Monday, May 13, 2013

Dawa's Visit to The Alice Project School

Dawa is the full-time teacher hired by Lhomon Education to teach the monks at CGI and to develop integrated curricula based on the LME Framework. A large part of this initiative will be providing training opportunities for Dawa. His first training was at the Alice Project School in Sartnath India. Here is his detailed and very interesting report.

At the invitation of founders Valentino Giacomin and Luigina Di Biasi, I visited The Alice Project School in Sarnath, India for one week in March, 2013 in order to observe their teaching methods and receive training that can be transferred to our classroom here at Chokyi Gyatso Institute in Dewathang. The Alice Project is near the beautiful Buddhist ruin where Buddha first taught. Graced with an environment of green trees and plants, the school provides not only a home for many animals and birds, also a place for young children to discover their inner true self. The following is a brief reflection of my visit. 

"Ciao Aunty!" children in a corridor call out to Luigina. Ciao is Italian, for good morning/evening. Ciao! she replies immediately. She is like a mother, gently holding the hands of students, tugging their uniforms, hugging and kissing. She spends a couple of minutes talking with each student despite her busy schedule. She has an inspiring quality as a teacher, while she interacts with the children. Personally I feel, that teachers should have these values as a part and parcel of their intimacy. Her love and kindness to all the children with no discrimination has gained the children's love equally in turn and they have in fact strong familial relationships rather than mere teacher/students relationships. During own my schooling, teachers were teachers and students were students. There was a big gap between us, which created fear, confusion, hostility and lot more. Teachers were viewed as fearsome. I vividly remember jumping off a wall to escape their view. I learned some very important skills from Luigina about how to establish good relationships with children. Yet, I admit there is always a room to grow and learn more.

The Alice Project is a non-governmental organization that was formally authorized by the Indian government in 1994. Its purpose is to develop an integrated education through experiences and research. Luigina and Valention founded these schools one in Sarnath and another in Bodhgaya. Today these schools offer education to more the one thousand students. Recently another school had been opened for Chakma children in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Alice Project methodology is based on the concept of unity. There are no divisions by different nationalities, traditions, religions in an ideal multicultural and pluralistic society. Lack of unity is not only a social concern but it is also a personal concern in relation to ourselves. It's here that research for psychological unity starts, a unity that goes beyond division created by confusing mind.  
They schools are following the Indian state government syllabus for the traditional disciplines, which are taught according to western methodologies, plus an additional curriculum of their special educational programme- Yoga, concentration, art, mythology, comparative religion, moral science and ecology.

"Like Alice who embarked on a great adventure and did not lose herself in Wonderland (in the book by Lewis Carroll) but found an inner guide in the form of the White Rabbit. In a same way we should guide our students to discover their true self," says Luigina. "Our students need to be able to find their way in the world around them through understanding their internal world" she added. "Understanding the internal world needs experiences and we are providing those to our children," she added.

When asked about the inner world Luigina said, ''What is going on in yourself? What can we see? what are our thoughts? our feelings? Our emotions? What is our reality? We call all this our internal world, which cannot be separated from external reality.''

Today's education system is built on separation and on classification. In school we tell the children to look at a tree. The tree is divided into three parts - roots, trunks, leaves. Is it really that the trees are divided into three parts or they were long ago, some botanist took a pen and wrote down that the trees are divided into three parts-and the idea came to an existence. Now we tell students, this is a truth, go memorise it, if you don't, you will fail in your exam.

According to Luigina, this kind of knowledge is poison. It is not truth that the trees are divided into three parts. What is true is that we project what is in our mind. Everything we perceive outside comes from our filter, our thoughts, believes, cultures, religion, principles and an environment we are raised.
The first clang of a bell calls students' attention to take their seats on the carpet. They take out their shoes and slippers around the edge and sit in their respective lines. At once, hundreds of students begin their morning  prayes. They are dressed in sky blue shirts, dark purple pants or skirts, dangling purple ties from the middle of their chests for junior grades.  The girls wear long blue knee length skirts. The morning breeze through the green tall trees, plants and flowers fills the gathering. A pigeon on a 'Y' shaped branch listens to the melodies prayer and often in between a sparrow adds to the chorus with their chirps but it is dominated by a tune of hundreds below. 

After the prayer the students sit on the carpets cross legged. A teacher stands on the floor in front of the gathering with a small bell in his right hand. He shakes it vigorously so that the sound is audible at the rear. He speaks in Hindi through a microphone held in his left hand. ''Students, sit straight, close your eyes, think about an enemy whom you have hurt. Ask yourself why did you hurt him or her. Dissolve their harsh words and pay attention to your breath. Know that you are inhaling when you inhale and exhaling when you exhale. Visualise 'OM' in your mind.'' Then in an ascending tone they chant OM...OM...OM... three times. Thus, a day begins with looking into the Internal world of self.

Being a Buddhist myself, born and raised in a society where Gross National Happiness concept was created, exploring the nature of mind and discovering its inner most quality has become a basic reliable foundation. Meditation can be a universal path of internalizing into one's own unexplored working of a mind. I realized that simple daily contemplative practices in school are very important from an early age. The education we give to our children must bring benefit throughout the individual's life and even in their next life, which I think is possible through training our mind-meditation or whatever we call it. If taken into consideration meditation would provide a unique platform for our young and unspoiled minds to discover the mind system at earliest possible. At times meditation becomes investigational lab for our children to become mind scientists. The production of hundreds and hundreds of mind scientists could begin from schools and one example could be Alice Project.

At the school, there is always some time reserved during the assembly hour to sing together in unison. Most of the songs are praises to god, value embedded and peace related. One of the songs was sung in many different languages (Hindi, English, Italian, African, Bhutanese et al). ''We will be in peace...'' followed by rhythmic claps. ''Bless the lord my Soul...''. I learned that singing songs together gives an opportunity for students to join as one, respect each other, learn and visualize the value images, work with tunes and compose their own songs.

I learned, that to cultivate the seed of a pure and good mind one should have an inspiring  environment as a fertile land and that must be constantly encouraged in our children's daily practices. At Alice Project there was a Tara temple which was dedicated to an universal peace; the long life of H.H. the Dalai Lama; Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshey, the gurus who inspired the Alice Project. There, the students from the Alice Project recite the prayer to Tara taking turns. The cosmic female energy is generated constantly by 24 hours uninterrupted recitation of her prayer. Many lamas have blessed the temple.

Yoga is a science of a body and a mind. I learned that there is an important relationship between yoga and meditation. Both the practices basically help in the development of children's concentration, calming the mind, and right growth of the body. To provide an opportunities for students to practice and learn yoga, the school has a separate yoga room and makes schedule for all the classes.

I observed several yoga classes and every time they begin with motivational prayer and meditation for few minutes. They dedicate their learning and again mediate for few minutes to end the session.

I am very impressed with the wonderful learning environment- training in tolerance and respect for all the religions, stress on interdependence, all so peaceful, friendly and happy. I feel very strongly that meditation would help our students to become better person in their life. As a part of pilgrimage I also went to see Alice school in Bodhgaya it was an inspiring school. I met with Valentino and he shared about the concern of western education system. He said  Bhutan has rich indigenous culture and tradition and it must be preserved and catered through education. If our education system goes wrong the story would be same as the crisis of ladhak and Nepal. So be careful with your education system he warns.

With this I would like to thank Valentino and Luigina for warm reception and great learning experiences you provided for me. Thank you so much for everything and my warm regards goes to you, your teachers, and to the students.