Intercultural Waldorf education: what’s that?

By Christiane Adam, Susanne Piwecki, December 2020

In order to teach children from different social backgrounds, nations and cultures, schools have to open themselves up: to the neighbourhood in which they are located, to the people and to diversity. To this end it is helpful to set up a series of particular features regarding organisation, school culture and teaching which further fill out the approach of Waldorf education to go beyond being a teaching establishment.

What distinguishes an intercultural Waldorf school from any other Waldorf school? In terms of their socioeconomic, ethnic and religious origins, the pupils of an intercultural Waldorf school come from a range of families with very different educational backgrounds and family constellations. Here many of the pupils come from educationally disadvantaged families and residential neighbourhoods in which the opportunities for development and living conditions with regard to social, economic and health aspects are below average. Ever since the so-called PISA studies we know that this disproportionately affects children and young people with an immigrant background.

Everyone, Germans and non-Germans, Germans with an immigrant background and without, privileged and disadvantaged, brings their own stories and their learned prejudices to the everyday life of the school and the task is to coalesce this diverse throng into a harmonious community – something that can be done above all if the pupils form a stable community from class one.

The class teacher of a class 4 at the Mannheim school related that a pupil had come at carnival time and reported that the imam had said that to dress up was a sin. He was clearly worried that one of his flock was coming into too contact with Christian traditions. The class teacher, himself a Muslim, told her that this was nonsense and that she should tell the imam that carnival was not originally a Christian tradition at all. At carnival the girl arrived in fancy dress and took great delight in the festival.

The rhythmical nature of the Waldorf school curriculum is helpful in this respect: the course of the day offers the children an urgently need bearing and a meaningful structure, something that many parental homes can no longer offer their children. The morning goes roughly as in most other Waldorf schools: the main lesson and breaktime are followed by the subject lessons. The curriculum is, however, supplemented with subjects which additionally help with cultural education (language of interaction and cultural lessons) and with additional teaching for sensory perception and fine motor skills (project lessons).

Cultural education and language of interaction

A contribution to reciprocal understanding across language and cultural barriers are the “cultural lessons”. They start at the intercultural Waldorf school in Mannheim in the first two years of school with lessons in the language of interaction across classes, in which the children are divided up and taught in several language groups (including Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Bosnian …). These lessons are not primarily about language acquisition but the appreciation of multilinguialism and the encounter with the dynamic culture associated with a language. Frequently the pupils discover many common aspects despite their different lifeworlds and family backgrounds and learn to encounter differences with openness. In class 3 the advanced cultural education is attached to main lesson and to begin with Jewish culture is brought to experience through songs, dances and the celebration of Jewish festivals. In a similar way Christianity is dealt with in class 4 and Islam in class 5. The aim is always to make religious motifs accessible to the pupils through their personal experience.

Since the pupils in class 8 and class 9 are at an age at which the struggle for ideals and a greatly changing relationship with the world emerge with increasing clarity, ethics lessons with the key question: “Where are my boundaries?” and “What is the quality of my relationship with the world?” are suitable for facing the burning questions of the young people searching for themselves.

Special language support

All teachers at the intercultural Waldorf school set themselves the task in their lessons to provide support for the German language and, in an age-appropriate way, the acquisition of the language of education. Together they reflect the desire that the multilingualism of the children should be valued and, depending on the subject, that the associated language skills and specialist vocabulary should be promoted. But the experience of recent years has shown that the cultivation of German in main and subject lessons is not sufficient to provide adequate support for all children, including in the written language.

For this reason the Mannheim Free Intercultural Waldorf School has for many years offered intensive language support through lessons to consolidate German (Deutsch als Vertiefungssprache (DaV)) from class 1 to class 11, because a solid linguistic basis is an important condition for learning as a whole. Naturally these lessons are designed in a typical Waldorf way: vivid, artistic and creative.

The DaV lessons play an invaluable role with regard to the self-confidence of pupils – with and without an immigrant background – who are, to begin, with very insecure in their language, because the lessons develop the ability of the pupils to express themselves which is fundamental for social interaction, communication and understanding.

Action-oriented project lessons

In an environment which due to confined living space, lack of proximity to nature, and city living offers fewer and fewer opportunities to use the senses and discover the world through play, there is a need for a targeted provision of play spaces in which the children can undertake practical activities. This is true of the city neighbourhoods in which the intercultural Waldorf schools are located more than elsewhere. Here action-oriented project lessons, which already start in the lower classes, can stimulate the training of the senses and movement in close proximity to nature and aligned with the seasons.

