Helping Benchen School
Over the past year, Abiding Heart has been closely collaborating with Benchen Monastery School implementing our unique Experiential Buddhist Education. Benchen School, a part of Benchen Monastery in Swayambhu, Nepal, is a school based in Pharping for more than 160 young monks. We helped the monastery set up a lovely kindergarten where we have been implementing our Experiential Buddhist Curriculum. We also have been implementing Abiding Heart's Experiential Buddhist Curriculum in their class 1 to 4 and are now preparing their next group of teachers to take on new classes in the next academic year. Our aim is to continue to implement our Experiential Buddhist Curriculum at Benchen up to class 8 at this point and establish the high school in a few years when the children completed upper primary education. In this way we are working closely together with the monastery to provide these beautiful children a healing, home from home, loving and caring Experiential Buddhist Education...for transformation.
Young monks at Benchen Monastery
There is a rich, respectful and nurturing collaboration happening between Abiding Heart and the Principal of Benchen School and their six teachers. We share the same motivation to benefit the children, supporting transformative and healing education and with that fostering wisdom and compassion in all of us. This deep love and care we share for the children makes all the difference in making fantastic progress in shifting Benchen School to using Abiding Heart Education. The result is that these children are getting the kind of childhood that is a birth right of every child. This motivates all of us more than ever to continue to offer these children a safe, loving sanctuary for them to grow, learn and flourish. The impact of implementing the Abiding Heart Education approach with the children has been deeply moving for all of us involved. The teachers of Benchen, the principal Khenpo Sherab Tenzin and our team at Abiding Heart have worked tirelessly around the clock for months to get the teachers and classrooms ready. The children’s response is teaching us that we are on the right track. The children are eager to come to class everyday and they can’t wait for the school day to start as they wait outside the classroom for the teacher to arrive every morning. They now love learning and school.
The Abiding Heart curriculum is filled with developmentally appropriate content where each lesson is delivered after careful, detailed and thoughtful consideration. This all in the service of nurturing the child’s mind. When the children engage in contemplative watercolour painting activity, for example, the teachers observe the children going in and getting in touch with their inner quietness. The children went very quiet and went deeply into the colour experience of this painting exercise. At first the teachers didn’t understand how children could relate to just painting one colour. With the Waldorf approach of using wet on wet, the children were fully immersed in a colour experience rather than focusing on form, with the colour leaving an impression on the child’s inner life. As the painting was done in mindfulness with awareness the experience was a meditative experience for the children. Tuning in to children’s inner development the experience of form comes a bit later in the painting curriculum.
Helping to solve the teaching languages problem
One of the first things we focused strongly on at Benchen School is establishing an immersive Tibetan language programme. Most of the children in the school need to acquire fluency in Tibetan speaking, reading and writing in order to access the religious texts and to be ready by class 8 to move to Shedra. The quality of Tibetan language needs to exceed over and beyond just being literate! By the end of class 8 the children should be able to express themselves very well in writing using a high standard grammar, spelling and composition using various writing styles, such as, narrating, describing, reporting, inquiring, reflecting, and of course, creative writing. By the end of class 8 the young monks reading and oral presentation skills also need to be of a high standard to be able to thrive and excel in their Buddhist studies in the Shedra.
To do that, at Abiding Heart we have brought together different methodologies for teaching language and a bilingual classroom from the international school system, the Waldorf system and the UK education system for supporting immigrant children to acquire language. After extensive research and consulting other experts from the UK, US, the international school system and Waldorf system we have created a language programme that meets the unique needs of a bilingual and a trilingual classroom situation. The children at Benchen are being taught the content of our curriculum in Tibetan and in a careful and attentive way that supports the acquisition of Tibetan language. This involves the teachers using skills they have developed in our training to support this kind of learning including for example using short sentences and a lot of visual aids when telling a story. The teachers share that the children are picking up Tibetan language very quickly and that the children are eager to learn and practise Tibetan. The children are confident in trying to speak the language and use the new words they learn every day in their conversation.
