Learning English through Srimad Bhagavatam
By Madhumati Pushkarini Devi Dasi
“Gurukula is our most important project. If the children are given a Krishna conscious education from early childhood then there is great hope for the future of the world.” SrilaPrabhupada in a letter to Dayananda, Nandarani – Calcutta 27 January 1973.
Introducing Krishna conscious education in a school that is open to students of all backgrounds, in a school where competitive mentality is very prevalent among parents can be quite challenging. But the school is unique since it is established by Srila Prabhupada and also because it is in the holy dhama of Sri Vrindavana. Bhaktivedanta Gurukula and International School, Vrindavan, decided to introduce Srimad Bhagavatam as the core English text book for middle school students. However, without a proper guide book to teach young children in a school set up, it seemed a farfetched idea to do so. It indeed came as a huge blessing when Aruddha mataji, who is a pioneer of homeschooling children of devotees using Srimad Bhagavatam as their main course book, inspired parents around the world to create resources on every chapter of the Bhagavatam and compiled it into one comprehensive book – Srimad Bhagavatam- A Comprehensive Guide for Young Readers.
Based on this book we decided to come up with a systematic course for English subject for grades 6,7 and 8. The idea was to integrate Shastra and English as one subject and develop clear instructional objectives, lesson plans and procedures for the same.
Initially there were many apprehensions on whether students of middle school could assimilate the deep philosophical statements of Srimad Bhagavatam and if the words and concepts in the text would be rather difficult for them. With the expert guidance of Aruddha mataji, the teachers began to develop more confidence and accept that one need not have mastered the science of Bhagavatam in order to teach kids from it.
Titled as ‘Integrated Shastra English Program’, we framed the objectives of our course as follows:
1. To teach the skills of English language to middle school through the content of Srimad Bhagavatam.
2. To plan every class with clear instructional objectives such that young readers develop interest in the content of Srimad Bhagavatam.
3. To use various teaching methods like discussion, demonstration, debate, questioning, art and drama to teach the subject.
4. To develop language skills among students through organizing different events such as elocution, debate, essay writing, composing poetry and group discussions
We had intense preparation in the form of demo classes given by English teachers to other teachers before the new session began. We also began writing clearly our lesson plans with detailed instructional objectives for every single class. Using many of the activities outlined in the Guide Book and preparing our own activities, we began a very rewarding journey of teaching Srimad Bhagavatam to young kids of Gurukula.
The journey so far has been a very unique experience for both students and teachers.Sanjukta mataji, English teacher for grade VI shares: “I feel blessed and excited to be teaching Srimad Bhagavatam for middle school students. The way the students participate and reciprocate gives me a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”
Our fear that young students may find difficulty in understanding or appreciating Srimad Bhagavatam was soon put to rest when students started participating in all discussions and enthusiastically participating in all activities. As Shyamlata mataji, English teacher for grade VIII says, “Amid the various things that have changed this year, one is that our children have started studying Srimad Bhagavatam. Earlier I was little apprehensive about myself teaching it and the students understanding this lofty literature. But today after teaching for a few months I feel that I have learnt a lot as a teacher. Similarly my students have improved in various aspects. It is for the first time that they have taken any subject so seriously. It’s a process of mutual growth and improvement where we help each other. The classroom resembles a beautiful place like Naimisharanya where we discuss Srimad Bhagavatam every day.”
We conducted many events such as elocution, poetry writing and recitation based on Srimad Bhagavatam. Students are getting exposure to both; Srimad Bhagavatam, the mature ripened fruit of Vedic literature as well as skills of English language. The discussion on the wide variety of topics that Srimad Bhagavatam contains is sometimes overwhelming for teachers and they have to make extra effort to stop discussions and stick to their lesson plans and instructional objectives. As Parvesh prabhuji, English teacher for grade VII talking about the enthusiasm he sees among his students shares: It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I see my students understand and appreciate what they learned from Srimad Bhagavatam, clapping their hands whenever they find proofs that they find amazing, volunteering to join in the discussion and showing lot of enthusiasm. It is really a wonderful feeling when they appreciate what I have taught them, not only academically but also what they learned from Srimad Bhagavatam about life in general.”
Students also share similar experiences about their new text book as can be seen in the collage below.
So how exactly do our teachers teach this great philosophy to our little children? Unless every lesson is well planned and tailored at their level, children may lose interest in studying or may find it irrelevant. Hence teachers write down the instructional objectives for every lesson along with the main procedure including the ice- breaker for each class. Instructional objectives for the introductory lesson are presented here:
Subject: Introducing Srimad Bhagavatam as their English course book
At the end of this lesson students will know the name of their textbook, the main characters required to introduce the plot of Srimad Bhagavatam and the chain of events that lead to Srimad Bhagavatam being spoken.
Instructional objectives: By the end of this class students will be able to
1. List main characters and identify their roles in terms of the author, primary speaker, primary listener, secondary speaker and secondary listener.
2. Sequentially recall the plot of how Srimad Bhagavatam came to be spoken to King Parikshit.
Above objectives were achieved mainly through narration, board work and role play
Instructional objectives: By the end of this class students will be able to
1. Analyze how Krishna uses devotees to teach all of us: The significant role of King Parikshit.
2. Justify their goals of reading Srimad Bhagavatam
3. Compose a prayer to Srimad Bhagavatam.
The first objective was achieved through a planned humorous demonstration by teacher with a student who normally followed classroom rules. The teacher asked the student to walk into the class without permission (thus breaking one rule). The moment the student did that, teacher corrected him with strong words and the entire class became attentive to what the teacher was saying! Other objectives were achieved through discussion followed by writing.
After introduction to their course book, students have begun reading the translations of Canto 1 to begin with. They mark difficult words, study various nuances of grammar, and then through different methods such as discussion, role play, songs, chart work and explicit instructions, students learn different concepts from translations with the help of the Guide Book.
SrilaPrabhupada mentions one of the seven purposes of establishing ISKCON as ‘To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.’
This systematic propagation can happen in a school set up where students come for the purpose of learning and acquiring knowledge. With the help of expert guidance and proper planning it is possible to generate interest and develop language skills among young students using the text of Srimad Bhagavatam. Indeed it is a privilege to be a part of this school either as a teacher or as a student to be able to study Srila Prabhupada’s books in a systematic manner.
Madhumati Pushkarini Devi Dasi