with Virginia Berg, Grade 7 Teacher

Seventh grade is often characterized as a year of extremes, both emotional and social. As with every grade, the Waldorf curriculum brings lessons and activities that match or mirror the inner life of the students in that stage of their development. In science classes, this often means studying phenomena in the outer world that reflect the inner feelings or experiences of the students. So, what does this look like in 7th Grade chemistry?

The answer: Combustion! The students had the chance to observe the burning of different materials, under the watchful and experienced eye of Wade Cavin, longtime PWHS science teacher. Along with the fun and excitement of playing (safely!) with fire, students were able to discuss how items ignited differently and let off different amounts and qualities of heat and light. These observations are foundational to the more advanced conversations in chemistry and physics that will occur for these students in the years ahead.

Other topics covered in the 7th grade chemistry block are some of the earth cycles, including the lime cycle. Why? These big processes constantly at work in the earth have everything to do with combatting hopelessness. Imagine this seventh grade class, on their recent field trip to the McKenzie River, a tributary of the Willamette that flows out of the Cascade Mountains east of Eugene. They explored a watershed where it takes 20 years for the water to percolate through lava beds, coming out pure enough to drink. They camped by a lake that stays at 32.5 degrees—too cold for anything to live—where you can look down into the lake and see the skeletons of trees that have been preserved there, protected by the cold water from microbes that cause decay, for thousands of years. Children hear so much about the degradation of the earth that it is a fresh experience for them to see an earth cycle that has remained pristine and preserved through time. It’s an immense geological process that exists beyond the time and influence we have.

And in the case of the lime cycle, students then have the opportunity to make the lesson concrete (pun intended) by creating a small-scale enactment of the lime cycle in class. This year’s study of the lime cycle was particularly exciting, because our seventh graders teamed up with their peers from Ms. Elverhoy’s class at Cedarwood Waldorf School, who hopped on the MAX to come experiment with us! These students have had the opportunity to encounter each other through learning and play over the years at the Olympiad, Medieval Games, the recent track meet, and the series of regional Waldorf middle school dances, but this shared experience of chemistry brought new energy to that connection. Again under Mr. Cavin’s careful guidance, students fired marble and limestone rock in a homemade kiln up to 1700 degrees, creating crumbly quicklime. The addition of water then created a hot and bubbly reaction, turning the quicklime into slaked lime, which is the basis for concrete. Working together, students then mixed the slaked lime with sand and water, and molded objects out of it, thinking back to last year’s studies of ancient Rome and the structure of the Parthenon, a classic example of humans imagining, designing, and creating something grand and beautiful through an enactment of this natural earth cycle.