Ask Alison: Animals


“Ask Alison” is a well-loved feature on this blog. (You can see former installments on geology here and here.) She is one of my dearest friends and along with Jean Miller, one of my go-to women for homeschooling advice and support. I thank my lucky starts to have met them both through Barbara Dewey’s Taproot Teacher Training. For the first time in four summers, I will not be joining them in Ohio. Our trip to Yellowstone and a few other things have conspired to keep me away. However, I would like to encourage anyone on the fence about attending this year’s event. You can get an idea of Barbara and Jean from their websites, but Alison has not entered the blogosphere yet. Consider the post below and also this one from Jean as an introduction to the extraordinary gifts she brings in expanding the Waldorf curriculum for homeschoolers. I promise it will be worth the trip!


I wanted to share how I make sense of the developmental progression of the Waldorf curriculum in terms of how it affects the way the teacher/parent might handle presenting and discussing animals. Hopefully this will help you see the ways that studying animals can help your child build many academic skills and how the progression moves from imitation to feeling to reflection and reason. The progression of the Waldorf curriculum allows students to develop the deepest kind of “knowing” of animals – this type of knowing naturally integrates feeling and reason in a very profound way. What more could we ask for?

Kindergarten and Grade 1 – fairy tales and nature stories  – Just being delighted by animals and co-existing with them.  Noticing, imitating and naming.

Grade 2 – Aesop’s Fables, African Animal Tales (please check out Verna Aardema – especially her non-picture book collections if you can find them), Native American stories.  Heetunka’s Harvest is a favorite. (A Donna Simmon’s recommendation from my former life:))

Aardema’s picture books are great as well.  Leo Lioni and Jan Brett books are wonderful at this age.

Our noticing goes deeper here in 2nd grade.  By giving animals human qualities we begin to describe their unique and particular qualities: the slowness of the tortoise, the quickness of the hare, the pride of the lion, the slyness of the fox, the mischief-making of crows ….

It is fun to notice the particular animals presented in the stories and to OBSERVE and DESCRIBE in just a bit more detail.

Grade 3 – The farming and Bible story blocks bring out potential developmental themes to focus on. Animal husbandry and animal keeping. I taught a world history class of high school students, and one of our main texts was Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In it he gives an account of the history and science of animal domestication. It is so amazing to me that this happened first the fertile crescent – the BIBLE belt. Remember 3rd grade is the Old Testament year – for me this is yet another confirmation of Steiner’s genius in laying out the progression of the Waldorf curriculum.

You could work with wool and shearing and spinning. Jacob was a big time herder – as were Cain and Abel. You could also think about milking and cheese and yogurt making. PLOWING with oxen was a huge step for the ancient farmers and allowed them to feed so many more people.  Please consider visiting farms.

Warm as Wool is a great picture book about a pioneer family and sheep farming.  A New Coat for Anna is a favorite book that much like Pelle’s New Suit follows the process of making a piece of clothing from shearing the sheep to the finished garment.

Another way to enhance the 3rd grade practical/doing focus is animal keeping in the classroom and in the home.

Think practical – what food and shelter and training do our pets need?

James, my youngest son, kept a pet and potential pet (he could dream!) journal for one of his main lesson blocks. He wrote and wrote and wrote and drew and drew and drew. What supplies and cages and chores did he need to do to keep fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, parakeets, and mice? We acquired over the grade 2-4 grade span – a small fish tank, hermit crabs, and a parakeet.

Books that link in with this passion are A Room with a Zoo by Jules Feiffer, Pets in a Jar by Seymor Simon, and I just love The House of a Million Pets by Ann Hodgman.

4th grade – Man and Animal. The first “science” block where the rubber meets the road! One of the qualities of the 4th grade is the emerging ability to separate him/herself from the action so to speak. To observe from above (bird’s-eye perspective) To observe as a distinct person with his or her own ideas about why and how … with a good dose of mischief and playfulness thrown in there as well. Man and Animal is a perfect place to cultivate this ability.

Here we Describe in more detail – both in our pictures and with our words and also in a 3-D way by creating dioramas and sculptures, beautiful water-color paintings and perhaps posters and displays. Julie Cannon books like Stellaluna work very well here in a Waldorf both for drawing inspiration and the learning the information woven inside of the story.

