Inasmuch as it is practically impossible to find a level of expression that will be suitable for children of all ages in a Buddhist Dharma-school, it is important that parents and teachers give careful study to each lesson before attempting to teach it. If the children to be taught are eight years old or under, then there must be some “cutting down” in the way of expressing the point of the lesson. For older teenagers, the lesson can be amplified. In all cases, it is well for a teacher or parent to seek stories that fit in well with each lesson. Such stories add very greatly to the meaning of a lesson and are very much to the liking of the children.
The questions found at the end of each lesson are by no means meant to be all the questions that can go with the subject. The parent or teacher is expected to add questions or to change their wording as need may arise. Often it will be found that one question will lead on to a number of other questions. It is an excellent idea to encourage the children to ask their own questions and to enter into a full discussion of the subject of the day. The more lively the interest stirred up, the better the class. A plan that is followed in many Dharma schools is that of dividing each lesson into two parts. On one Sunday the lesson is taught and the teacher tries to fix each important point in the children’s minds. The following Sunday there is a discussion of the lesson, and questions and answers. The questions given with each lesson are offered only as suggestions to lead on to many other questions. Practically all Dharma schools follow the plan of setting every fifth Sunday apart as a day for review of the lessons of the previous four Sundays. This procedure has proven of great value in fixing the outstanding points of the lessons in the memory of the pupils.
Probably the average class period will not go beyond half an hour, at the most. Some of the lessons will not lend themselves well to adequate handling in so short a time. It is suggested that each such long lesson be used on successive Sundays. The first Sunday half-hour period will allow time to go over the lesson in a sort of introductory fashion. The following Sunday can be a combination of review off the previous period, plus a more detailed study of any points not full covered in the introductory period. It is well to offer every encouragement to the children to participate fully in the class, and with greatest liberty. Any attempt to force children to sit quietly for lengthy periods, behaving themselves like “little sugar angels” is a sure way to cause the youngsters to detest coming to the classes. A bit of noise-making is normal to a healthy child, and the wise teacher will not attempt to be stern in this respect. If lessons are made lively and interesting, there will be no great problem in holding the pupils’ attention and maintaining the necessary amount of order and quietness. Under no circumstances should a lesson be too long.
Audio-visual methods, used in modern primary schools, fit in well with Dharma school work. If coloured slides for projections are available, they add much to the value of a lesson. If a teacher can go through old stocks of illustrated magazines and cut out pictures to pass around in class, that too, adds much to the impression the lesson creates in young minds. One of the most valuable pieces of equipment any Dharma school could have is an epidia-scope projector for pictures cut out from magazines, post cards, material drawn by the various classes in the school, etc. These projectors are adjustable to the size of picture shown and practically any lesson can be illustrated by regular use of such a machine. As a rule this type of projector for still pictures is not at all expensive.
These lessons are, as already stated, designed for use in Dharma schools conducted in English. But in some sections of the Buddhist world, the children are bi-lingual and in the case of Malaya, often multi-lingual. The teacher should not hesitate to use whatever language that will make a given point clearer to the class. At the question and discussion period, if the children express themselves in a mixture of two or more languages, no attempt should be made to discourage this practice. Keep in mind that our main aim is Dharma instruction, not language coaching.
Any Dharma school committee that loses sight of the fact that children like activity, is likely to find a steady decrease in attendance. For an example of a good plan to follow: opening devotional exercises, including singing, twenty or twenty-five minutes. Classes graded according to ages follow the devotions, and a maximum of half an hour will suffice for study of lesson material. Then the children reassemble and have a twenty minute period of singing and story telling. A devotion ought to be used for closing the session. Then we come to a highly important part of Dharma school activity – guided play. The Dharma school committee ought to plan games suitable for each age-group and allot an hour or so to this activity, which may or may not seem important to the adult way of thinking, but is of great importance to children. Any attempt to make children behave as adults if foredoomed to failure. If we cannot understand the processes of the child-mind, then there’s small use in even beginning a Dharma school.
Almost any fairly well stocked bookshop has books on games and also teachers’ manuals on planned play. Every Dharma school committee ought to have at least a few such volumes. They will be found to be of very great help, both in making up schedules of Sunday games and help in planning genuine fun for the children on their outings and picnics. A few good teachers’ manuals on child psychology are on another worthwhile addition to any Dharma school committee’s bookshelf.
From time to time, it is a thoroughly good idea to have Competitions in each age group to determine how much of the lesson material has been retained in the memory of the pupils. Small prizes are usually given to winners in these contests, and some Dharma schools hold big competitions every six months and offer fairly substantial prizes to the pupils who make the best showing.
These lessons, if used according to the suggestions herein offered, can easily see a Dharma school through about a year and a half of systematic, unrushed instruction. Much will be lost if there is no provision made for review of work done, and these review Sundays ought for come at least once in every five or six weeks, certainly not less frequently than once every two months. These reviews and Sundays set apart for special programmes will keep the children from getting the feeling that they are being overtaught. Moreover, special programmes prevent the deadlines of monotony from setting in and eventually killing the Dharma school.
No Dharma school committee ought ever to make the mistake of adhering too rigidly to an inflexible schedule of activities. Even the best of plans can become monotonous and tiresome. Radical departures now and then from the usual programme will be of great value. If it is possible to secure films, of an educational nature, but not necessarily religious, such film-shows help to keep children l0yal to the Dharma school. The same is true of occasional picnics, beach outings and similar healthful activities. Experience has shown that a dull Dharma school is soon a dead one.
We have slightly condensed the admirable hints on How to Import Buddhism to Children by the Venerable Thich Minch Chau. Every teacher in a Dharma school ought to read these hints very carefully. There are teaching suggestions of very great values in this carefully thought out paper by the learned Vietnamese monk. But, after all the books and articles are read and thoroughly digested, the fact remains that no two Dharma schools are likely to be quite alike and the committee of teachers in each school must constantly be on the alert for new and effective ways and means of making their teaching programme have real life and lasting success. Any Dharma school committee that is afraid to rely on its own resources for good practical ideas, is forgetting an admonition given us over and over by the Lord Buddha: “Think for yourselves – be lights on your own path – depend not on others.”