SARANAC LAKE - Jenn Cantwell sits in a room at Northern Lights School surrounded by wooden toys while showing a handmade wooden flute.
She is a self-described somewhat native, living in Wilmington with her husband Mike and 6-year-old daughter Gemma.
"My father's family came over during the potato famine and settled in Franklin Falls," Jenn said. "I even had a great-grand uncle who was in the Civil War named Casper Wolfe, and one of his sons is buried in the cemetery there."
When her parents divorced, Jenn moved to Arizona to finish high school. Upon graduation, she joined the Air Force. She was already part of Junior ROTC, so it was a natural progression to go into the service.
"I enlisted at the rank of airman first class and left eight years later as a sergeant," she said. "I worked specifically as a mechanic on the C-5 Galaxy stationed at Dover Air Force Base. I was on the plane for eight years, inspecting the structure."
The C-5 Galaxy is a cargo transport ship that's main purpose is to provide strategic airlift for combat and support forces by means of deployment or supplies. The C-5 can carry large and heavy freight with the speed of a jet. It is one of the world's largest aircrafts. It is six stories high, as long as a football field and the cargo compartment could hold an eight-lane bowling alley. The Galaxy has been carrying troops and supplies for over thirty years.
Jenn adds that Dover Air Force Base (located close to Washington, D.C.) is also the port mortuary where they bring back all the fallen soldiers. She thanks her dad for encouraging her to go into the service. For anyone not knowing what to do right out of high school she feels this is a wonderful option.
She had worked her way up the ranks to sergeant and was honorably discharged. Her father helped her pack and she moved back to Wilmington to find out what the next stage of her life would bring. She worked a series of odd jobs from an estate gardener to assisting at craft shops and art shows. She worked for Black Fly Control, where she ventured out into the wilderness using Bti bacteria to control the black fly larvae. It was while working at Asplin Tree Farm, where she met her husband.
"I attended North Country Community College and received my associate's degree before continuing on at Potsdam. I am a state certified teacher with my bachelor's from Potsdam and my masters in education from Plattsburgh," Jenn said. "Before coming to Northern Lights School I had a variety of jobs. I was a preschool teacher at Children's Corner and that was fun. I worked for BOCES as a teacher's assistant and substituted at the high school.
"When I was attending school at Potsdam, I was excited about learning all the standards but I felt something was missing. I did a research paper on alternative education and that is where I learned about Waldorf. I thought it was right, since it had those concepts that were missing, like having the same teacher for the grades one through eight.
"It wasn't until my daughter Gemma was five months old that I truly got involved by coming to Little Dippers, the child-parent group. I have the public school teacher foundation but my heart and soul is Waldorf."
According to Jenn, Northern Lights School in Saranac Lake is a Waldorf initiative based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner that provides young people with a nondenominational education utilizing nature and art in creative, imaginative ways.
"Kindergarten is about free play and learning social skills that are very important," Jenn said. "They are not at a developmental age where they can rationalize. They don't understand long-term, abstract consequences yet. So we need to be able to model appropriate behavior, not just talk. It won't sink in. These children are at the imitative age."
She addresses the issue of bullying and feels that young children may be perceived as being bullies only because they may not know how to be included in on the play. She attributes the behavior to frustrations from not being heard at home or just not knowing the most effective words to use.
"Kids asking if they can play together sounds easy," she said, shaking her head. "Most children want to be in on the play but don't know how to go about it so they come over and push. Another possible reason is, like myself, families have only one child who are not used to being around other children. You don't see many children who come from nine-children families much anymore. It is a whole different way of working with children and understanding all those issues.
"It is beneficial for children to have beautiful things around them as well as a peaceful environment. Then they are able to make interactions between themselves and learn from each other. We hear a lot about discipline today. What we are trying to do is build up, not tear down. Sometimes just having a caring teacher in close proximity without barging in lets them know that they are safe and having an adult near is all it takes to defuse a situation."
She describes how just one activity fully engages the children. They may bake bread where they get to see a task through to fruition. The teacher is close by, modeling the correct way to work. The kneading of the dough helps develop fine motor skills, shaping the dough aids in imagination, getting the whole body into the activity is kinesthetic, and the witnessing how different ingredients mix together creates something to eat is totally sensory. It is a hands-on experience that kids can complete.
"Here at Northern Lights School, we look forward to having our community art days and festivals happening throughout the year so people can see what we have going on," Jenn said. "We also have open enrollment for the preschool and kindergarten classes. Next year will have a new first grade. We have Little and Big Dippers, two different groups for infants and children under three. I feel that those groups are just as important for the parents as for the kids as a place to socialize and share ideas."
Jenn describes the environment of the school as being just as important as the actions. She understands that children at this young age (4-6) have difficulty expressing themselves and may act out in order to get their point across. Her goal is to take the time and listen to understand the why of it. She hopes to make a difference in these young lives by doing the simple things that will help them later in life, like finishing a job well done, appreciating and protecting the beauty of nature, and learning to interact and cooperate with others.