Enter a grades classroom at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia and you will notice painted walls, natural materials, a soothing yet studious atmosphere, and a beautiful chalk drawing that details the main lesson of the day.
The chalk drawings are a hallmark of Waldorf Education. They imbue the classroom with beauty, inspiration and a desire for learning.
Every grade has a general curriculum, but how one brings the specific subject matter to the class is unique for each teacher. Teachers have the freedom to bring what they believe will evoke a suitable mood for their particular class. Sometimes the drawings are very simple, and at times the chalk drawings are copied or inspired by a work of art. This year, Shannon Stevens, teacher of the fourth grade chose to draw a version of Wyeth’s “The Giant” to illustrate Norse mythology.
“I first saw Wyeth’s Giant when I was eight years old. I remember standing there, looking deeply at the children on the beach and the dynamic clouds above the ocean. And then I saw it. In the clouds. Forty years later I can still vividly remember that experience.”
Bill Engle, a budding artist, once wished to create something that children see and adults don’t. A trip to local artist N.C. Wyeth’s studio inspired him to pursue art after high school. He went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. where N.C.Wyeth was his mentor. Engle died on his 25th birthday from tuberculosis but at a school reunion at Westtown, Engle’s classmates recalled his wish and commissioned N.C. Wyeth to fulfill it.
In the painting, a group of children are watching a giant who is hidden in the clouds. Five of the children are Wyeth’s own: Andrew Wyeth is the blond boy and Bill Engle is depicted as the child wearing a hat. The original painting was hung in the Westtown cafeteria in 1923 and still hangs there today where it is admired and respected by the middle and high school students. It has never been soiled with even a speck of food.
Shannon Stevens loves this painting and the painting’s story. What follows is the story of how Shannon decided to draw her version of N.C. Wyeth’s “The Giant”
I knew I would begin the year teaching Norse mythology, including tales beyond the imagination: gods, goddesses, and giants. I wanted to feed the student’s imaginations.
The beach is a familiar local spot, visited and enjoyed by many of the students and their families. I wanted to bring this to the students. I have a framed copy of the print and I contemplated hanging this in the classroom. But I knew that a chalk drawing would offer my students a richer experience and that the intention would be a more living gift to the class than the print. But did I dare?
I thought long and hard about this and two days before the start of school, I began. I spent the day layering blue upon purple, white upon white, orange, gold, peach and purple, pulling out the giant and then blending him in. Then the ocean. Then each child, with wind tossed hair. It took time. My neck ached. My face was smudged. I took breaks. But as each part of the drawing took form, I found renewed strength and determination. Chalk is a forgiving medium, so even the materials supported my effort. At last I was done.
Here was my gift to the class! Creativity is a joy which feeds deeply.
My wish, my intention, my resolve are in the lines and colors of this chalk drawing. I do not need to tell my students this. It quietly whispers to them.
It whispers and echoes their struggle to learn things, their daring to try, they may fail but they persevere, they gain resiliency. They are led and encouraged by my efforts, one such effort being the chalk drawing. The students are hungry to learn, ready to meet each challenge I present. They are happy for it. I will eventually tell them the story of my drawing: of the famous local artist and the young man who had a wish. And eventually I will erase the chalk drawing. An exercise in letting go, so that the new can arrive. This cycle continues month by month, year by year. Beauty is replaced by beauty.
Shannon Stevens is the teacher of the fourth grade and the parent of five children, three of whom are graduates of The Waldorf School of Philadelphia.