Diversity in Waldorf Education

Waldorf Books Diversity Section

by Kristie Burns

Earthschooling, that just recently became a sister company to Waldorf Books, was built on a foundation of diversity. I taught classes that included children from over 14 different countries and represented over six different religions, in a country where there were only three seasons. This presented a unique challenge— I needed to find or create hundreds of stories, verses, lessons, and images that reflected the students in my class and their community. These were not readily available at the time in the Waldorf community, nor are they among readily available Waldorf resources within the community even today— 25 years later.

For this reason I am working with Mosi Mandil at Waldorf Books to create a diversity section of titles that will help support parents who want their children to be able to relate to the characters in the stories they share with them— either because they see themselves in those stories or because they see those people in the diverse world around them. It is impossible for one curriculum to meet everyone’s diversity needs, so my hope is that by partnering with Waldorf Books, we can help create a resource to fill those needs for the community no matter which curriculum you are using.

Mosi is excited about this project as well. Being of diverse heritage herself, she has often been treated differently according to prejudices of different teachers, parents, or employers she has had experiences with. Her father is from the Khartoum (Sudan) and has his own mixed heritage of Sudanese, Egyptian, Turkish, and even some Italian. Her mother (me) is from Iowa (America) and has a mixed heritage of mostly Scottish and British. We both understand how important it is for children to be able to hear stories about heroes, saints, princes, princesses, mystical creatures, and even everyday children, who share their same heritage.

However, over the years, working with thousands of parents and teachers, I have also learned to expand my view of diversity to encompass even detailed elements such as where a person lives. A parent wrote to me once asking, “do you have more stories where the children are living in the city? We live in the city and are not surrounded by all these forests and farms the Waldorf stories speak of.”

Another important aspect of embracing diversity in Waldorf education is to include neurodiverse children and children with disabilities in our stories. As a child on the autism spectrum, I learned at an early age that not everyone experiences the world in the same way. I wish stories of children on the autism spectrum had been there to help and support me through some of those difficult years of my life.

To find or create a story that embraces different cultures, different places, and differently-abled children would be, for me, the holy grail of storytelling! And I have found a few of those gems.

In The People Pool, written by Waldorf teacher Alan Whitehead, he says, “at no point did Rudolf Steiner say that teachers have to tell the Grimm’s stories. He recommended on every hand the telling of ‘folk’ tales (‘marchen’). This has been mis-translated into English as ‘fairy’ tales. The German word for fairy is fee, and he certainly didn’t use this word.”

Alan goes on to say, “fairies are a very English manifestation, just as gnomes are Northern European. These beings of course, exist everywhere, it’s just a matter of perception. ‘Folk’ tale means, as the quoted passage makes clear, the story of one’s own people and place— the children’s own story. Remember what he said, ‘they were themselves a part of the story.’ The folk story is something that is continually created anew, as the circumstances of the folk change. They serve a particular time and place of a given people of folk.”

Although published books do not contain stories created by the teacher or parent themselves, they do contain stories that have been ‘created anew,’ and they can provide images and inspiration for creating one’s own stories, and even expanding the story beyond the book.

I’d like to introduce you to some of the books in our collection today. I will follow up this article with more books, as we have so many in that section! All these books have been carefully chosen with the following criteria:

  1. The book’s topic or genre must fit into the Waldorf curriculum.
  2. The art in the book must be gentle, creative, and speak to the heart. Books with cartoon-like art or ‘modern art,’ no matter how beautiful, were not considered for selection.
  3. Hardcover books were selected whenever available to encourage reverence for the book as an object.

The Rough Faced Girl: Native American, Algonquin

The publisher says: In a village by the shores of Lake Ontario lived an invisible being. All the young women wanted to marry him because he was rich, powerful, and supposedly very handsome. But to marry the invisible being the women had to prove to his sister that they had seen him. And none had been able to get past the sister’s stern, all-knowing gaze. Then came the Rough-Face girl, scarred from working by the fire. Could she succeed where her beautiful, cruel sisters had failed?

In Waldorf education, the seven-year-old child explores fairytales and folklore. The story of Cinderella is one that is told in hundreds of ways across many different cultures. I grew up knowing Cinderella as a blond, European princess. But when I studied linguistics and folklore in college, I learned that not everyone grew up with the same Cinderella.

This book allows the teacher to expand their student’s horizons by reading them versions of Cinderella that they may not be as familiar with. It was truly a treat for me to enjoy all the different versions that we read when my children were younger!

