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Community in Learning: A Reflection on Leading Mixed Age Handwork Lessons

By Marina Unger


It is an integral part of education.  But what is community? 

The Oxford Dictionary on my shelf defines it as:

1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common

2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals

That second definition really feels right to me.  Especially in this age of technology, where location doesn’t necessarily limit the “feeling of fellowship with others” as it has in the past. 

I am currently looking towards September; the last year of my son’s high school education and the second year of high school for my daughter. And by looking forward, I’m often called to look back.  Through all these years of homeschooling, my family has been blessed to have been part of a community of families that shared common interests and goals.  And within this community, each year we have worked to build a cooperative of some sort.  The themes have shifted, some of the families changed, but at the heart of each and every gathering are the children we are meeting and the parents who support them.  It has always been about building a community of support rather than creating learning spaces. 

We are an eclectic group, using many different homeschooling methods and philosophies. One thing all the co-ops over the years had in common was they were all mixed age groups created out of the impulse of interest and commitment of the families involved. Many of us had multiple children and while mixed age grouping was mostly born out of convenience, it also provided a wonderful opportunity for our children to learn and support one another in a more natural, real life environment. 

While many others shy away from mixed age learners, it has been something I’ve been promoting and encouraging since my days as an early childhood educator. After all, outside of formal educational institutions, we rarely (if ever?) divide ourselves into age groups. And while it can have it’s challenges, I will always champion mixed-age over age specific groups.

How does this relate to handwork within the scope of Waldorf Education?  In her article “Combined Grades in Waldorf Schools: Creating Classrooms Teachers Can Feel Good About, Lori L. Freer dives into the science behind mixed-age grades (which has proven to overwhelmingly support the practice) as well as how it impacts Waldorf pedagogy, classrooms and teacher’s approaches to the curriculum.  While she doesn’t mention handwork teachers specifically, one quote in the article stood out for me as particularly relevant to the handwork teacher:

“Combining grades can allow the teacher to form a large enough group to be dynamic and to embody the social aspects of Waldorf education”. 

Around the world there is a growing movement to redefine education.  Handwork as presented through the Waldorf curriculum is one subject that is really starting to get the accolades it deserves in the lives of children. The foundation of Waldorf education is knowledge of the unfolding human being as seen through the eyes of the spiritual science of anthroposophy outlined by Rudolf Steiner. This is a seed Waldorf handwork teachers around the world can begin to share as they step into roles outside of the typical Waldorf school.  And oftentimes, when we first step out of the schools, we need to welcome children and adults of all ages into our classes so that group sizes can be dynamic and social.

Within Steiner’s lectures on education, the artistic freedom of the teacher and the building of community are themes that are often repeated.  As handwork teachers at the helm of educational expansion and reform (I know I sound a bit dramatic, but needs must and I’m here to inspire if nothing else!) I believe embracing mixed-age groupings provides the perfect storm for both artistic freedom and community to develop beautifully.  

This message was never clearer  to me than when some homeschooling families and I created a handwork co-op for our children.

In this group we had learners aged 7-17 all with different levels of handwork experience, in addition to adults who also had different levels of handwork experience. Each meetup was started with a verse and group movement activities, from rhythm activities, to copper rods to ball bouncing.  Each movement activity we chose was one that would unite us as a whole group, and not individuals doing actions in tandem. 

Handwork projects were planned for the year, and skills were chosen that would meet the needs of the entire group and could be easily adjusted based on skill level. Our first project was weaving, chosen intentionally because it is a skill that is easily learned and we parents could use this session to focus on building a rhythm for the group, practice holding the space and balance support while modeling work on our own weaving projects.

We also chose weaving because one of our goals was to keep this co-op open for all, and that meant keeping things affordable and you can literally weave with cardboard and scraps of fabric that are easily obtainable for free. 

Our goal from the start was to create community.  To gather together under the common interest of handwork.  With this in mind, the first few projects were “artists choice”, where all the children worked on the same skill, but created different items.  For instance, for those first weeks weaving, my son created woven place mats with a loom he made with nails and a piece of plywood and my daughter used a circular piece of cardboard to create a woven sun. What naturally grew from this plan was children “visiting” each other while they took breaks from working to see what others were creating.  This unfolded into an air of inspiration, younger children marveled at tasks older children had taken on, and older children showed awe at the mastery some of the younger children had over skills that they were just learning as middle schoolers and teens. It was beautiful to witness. 

