Grades 2-3, River School, Australia
with Anna Robb at the River School, Maleny, Australia
by Didi Ananda Tapomaya
A group of children sit on the floor in a circle with their teacher Anna Robb. They have kept something on the floor behind their backs. There is also another circle surrounding them; students from other grades, visitors and parents, sitting on chairs.
The atmosphere is solemn, surprisingly so. The spectators are drawn into that vibration of calm connection. Teacher Anna talks: “Let us open the meeting”.
Children reach behind their backs and pick up their masks. They put them on and from there on speak only as the animal their mask depicts. Anna also has a mask, hers is the wise baboon speaking with respect and clarity. She invites a round of introduction; a walrus speaks: “I am the walrus, I speak on behalf of all walruses”. So we get to meet Mary River Cod, Ant Eater, Honey Bear, Snow Leopard, Leatherback Turtle, and so many other creatures from land, water and air, who have left behind their kith and kin, and who have travelled near or far, to reach this important Council of All Beings.
Anna invites council members to speak on the real reason why they are here today. And animals talk; some boldly, some with merely a whisper. They tell heartbreaking stories about gradual destruction of their habitat, difficulties in raising their babies, finding food and shelter. We, the spectators, mere humans with two feet and upper limbs with hands, are asked questions with a tone of unwavering respect about what do we really do in regards of our environment. Then we stand up, put our hands on our hearts and take a vow to safeguard and protect all beings on this earth.
To close the meeting, Anna tells: “All creatures, thank you for coming to this meeting. Please, next time bring your mate, your babies.” And as a signal for children to take off their masks: “Now we will turn”. For the final part, children sing some of the songs they have practiced; ‘Kings and Queens of the Forest’ has been one of their favourites this term.
Prior to the meeting in a circle, the audience members have had a chance to meet these animals in their habitat enclosure and ask them questions. Children from other grades have previously been given a clipboard each, with questions to ask, and now they write the answers they were given by the animal. One of the most poignant questions is how we humans could help the animal. Answers told by these little creatures, embodied by Anna’s students of 7 to 9 years old seem to cut through the loud clatter of our everyday thinking and reasoning. The faces of the older, grade 6 students seemed to express deep thinking, wonder and awe. Here they were, the stalwarts of the whole school, participating and being touched in an event created by children so much younger than themselves!
Teacher Anna had learnt this style of collaborative and creative venture building from Sue Attril, an experienced educator and also a River School teacher from some years back. The theme of Council of All Creatures very smoothly combined Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences. During the term children explored, investigated, and problem-solved, gradually gaining knowledge and understanding in each animal’s perspective. They practiced their ability to question, think critically and communicate clearly. And crucially, they also learnt skills in how to create a happy, sustainable future for the planet. Many of the parents were helping with the event, assisting in mask building and constructing habitats. One of the activities for children was painting a poster with each animal’s paw or fin prints. One child had painted translucent blue round circles; when asked, he explained they were the air bubbles of his animal, the Blue whale!
In her planning for aligning it with the Neohumanist worldview, Anna writes: The way towards a more harmonious, environmentally happy future can only be through love. The saying “to truly understand someone, you must walk in their moccasins” expresses the sentiment which epitomises this Unit. The children look through the eyes of their animal, with fresh perspectives, solutions and feelings towards their actions, which humans have imposed on their environment. As the children grow in knowledge of the needs of all creatures, they will develop great empathy towards all life. This unit encourages the children to be ‘the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves.’ The children learn to listen, empathise and care.
”One should guide one’s conduct carefully to ensure that one’s thought or actions cause pain to nobody and are unjust to none.”
P. R. Sarkar – Neohumanism in a Nutshell 2