On Mondays and Fridays throughout the school year, our heartland sings with the laughter of children. Whidbey Island Waldorf teacher Kris Carlson, whose 3rd graders have just completed a series of cooking and gardening lessons with Whidbey Institute staff, took time recently to speak about his students’ experiences.
He described garden treasure hunts, plant identification games, and other activities which garden manager Abigail Lazarowski designed to hold the attention of his playful, extroverted student group. “We benefited greatly from our time in the garden,” he said. “Abigail is so patient. She fine-tuned the program to meet the children—seeing how they work best, she taught the curriculum while bringing in art, math, and games. They really connected to the Earth, with their hands in the dirt.”
“Children bring something special to your garden,” he said, “ and I think Abigail and Margaret [garden intern] understand that. The kids can be wild and wacky, but they are accepted in the garden and they bring joy when they come.”
Kris explained that tangible skills like gardening and cooking are age-appropriate and directly tied to the 3rd grade curriculum, which focuses on the transition out of the paradise of childhood and on discovering one’s own capacity. After having studied the archetypal fairy tales and the 12th century saints in grades 1 and 2, the students are now exposed to concepts around developing self-sufficiency through a curriculum which includes cooking, gardening, and readings from the Old Testament and other stories from human history.
In the kitchen, Chef Christyn Johnson helped the students learn to read recipes, measure, cook, and bake. Kris said many Waldorf students perform their cooking units in the classroom, but that the relationship between the Whidbey Institute and the on-site Waldorf School provides a special opportunity. “We are so blessed we get to work in that kitchen, with a professional chef,” he said, “and I can’t overestimate the blessing of having that biodynamic garden.”
Kris came to Waldorf teaching by means of what he called “the cosmic 2×4”—a devastating bicycle vs. car accident which injured him badly and held up his career as a commercial faux finish painter. At the time, he was married to a woman whose children were thriving at a Waldorf school in Eugene. “I couldn’t walk,” he said, “so I started doing menial tasks at the school . . . I asked what this was about, and the teacher gave me this big, fat Steiner book, Higher Worlds and How to Know Them.” The book spoke to Kris’s spiritual and practical sensibilities, and soon he was engaged in a teacher training program onsite. He found the spiritual perspectives of Steiner to be a natural progression from his background in Eastern religious traditions and vedic study, and said his subsequent learning was very soul-nourishing. On the subject of his career trajectory, Kris quotes Wordsworth: “I made no vows, but vows Were then made for me; bond unknown to me Was given.” “I was pulled to it,” he said. “It was truly a calling.”
Kris hasn’t left his painting career behind entirely—in fact, he and his students express themselves in the classroom through visual art. On the day of our conversation, Kris’s chalkboards held his beautiful chalk renderings of Moses and an embattled Goliath. Kris will be leaving the Waldorf classroom this year in order to more fully use his skills in teaching artistic expression to children and adults. His wife Kat Carlson will continue with this student cohort when they return for 4th grade in the fall, while another group of 3rd graders will learn gardening and cooking at the Whidbey Institute.
About his students, Kris said they’ve benefitted from the freedom and acceptance they’ve experienced at the Whidbey Island Waldorf School and at Chinook. His class of 14 includes children with visual, hearing, and learning challenges and an abundance of joy, energy, and curiosity. “One of the things I appreciate about Waldorf education is that it gives children the freedom to be themselves. We are fortunate to have this place where they’re not categorized. These kids love unconditionally, and they are definitely bringing something to the world.”