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Faculty Spotlight: Joyce Olson-Kapell, Handwork

Handwork plays an integral role in child development at Minnesota Waldorf School. This unique subject class begins in first grade and continues on through 8th grade, strengthening concentration skills, hand eye coordination, and balance all while developing the joy of the creative process. We are so proud of the talented busy hands at Minnesota Waldorf School and their teacher Joyce Olson-Kapell. Get to know Joyce or Ms. Kapell as your children know her, and learn more about the MWS handwork curriculum.

What do you teach?
Handwork and woodwork for 1st through 8th grades

How did you end up teaching handwork and woodwork at MWS?
My commitment to Waldorf education started when my son started preschool in a Waldorf school. I fell in love with the curriculum and teaching method so I went to Sunbridge Institute, where I went through the grades teacher training. I taught in various capacities at City of Lakes and worked in the school store and at their holiday fair. Along with some other parents, we opened a store called Wonderment in Linden Hills, which expanded to a second location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. In addition to selling Waldorf
inspired toys and materials, we offered craft classes and birthday parties, as well as a summer camp program. With the economic downturn in 2008, we sadly had to close the stores. I continued offering classes and summer camp in my own studio space. When the handwork position opened at Minnesota Waldorf School six or seven years ago, I applied. This is a great school and I truly love teaching the children. I want to tell everyone what a great place this is!

Why handwork?
Growing up, making things was our family culture. When my son started preschool, I was inspired by the beautiful handwork. Handwork is one of my favorite things, and to do this with children is the best. I have the best job in the school!

When do children start learning handwork and woodworking?
In first grade, the children begin by learning how to knit. By eighth grade, they know how to knit, crochet, wet felt, cross stitch and sew. The children start woodworking in fifth grade when they carve a human form out of basswood with a whittling knife. It is hard work and the finished projects are beautiful.

How does handwork support the curriculum?
Handwork supports the curriculum in so many ways! The most obvious and important one is the development of the will. For example, in fourth grade, the children learn to cross stitch. They start with planning the design at the beginning of the year and they work and work at hundreds of tiny stitches until their project is finished. This might take all year. It teaches them to focus and concentrate over the course of many months to finally have this completed and beautiful project. It teaches that everything that is worth doing takes consistent effort. This is an exercise in the will that the children will use throughout their life.

There are so many other benefits. In first grade, the children learn how to knit. This supports dexterity and eye tracking from left to right, which translates to reading and writing. Handwork supports development of the children’s twelve senses that Steiner talks about. We use natural materials because there are variations in color and texture that help sensitize sight and feeling in the fingertips. They cross the midline in knitting and cross stitching, which helps activate the left and right sides of the brain. Handwork involves math skills as the children count stitches.

What life lessons does handwork teach?
Children gain self-esteem and confidence when they see that they can make something beautiful and useful with their own hands. This is even more important in today’s age of technology where you can push a button and have instant gratification. I think of handwork as an antidote to that. Rather than being passive, the children actively create something with natural materials, which instills confidence and pride in what they can accomplish. I recall a child who started at MWS in 5th grade, which is when the children learn how to knit socks. The child had to start by learning to knit on two needles, which was really hard for him. By the end of the year, he finished the socks. To see his face and how proud he was of himself, it was truly beautiful.

If you could pass any wisdom to parents, what would you share?
Put real tools in the children’s hands and give them real skills. I’ve always felt empowered, mostly because of my dad. He would give us tools, show us how to use them and let us go. He trusted us and our abilities, which was empowering. I can rewire a light fixture and replace the faucet. Doing these things isn’t the purview of the experts. We as human beings can learn anything. It’s empowering for children to know they can learn to do things. In handwork at MWS, children in seventh and eighth grade have the confidence to take on a project and run with it because they’ve been given the tools and skills.

If you could be a student in any other teacher’s class for a day, which would you pick and why?
I would love to be in Mr. Harris’s class learning the circus arts, the trapeze and the rings. He is such a fun teacher and has a great energy. I am so happy we have him at MWS.

What is your favorite handwork to do yourself?
Wet felting is my favorite. You’re creating something out of wool fluff and you can make these beautiful things in a short amount of time, which is perfect when life is busy. I often make wet felted slippers for holiday gifts. I also love woodworking.

I also enjoy making craft kits that I sell through Bella Luna and on Etsy. My store is called Pied Piper crafts.