Australasian Teachers Share Best Practices at Education Mela
Around twenty teachers and other educational staff from ISKCON schools around Australasia converged at the peaceful, retreat-like setting of New Govardhana, Australia for their first “Education Mela” from July 4th to 6th this year.
Some attendees hailed from New Govardhana’s Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula and the community’s adult education institution New Govardhana College.
Others traveled from the Hare Krishna School in New Varshana, New Zealand, a state-funded primary that’s one of the longest-running in ISKCON, and from Melbourne, where a new ISKCON school is planned.
All were drawn by Hare Krishna School Principal Prana Dasa’s vision of bringing devotee educators together to share best practices, and to inspire each other in their service to Srila Prabhupada.
Gathering at 10:00am on Wednesday morning in a classroom at the Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula, the group gave the Mela an auspicious start by offering Guru Puja to Srila Prabhupada.
Krishnananda Dasa of the Hare Krishna School and Vinod-Bihari Dasa of Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula then began the day by presenting an overview of their respective schools, both very successful models.
“We discovered a number of significant, defining characteristics shared by the two schools,” says Prana Dasa. “Children in both have a strong sense of belonging, and a deep connection with their teachers. Both schools have a strong presence in the temple community and are assisted by the community in many practical ways. And both have a strong commitment to the arts.”
The presenters also discussed how both schools have strong values, a strong focus on Krishna, and follow a government curriculum that allows for integration of Vaishnava culture and tradition.
The peaceful setting of New Govardhana where the education mela was held
Demographics are the main difference between the two schools, and the pros and cons of both types were considered in the presentation. New Govardhan’s school is comprised entirely of children from ISKCON and other Gaudiya Vaishnava groups, while New Varshana’s students also comprise indigenous local children and children from congregational groups and the Hindu community.
Next, Prana Dasa spoke about ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s vision for schools, or gurukulas—that the focus of education should be elevation to Krishna consciousness. He also discussed implementing a standardized framework with which devotee educators could better align their practices with this principle. The first step would be a checklist for self-review purposes.
“The intention is not to impose a cumbersome bureaucracy, but to provide a supportive tool, an objective list for self-evaluation,” Prana says. “A simple checklist under the categories of the potent processes of bhakti could not only assist in the realignment of our principles but may well identify areas of strengths and weaknesses and therefore feed back into the strategic development of the system.”
After Prana’s presentation, Mela participants took lunch together, before attending Aditya Dasi’s overview of the Inquiry Learning model. A form of active learning, this model assesses progress by how well students develop experimental and analytical skills, rather than how much knowledge they can memorize.
Aditya, a teacher at a government school in Melbourne as well as a member of the team looking to establish an ISKCON school there, showed learner and teacher profiles of the curriculum, suggesting that devotee schools adopt some of its elements.
In the final session of the day, Krishnananda Dasa presented “Restorative Practices” as an approach to dealing with disruptions, conflict and transgressions. Role-playing different scenarios, participants found the process to have great potential.
Teachers learn new approaches and techniques at the first Australasian Education Mela
“The restorative model provides a structure for helping children deal with problems and take responsibility for their actions,” says Prana. “In essence, it enables the victim and offender to heal the harm and to move on to a more productive space in their relationship.”
On Thursday, the second day of the Mela, senior devotees and teachers Jaya Shila Dasa and Vimala Dasi from New Zealand took a look at the “Nurtured Hearts” approach to reaching children.
The technique focuses on developing a positive sense of identity in students by fanning the spark of greatness in every child, particularly those difficult to reach.
This reflects Srila Prabhupada’s prescription to seek the nectar in everyone like a bumble bee, rather than seeking feces like a fly. With practical vignettes and personal realization, Jaya Shila and Vimala presented a convincing case for ISKCON schools to seriously consider utilizing such an approach.
Further sessions on Inquiry Learning and Restorative Practices followed, after which Damodara Pandit Dasa facilitated an interactive session of role plays to introduce the topic of “Educational Contestability.”
Damodara Pandit, Director of Govardhana College and co-organizer of the Education Mela along with Prana and Vinod-Bihari, presented recent research supporting the case for a serious rethink of the current educational paradigm. Long-held and unquestioned educational concepts were presented for debate, which sparked interest and ongoing discussions.
On Friday July 5th, the final day of the Mela, Premavati Dasi, a teacher at New Govardhana’s Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula, presented an overview of how she embeds Krishna consciousness in the New South Wales curriculum. Termed “the inside out” approach, her inspiring method of curriculum development begins with Krishna and evolves into practical application through exploration of the topic.
The Mela then concluded with Damodara Pandit, Jaya Shila, and Mandakini Dasi—affectionately known at New Govardhan as the nanny rapper—leading the group in three separate raps to ‘rap’ up the Mela. In their lively, high spirited and entertaining rhymes, participants shared their heartfelt appreciation for the three-day event.
Since the Mela, teachers from different schools have already begun using teaching ideas shared there by their peers, and plan to continue sharing unit plans and resources by email. Meanwhile school leaders are arranging a monthly conference call to stay in touch, inspire and support each other.
There are also plans to integrate temple services into students’ weekly schedules, with the idea that the gurukula experience should incorporate not only academics, but lifestyle too.
The leaders of ISKCON’s schools in Australasia aim to have an Education Mela at least biannually from now on, with the next one scheduled to be held at the Bhaktivedanta Dharma School in Bali in July 2014.
Plans are also in place for an ISKCON Educational Conference to be held in Mayapur, India before the Gaura Purnima Festival in 2013.
“The Educational Mela was a great success on many fronts,” says Prana Dasa. “It brought together like-minded educators to discuss and share their practices of learning and teaching in a Krishna conscious environment. And as the concepts related directly to Krishna consciousness, many stated that it was the best professional development event they had ever attended.”