Heart of Education Conference – International AMGK Conference

Hosted by the Ananda Marga River School, Australia, July 5-8, 2017

Overview, By Kamala Alister

A beautiful Gurukul conference on Neohumanist Education was held at the Ananda Marga River School, from 5-8 July. The theme was The Heart of Education. The two global NHE trainers of Ananda Marga Gurukula, Eric Arun Jacobson, founder and director of Progressive School of Long Island and Didi Ananda Devapriya from the Neohumanist Foundation in Romania gave a number of talks and workshops for members of the River School staff and boards, teachers from the Sunrise Preschools in Melbourne, other educators from around Australia, plus two guests from Vietnam. The spirit of inspiration, sharing and learning among so many educators created an exciting and uplifting atmosphere. The smiles on the faces of the group photo on the last day show the energy that was generated.

Each day of the conference began and ended with collective kiirtan singing and meditation so that teachers themselves could experience the power of regular spiritual practices. We also were honoured with a welcome ceremony and dance with elder Wirrungga Dunnaggir, to open the program.

On the first day Eric’s excellent keynote address on Neohumanist Education and Why Is it Important, was followed up by practical workshops on Applying Philosophy to Practice with separate groups for teachers working with younger and older children. (see separate article by Paula Beaumont on  NHE for Early Childhood Education) In the afternoon, Didi gave an inspiring talk on Establishing a Personal Practice which clarified for teachers the importance of regular spiritual practices in their own lives.

Highlights of the next two days included workshops on Engaging Children in Circle Time (both keynote and workshops), Neohumanist Aesthetics and Facing Pseudo Culture, a very practical class, Therapeutic Story Telling on the power of storytelling for social inclusion and to address classroom and social issues, and a class Choosing School Literature (see separate articles by Ada Merz). Didi also shared about some of the inspiring projects she is doing in Romania and across Europe in spreading Neohumanism.

On the fourth day, Saturday, we had a smaller group, which used an open space system to focus on three topics: A Classroom Toolkit to Support Children’s Executive Function (self management), Learning to Use a Process of “I am” Meditation, and a Storytelling Practice Circle.

While the program was very full, it was also very engaging and highly informative. There was time to share with the other attendees during the delicious lunches and teas with other teachers and the presenters. Around 15 people (non River School staff) stayed at the Ananda Kamala Community during the conference and enjoyed collective meditations and shared meals. The presenters stayed several days later to continue to support the River School staff and some attendees stayed after the conference to observe the school in the following week. For the River School, this was an excellent chance to deepen staff understanding and inspiration for Neohumanist Education and it was a very positive and satisfying experience for everyone involved.

Journey to the Heart of Neohumanist Education, By Marcus Bussey

“Such an inspirational conference, expanding the minds of the educators will in turn expand the hearts of our children. This conference has expanded both my heart and my mind beyond imagination!” Kristy, River School Deputy Principal

It is a truism that culture eats strategy for breakfast, yet we can strategically engage culture in the service of collective goals. So, when the steering committee, happily called the Neohumanist Committee, came together to organise the Heart of Education conference held at the River School in July of this year, we decided that we wanted a ‘neohumanist revolution’ to occur. To achieve this revolution, we turned to Eric Jacobsen and Didi Ananda Devapriya. Together they were able to instill this gathering with a huge wave of love. Love after all is the heart of Neohumanist consciousness and a powerful, yet underestimated, cultural tool.

This article draws on feedback from River School staff to chart the way this gentle neohumanist revolution moved from a sense of expansive love, to the deepening of understanding around neohumanist concepts and how to integrate them into one’s personal development as a teacher, and finally to the skills to implement neohumanist curriculum in the classroom. The teachers engaged one hundred percent with Eric and Didi over the three and a half days. It certainly was a journey for all to the heart of education.

A Revolution

One teacher Kerrie, in summing up her experience of the conference noted:

I have always felt “love-filled” and just when you think you can’t possibly expand that, you share an experience that shows how wrong you were. That I was surrounded by “love-filled” others was so apparent and my bucket was constantly overflowing with shared values, knowledge, understanding, inspiration and universal love. The value of kiirtan and just how wonderful it made me feel was such a beautiful gift to receive. Listening to Eric and Didi share their wisdom filled my head, heart and spirit with possibilities, questions and ideas.

