Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Learning Village at Sacred Mountain Sanctuary: Asheville, NC

As we walked up the beautiful mountain path toward The Learning Village, busy children were going about their day. Three girls used long poles to swat down persimmons from the tall trees, and a little boy chased a hen in a playful (and eventually successful) attempt to corral the chickens back in their coop for the night.

In the central farmhouse we met the teachers and looked around the cozy living space. We were offered slices of the leftover persimmon pudding from the lunch the children had cooked. Imagine the most tender, deliciously spiced dark sweet bread, with chunks of soft persimmon baked throughout. Yum.

Sacred connection with self, others, and the natural world is the overarching philosophy of Sacred Mountain Sanctuary, of which The Learning Village is a key part. The school uses many of the teachings of Steiner, as well as a strong outdoor and wilderness program. As our guide said: Students work with their hands in many ways that may not have a visible product: the product may be social, or spiritual. Any product of learning should be valuable, useful, and beautiful. It must have some kind of utility, either internal or external. There are no worksheets.

The Learning Village began a few years ago, based in part on the idea that when pressure for outcome is removed, students are freed to grow and learn. The first students were a handful of children with learning differences. Our teacher-guide shared that students who had come to the school as 12-year-old nonreaders, now love to read and learn. Freed from performance pressure and a fear-based setting, these learners flourished.

The days, weeks and months are full of rhythm. Each day begins with a walk to the nearby mountain spring to wash off the outside world and refill water containers. Children enter their classrooms, start the wood-burning fire, and make tea from herbs they've gathered and dried. Every Friday all the children gather in the main farmhouse to prepare lunch in shifts by age: the youngest students cut & prepare ingredients, older students cook. The central farmhouse serves as a gathering spot as well as the shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, while each classroom is housed in a yome nearby.

The teachers work to create a Waldorf-inspired curriculum that is flexible and able to integrate profound wisdoms from other cultures to the areas in which a Waldorf curriculum might be Eurocentric. For example, according to our hostess, in Waldorf pedagogy there isn’t a study of Chinese medicine or astronomy, so they are creating new curricula. In each mixed-age class (or "learning circle" as they are called here), morning exercises include tai chi, qigong, as well as Waldorf circle practices. The teacher presents the main lesson in the Waldorf style, while the afternoon is spent outside in nature. As opportunities emerge, teachers feel free to deviate from the curriculum; for example, a recent guest came to teach the entire school how to make wildflower essences.

Evidence of truly authentic student work was all over.  Multiple vegetables gardens dotted the property. Students had built the stone steps leading to the main farmhouse. In the middle schoolers' circle, students had knitting work from wool sheared from sheep they tended, which was then spun on a drop-spindle that they made by hand. In the nearby solar dehydrator they were making teas and drying apples.

The ways in which The Learning Village deviates from a traditional Waldorf school I felt were for the best. For instance, there is very little dictation, something that I remember being very bored and annoyed by as a student. Instead, the teacher tells the day's story, and the students create something that is their own. Significant time outside engaged in learning projects or exploring the woods happens every day, instead of on a project-by-project basis.

The Learning Village is working toward becoming a tuition-free school, an inspiring goal. Through revenue gained through other facets of the community (Biodynamic produce, medicinal herbs, etc.), they plan to build enough of an economy that the school itself can be free.

There is so, so much more that was wonderful about this school. I'm looking forward to visiting again! Thank you for your inspiration! I'll leave you with the view of the setting sun from the top of the mountain.

A few more highlights:
  • Very small classes: no more than eight learners in each learning circle. 
  • A 200-year-old cabin that came with the property is transitioning into a pottery studio. 
  • School is Tuesday-Friday: a four-day “work week.” Teachers open up the Village to visiting schools on Monday for enrichment activities.

Our hostess mentioned that with 8 children it’s easy to be able to go into the woods and give them time to “pause, and be quiet.” It really resonated with my sense that children need time to “sit and wonder.” Such a treat to see a school where this is a real part of the learning day! Thoughts or reflections, anyone?


  1. Thank you so much for this beautiful post! We are very honored and blessed to be creating and holding this space for these children. Thanks for sharing our sweet school with others! ;)

    1. Thank YOU! I am so happy that I was able to visit your school. Carry on with the good work! All my best.