Being with children as a mother or a teacher has been my own special path to God. I spent 30 years raising 4 active children, much of that time  at Ananda village. When my youngest child left for college, I began teaching pre-school.

If I had any regrets in raising my children, it was that I was not as firmly established on the spiritual path as I am now. In becoming a preschool teacher, I received a wonderful gift – the opportunity to put into practice everything I have learned as a devotee and a mother, and to serve other people’s children as though they were my own. 

A frustrating month

In the fall of 2004, I felt inspired to take the early childhood education classes that would give me the teaching credential needed to teach preschool. Although I was told there were no openings at Ananda preschool, I knew this was something I needed to do. Three months later, the preschool teacher left unexpectedly and I was called upon to take over her class midyear.

Every day that first month was challenging mainly because I couldn’t get the class calm enough to participate in any activities. There were a few “wild” ones in the group – high energy, strong-willed children whose reluctance to settle down influenced the others.

During “circle time” for example, the children and I would sit in a circle on the floor for the start of various activities. But as soon as we sat down, one or two of them might get up and walk away; or a few of them might start talking and soon everyone would be talking; or someone might poke the child next to him and then chaos would reign. It went on like this day after day.

One day during circle time I became desperate. I knew I was going to lose control of the class if I didn’t find a way to calm their energy. Silently I called on my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and asked, “What can I do to make this work?” In that moment I received the inspiration for “Quiet Bodies.”

Getting the children to say “yes”

Quiet Bodies is simply sitting cross legged, with eyes closed and not moving for a few minutes. It’s unusual, however, to think that three and four-year-olds can sit quietly that long. Learning and growth in the preschool years occurs primarily through the body; that’s why young children are so constantly active. The key challenge of those years is learning to control and discipline the body.

In order to get the children to do Quiet Bodies, I needed to create an aura of specialness around the experience; making an activity “magical” and fun gets them to say “yes.” With the children sitting in a circle, I held up “Mr. Blue Jay,” a small hand puppet that sits on two fingers. “Mr. Blue Jay” was very special to them because we used it only for circle time.

So while holding up Mr. Blue Jay I told them what “Mr Blue Jay” wanted them to do (not what I wanted them to do), and that when it was time to open their eyes, “Mr. Blue Jay” would tap each of them on the forehead. From that moment on, Quiet Bodies became a regular part of our daily school activities. Quiet bodies continued to evolve over the course of the school year, but “Mr. Blue Jay” remained a constant. 

I realised soon after, however, that to maintain an atmosphere of calmness during the four hours the children and I were together, I needed to be calmer and more centered myself. Often I became so outwardly engaged with the children that it was difficult to remain in the presence of God.

When I’m not deeply calm, I can’t convey to the children how wonderful it is to sit quietly with their eyes closed. If I can’t still my thoughts and feelings, how can I expect the children to still their bodies? “True teaching is vibrational,” Swami Kriyananda writes. He says that our vibrations change people much more than our words, and that the best way to influence someone else’s behavior is to be strong in those qualities oneself. 

He gives the example of a mother who took her young son to Mahatma Gandhi and asked Gandhi to tell the little boy not to eat so many sweets. Gandhi told her to come back in a week. When the mother returned a week later, and Gandhi told the boy not to eat too many sweets, she asked why he couldn’t have said that a week ago. Gandhi replied “A week ago I was eating sweets myself.”

Staying in the Flow

Strengthening my meditation practice and learning how to work effectively with the preschool children have gone hand in hand. During my child raising years, I often had to put my meditation practice on “hold”. For twenty years I said an affirmation: “I will meditate. I can’t right now but I will meditate”, and it has finally paid off. 

My meditation practice is much stronger now and I can share with the children one of the deepest aspects of the spiritual path – the upliftment and centeredness that come with daily meditation and God-contact. 

When I’m calm and centred, there’s a “flow” that comes; I know when I’m in it and when I’ve stepped out of it. Whenever the children’s energy is “off”, I first check to see if I’m still in the flow. If not, I raise my energy and call on God. The more “out of the flow” I become, the more energy I put into calling on God and surrendering to his guidance in that moment.

When I’m back in the flow and a child misbehaves, I put my aura around the child and use my energy to quiet him or her. Swami Kriyananda says that when he places people in positions of leadership, he expands his consciousness to include them, supporting and strengthening them. I do something similar with the children.