The supreme goal in all educational provision is to connect the children with as much cultural content as possible which may not be familiar to them from home: thus a puppet show can be rehearsed in which the story comes from Turkey and where the puppets were first made by the pupils themselves. At carnival, the pupils bake Croatian or Polish biscuits which only vary in shape and the spices used. Or board games are designed and made which go back to African game ideas. As much as possible of what the world has to offer should be brought to the experience of the children and a global perspective established.

In the afternoon, the pupils can take part in supervised homework or after-school care and a whole range of workshops are offered. The longer time spent together serves social integration in intercultural schools and offers an alternative to some home lives in which there is a lack of stimulation, the TV is sometimes on from morning to night and hardly any meals are taken together.

School sets out to be an interesting environment which supports development in which children, parents, teachers and people from the surroundings meet in daily interchange. These tasks, which are based on an extended understanding of education, clearly reach into fields of education occupied by social education and are best managed by a multiprofessional team: the success of teachers, nursery teachers, social workers and psychologists will increase the better they work together.

Thus the first intercultural Waldorf school in the USA, the Community School for Creative Education in Oakland, California, has a food bank on its premises and is involved in a political initiative in its neighbourhood intended to strengthen democratic structures. It regularly invites people from the neighbourhood to the school, including members of the police, anti-drugs officers and anti-radicalisation officers, who through their professional or personal commitment can serve as role models for the children, to give talks and attend discussion events.

Intensive work with parents

Intensive work with parents is another building block which enables coexistence and integration. The inclusion of parents in the work of the school in joint actions and for celebrations is a natural part of the programme of Waldorf education. Beyond that, intercultural Waldorf schools offer special strategies to integrate parents as closely as possible into the affairs of the school. The former class teacher in the Hamburg school experiment, Christiane Leiste, placed great value on personal contact: if she did not meet parents at the school gate in advance of a parents’ evening to invite them personally, she would simply look in briefly at their home. Our Hamburg colleague found that this perhaps unusual measure worked well: all in all, strategies of a “proactive approach” to parents seem to be promising and create a connection.

At festivals, parents with an international history above all involve themselves quite naturally: gözleme und baklava are baked and food with bulgur, chickpeas and eastern spices are brought along – tasty diversity. Other involvement in the school community sometimes tends to be less familiar. Thus one mother laughed out loud when in the finance meeting the possibility of parental involvement was offered. No, involvement of the parents beyond parents’ evenings and festivals was not something she could imagine! Other parents, on the other hand, like to participate and don’t just want to man the buffets.

There are families who require support beyond lessons and therefore the work with parents has to be sensitively extended: if visits at home cause difficulty – some are ashamed of the circumstances in which they live – alternatives can be found. Special occasions such as a birthday or Ramadan, also family walks, can create opportunities to talk about developmental processes. Zan Redzic, a class teacher in Mannheim, reports: “Some of our families require close support because they find some things difficult that come quite naturally to others. If a child requires therapy, for example, you always have to watch whether the family might need support in order to organise the necessary help.”

It is important for intercultural Waldorf schools to find people who can help in all areas and provide permanent stability for the work. Thus the Community School for Creative Education when it first started worked closely with the relevant district manager who liaised to establish contact with the families in the district and the various religious and ethnic communities. Workshops informed about Waldorf education but the wishes of the parents were included in the work at the same time and integrated into the concept of the school.

Artistic elements such as eurythmy and form drawing as well as trips together to existing Waldorf schools gave a direct impression beyond language barriers of the planned project. Once this has been established, parents have remained a firm part of the everyday life of the school and can participate in the morning ritual of the school community each day. Everyone then gathers in a large circle on the roof of the school and together recites the school motto “Receive the children in reverence, educate them in love, let them go forth in freedom” in at least four languages.

Differentiated networking

An important resource for the great success of the school turned out particularly to be differentiated networking: with parents and in the neighbourhood, as well as through contact with the local authority, social workers, religious communities, clubs and parents’ associations. Here institutions are particularly relevant which are familiar to people who have not yet had any contact with intercultural Waldorf education: cultural associations, immigrant self-help organisations, religious institutions such as mosques and synagogues, sports clubs and others. They pave the way both to creating trust among parents and as multipliers.

The work of the intercultural Waldorf schools and initiatives is not substantially different from any other Waldorf school but differs in important details and emphasis. They don’t want to be special schools for special cases but, like every other Waldorf school, the appropriate school for wherever they are located.

About the author: Christiane Adam, co-founder of the Mannheim Intercultural Waldorf School, doctoral project on the subject of educational advancement at Waldorf schools; Susanne Piwecki, chief executive of the Mannheim Intercultural Waldorf School; both are members of the Intercultural and Socially Integrative Initiatives Working Group.

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