by Maria Dominguez
I worked for 20 years in Waldorf education, a rich and profound educational system that nurtures many aspects of the human being through a wide range of activities, skills and tools. This breadth allows children to find emotional security and self-esteem as the system brings out each individual’s gifts. The school I used to work in is a place where children learn with joy, curiosity and a desire to discover more…I have nothing but good to say, and I’m grateful for this important experience. However, as the years went by, observing children, families, society and the times we live in, I began to wonder if what I was doing was enough; despite all the good experiences, something was missing, and I began to wonder what education really is.
With the birth of my son, this question became urgent. As a teacher, I could see how students from other schools were demoralized and mistreated. And experience tells you that to make a child thrive again, you must, first of all, restore his self-esteem, confidence, and joy. And then, as if by magic, the child begins to learn and achieve previously unattainable goals.
As an adult, I know you remember only a few things about school: the good teachers because they opened windows to the outside world; you remember the good times of laughter and friendship. And then, beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, you remember some of the things you learned because they were conveyed to you in a way that touched your heart.
As a person of a certain age, I have seen the lives of some of the people around me, and I know that economic or social success does not make us happier. So if a school does not fulfil the task of educating us, if our career, economic or social success does not fulfil us, if joy and self-esteem are so important for the complete development of a child, what should I focus on? What is the point of going to school? What is the most important thing I can give my child? And I realized that for me, the most important thing has to do with our quality as human beings. But can a school provide that? To answer this, it is essential to contextualize the moment we are living and to understand the meaning of what we are doing. The world has changed a lot since the first schools were founded. We live in an age where the availability of information is instantaneous and accessible to everyone. Where many of the jobs that exist today will no longer exist tomorrow, so many teachings need to be updated. Therefore, I believe in a school that teaches flexibility to cope with change, provides tools to solve different situations, and teaches how to stay focused in a rapidly changing world. We live in a society whose morals are increasingly poor, where children have difficulty finding healthy references to emulate, and where young people are increasingly lost; I am looking for a school where goodness, respect, loyalty, gratitude, kindness and joy… are a daily experience, offering solid references that always work, regardless of external circumstances.
In an educational system where the acquisition of knowledge is the result of pressure, I am looking for a school where teachers teach with enthusiasm so that learning is a motivating experience that keeps curiosity alive and makes us want to know and learn more. I want a school that promotes culture, not education. Finally, in a life that is not easy to understand and live, I want my child to have the tools to know himself and be comfortable with himself and others. Because, in the end, that is what makes the difference on a daily basis, regardless of the circumstances.
One day, while watching a documentary, I discovered that everything I was looking for, and much more, was there. It was a direct hit to the heart. It was about an Education for Life school. The impact was so strong that my family and I moved to Italy to learn about this method of education at the Education for Life School in Perugia. Education for Life gave me direction as a mother, teacher, and human being; it shaped my feelings. I spent many months in the classrooms, experiencing its principles first-hand. I carry with me the immense gift of seeing the personal work done with children, how they work on values and self-knowledge depending on their age.
My six-year-old son already knows things that took me a lifetime to learn! Of course, he will have his challenges, but I am giving him the best possible tools to deal with them. How many years have I spent studying books of dead concepts teaching nothing? In Education for Life, I have seen the art of teaching, where knowledge becomes tangible and connected to real life; where values accompany knowledge, and the teacher both teaches and trains; where learning becomes something so fluid and natural that it is easy and fun; where what is learned is not forgotten because it is related to life itself and known from the heart; where culture makes its way because teaching goes beyond the book and constantly opens worlds. All this and much more I carry with me, now all I have to do is to continue to share what I have learned because this is the education that the world needs, that new generations need. Education for Life is, for me, the education of the future, the education of the true human being.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
By Nitai Deranja
A question people often ask when first hearing about Education for Life is: “What is your curriculum?” It is the wrong question to start with, however, because it presupposes an approach that EFL, at its very core, is designed to remedy.