Over time the group settled into itself and we began to focus on creating group projects.  Our first was knitting squares to be sewn together as a blanket and shared with a local community organization for seniors. The children had varying experiences with knitting, some had never picked up knitting needles, some were advanced in their skill.  And the same pattern was found with the adults holding the space, we had total novices and Mamas knitting complicated sweaters. 

And we all helped each other!  And we created this beautiful patchwork of squares of all sizes that come together as a bold blanket. 

A beautiful thing happens when you mix ages.  As a community, everyone pulls together and shares their expertise. There is less of a hierarchy of student and teacher, and more companionship and support that blossoms into a fully functioning being of its own.  The process reminds me of this quote from Rudolf Steiner: “All community building eventuates in a higher being descending from the world of the spirit to reign over and unite people who have come together in a common cause.” (GA 257, Awakening to Community Lecture 9)  

While I know these retellings of our handwork co-op are a less than orthodox view of what group learning looks like, I share this experience to illustrate the beauty of inviting everyone into the fold. These meetings were sometimes met with their own set of challenges. I don’t think any teaching situation, whether grade/age based or mixed groupings, goes without some hiccups. But those challenges provided the energy needed to flex our artistic approach to teaching children!  We had to develop new ideas for supporting each other’s children. We had to work together to bring inventive new ways of managing a group that were outside of the usual found in the traditional schools we all hailed from.  As a community we shared in the responsibility of meeting ALL the children, no matter their phase of development, in a way that honoured the entire group.  That takes some artistic muscles, let me tell you.  But through the hiccups and blunders, some beautiful advantages: 

  • Children with more developed skills stepping up to support those who might be struggling

  • Adults modeling that they too build skills by asking for help

  • Older children helping to keep younger children on task, or occupied while they waited for help

  • The opportunity for children to see that their work will be different from others, but that it still has a very important place in the whole

  • That age doesn’t matter when it comes to mastery or learning something new.  We all start at the beginning, no matter our age.

  • Creativity and individuality can be celebrated and is a source of inspiration.

  • In a co-op model, there are a handful of adults holding the space for ALL the children.  This grows the community

In contrast to my experience within a co-op, I have also been the leader for a mixed age handwork group where the parents did not participate.  And in that experience, I learned a few very helpful tips that are relevant to both co-op groups and groups led by one teacher.

  1. Set the tone right from the beginning.  I’m a very VERY big advocate for setting a rhythm to lessons.  A predictable and consistent rhythm is like an extra set of hands.  It creates a feeling of safety for all because everyone can anticipate what will happen next.

  2. Start with group movement, where everyone works together.  It brings everyone into the fold and starts that thread of community. 

  3. Have extra little projects or tasks children can do while they wait for help.  It seems I always have tangles of yarn that need to be wound, or embroidery thread that needs to be wrapped around clips. You could also start with a project that all of the children will keep tucked away until it is needed. 

  4. Encourage helping each other, making sure that children who are more skilled aren’t bombarded to the point where they can’t work on their own handwork.  While the point is to support each other, you are still the leader and most of the support should still be coming from you. 

  5. Watch for what I call “the tipping point”.  It is that time just before the group starts to lose focus, where everyone is still contently working, but you can feel the energy shift towards needing a break. I put importance on ending things on a positive note, before they group has even shown they are tiring. When possible, end while the going is good, ha.

  6. Have a closing!  This is so very important!  As teachers we often focus on the opening to set the tone, but having a way to close things down and transition to the next holds just as much weight.  I enjoy singing a song together and feel it helps to bring breathing back into rhythm from that stretch of concentration handwork entails. 

Leading a group of mixed age learners doesn’t have to be as challenging as it might seem at the start.  I truly believe Waldorf educators have a leg up because of our focus on the development of the whole human being. So if you are invited into a position where you can lead a group of mixed age learners, whether on your own or as part of a co-op, take a breath and take the leap!  It is such a gift!

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