Come on Rain: African American

The publisher says: “Come on, rain,” Tess pleads to the sky as listless vines and parched plants droop in the endless heat. Up and down the block, cats pant while heat wavers off tar patches in the broiling alleyway. More than anything, Tess hopes for rain. And when it comes, she and her friends are ready for a surprising joyous celebration….Through exquisite language and acute observation, Newbery medalist Karen Hesse recreates the glorious experience of a quenching rainstorm on a sweltering summer day.”

This book fills a need in the Waldorf community of more seasonal stories told from the point of view of children from different cultures. As an anthropologist I am also defining culture to mean the different ways and different places people live in. For example, many seasonal stories told in the Waldorf classroom take place in the beautiful countryside, in the woods, or on a farm. This story takes place in the city, so it provides a nice seasonal story that city kids can relate to, but it still retains the charm of the Waldorf early childhood story.

This story also fills a need children have to explore different kinds of weather and be able to relate to seasonal stories they hear. In a world where many are sheltered by living in air-conditioned homes, children can become distant from other ways people may experience weather. When I lived in Cairo, we didn’t have air-conditioning at all and it was sweltering hot in the summer. We used to take naps in the middle of the day. I love the way this story creates a very close relationship between the girl and the weather. She is not indoors in the air-conditioning hiding from the weather, she is experiencing it and her mood is linked to it.

Hair Love: African American

The publisher says: Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own. It kinks, coils, and curls every which way. Zuri knows it’s beautiful. When Daddy steps in to style it for an extra special occasion, he has a lot to learn. But he LOVES his Zuri, and he’ll do anything to make her— and her hair— happy. Tender and empowering, Hair Love is an ode to loving your natural hair— and a celebration of daddies and daughters everywhere.

In Waldorf early childhood education, children are told stories about everyday life. Perhaps they hear stories about going to the store to go shopping or baking a cake. We may even tell them a story about taking care of chickens on a farm, getting dressed in the morning, or building sandcastles on the beach. Children from ages three to seven love to hear stories about themselves, and they love simple stories about everyday tasks.

This book is perfect for those children that have hair like Zuri or for children who’s friends, relative, neighbors, or community members have hair like Zuri. The story is simple and relatable while also humorous and delightful. Children from ages three to seven are naturally curious about the differences in people around them, and this book is a wonderful way to highlight the beauty in one of those differences. The other reason I chose this book for the collection is because it provides insight into a healthy father-child relationship.

Max Found Two Sticks: African American

The publisher says: This is a story of a young boy’s introduction to the joys of making music, certain to get many a child’s foot tapping and many a youngster drumming. One day when Max doesn’t feel like talking to anybody, he finds two sticks that make a perfect pair of drumsticks. He starts with a Pat…pat-tat on his thighs. Then he’s Dum…dum-dedumming on some boxes. Until finally he’s Cling…clang…da-BANGING on the garbage pails. Suddenly, when a marching band Thump-di-di-thumps around Max’s corner, the most wonderful thing happens, and Max learns that you don’t need to talk to say how you feel—especially when you’ve got music.

This beautiful book is something that all children educated in the Waldorf tradition can relate to. In Waldorf early childhood classes up until the middle grades, students are encouraged to create music through verse, through song, through rhythm, and even using objects from nature. What a joy for them to read a book about a boy who is doing the same thing! 

Another wonderful aspect of this book is its focus on rhythm. We all know how important rhythm is in Waldorf education and in the education of the child. This book is the perfect way to open up the child’s eyes and ears to the world of rhythm that surrounds them and help them to see rhythm where they might have seen none before.

The Way to Start a Day: Global

This book is perfect for so many grades in the Waldorf classroom. It can help inspire and diversify your morning verses in the early childhood classroom, it can gently introduce students to the world in the early grades (without all the intellectual lessons to go with it that should be saved for the older kids) and it can even provide insight into ancient cultures for the fifth grade classroom. This is a book that will be used in the classroom for many years!

The publisher says, “Some people say there is a new sun every day, and that it begins its life at dawn and lives for one day only. They say you have to welcome it. From cavemen, to the Aztecs, to the ancient Egyptians, Baylor Bird describes the ways that people throughout history and the world celebrated the dawn. By the end you may be inspired to create your own song for the sunrise.”

Knots on a Counting Rope: Blind, Native American Child

It has been hard for me to find books about children with disabilities that fit into the Waldorf curriculum. So imagine my joy upon finding this one that is written in such a beautiful way and can be used in multiple ways within the curriculum. It can be introduced as part of the Native American block in fourth grade, or it can be read as part of the social sciences block in second grade. Since the story is a tale of the grandfather’s birth it could even become part of a birthday tradition story for all ages.  

