The Gift of a Life : Joan Almon (1944-2019)

Joan Almon, who served as General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America from July 2002 to October 2007, crossed the threshold of death early on the morning of Sunday, July 14, 2019, at the age of 74. She was married to the economist Clopper Almon, himself a noted writer and teacher of anthroposophy.

A kindergarten teacher who discovered Waldorf, Joan was a founding teacher of the Waldorf School of Baltimore who went on to found what became the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America(WECAN) in 1983. She co-founded the Alliance for Childhood in 1999, and was a much appreciated school consultant, speaker, writer, conference organizer, and activist internationally, as well as an artist in storytelling and puppetry. (You can experience her wonderful combination of warmth, intelligence, and purpose in the videos below.) Recently Joan was the generous donor who enabled the ASA to launch the Sacred Gateway conference series, on the end of life experience, and she was honored at the second conference in April of this year.

Joan understood the work with children as an urgent necessity for humanity as a whole. Her pamphlet from 1998 was called “The Right to Childhood — a Human Right.” Among others, she wrote Fool’s Gold – A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, and co-authored Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.

In October 1998 Joan’s path to this work was featured in the first English-language edition of Anthroposophy Worldwide. “I was born in the United States, Wilmington, Delaware. In 1944, just six years after my parents fled their home in Germany. They were Jewish immigrants seeking a new life. They tried not to burden my brother and myself with all that they had experienced while we were young, but the little they told entered us deeply and awoke in us a great concern for human freedom and social justice.

“As a University student during the turbulent 1960’s, I was very drawn to social problems and social action. Education courses did not interest me at all. My first jobs after the university were for organizations devoted to social change in the field of civil rights and poverty and I had a chance to meet many of the leaders in those fields. After a few years of this work I began to realize that outer change needed to be matched with inner transformation if it was to be fully effective. As I began searching for my inner path I met a group of people similarly searching. They had decided to open a kindergarten and I was very drawn to this initiative and finally found the courage to say that I wanted to be one of the teachers. I did not know that I was opening a door to my life work…”

Joan’s passing in this centenary year of Waldorf education recalls her remarks at the New York Branch for the 2010 centennial celebration of the first Rudolf Steiner study group in North America. According to notes from her talk, Joan began by speaking about

the “resurrection rhythm” of a century: that it consists of three periods of 33 1/3 years, the lifetime of Jesus and the Christ on earth. So this centennial is a moment of reinforcement. She recalled her own meeting with anthroposophy as a Baltimore kindergarten teacher. Having learned some techniques of Waldorf education, she applied some very simple ones in her work and experienced an immediate change: the children came to life.

When tested later also in poor inner-city schools, there was the same result. She mentioned the work of Monica Alexandra in the public system, reporting that “the children are angry, their souls are not being fed”; people are starting to speak of “educational abuse.” In Los Angeles there is teaching from scripts from kindergarten on, with monitors enforcing it. After their experience of collectivism, visiting East European teachers are appalled by what they see happening here. By contrast, Waldorf education says simply that a child is a child, and that “education must stir the soul.”

Rudolf Steiner offered a double mandate: intense inward work, and intense outward work. Joan identified our challenge today as giving children strength to meet what they have to meet. There is a real struggle of good and evil in the world, and we must help them find their way. The old fairy tales teach about good and evil in a way children can recognize. A century ago children could simply follow their parents’ example; today few parents know what example to set. And the rhythms of public school are very strong, and media programmers know how to hold attention by producing a vulnerable fight-or-flight feeling.

Her colleagues at WECAN speak for many more when they recall her as “a warrior with an enormous heart, tremendous will forces, and a deep understanding of the needs of the young child.” And fortunately her inspiring work is significantly documented in video recordings online.

Three videos with Joan Almon:

Dynamic Education in an Era of Rigorous Curriculum, Accountability and Standards (2013, 92nd Street Y, 51 min.; storytelling, “kindergarten standards,” play-based vs. didactic approaches, pre-school expulsion rates—and giving children tools for the future, creativity, risk, courage, and caring for others.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyPT9IRJcNU

The Word Gap & The Common Core (2014, Albert Shanker Institute, 20 min.; research results; the memorable and integrative power of play, its long-term impact.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75Oa-AFpz1c

Encouraging Adventure: Redefining Success to Include Risk (2014, Wellesley College, 90 min.; play and risk: giving children appropriate opportunities to experience and assess risk; society taking risks with children.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Su0ZWT0zkU

John Beck

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