We live in an age that values standardization. It began with the Industrial Revolution when people discovered you could manufacture products in mass quantities using assembly lines. The approach worked well in producing cars, refrigerators, and other products, so people concluded that we should use a similar methodology to create a standardized curriculum for our schools. From this perspective teachers are seen as assembly line workers, repeating a set of designated tasks that will move the product (student) toward its prescribed completion. To facilitate this process, these tasks are defined in minute detail in the ubiquitous curriculum frameworks that lie at the heart of most educational systems.
The problem with this approach is that children are not like cars. As should be abundantly clear to anyone who spends time around children, each one is unique. The attempt to standardize their education will be stifling at best. Instead of cultivating a rich flowering of creative talents that can help solve our global problems, we tend toward graduating students who excel mainly at memorizing material for standardized tests.
Education for Life pursues an alternative approach that shifts the focus from a static sequence of prescribed lessons to the ever-changing needs and interests of a particular group of students. In this way it is similar to other child-centered programs like the Emergent Curriculum of Reggio Emilia. Teachers are empowered to identify and celebrate the unique mix of talents they find in their class and use them to create magnetic ways of expanding student horizons. The effect is transforming. For example, a parent shared that her four-year-old son would cry each morning as they prepared for school. At a conference with the teacher, she noted that the boy was expressing an interest in music. They implemented a plan to create a unit on this topic for the whole class. The following day the tears disappeared as the child realized that school was a place that aligned with his interests. Through this avenue of involvement, the boy quickly began to show interest in other parts of the school day as well.
For newer teachers especially, it helps to have an overview of the skills and topics usually addressed at each age (see the EFL Curriculum Guides). But even here, it is important to simplify and minimize the number of objectives so that teachers are free to focus on the living realities of their students. EFL facilitates this approach by renaming the traditional subjects to emphasize their relationship to personal concerns. Instead of the standard terminology of History, Language, Science, etc., we use titles like Understanding People, Self-Expression & Communication, and Our Earth – Our Universe. (For an expanded description of these terms, see the accompanying paper on the EFL Curriculum Categories.)
Education for Life concerns itself with helping students find purpose and meaning in life. Thus each of the Curriculum Categories explores various qualities that help students embrace broader realities as they progress towards ever-greater degrees of maturity. Finally, the categories themselves, as illustrated by the Curriculum Logo, present subjects not as compartmentalized disciplines but as parts of an integrated whole that expands organically from the student’s current level of awareness.
The goal then is not to create an EFL CURRICULUM that codifies what should happen in the classroom for all times and places, but rather to outline a direction of growth that invites teachers and students to work together in co-creating a unique school experience filled with enthusiasm, wisdom, and joy.
By Nitai Deranja
The Dalai Lama has said: “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”. We can marvel at the simplicity of his statement which if realized would take its place alongside Einstein’s E = mc2, but we can also use it as a model for addressing other world problems. What if there were an equally elegant solution to the challenges of wealth distribution, racial and religious prejudice, or even global warming?
It will help if we first ask ourselves: “What is it about meditation that could be a remedy for humanity’s tendency toward violence?” It is a question that is best answered through personal experience. Anyone who has taken the time to calm their thoughts and emotions to the point where they become aware of the peace that exists within themselves, can testify to the fact that it dissolves the tensions and frustrations that accumulate in daily life. If a child is helped to experience this inner peace on a regular basis, the underlying disharmonies that provoke violent outbursts will lose their potency.
Are there similar experiences that might affect other areas of global inharmony? What if children were encouraged to especially appreciate the parts of their lives which produce feelings of well-being and joy? This practice of contentment, if carried into adulthood, would provide a counterbalance to the greed that produces the economic imbalances on our planet. And what if children are encouraged to celebrate the diverse talents and interests of their classmates? Those feelings will prepare them to embrace the racial, religious, and even political differences they will encounter in later life. Finally, if children are provided with activities that evoke a sense of communion with nature, as adults they will carry a sensitivity that will help to solve the challenges of global warming.
It will take awhile before every child is exposed to meditation and the other experiences discussed above. But why not take steps to reach as many children as possible? If teachers, parents and other adults make the decision to prioritize these activities, progress is ensured, one child at a time.
By Hassi Bazan
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.
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.
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.”
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: email@example.com.
By Nitai Deranja
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.
Education for Life International
14618 Tyler Foote Road
Nevada City, CA 95959