I need to do Quiet Bodies now

Quiet Bodies, however, has been the most important factor in creating an atmosphere of calmness with the preschoolers. Now, when the children sense the need to bring their energy back to centre, they either ask to do Quiet Bodies or start reminding each other that it’s “circle time.”

This even happens outside of school. One child was at the river with his mother and suddenly said, “I need to do Quiet Bodies now.” He sat down with his legs crossed, closed his eyes, and became very still for some time. 

The children are so pleased when they have brought the physical body under control because their souls know this is what they’re supposed to learn at this time. That’s why they enjoy showing that they can do Quiet Bodies. When visiting her grandmother, one child said, “Grandma watch me do Quiet Bodies.” She sat down and showed her grandmother how long she could sit still. 

The children do Quiet Bodies for two minutes at the start of the school year. Toward the end of the year they usually can do it for four to five minutes. By that time I am also encouraging them to listen to the sound of their breathing. I never question them about their inner experience, nor do I encourage time to talk about them. Doing so might make the experience competitive, which would undermine its value.

A time to plant seeds

These preschool years are the time to plant seeds of good habits. Swami Kriyananda writes that children are especially receptive at this age because, “They’re a little closer to where we’ve all come from. They haven’t yet fully taken on a new personality or a new body with its habits.”

Quiet Bodies is a tool that enables children to tap into their soul nature. It gives them the chance to see and feel the effects of their own energy, and to begin to understand the difference between restless, scattered energy and quiet, peaceful energy. It is the first step on the long journey to becoming calm, centered adults.

Hassi Bazan taught at Ananda Village Living Wisdom Preschool for many years. 

Reflection Paper

In the beginning of the week, I was presented with a five pound flour sack, and by the end of the week, I had a little baby with me everywhere I went. The story starts on an average Friday right after the morning sadhana. In health class we were presented with a flour sack and told these were our babies for the week and that we had to take good care of them (if the sack broke you got a bad grade). The first thing I did when I got home was show mom my baby. She said that it was good that I got to see how it was to carry a baby around for a week. Mom taught me how to tie a sling and how to keep the baby safe.

The baby was a good baby; it didn’t ever cry, went to bed, and slept like a rock (era sack of flour). It really was fun to be able to have a baby, and even more so, it was fun to see how everyone else kept their baby safe. Some people weren’t too happy with their baby over the week, and some people even were just ditching their babies. Part of the assignment was to keep your baby in good hands and not let them get kidnapped. You also had to bring your baby to school with you (despite the fact that if you really had a baby, you would not bring it to school, nor would you even be in school if you have a child to take care of).

The week really was great, and I learned how hard it is to have a child, very hard (and this one didn’t even get in trouble like a real one). Eventually throughout the week most people got very attached to their babies, in fact as I type this, some of us still have our babies (not me though). When my mom taught me how to tie a sling, I thought It was a pointless endeavor (probably because the one time I actually tried the sling, I almost dropped the baby.) However it turned out that it may have been the most effective way to carry the baby around. I was very attached to my baby and enjoyed it, even if now I am kind of happy that I don’t have it anymore. It was a fun assignment to do, and there was a lot of learning involved. I. enjoyed my baby and had a good week.

Cultivating Moral And Spiritual Values

Lesson #2: Maturity 101 – Flour Babies (ages 12 and up); a project weve adapted from other sources
Life Skill Charts that can be used as supplements: Expanding Sensitivity, Building Will power.

Purpose: This activity helps teenagers gain experience in taking responsibility, as well as getting a glimpse of  what its like to be a parent. It works best when the activity is a part of an ongoing, graded class (Health, Family Life, etc.)

Materials needed for each student: 5 pound sack of flour, plastic bag, duct tape, baby clothes from thrift store

Preliminary Activities: Creating the Baby

Place the flour sack in plastic bag.

Create a head by rolling rags or strips of an old sheet.

Use duct tape to seal seal the bag and position the head. 

Make sure the baby is still fragile and needs careful attention.

Pick out clothes and place on the baby (duct tape can help)

Cant be cruel or ugly, emphasize compassion

Fill out a Birth Certificate with name, parents, address, etc.

