When fourth-grade students at Detroit Waldorf School dig into their main lesson each day, they study the literary, historical and cultural aspects of what it means to overcome adversity against all odds. With fourth grade teacher Simone Shurney, students at Detroit Waldorf, an independent PK-8 school in Detroit’s Indian Village, reach beyond the Eurocentric journey of Norse mythology and embrace universal themes from Sundiata, the story of an African king who overcomes physical impairment to unite the kingdoms of Africa.
Through her choices in content, Shurney is expressing a commitment to diversity that is embraced by Detroit Waldorf School as a whole.
“Rather than get rid of the Norse mythology that has long been a traditional study for this grade, I’m trying to allow students to develop a more dynamic world view,” Shurney says. “I’m not replacing, but telling both stories to reach the depth of the universal message we are looking for. The stories work together to convey something to the students.”
Shurney — a former Detroit Waldorf student herself — isn’t only looking to provide students of color with stories that reflect their own culture. She’s interpreting the broad philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, with a goal to provide all students with multicultural and multisensory experiences. “What’s important is to have children with a specific cultural background identify with the culture in the educational content, but what is also really powerful is when a white child, too, can be inspired by the story of Sundiata,” she says.
Exposure to a wide and diverse world
By curating mindfully from a wide pool of global ideas and stories and historical figures, Shurney builds educational study units that expose children to more of the wider world than they’d typically receive.
“I asked myself what do I feel is missing from our history curriculum? What was missing when I was a child? What am I personally passionate about? If I’m passionate about a subject, that helps me cultivate passion in my students,” she explains.
In younger grades, Shurney has explored with students “saints and noble people,” to discover the social justice footprints of figures like Ruby Bridges and Malala Yousafzai, and also learn the childhood stories of influential world leaders like Desmond Tutu.
In the older grades, Shurney’s students learn about the Industrial Revolution with lessons on the modern history of child labor and are tasked with an all-school presentation of the 1913 Declaration of Dependence, a rights decree from child laborers in mines, factories and workshops of 20th century America.
“In this way, students draw the connection between the United States as an independent nation with citizens with rights, but also how do we protect marginalized groups like children?” Shurney explains. A close consideration of social movements in general and the important roles that children have played in history help students to recognize the power of their own initiative and appreciate the changes that can come about through collective action.
The whole child and the whole school
Because in-depth knowledge of individual students informs her work as a teacher, Shurney talks with parents to learn as much as she can about the cultural identities of her students. “When parents share their experiences with race and their perspectives and hopes for their children, it really informs and enriches my image of each child as a human being,” she explains. “When I can understand their cultural background, I find more paths to diversify the curriculum in response to the children in front of me. If a child’s father grew up in South America, it might inspire me to do something with the curriculum I wouldn’t otherwise have done.”
At Detroit Waldorf School, students learn through multisensory applications, reflecting each day’s content through visual, written and dramatic interpretations and all grades present their work as a play at the end of each year.
“Students at Detroit Waldorf receive an education that allows them to connect on an emotional level with the material that we study. They see through a diverse cultural lens to recognize the universality we all share. It’s a very humanizing education in that way. As teachers, we try to respond individually to see what each child needs,” Shurney says.
The Waldorf education, she says, is something special and unique that builds well-rounded, empathetic students because it teaches each child according to their individual learning style.
For 55 years, Detroit Waldorf School has provided a rich and dynamic pre-K-8th grade Waldorf education to a geographically, racially, and socio-economically diverse student body in Detroit and southeast Michigan. Waldorf education fosters the development of free-thinking, moral, and self-confident individuals who lead successful and inspired lives. Tuition Assistance is available.
Learn more about Detroit Waldorf School at www.detroitwaldorf.org.