We put animals into categories – fur, fins, feathers, 6 legs, 8 legs, and shells  –  Mammals, fish, birds, insects, spiders and mollusks, etc.

OBSERVING, DESCRIBING and EXPLAINING how form and function work together in this animal – how does its beautiful and wonderful design help it to perfectly do what it needs to do to survive. Then make some interesting COMPARISONS and CONTRASTS between this animal and to the human being.

For this block I really liked Altruistic Armadillos and Zen like Zebras – I read it out loud – but you will need to summarize, explain or paraphrase some parts. Animal Footprints by Kato would also work well – it compares our hands and feet to those of various animals.

When I taught this block to James, we chose a variety of animals from the book together, printed the names on index cards and then drew the day’s animal out of hat. He adored the suspense and the surprise and so I did I. He drew his own picture and composed a very simple summary. It was so easy and relaxed and we learned so much together. His brother was a 6th grader at the time, and he enjoyed listening and the surprise as well.

There are a host of children’s books to read – Rascal by Sterling North, Charlotte’s Web, Ribsy, Wheel on the School – on and on … that highlight the deep connection that human beings have with animals.

Tarantula in my Purse by Jean Craighead George would be excellent for this block or even 5th grade as well.

5th and 6th grade – Many Waldorf grade summaries leave out zoology here, and I personally think this is a mistake. Classification can be a great approach at this age. Vertebrates, Invertebrates, etc. I love, love the book Tree of Life: the Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth by Rochelle Strauss. I also like Lyrical Life Science as a teacher resource for planning out this main lesson – specifically chapters 3, 4, 5, and 8. I love using the songs that go along with each chapter. There is also a workbook that you could make copies of worksheets from. I personally feel that in grades 5 and 6 it is nice to mix up the pedagogy a bit. Animals on the Inside by Ruiz would be excellent.

In 6th grade, scientific nomenclature is a really nice tie in to Rome and Latin.

This is where we complete the whole to the parts cycle. Diagrams and labels are perfect for this age – animal anatomy and physiology. Skeletons, the anatomy of the fish, the parts of an insect, the life cycle of various animals – you get the idea.

This all is a great lead in to human anatomy in the 7th grade.

Grades 7-9 – These years present a wonderful developmental opening to the study of the biographies of famous zoologists.  Eugenie Clark, Jacques Cousteau, Charles Darwin, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall….  they model the knowledge and the passion  and the curiosity and the work ethic that all great scientists possess. Watching documentaries about animals and these scientists is also very appropriate at this age. Young people are looking for direction and role models at this age.

As your child progresses through the Waldorf curriculum and their study of animals grows in scope and depth, always remember to keep it living: act out gestures and stories, recite and copy and memorize poems about animals, read the many beautiful works of children’s literature that connect human beings and animals in your main lesson blocks and as a family, paint,  assign reports, posters, projects and assemble collections. I love using those tubes of animals at Hobby Lobby for displays and for reports (your child can pick one out of hat – you can pick one too:)) Mix things up.

Animals provide many opportunities for homeschools to widen their circle. Enjoy exploring your local zoos, parks, nature centers, and natural history museums. Take a sketch pad. Join 4H, dog obedience classes or volunteer at a shelter.

Studying and keeping animals allow us to gain knowledge, foster discipline, build community, and to grow in the love and appreciation of the natural world.  Many of the books and activities I mention here would appeal to non-Waldorf home schoolers as well, so perhaps you would enjoy creating an animal study group with children in grades 4-6.

Humanity is exalted not because we are not so far above other living creatures but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.  – Edward O. Wilson

Sunday Selections


“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”

– Gabrielle Roth

(Thanks Barn Raised!)

Full Blue Moon


I love this practice of creating a dream board for each full moon – and this month has two! The Full Blue Moon beckons your most secret dreams: the dreams of your unconscious, the dreams that defy articulation, the dreams of your soul. I wasn’t surprised by the images that showed up in my art journal – images of the west, feathers, skulls, the Native American flute. All speak to me deeply, but they also confound my conscious understanding. Perhaps the Moon has some secret understanding of her own to whisper in my ear tonight. I’ll be listening.