Male/Female pick via chance

For more variety/challenge use special cards – twins, premature, blind…

The Assignment

For the coming week, each student will be in charge of a flour baby”. They will bring their babies to school each day and take them home at night and over the weekend. The baby can never be left unattended for more than 10 minutes. Students can arrange for babysitters (parents, friends, etc.) on a hire, trade, or volunteer basis.

  1. If you bring your baby back at the end of the week undamaged, emotionally cared for, and physically intact, you have completed the project. But if your baby is damaged, you will need to continue the assignment for a second week or longer. Grades for the project will reflect the student’s level of responsibility.
  2. A kidnapping occurs when a teacher (not a student) takes possession of the baby and is able to leave the room unnoticed. The first and second occurrences serve as a reminder to pay closer attention. The third strike means you have another week of baby care.
  1. If you think there are extenuating circumstances, you can challenge one or more of the kidnappings by petitioning to have your case heard at Baby Court. You must have a completed form with signatures from 5 students who agree that you have a case. You will make your presentation in front of a teacher/judge and a jury consisting of students who have not been the victim of a kidnapping. Jury can increase or decrease consequences (instead of extra week only a day, etc.), after hearing evidence. If there is a conviction, the judge can opt to have the signers help the plaintiff care for the baby during extension, helping students realize the importance of thinking before signing.

Reflection

When you have completed the assignment, you will need to complete a Reflection questionnaire as part of receiving credit for the project.

 

We’re happy to share an exciting new direction for Education for Life’s service here in India. We’ve recently made a connection with a small orphanage called the Little Angels Ashram in a village called Madh, a short boat ride from Mumbai city.

The Ashram supports about 50 children, from age 3 through 20, providing food, shelter, and most importantly, a true sense of home. It is run by a wonderful family, who has managed it for three generations. Pratik, one of core members of the staff, was himself raised there by his grandmother, who founded the orphanage. There is a strong feeling of love present in the place, reflected clearly in the childrens’ joyful faces. In EFL terms, we all have seen that they have “light in their eyes.”
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Their foundational physical needs are being met, but one area where they could use more support is education. The children attend the local government school, and there is a volunteer who comes after school to help them with their work. But we see that these children have immense potential, and there is much that EFL could do to support them in realizing it.

We plan to start offering classes and study support after school, especially in English, but also math, science, and anything else needed. After the children have become comfortable with us, we will begin to share our approach to life skills, like courage, even-mindedness, and truth.

What we teach will of course be secondary to the fostering of deep connection, through which true, magnetic education takes place. As such, our volunteers will have the opportunity to be trained in EFL, and put it directly into practice with the children at the Ashram.

In the future, we look forward to being able to provide much more. Please include the project in your thoughts and prayers, that Education for Life is able to touch and uplift the lives of these Little Angels.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can write to me here:  aryavan@edforlife.org.

Anyone who has taught for a few years has experienced strong fluctuations in the behavior of different classes. In some groups the overall energy is focussed, cheerful, and harmonious. In others…well, not so much. Education for Life accounts for these differences from the perspective of Progressive Development. When the prevailing consciousness of a class is light, there will be an overall feeling of upliftment and even joy; qualities that will be missing when heavier consciousness predominates.

We can combine this insight with another key dynamic of childhood: the tendency for younger students to look up to those who are older and use them as role models. Our goal then is to set up our classes so that the oldest students are those who express higher consciousness. For example, if you have a 10 year old girl with Light consciousness, you would arrange your grouping so that she is among the eldest, rather than putting her with 11-12 year olds with lower consciousness. A sensitive teacher can then work with these older students to help the entire class. Conversely, it would be wise to place students who primarily express lower consciousness in classes where they are among the youngest, thus providing them with the opportunity to have role models that can help bring out their higher potential.

In order for this approach to work, the teacher must be able to identify and support light consciousness. A first step is to differentiate it from obedient behavior which can be motivated by the desire for teacher approval or fear of punishment. Light consciousness, in contrast, has the goal of helping others without the need for personal gain. The teacher’s role is to find ways to integrate the original ideas coming from these students into the class activities, even if they might not initially align with the lesson plans of that day.