We use visual aids to introduce the Tibetan alphabet to the children as Tibetan is not their mother language. The Tibetan letter NYA also means fish in Tibetan. The teachers told the story of the rainbow fish to the children and the children drew the fishes which form the Tibetan letter
The transition into implementing the Abiding Heart kindergarten was very smooth thanks to Khechok and Dolma Tsering’s dedication. Khechok has been on our teacher at Abiding Heart since 2019 and is a very experienced and compassionate teacher. With her help and Dolma Tsering’s deep care to the children they made the transition into Abiding Heart’s kindergarten very smooth!
The kindergarten day is full of play, nature, discoveries, dance, song and stories. In addition, in the kindergarten we have also implemented an immersive spoken Tibetan language programme. This includes the teachers teaching the whole group and small groups Tibetan using gestures and visuals to tell the children stories and engage in conversations. This programme aims at giving children a full year or two of spoken Tibetan so that when they join class 1 they would have good Tibetan language skills at the level where they can easily access the curriculum content that is taught in Tibetan. Based on several language teachers' expert advice, additional languages are taught later on.
The kindergarten teachers wash the faces of the young children at the start of the day and tell the children stories, verses and sing songs using a lot of visual aids. The children are also given a lot of time to play with resources donated by Abiding Heart.
Kindergarten teachers Khechok and Dolma Tsering caring for the younger monks. Khechok and Dolma Tsering wash the children's hands and face at the start of the day. Look how the children watch her caring for them. Then the teachers engage the children in a developmentally appropriate Shakyamuni sadhana using puppetry and creative, enchanting story telling. The children are given lots of time to play and just be.
We are extremely fortunate to have Khenpo Sherab’s massive support and input in implementing the immersive Tibetan language programme. Khenpo la is also a very talented translator, beautifully translating children’s poems and songs, which is extremely difficult to do. We are also working with other Tibetan language experts from the Department of Education who are also very valuable in putting together our Tibetan language reading programme using different reading schemes. We created a class library in class 1 and 2 that has fiction and nonfiction books. To support the children in learning Tibetan we have sourced books in Tibetan from Nepal, the Department of Education in Dharamsala, the Snow Lion Foundation and China. At a later date these libraries will include books in English and Nepalese. We are preparing for that as well.
In the primary lessons the children start their day with meditation and the Shakyamuni Buddha Sadhana (which includes prayer and meditation practice) and then a short meditation session. The primary children then have a Contemplative Circle and then a Learning Circle where they wake up their bodies through dance, using bean bag exercises, practising mental maths, spelling, remembering new vocabulary and reciting poems, songs and verses through movement and physical exercise. We have fun with bean bag exercises to awake coordination, balance, and continue to refine the children's fine and large motor skills and sharpen their mind for learning. We are linking here the Buddhist and Waldorf approaches of learning through doing and movement. Dr Barbara Oakley explains that research in neuroscience has shown that learning is a very physical phenomenon of connecting neurons in the brain. As we are learning we are making those connections. Research also shows that exercise helps us learn better as when we exercise it helps create new dendritic spines and new connections between neurons. The children are having a lot of fun while at the same time learning.
Abiding Heart also created our own notebooks for class 1 and 2 using Nepali handmade paper. We wanted the notebooks to be big, A3 size, so they would be developmentally appropriate for the children, where the children can form big letters which is much easier for them to do. We have come up with our own version of notebooks, beautiful and handmade, where the children use crayons and coloured pencils to fill in the notebooks as we want them to have a colourful, joyful experience when learning. They have colourful pencils to write with and as most lessons also include artistic work, in following the Waldorf approach, the children are expressing themselves through drawing and also learning different artistic techniques.
All the lessons are framed within the Buddhist context with the children beginning each main session with a short Manjushri prayer and ending each session with the Four Dharmas of Gampopa aspiration prayer. In all lessons we sprinkle very short meditation exercises as part of transitions from one thing to another or simply enjoying a pause where it feels right. We use a bottle of glitter, pebbles, beanbags, our body and breath all in support of meditation with an object. We are finding that the children are responding to this beautifully where they are quite open and interested in it.