When I first discovered Waldorf education, I was immediately drawn to so many aspects - the emphasis on natural materials, the beautiful art, the preservation of childhood, and the academic rigor and depth in the upper grades. But I was also completely baffled by a few things, starting with the Saints in Grade 2, along with Fables. Fables, I understood. Those were stories with which I was familiar, that I enjoyed, and surely would have included in my homeschooling plans anway. But Saints?!? And specifically Catholic ones? That had me, a former public school educator, a non-Catholic, and a person with a complex and ecclectic worldview, scratching my head.
Before diving into the "why," you should know that there are many ways Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired homeschools and schools teach this second grade year. Of course, you will find some that focus exclusively on Catholic saints. But you will also find those that focus on spiritual powerhouses from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and many more. You will also find folks that focus on heroes from the secular world and skip religious saints altogether. I can't speak for every family, every school, every place, every time - I can only speak for mine. But I can say with confidence that you will find a wonderfully diverse world of Waldorf communities and how they approach this topic.
Secondly, you should know that Waldorf education teaches through a wide variety of world religions in the course of the traditional curriculum. Students who experience a Waldorf education learn about many world religions - not just one - and each worldview's contributions to art, culture, science, philosophy, and so much more.
A selection from our studies - Krishna, Osiris, Buddha
And now, for a very brief discussion of the "why." Around age 8, kids are changing, not just physically, but in how they relate to the world around them. Seven year olds (first grade in WaldorfLand), often want to please the adults in their lives - but at age 8, they usually begin to really enjoy a bit of mischief! The fables mirror that mischievous element, and the saint stories balance that out by giving them examples of people who did good deeds.
"Animal and other fables are about one-sided aspects of moral qualities (greed, cunning, envy, etc.). Legends, and in particular the lives of the Saints look at the other side of human nature, the part where the hero as holy man or woman brings harmony to one-sidedness and by turning towards God gains the strength to serve his or her fellow human beings." - The Tasks and Content of the Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum, Kevin Avison and Martyn Rawson, eds.. p. 180
Avison and Rawson go on to affirm that there are many sources for these stories, not just Catholic saints. They specifically mention Celtic tradition as well as Native American tradition, and again, there are many, many others!
Bottom line, the teacher gets to choose. And ideally, we choose which saint or hero stories to tell based on the needs of the children before us. I have two very different children, so each child had a very different Grade 2 year. Both spent time with St. Michael, St. Martin, St. Nicholas, St. Francis, St. Jerome, and St. Christopher. But one child also learned about St. Colman, St. Werburge, St. Keneth, St. Kevin, St. Brigid, and St. Patrick. His mischievous nature was in fine shape. We needed to draw out and inspire that hero aspect more often! The other child actually needed more mischief and less people-pleasing, so we spent less time on saints altogether and more time on fables from Aesop and Thornton Burgess. (See my Thornton Burgess blocks here and here). His "bonus saints" included just St. Hilda and St. Keneth. It also has to be said that this child was living through a pandemic - months of isolation, fear, and disappointments. He needed more fun, and Fables are definitely fun!
The teacher-parent also chooses not just which saint or hero stories to tell, but which elements to emphasize to meet each child's needs and temperament. There were stories that both children received, but for one child, I focused on the parts of the stories where the person was especially forgiving and generous and the times when they made a mistake, were remorseful, and made amends. For the other, I emphasized the times they were most certainly frightened, but showed great bravery on behalf of others, and the times when they used their voice and spoke up bravely.
For example, I told both children the stories of St. Francis. (My second favorite saint right after St. Christopher!) Both children heard the same story content. But for one son, we spent more time on the story of the beggar Francis turned away and then, realizing his mistake, pursued and helped. For the other, we spent more time on the story of Francis embracing and helping the leper despite his fear of death from what was then a mysterious and terrifying disease. (Oh, how the Universe speaks to us in times of trouble!) Two different children with different needs and different circumstances heard the same story, but as their teacher, I delivered the material to meet their individual needs in a special way.
This is the beauty of homeschooling in general - the freedom to tailor-make our curriculum. I love using the Waldorf-Steiner content as my spine, but these stories really come alive and meet my kids where they are when I make them my own. And the beauty of Waldorf homeschooling in particular is that, as we progress through the curriculum, we will continue telling great stories from all around the world. This isn't a one-sided curriculum that only shares one version of the world. I love that we learn Hebrew Bible in Grade 3, the Norse pantheon in Grade 4, the Egyptian, Hindu, Indian, and Greek pantheons in Grade 5. I am really looking forward to learning more about Islam next year together in Grade 7. (You can get my guide to teaching Greek mythology here.) This path is rich and ever-deepening and I love the way it is teaching my children to think about the world.
So, do you have to teach Catholic saint stories in Grade 2? Nope. There are as many ways to meet your child's need for shining hero stories as there are people who are doing it. The main thing is to provide kiddos at this age with stories that are inspiring, comforting, and reassuring that at our core, we are inherently good and are capable of doing great things in the world. You make the decisions for your family that work for you.
Want more resources? I'll be making a St. Francis mini block available in the shop in the next few weeks. I've included verses, songs, the story content, phonics connections, lively art ideas and photos, handwork for parents, formdrawing, coloring pages, and so much more. Let me know and I will send you a notification when it is ready.
For multi-saint resources, some of my favorite books are:
Saints Among the Animals by Cynthia Zarin and illustrated by Leonid Gore, a collection of ten delightful stories.
The Giant at the Ford and Other Legends of the Saints by Ursula Synge available for free here.
Who are your favorite saints/heroes for Grade 2? I'd love to hear from you.