A Spiritual Approach To Teaching Kids to Read
A new series of books helps children learn to read without absorbing the materialistic values presented in other reading books.
IN THE HOLY CITY of Mayapur, West Bengal, school children, ready for reading class, crowd around a desk covered with books.
"Look at that!" one boy says with so much excitement that he jumps from his seat. "The boys in this book are vegetarian! "
Although the children live in a Krishna-saturated environment, to learn how to read they've had to use books filled with materialistic messages. Until now.
In Belgium a six-year-old girl who learned French in school sits down to learn English with her mother, a Krishna devotee, in the afternoons. Having to rely on educational materials written by nondevotees, the mother thinks how difficult it is to raise children with spiritual values and still give them an excellent education. "Why can't I do both?" she asks herself. Now she can.
Sri Prahlada Dasa grew up in the Hare Krishna movement in Australia in the 70s and 80s. For his academic education, his teachers had to use books and materials opposed to spiritual values. Like so many children in families and communities dedicated to spiritual life, he told me he had longed for academic books that would also speak to his heart.
Decades later, the problem continued. Then, in 2007, some devotee teachers gathered dozens of reading systems from the top publishers of all the English speaking countries of the world. From our experience with such books in our own classrooms, we expected to find patterns of materialist propaganda. But we had never looked at so many books from so many authors and companies. Nor had we looked at such books with a view to creating our own. Perhaps that perspective allowed us to see at a greater depth than before. The specifics of the underlying messages and themes, molding children's thoughts and desires, surprised us.
You might guess what was portrayed, over and over, as an ideal life. It was all middle-class families, none rich or poor. Most of them lived in suburbs, a few in the city, but very few on a farm. The rural families didn't farm with oxen or horses. No family had more than three children. Of course most books also showed examples of broken families as an alternative ideal. No family ever did anything religious, although some books showed festivals and dress of various cultures. Not only was religion absent, but no books showed renunciants at all, or anyone who lived an austere life for the sake of spirituality.
I had expected to see success shown as a secular, middle-class family, but I was unprepared for what I found in nonfiction stories of animals, or any story that involved predator and prey. Although meat-eating by humans pervaded the books, the animal stories gave an opposite message. In all cases except where the prey was an insect, the prey would escape from the predator. Young readers were clearly expected to identify with the prey, seeing the predator as a dangerous enemy. Yet, although the authors showed no sympathy for the hunger of the carnivorous animals, they consistently showed nonvegetarian food in stories of humans. Such hypocritical and unnatural treatment of meat-eating – opposing it in carnivorous animals but accepting it as normal in humans-was pervasive.
All of the books we reviewed were from various series designed to teach young children how to read. But they teach much more than how to turn symbols into speech and meaning. They teach a particular perspective on life, along with socially accepted identities that have corresponding actions and mindsets.
"What do you propose as an alternative?" someone might ask. "Something neutral?"
No, because neutrality-like trying to stop all thought and desires and become nothing-is impossible. Reading instruction must involve reading something, and that something must have a message.
"How about looking for educational materials that present a wide range of values and definitions of success?"
Publishers prefer a consistent message throughout their books, since children naturally tend to see the world as orderly, with clear boundaries. Perhaps children could benefit by learning to read from sources with many conflicting messages, but I doubt that. Besides, no publisher I know of produces such a program. And the consistent message in learn-to-read books is materialistic.
We found that no reading program supported values such as vegetarianism, reincarnation, simple living, spirituallife, and love for Krishna. Indeed, all existing programs promoted the opposite. This problem is not new, and Prabhupada expressed concern about it in 1970: "What one learns as a child is not lost throughout life. So [producing children's educational books] is a very important business. Please execute it with great care and seriousness of purpose."
An Alternative Is Born
Starting in 2007, a few devotees interested in education decided to produce a revolutionary reading program. After three years, the efforts of an international team of two hundred people resulted in a learn-to-read series consisting of forty-two color storybooks, forty-one black-and-white activity books and guides, and three "Magic Pens."
On seeing the books in 2010, Sri Prahlada Dasa felt he had found what he had wanted in his childhood.
"The stories in these books bring tears to my eyes with their sweetness and devotion," he wrote, "food for my soul, spiritual and moral instruction, and creative mental imagery for my mind with their beautiful colorful pictures. Another significant and exciting thing about these books is that they systematically develop the child's reading skills with their gradually increasing complexity, teaching children to read at higher levels. I wish I had books like this to engage and instruct me when I was a child growing up in the Hare Krishna movement. Knowing that future generations of Krishna kids will have access to this wonderful resource makes me happy."
A spiritually based learn-to-read program is not just a way to make a few children, parents, and teachers happy. It is also an important step in changing society. All those who long for a life and a world of harmony, peace, and beauty can reflect on Prabhupada's instruction: "Start educational institutions in different parts of the world to train children, starting at the age of five years. Thus such children will not become hippies or spoiled children of society; rather, they can all become devotees of the Lord. The face of the world will then change automatically." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.12.23, Purport)
So what kind of face would we like the world to have? Imagine if anywhere we could go there was a restaurant serving sanctified vegetarian food; if all the milk people drank came from protected cows; if all the music, media, and entertainment was spiritually enlivening; if all of the fruits, vegetables, the water, the air, and the land was pure and sanctified; if the governments were full of saintly heroic leaders; if it was easy to maintain ourselves in such a way that we naturally think of Krishna. To change our own individual world, we must change our thoughts and desires. To change the world in general, we must instill children with spiritual desires.