This was the key: the sense of love overflowing acted as a glue and a scaffold for the rich mix of information, skills and spiritual insights that welled up over those days. Eric offered a wide range of insights into school and classroom process and underpinned that with his beautiful and inspiring kiirtans. Didi brought clarity and inspiration to this mix and invited participants to imagine much wider neohumanist connections to their work than most had ever considered. This was important – as the group worked together many things arose for us that came as a surprise and revelation.

As one participant Kristy noted:

Questions were flying around the room and many answers were always returned. Most importantly, we often left with answers to questions we had not thought to ask, and often we left having more questions of ourselves than of our presenters. There were questions that had sat amongst us unanswered for years and yet in minutes we had clear answers to these questions and a common understanding of what Neohumanist Education really is and why it works.

In this way participant’s personal questions were given airspace and affirmed. To work in a neohumanist environment like the River School is a challenge in that neohumanist culture often comes into conflict with broader social norms that many of us take on unconsciously. The pressure cooker environment of this conference exposed us all to the tensions involved in this work and lead to deep self-analysis.

As Annie notes here, she came to appreciate the need to align her practice as a teacher with her life-practice:

Personally, [the conference] reminded me that I need to be patient and committed and that I need to question. I also need to trust myself. Regarding my life practice as a teacher I realised (or re-realised) that in order to teach authentically I need to align my life principles with my teaching practice. (I do not think I can do this successfully -i.e. teach neohumanism without alignment.) I realised also that my teaching really requires an even deeper integration than what I am presently creating.

Often during the conference teachers expressed the sense of being affirmed. That some deep understanding they had was in fact truly aligned with the philosophy and practice of Neohumanism but that it had not been expressed so clearly before. Both Didi and Eric would crystalize an issue for the participants and this would lead to ‘ah-ha’ moments.

Belinda, for instance, noted:

I loved the assertion that love and discipline go hand in hand, just as freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Less responsibility = less freedom, whereas showing more responsibility earns you more freedom. I have already used this several times in my classroom since the conference, and I think it’s an everyday reality that students can understand and learn from.

It goes without saying that we wanted to push the neohumanist revolution along with a good dose of meditation and kiirtan. We had wondered how ready the staff and other attendees might be for that, so we ran a Survey- Monkey questionnaire in which we asked a series of questions about meditation and spirituality, before the conference. The response was overwhelmingly positive for including meditation in school development programs.

So we opened the kiirtan-faucet and were rewarded with a high level of delight with Eric referring to the school staff as the ‘River School Kiirtan Choir’. The meditation too was deep and rich with all participants finding a new inspiration and seeing links to their teaching classroom practice.

Maria for instance notes:

Meditation has always been my biggest challenge, yet I actually felt, in connection with the Kirtan, that I was finally ‘in the zone’. Since then I have gained confidence in my ability to lead meditation in my class. Kirtan is a greater challenge due to my lack of space.

Now for the revolution to occur in the heart of education we also need to involve the head. It is important to create a powerful sense of anticipation in the lead up to the conference and then to hopefully exceed this.

Rebecca reflected this sense perfectly when she observed:

My expectations were high, with Eric Jacobson (Progressive School of Long Island, New York) and Didi Ananda Devapriya (Romania) as guest speakers, but I must say that my expectations were totally exceeded by what was a magnificent, enriching experience. The rich discussions around Neohumanist Education was complemented by a true exchange of learning from around the world. The meeting of like-minded educators not only provided the perfect space to reflect, brainstorm, problem solve and ultimately improve the delivery of Neohumanist Education but we also all benefited from the sense of community that it provided. My heart was truly enriched by the experience and I am thankful for the opportunity to have been involved.

From here we moved towards a solid sharing of skills that enable teachers to teach more clearly from a neohumanist basis.

As Belinda noted:

I was encouraged by Eric’s no-nonsense and structured, yet richly creative approach towards education, and inspired by Didi’s humility and compassion, and the humanitarian work that she is involved with. I found her use of stories and metaphor to get messages and lessons across to students very helpful.