The publisher says, “The message of overcoming whatever obstacles you face is also a poignant one for teens. This book is yet another one that could hold a prominent place in your book corner for many years. In Knots on a Counting Rope, Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault tell a poignant story about a boys emerging confidence in facing his blindness in this beautiful children’s picture book illustrated by Ted Rand.

La Princesa and the Pea: Hispanic

The publisher says, “The Princess and the Peagets a fresh twist in this charming bilingual retelling, winner of the Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration. El príncipe knows this girl is the one for him, but, as usual, his mother doesn’t agree. The queen has a secret test in mind to see if this girl is really a princesa, but the prince might just have a sneaky plan, too . . .Spanish words are sprinkled throughout the book and clever rhymes make the reading even more fun.

I say, that it takes a lot more than substitution of names to create an authentic retelling of a folk tale. The beautiful thing about folk tales from different cultures is that each one teaches you a bit about the culture as you listen to the story. This book does a fantastic job of filling that potential in so many ways.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: African, Zimbabwe

My youngest daughter’s roommate is from Zimbabwe, so I have to admit this is one reason I chose this story.

The publisher says: This memorable retelling of Cinderella is perfect for introducing children to the fairy tale as well as the history, culture, and geography of the African nation of Zimbabwe. Inspired by a traditional African folktale, this is the story of Mufaro, who is proud of his two beautiful daughters. Nyasha is kind and considerate, but everyone— except Mufaro— knows that Manyara is selfish and bad-tempered. When the Great King decides to take a wife and invites the most worthy and beautiful daughters in the land to appear before him, Mufaro brings both of his daughters— but only one can be queen. Who will the king choose?

This book is suitable for ages seven and up. This is yet another story with a Cinderella theme.

One Last Word: Wisdom from Harlem: African American

With this book we are moving out of the realm of early childhood and early primary and into books for the older grades.

The publisher says: Inspired by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, bestselling author Nikki Grimes uses “The Golden Shovel” poetic method to create wholly original poems based on the works of master poets like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jean Toomer, and others who enriched history during this era. Each poem is paired with one-of-a-kind art from today’s most exciting African American illustrators–including Pat Cummings, Brian Pinkney, Sean Qualls, James Ransome, Javaka Steptoe, and many more— to create an emotional and thought-provoking book with timely themes for today’s readers.

In the seventh grade Waldorf classroom, students explore the world of poetry and venture in to writing their own. In eighth grade and high school they continue this journey, so this book can be introduced into any of those years. This book provides a wonderful way to diversify the student’s knowledge of poetry beyond the European classics. What will happen when a child finds out that poetry comes in many kinds of voices and one of those voices could be very close to their own? Wonderful things will happen! Pairing the poems with work by many different artists is the cherry on top. Children will get to explore the wonderful world of poetry and visual art at the same time.

The Other Side: American, Addressing Racism in General

The publisher says: Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. But the two girls strike up a friendship, and get around the grown-ups’ rules by sitting on top of the fence together. With the addition of a brand-new author’s note, this special edition celebrates the tenth anniversary of this classic book. Even young children will understand the fence metaphor and they will enjoy the quiet friendship drama.

This book is suitable for ages seven and up and can fit into the Waldorf curriculum as part of the social sciences or history lesson. As the Waldorf child grows, they should spend time studying cultures, history, and experiences starting at home and their own town (age seven) and then expanding out to their country (age eight), and beyond (age nine and up). Stories should be told in a way that is suitable for their age. Seven-year-olds respond best to stories that are familiar to them or have familiar surroundings (perhaps like the farm in the book). For older children, listening to or reading a piece of history through the eyes of two children who are friends is the perfect gentle introduction they need before they venture into the more serious studies of history and culture in fifth grade and up.

Alan Whitehead shares, “Rudolf Steiner’s oft-stated fear was that this wonderful educational impulse would ossify into its own traditionalism and alas his trepidation in many cases was well-founded. As Rudi Lissau, an old-hand Steiner teacher observed, ‘In all the English-speaking Steiner schools known to me, the Class 2 teacher tells the story of The King of Ireland’s Son. Why? What had Rudolf Steiner said? Nothing. It was Jesse Darrell who long ago chose this story for his class and soon people took it as a given. I wonder whether this is really the art of education Steiner wanted to encourage, with the teacher a creative and responsible artist responding to the needs of his/her particular class?’

We hope this section of books featuring diversity will inspire parents and teachers around the world to open up their Waldorf classrooms to some beautiful new stories! If you have a favorite book you would like us to carry please let us know. Or, if you have written a beautiful story for your own Waldorf class, we would love to feature you on the Waldorf Books blog! Please contact Mosi at: CustomerService@TheBEarthInstitute.com for more information.

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