The annual Chicago Waldorf School Marine Biology trip to Hermit Island, Maine takes place during the second week of school. Twenty years ago, we were only one of three schools to undertake this adventure. In the meantime, it has become so well-known that twenty-some Waldorf senior classes from all over the country come to the island each Fall to study marine biology in three separate sessions. This year our Chicago seniors worked together with Waldorf students from Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Washington D.C., and Boulder, Colorado--for a total of about 90 seniors during the week that we attended. Fifteen other Waldorf senior classes followed us to Hermit Island for the two sessions that followed ours.
Hermit Island, which is connected to the mainland by a sand bar, is a naturalist’s treasure. This protected area has miles of rocky shoreline which teem with marine invertebrates that the students soon become familiar with: anemones, sea stars (starfish), dog whelks, sea urchins, crabs, moon-snails, and many more organisms. The unique setting—coupled with the chance to meet, socialize, and study with students from other school—makes possible a week rich in learning experiences of many kinds.
The island has many varied settings – sandy beaches, rocky shores, grassy dunes, forest, and tidal mud flats—with large tidal swings revealing hidden life forms—as well as a forested interior where it is easy to stumble across deer, raccoons, skunks and other woodland creatures. (No bear or mountain lions, to date!)
This year, we were fortunate with the weather; although we set up camp on a stormy Sunday afternoon, the rest of the week was sunny and refreshingly cool, while still allowing those who wished the chance to swim daily in the ocean. With the pivotal help of Ms. Desouches (CWS Music Director), we ate our meals at our campsite, which had a stunning view overlooking a small cove and then out into the Atlantic Ocean. Each morning we were awakened by trap-laden lobster boats heading out to sea, and each evening we listened to them return. Although camping together is nothing new for CWS students, doing so in such a location is very special and provides the students with significant class bonding time, as well.
The first experience of life in the tide pools was a confusing jumble of color and form. By the end, though, the students were confidently naming different species of crabs and snails, and could make much more sense of this vibrant ecosystem.
During the week, the students had three sessions in the tide pools, identifying organisms and learning about which ones inhabit the various tidal zones. As is so often the case when one is confronted with a new situation, the first experience of life in the tide pools was a confusing jumble of color and form. By the end, though, the students were confidently naming different species of crabs and snails, and could make much more sense of this vibrant ecosystem. There is, after all, no comparison between looking at pictures in a book or on a screen and standing in a tide pool actually holding an animal one has just found.
Earlier in the day students attended main lesson in a large building called the “Kelp Shed,” which is a rustic old building once used for storing kelp that was later needed for vitamin production for soldiers during World War II and now serves as a café in the summer. After Labor Day, however, it is taken over by the Waldorf “insurgents,” and provides a comfortable teaching space for more than 100 students.
The morning sessions featured a classroom experience for all the students together. Each lesson was devoted to a specific marine animal phylum, followed by labs in the arts and sciences, with plenty of time between for relaxing and socializing. The students worked in groups with members from all the schools; and faculty from each school collaborated to do the teaching. It was good for everyone to experience new instructors and to work with new students in this way.
But classroom lessons are only a small part of the Hermit Island experience. Overall, the week achieves a fine balance of scientific and artistic activities. Lecture and discussion-based analysis of the morphology and behaviors of the animals is complemented by sketching of live samples, from both naked eye and microscopic views; everyone marveled at the intricate “kicking” of barnacle feet filtering the water, both in their ingenious function and their exquisite forms. A colored pencil sketch of the rocky shore accompanied the tide pool inventory. Study of dune ecology on one day was followed by painting a delicate watercolor seascape the next. Every student spent an afternoon with the English teachers writing sea-based poetry, and most lessons included singing. In good Waldorf fashion, left brain and right brain were equally nourished.
Evenings featured conversation and music of a different kind. At common campfires, classes, small groups and individuals had the chance to share something musical or otherwise artistic, and forge new social connections. One night also involved representatives from each class relating their classmates’ thoughts on the week’s theme: the earth as an organism. It is often deeply moving to hear the thoughtful way that the students are able to engage such an important topic.
One night we were treated to engaging readings from two local authors far down the island near an isolated beach under a full moon, while another evening offered a popular New England style Contra Dance at the Kelp Shed, stargazing, and moonlit beach walking.
On the last afternoon, we travelled to Popham Beach State Park, a few miles up the road from Hermit Island, where we socialized with other students and enjoyed an amazing beach with a beautiful rocky island that can be reached on foot when the tide is out. (Beware, however, that you turn back before the high tide returns!) Our finale each year involves a traditional lobster dinner at a pastoral beachside restaurant known as Spinneys, which is just down the way from Fort Popham, a Civil War-era coastal defense fortification at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
The students returned home enriched with new friendships, with a deep experience of nature far from the big city, and an appreciation of how various questions can manifest in different ways in Waldorf schools spread out across the country.
Article by Michael Holdrege, High School Science Teacher / Photos by Alberto Correa, High School Spanish Teacher