging that will lead to increased equanimity and decreased anxiety, which will enable them to foster connections with each other, with their teachers, and with their environment, and that will help to keep a space open for the soul nourishing experience of beauty, wonder, and goodness. The past 18 months of COVID restrictions, remote classrooms, and physical distancing has made our vocation both more difficult and more compelling. On top of that, we must embrace the difficult truth that ours is a culture that has intentionally upheld institutions rooted in racism and denied others the equal access to social, economic, and political equity. It is becoming abundantly clear that the needs of our time include a focus on intentionally engaging with diversity, equity, and inclusion work, as well as helping parents and students deal with the media addiction that has become a hindrance to us all—parents, teachers, and students alike.

Students practice basketball handling skills during games class

Mike Pewtherer works with a student during physics class

Education is always an art, never a science alone. Karl Ege expressed concern that “thinking itself, man’s nearest cognitive faculty, is at the present time undergoing a phase of qualitative paralysis and death, out of which a new capacity of living awakened thought must arise, if the catastrophes which threaten us are to be surmounted.” Though they date from an earlier age, these words that helped found Hawthorne Valley Association 50 years ago continue to inspire today’s teachers. Our school remains rooted in the belief that intellectual abilities reach fuller capacity when enhanced by experiential and artistic activity. Our goal in the past 50 years and in the decades to come is to help lead our students down a path of self-discovery that encourages free independent thinking, reverence and love for the natural environment, and a sense of social responsibility for the world which we meet. We look forward to our next 50 years of striving.