In utilizing this approach of Progressive Development, it will become appropriate and even necessary for the teacher to provide different guidelines for students manifesting various levels of consciousness. Light consciousness benefits from the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice, while heavier consciousness requires more structured approaches. To avoid the pitfall of seeming unfairness, we can use experience as the basis for setting up different standards. For example, the teacher can announce a clean up time and then record who volunteers and who shows that they need support to stay focussed. Again, in math class, time can be set aside for studying with the teacher noting those who are self-motivated and those who require more structure. These observations can be shared with students who ask for an explanation for the different guidelines, thus providing a possible motivation to become more self-directed.

When classrooms are aligned with this direction of Progressive Development, teachers will have a much better chance of retaining their sense of joy and purpose. Everyone then, will have the best opportunity to work at higher levels of consciousness.

About 50 years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began challenging American society’s attitudes toward food production. The prevailing opinion at the time was that vegetables should be judged primarily by their outward appearance. Bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable, and so American agriculture brought in the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support this type of farming. But a group, who gradually became known as the organic farming movement, persisted in pointing out that the real worth of tomatoes lies not in their appearance, but in their nutritional content which was being sacrificed in the race to improve the more superficial features. It took awhile, but gradually people began to listen, to the extent that a recent study (see footenote #1) shows that 75% of Americans now purchase at least some organic food.

Today we face a similar misconception in an even more important part of our lives, our children’s education. Everyone wants our children to succeed; the problem lies in how we define success. Much like the misplaced focus on bigger and redder tomatoes, many people accept the theory that student success can be measured by standardized test scores. These tests are mandated in almost all public schools and exercise an enormous effect on our children’s future, as well as on the careers of their teachers and administrators. With such compelling consequences, it is appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.

Below are some of the topics covered at the fifth through eleventh grade level on one of our most widely-administered standardized tests (see footnote #2). In going through the list, notice not only the number of items you are familiar with, but also how important this information has been in your adult life.

  1. the function of the esophagus
  2. the difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
  3. the reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
  4. the contributions of Hammurabi
  5. the differences between metals and nonmetals
  6. the form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
  7. the Schlieffen Plan
  8. the Tennis Court Oath
  9. the Social Gospel movement
  10. the Reconstruction Finance Corporation

The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, or any of the other items might not be valuable pieces of information in their own specialized fields of knowledge. It is rather that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we make the same type of mistake that people made in judging tomatoes: we are once again focusing on superficial factors at the expense of far more important considerations. When teachers and administrators feel pressured to make sure their students have been exposed to the “right” set of facts, creativity and enthusiasm are quickly replaced with what has been termed “dead-ucation”.

In a recent New York Times article, a teacher questions this emphasis on standardized testing. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920’s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”(see footnote #3)

From an insightful website comes a parent’s indictment of the consequences of dead-ucation. “I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…These energetic, engaged, accomplished, six year olds turned into twelve year olds who ask ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ That flame they had at age six didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.” (see footnote #4)

And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the “winners” in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic cooperation and Development,“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.” (see footnote #5)

The time has come to ask what a more “organic” approach to education would look like. What if our schools shifted their focus from the previous list of facts to the following considerations?

  1. How to take initiative and exercise creativity
  2. How to concentrate
  3. How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
  4. How to be responsible
  5. How to live healthfully
  6. How to overcome negative moods
  7. How to respect different points of view
  8. How to discern the difference between right and wrong
  9. How to find peace and contentment within yourself
  10. How to know yourself and express your highest potential

You could ask yourself again, how many items on this list have proven useful in your life, and then, which of the two sets of objectives you would rather have as the primary educational goals for your children’s schools.

Yes, a shift of this magnitude will take considerable effort, but no more than that required to switch from chemical pesticides to organic gardening. Traditional subject matter (the tomatoes) will still provide the basis for a well-rounded education, but our approach must be transformed to incorporate these broader, more nutritive elements. Much work has already been done. We need only to share resources and insights, and provide each other with the support to make the necessary changes. The “fruits” of this movement will transform our entire world.

The author of this article, Michael Nitai Deranja, is president of the Education for Life Foundation, founder of the Ananda Elementary School, and co-founder of Living Wisdom High School. He is the author of For Goodness’ Sake: Helping Children and Teens Discover Life’s Higher Values.

References
1 The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural”, 2/22/2010
2 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), starsamplequestions.org
3 “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?”, New York Times, 9/14/2011
4 Montessorimadness.com
5 “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World”, msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011