The Content

Though all staff were moved in their feedback to comment on the heart-work of the conference this was systematically sequenced with rich sessions focusing on Neohumanist curriculum, skills, concepts and techniques. Our Neohumanist Revolution is fuelled by inspiration and the sense of deep purpose and alignment this brings but needs building blocks.

Eric gave a keynote speech to open the conference in which he offered a platform for thinking and enacting neohumanist principles in the classroom. Essentially, we must adopt a three-pronged approach which involves Expanding the Heart, Freeing the Mind and Creating a Social Outlook. In preparing for the needs of an as yet unchartered future, where jobs of the future are yet to be conceived of, we need to teach children to think, to filter, to creatively problem solve, to separate sentimentality from rationality and to care.

Paula summarized some of the other highlights of this presentation that were valuable to her:

Eric gave a detailed account of his own role as a neohumanistic educator, describing neohumanism as including:

  • universalism, loyalty to and concern for all
  • integral ecology – a bond between humans and the natural world
  • compassion – a desire to transform passiveness
  • a heart that extends to everyone and everything

We discussed that through a school’s cultural environment teachers can reimage and recapture their curriculum content in all academic subjects to offer a Neohumanist Education through the content and character of arts, music, drama, foreign languages and a nature curriculum. The curriculum should be taught through example by the teachers and the traditional curriculum can be expanded and adjusted to include:

  • debating
  • practical skills
  • volunteering
  • yoga
  • alternative health
  • gardening
  • philosophy
  • community activism
  • coding
  • independent study
  • emotional intelligence
  • biography

I found this opening to the conference very informative and enthralling in developing my own perspective of what Neohumanist Education is and how I can develop and improve the curriculum I teach.

Belinda, who like other teachers, took many notes, reflected a few weeks after the conference how the following key take-aways from the conference had affected her thinking and classroom practice:

  1. Predetermined units per year level. I like this idea as I’m sure the units of work themselves would be to a high standard, and this approach safeguards against gaps in learning, and unnecessary repetition which only very careful and targeted curriculum tracking could avoid. This approach also frees up teacher time.
  2. Predetermined book lists per year level. As above, avoiding repetition and crossing over, and a safe guard against “random” selection of texts.
  3. A more structured approach to the physical layout for meditation – linear rather than in a circle (less distracting), places already set up with meditation mats, sometimes stipulating where certain students sit (if they are prone to distraction).
  4. Age appropriate expectations for meditation. Kept simple and not always feeling the need to change it and make it new and exciting, favouring the routine and structured approach so that children know what to expect. I liked the guidelines to meditation that Eric provided in terms of age-appropriate activities or expectations for meditation as well, eg. 6 – 9 year old: instructed to keep hearing the song in their heads.
  5. Quiet time at the start of each day. Until the conference, I had been doing class meditation just after first break, for 15 minutes, but since the conference have changed my timetable so that we start each day with it, and it’s had a wonderful, calming influence on my class and the way we begin each day together.
  6. Yoga stories – I am yet to try this, but I really like the idea, and can see that it would be easy to incorporate into our routine. Today in Morning Circle, Trudi’s class told a Greek story to demonstrate “Simple Living” and turned it into a yoga story, which worked brilliantly. I wonder if she got the idea from the conference?
  7. Talking about WHY we meditate. This was something I never used to do much prior to the conference, but I talk about it every few days with the children now.
  8. Use of a 3 step approach to meditation – preparation (yoga and singing), meditation, and wisdom acquisition. Prior to the conference my daily practice with my class comprised of 15 minutes of singing which led into meditation, but I’ve now expanded that to be 30 minutes at the start of each day, consisting of yoga and singing (preparation), meditation, and wisdom acquisition (story telling). The progress we’ve made in three weeks has been very encouraging, with children more focussed, and calmer at the start of each day.

The River School school principal Ann was impressed by the professionalism of the presentations. As she noted:

Over a three-day period, we were treated to a smorgasbord of topics that were engaging and professionally presented. Main, guest speakers Eric Jacobson from Long Island Progressive School, New York and Didi Ananda Devapriya from Romania came well prepared and willing to share their knowledge and expertise in a way that was clear, transferable and practical.

