Issue 12/23

Window into the Soul of a Culture

Jürgen Beckmerhagen

In the vibrant atmosphere of Rudolf Steiner Schule Wandsbek in Hamburg, where diversity and understanding of different cultures take centre stage, Franziska Zickwolff and Svetlana Bogen are just finishing their lessons. They meet for lunch and engage in a lively discussion that gives us an insight into the cultural differences between Germany and Russia.

«The differences in our understanding of freedom and responsibility are a reflection of our cultures and history,» opens Bogen as she looks directly at Zickwolff. «And these differences offer us valuable lessons about tolerance and respect,» she adds. «At a time when democratic values are sometimes called into question, it is all the more important to understand the culture and language of others. Russian lessons at our school are not only a step towards academic enrichment, but also a statement in favour of openness and peace-building.»

Zickwolff picks up the thread: «We must never forget that language is more than just words. It is a window into the soul of a culture and a tool of understanding. Only by understanding others can we achieve a true sense of global community. Democracy thrives on diversity and mutual respect. And what better way to promote this than by learning a new language in whose structures the special aspects of the culture clearly emerge and can be elaborated?»

Many Waldorf schools teach Russian as well as English. Their pupils immerse themselves in the world of eastern characters and symbols, which have unique meanings in their respective cultures. By learning languages from East and West, students broaden their horizons and discover the diversity of world cultures.

At the Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School, pupils learn English, French, Russian and, more recently, Spanish. Year eight are performing their play in the main hall, while Zickwolff leaves the staff room with a large grey folder under her arm. Her destination: the 4b classroom, 36 children, including four with Russian roots. They belong to the approximately 800 pupils at this second oldest Waldorf school.

You can feel the children's enthusiasm in Zickwolff's Russian lessons. «Ms Zickwolff!» they shout in chorus as the teacher enters the room. Their eyes light up as they recite verses in Russian and sing a traditional song. «The poem is like a little puzzle that we're solving,» says Lena, while Alex adds proudly: «The song reminds me of my family in Russia. That makes it special.» When it comes to doing arithmetic in Russian, hands shoot up. Sofia, who knows the right answer, is beaming all over her face. «When we all say 'правильно' (pravilno = correct), it feels like we're a super team,» explains Max.

Zickwolff pulls pictures she has painted herself out of her folder: a wolf, a banana, a stork and an eagle owl. The children each name the Russian term and write the Cyrillic letters on the blackboard.

The atmosphere reaches another peak when Zickwolff announces a game. Four groups of three to four children form and then line up in front of the blackboard. The teacher distributes slips of paper with short words to the child at the back of each line. «Now you can show your knowledge of the Cyrillic letters,» she calls out. The pupils at the back start to draw letters with their fingers on the backs of those in front of them. «It's great fun, but also a bit like detective work,» comments Tim as he concentrates on feeling the shape of a letter. It is something that plays to the strengths of the children, who learnt block letters last year and joined-up writing this year. It is a back and forth between concentration and laughter, because occasionally there is confusion. «I thought it was a п, but it turned out to be л!» laughs Sarah as her team-mate draws the letter on the board. The game gives the lessons great dynamism. «I love this game,» Niklas sums it up.

Shortly before the end of the lesson, the group streams into the school foyer. The highlight of the day awaits them there: the round dance. The children form three concentric circles and begin to sing and dance to a Russian melody. «The round dance is my favourite part! It feels like a big hug from everyone,» enthuses Lena as she moves round in a circle. Some children close their eyes and seem to become completely absorbed in the music and the feeling of community. «When we sing and dance, I always feel so ... free,» says Elias. The children leave the lesson with a smile and it seems to me that the joy of learning and the feeling of togetherness extend far beyond the classroom walls.

«Every war is unacceptable,» emphasises Franziska Zickwolff. Learning languages is more than just a school subject. It is a path that breaks down prejudices and paves the way to a more peaceful world. Waldorf schools are convinced that when we understand other cultures and immerse ourselves in their languages, we come closer to a peaceful world. That is why they reject all armed conflicts between peoples, including Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. Their tool for peace? Education.

The atmosphere in class 6b is just as relaxed as in year four. The highlight in the first group is the navigation game through the rocks. The class was in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains last week. A blindfolded pupil is guided through the class by instructions in Russian such as «Three steps forward», «Turn right» or «Watch out, ravine!». «It's so exciting, you never know what's coming next,» says Emma happily. In the second group, even the teacher is guided through the mountains – a real display of trust! The programme concludes with a folk dance in the eurythmy hall. All the children are involved, the joy is infectious.

A lively discussion unfolds in a Russian exam course. The subject: The Master and Margarita, a complex work by Mikhail Bulgakov. The pupils not only immerse themselves in the literature, but also in the multifaceted Russian culture. «It reminds me of Faust,» remarks Bogen. She explains that the book reveals the tension between rules and freedom, morality and destiny.

In the midst of this discussion, some pupils note that culture and language are more than just a form of expression – they can also be instruments of freedom. «Learning foreign languages is a contribution to peace,» emphasises Bogen. This Russian exam course is more than just a literature seminar. It is a journey into the depths of Russian culture and an exploration of freedom through language.

All in all, the teaching of Russian at Waldorf schools is a reflection of the educational principles that the school represents: a holistic education that seeks to develop the person in their entirety – intellectually, emotionally and physically.

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