The new book series is being used for social change in Vrindavan, the holy place where Krishna appears in this world. There, in two schools-one for the poorest children and one for the privilegedchildren are getting a message of caring for cows humanely and celebrating traditional festivals in ecologically supportive ways, along with the philosophy and stories of their own Krishna conscious culture, which is quickly suffocating under a blanket of consumerism. Within two months of starting to learn English with the new series of books, children were talking more about serving Vrindavan than about moving to Delhi to become wealthy engineers.
My Early Motivation
My journey with wanting children's books that supported a spiritual life and worldview started as a personal one rather than a desire to change the world. Back in the '70s before the public heard that vegetarian was healthy, before yoga studios appeared in small American towns, before kirtana singers attracted big audiences, our first son was born. He learned to read early.
'Krishna' is K-R-I-S-H-N-A with three dots, but no dot on the K or the A," he said one day at age three.
Srila Prabhupada had encouraged children's books as early in the Hare Krishna movement's history as 1968, so a few storybooks were available for our child to practice his new skills. But they were very few. And Prabhupada wanted more than just story-books, as indicated by these excerpts from letters he wrote in the late '60s and early '70s:
"It is good to note that you are writing these children's books to comply with the academic standards of the public school."
"These children's books are very important because our next program is to start children's schools."
"Make some nice Krishna conscious children's books, and we shall then see to printing them."
"You can write many books for children and insert pictures, then they will be a sure success … The books should be written in simple language. Therefore do this work very carefully to explain simply and directly who is Krishna, who we are, what is the material world, what is the relationship of Krishna with the living entities, how we should act in that relationship, etc. And if you can illustrate these books with pictures, they will certainly become very, very popular in the schools."
I now sit with two of my son's children and teach them reading with the new books. If we take a day off, they beg for reading class, and they are learning so quickly, I am astonished. When we finish a class, they take the word lists and study on their own, creating their own sentences and books. They look for the words they are learning in any other print they can find throughout the day. It's hard to end class each day.
It is interesting to see that although they are very different learners-the four-year-old boy is systematic and tries to figure out the rules, whereas the six-year-old girl is a creative thinker who asks deep questions with "How come?" and "What if?"-they are both learning easily and in their own style. The program naturally adjusts to them with no effort on my part.
Once, as my daughter-in-law and I notice they've been talking about the stories repeatedly for days, I comment, "Most stories in early learn-to-read books are so boring, no one wants to read them."
Hearing our discussion, thirteen-year-old Chakra calls out from his room, "The stories are so much fun, I like to read them myself!"
In fact, it is common for me to get letters saying that older children or adults are having so much fun with the books that the children for whom they were purchased have to beg to read them.
I taught hundreds of children how to read during about three decades of being a teacher, but children didn't like
reading class this much. Is it the spiritual content? The variety of illustrations from international artists? The fact that devotees who are professional animators did that many illustrations? Or that even the beginning stories have a real plot? Or that the series can support varieties of teaching techniques, even though some proponents of each claim these methods cannot be reconciled? Or that two of the top five literacy experts in the world gave book-by-book guidance? Or that the pages talk in twenty-five languages and the pictures speak?
Books that talk? How did that happen? In 2009 we printed a test run of six titles. After we'd sold 2,000 of the 2,400 books in two days, I met the head of Mantralingua Publishing in London and learned about a new technology that embeds audio files into ordinary paper using nearly invisible dots. Our books would be able to talk with the touch of a special penlike device. We decided to have each page of text speak in twenty-five languages. The characters in the pictures would also talk, adding dialogue and songs beyond the text. Children and teachers could also record their voices into the pages. No other learn-to-read book in the world had such features.
Robene of Mantralingua told us, "Have devotees of Krishna do the reading of the text, rather than use professional actors who are not devotees. The mood of the speaker comes through the recording, and you want people who love the stories."
Twenty thousand sound files later, his advice shines from every page as the characters in the five hundred pieces of original artwork speak to the young readers in a mood they appreciate.
Soon after we made the decision to add this technology, I happened to hear in one of Prabhupada's lectures: "Therefore I am stressing on this point [to the devotees publishing my books]: 'Where is the book? Where is the book? Where is the book?' So kindly help me. This is my request. Print as many books in as many languages [as possible] and distribute [them] throughout the whole world."
The thought of Prabhupada smiling at these children's books filled with Krishna's pastimes, with instructive stories Prabhupada told us, and with stories of simple living-and which could be heard in twenty-five languages-increased the joy I'd felt throughout the time I worked on the project.
When I was in Tirupati and Chennai, local devotees took me to meet leaders in education in the Sri Sampradaya, who worship Krishna or Visnu in the disciplic line from Ramanujacarya, They were astounded to see their beloved stories and values in a series that uses the most scientific teaching methods. And they were thrilled to hear the books speak in their own languages of Telegu, Tamil, and Kannada, as much as the European devotees were amazed to hear Spanish, French, Russian, and Croatian come from otherwise ordinary paper.
Children who are not Indian, not Hindu, not devotees of Krishna, and not even vegetarian or interested in reincarnation are also enchanted with the "magical" books. For example, we received this letter from the staff at Blaengarw Primary, a secular government school in Wales, UK: "We would like to thank you for the wonderful books you gave us for the children. They have enjoyed using them. We feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to enjoy these stories."
The Hare Krishna movement is the first publisher in the world to have a learn-to-read series that speaks in twenty-five languages. We are also the first to have a series that can be used with various teaching techniques, including the whole-language technique and two kinds of phonics. And we are the first to have a reading series that promotes India's spiritual values while meeting professional educational standards.
For those of us who worked to produce this learn-to-read series, our greatest satisfaction comes from being part of a program that pleases the Lord and His pure devotees, who want to see as many people as possible molding their hearts and minds towards spiritual perfection.
Urmila Devi Dasi, a ETC associate editor, has a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, USA.