She comments here on how the approach to morning circle has changed following a session given by Didi:

Staff of the River School loved Didi’s explanation of a three-stage approach – preparation, inner focus (meditation) and the getting of wisdom (reflection). Using examples and discussion points from the conference we have taken on board the enjoyable task of redefining our daily meditation time so that it is more meaningful and consistent for our students and ourselves.

The Neohumanist Lens

There is no doubt that the Heart of Education conference has been a catalyst for a deeper engagement with Neohumanism. It was the River School’s previous principal Jenny who enthusiastically kick- started the preparation for this conference along with the school Board and the Neohumanist Committee. The intention was to initiate a ‘revolution’ in thought and practice. In the lead up to the conference staff began to talk about ‘wearing your neohumanist glasses’ and seeing through our ‘neohumanist lens’. This metaphor has continued to be used in the school and current principal Ann acknowledges how the conference has taken her and her staff on a deep journey. As she sums it up:

By the end of the final day my Neohumanist lenses felt beautifully adjusted, sitting so much more comfortably as a result of a deeper understanding of how to practise and apply Neohumanism in terms of myself and our (River) school. Feeling grateful.

Kristy, the school’s deputy principal, also concluded with a similar sense of rightness; that her neohumanist lenses were well and truly adjusted to the ongoing work of building rich neohumanist futures based on new learning and past successes:

The conference provided us with clarity and strengthened our vision of Neohumanist Education. Now, looking into the future of our school, we view it from a new light – our Neohumanist Lenses are on tight and we are able to see things we have not been able to see before. There are so many exciting things we can expand upon and implement within our school and yet there are also so many things to celebrate that we are doing remarkably well already.

NHE for Early Childhood Education

A Workshop given by Didi Ananda Devapriya at the Heart of Education Conference

Summarized By Paula Beaumont

I enjoyed the workshop I attended by Didi Ananda Devapriya on NHE for Early Childhood which gave me a simple but very effective approach to designing a curriculum through looking at curriculum with questions as your starting point, offering a flexibility to explore but also an opportunity to link the curriculum to the principles of NHE.

The following questions can start the flow for the topics you endeavor to cover within the curriculum alongside considering what kind of pupils you aim to create and what values you wish to install.

When? Timing, rhythms, cycles, flow
Who? Teacher’s self development and example
What? Curriculum Content
Where? Learning Spaces
How? Pedagogy, Methodology
Why? Philosophy – Core Principles

Didi continued to explain that there are three aspects to guiding your NHE curriculum, with the first one, Vistara, being the driving element in developing it. These were:

  1. Vistara – Expansion – I Discover the World
  2. Seva – Service – I Love to Help
  3. Rasa – Flow of love – I am guided by Love

She provided an effective visual interpretation of this which increased my knowledge and understanding.

I connected with this approach to organising the children’s learning and enjoyed discussing the ways we can develop Vistara within our own classroom. Vistara being the expansion of the mind and allowing the discovery of learning to be developed through:

Following the children’s lead:

  • Using open ended materials
  • Giving time for the learning to develop
  • Using different mediums
  • Providing provocation for inspiration
  • Group discussions
  • Involvement

I gained a successful way to planning whole days, small sessions or individual learning through Didi’s rhythm of the day. This again was split into three sections.

  • Sprouting: life force, vitality – I am ……
  • Ripening: Transforming, growth – I do ……
  • Harvest: Achievement – I have done ……

Very clear and concise method, although I feel prior knowledge needed to be added to the sprouting:
I know this – I am going to learn this.

Other Conference Reflections

I enjoyed the Quiet time workshop discussing elements of circle time and feel as a school we have all tried to adapt and improve our own quiet time sessions. I have allowed children to be leaders within these sessions. This has increased their motivation as they wish to be the lead meditator and involve their own thoughts and ideas, allowing for the expansion of the mind. I have started to use therapeutic stories within the class day and have purchased a book of these from the suggested author, Susan Perrow.

To finish I would just like to add that attending the conference inspired me to allow more time in my own life for meditations and service to others.

I aim to continue developing my thoughts, ideas and practices in small steps based on the information we shared within this conference.

Thank you to all those involved in the organising and delivering of the conference for inspiring and motivating me.