Planning: Here and Now


The planning posts on this blog are by far the most popular. If they help someone get organized and make sense of their homeschool year, that’s great. However, my personal planning looks very different these days. For one, I’m not spending very much time doing it this year. My program for certification in spiritual direction goes into high gear in September, and that is taking precedent as far as my time and attention. And as much as they would love it, I’m not giving the boys free rein. I will be combining our learning (4th and 8th grades), streamlining how we do things and yes, even doing math on the computer. It’s a brand new day! And honestly, I’ve never felt more at ease.

Here is an overview of what homeschooling will look like at our house next year.

  • Math: Vincent used Teaching Textbooks for math last year and that is what saved us when we were shipwrecked. The lessons are short, thorough and fun. He will be finishing Math 7 this semester and then begin Pre-Algebra somewhere around December or January. Jude will also be doing TT; Math 4 for him.
  • Science: Vincent will be reading the textbook and completing the corresponding workbook of Joy Hakim’s Story of Science. The first volume, “Aristotle Leads the Way” is mostly a review of how we have done science in the past (largely through biography and a historical progression of thought). Jude will be studying animals, primarily through art/nature journalling. Actually, I’m planning for the three of us to do this together and will detail my ideas in a separate post.
  • History: Both my boys love history. Up until this point, Vincent has studied world history chronologically. This year, I have decided to focus solely on American history, using Joy Hakim’s series, A History of US. (Yes Joy Hakim is my new BFF.) My plan is for all of us to listen to one volume per month via audiobook. (The entire series is available at Audible and I purchased the actual books from If you don’t know this site, you should. And if you want a coupon, give me your email in the comments. I won’t publish it on the blog, but will email you privately.) Vincent will be doing some combination of note booking, timelines, maps and extra reading. I picked up a few of Anne Rinaldi’s I am America books at a library sale this summer and think they will be a great resource. Jude will be following along, and his reading will be focused on the “American Girl” series. (Mothers of Boys: don’t let the marketing fool you. These are great books – both the fiction and the non-fiction.) Jude will also be studying the local history of our home state of North Carolina, mostly through stories and geography.
  • Language Arts: Vincent will continue with some parts of the BraveWriter curriculum, most especially The Arrow. He will also be working with the Editor in Chief series from Critical Thinking Company. Jude will be working on spelling (please let this be the year it clicks!!) and handwriting through a daily notebook. I have never done anything like this before, but saw this one and it looked like a great idea with some modifications.
  • Art: I have wanted to do an art history program for the last couple of years, and this summer found exactly what I wanted at one of my favorite places to shop for curriculum: the Salvation Army. (I’m not even kidding.) I found a series of high quality coffee table books called Great Museums of the WorldEach volume profiles an individual museum (Uffizi, The Louvre, The Tate, The Rikjsmuseum, etc) with architectural information, historical facts and of course wonderful photographs of their permanent collections. My plan is very, very casual: put a different book in the living room every month or so with a pad of post-its to mark our favorite pieces. I’m hoping it will become part of our family’s discussion around the dinner table.
  • Story Time: Story time continues to be an anchor in our day. We have several series that we read every year and always look forward to the new installment: Harry Potter (Book 2), Anne of Green Gables (Book 4 or 5; can’t remember), Little House (Book 4), Swallows and Amazons (Book 5 or 6) Story of the World (Book 3). I’m sure there will be plenty of animal and American fiction, and maybe even a reprise of one of our favorite books ever. I only use audiobooks now, but this is an idea of how we got started.
  • Filmstrip Friday: We have been watching a variety of documentaries on Fridays for about a year and half now and it is consistently the highlight of our week. I am not a movie person and neither are my boys, so this was a real surprise. We have watched some real gems on a variety of subjects, but our favorite – hands down – has been The National Parks by Ken Burns. It took us 3 months to watch the whole thing, and we loved every minute. It even inspired our trip to Yellowstone next month . . . which is why we are starting school so early this year. August 3 is our first day!

Sunday Selections


a woman can’t survive
by her own breath
she must know
the voices of mountains
she must recognize
the foreverness of blue sky
she must flow
with the elusive
of night wind women
who will take her into
her own self
look at me
I am not a separate woman
I am a continuance
of blue sky
I am the throat
of the sandia mountains
a night wind woman
who burns
with every breath
she takes

– Joy Harjo