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Schools Pick Up New Krishna Conscious Reading Series


Dr. Best Learn to Read launch
Fascinated parents and children crowd around the new Krishna conscious reading series at Janmastami 2010 in the UK.

Dr. Best Learn to Read, a brand new 84-book series teaching children how to read English in a Krishna-centered way, was officially launched during the Janmastami festival at the UK’s Bhaktivedanta Manor on September 2nd.

The series, which uses top-quality professional materials and internationally proven teaching methods, and features a variety of Krishna conscious stories to read, has several unique selling points. But perhaps its most compelling is the inclusion of the TalkingPEN, which when touched to the page reads the story aloud and makes the pictures talk—in twenty-five different languages.

On Janmastami morning, priests offered the reading series to the Manor’s presiding Deities Radha Gokulananda, making room for it on their intricately decorated altar amongst an assortment of flowers and cakes. The offered copies were then officially presented to Bhaktivedanta Manor.

“This project started at the Manor with UK educator Sita Rama Dasa, who suggested it to me,” says series co-creator Urmila Dasi—also known as Dr. Edith Best. “The temple management allowed me to stay on the property for several months at a time to work exclusively on the project. And the audio and voice work was done almost entirely in London, and organized by Manor volunteers.”

Bhaktivedanta Manor continued to get behind the books, with its PR department sending press releases about them to all of the Hindu and mainstream UK press, and its temple president making a public announcement promoting them during the Janmastami festival.

Urmila also sent a complimentary series of books to the school at ISKCON Auckland, New Zealand, which put a lot of money and manpower into the project, and facilitated her for many many months.

Later in the day a forty square foot tent was set up just outside the temple to demonstrate the series, so that Janmastami festival attendees who emerged after paying their respects to Radha Gokulananda—about two thirds of the 55,000 pilgrims present—would pass through it.

As they entered, they were each given a sticker of pictures from the books, which are illustrated by top commercial artists and professional animators. Some depicted Krishna playing his flute, others showed him breaking a pot of yoghurt, while still others showed with him with his parents. When each of these were touched with the TalkingPEN, they would sing or talk. “I love you Mata,” Krishna says as he hugs his mother Yashoda.

Author Urmila Dasi spent twelve hours of her day demonstrating the series to visitors. She was assisted by a team who had spent three years working on the project with her, as well as twenty Bhaktivedanta Manor volunteers.

“When demonstrating the books, we showed the kids how to use the pen themselves,” she says. “At first they thought that they had to push it down into the book—they didn’t realize that it’s so sensitive you only need to lightly touch it to the page and it’ll talk. But they soon got the hang of it, and were having so much fun they didn’t want to leave.”

The parents and children could take a look at three of the series’ forty-two color reading books and three of their accompanying activity books at each of the six tables in the tent. Those who wanted to purchase books could buy either one section—beginner, intermediate or advanced—on its own, or the full series for a hefty discount.

Children and adults alike were amazed by Dr. Best Learn to Read’s technology, feeling the paper and saying, “How do you do this?”

Others appreciated the quality level or the spiritual content. “Second generation devotees really appreciated the fact that we now had Krishna conscious learning materials,” says Urmila. “One of them said to me, ‘When we were kids, we really wanted to see something that was high quality and Krishna conscious. This really raises the bar on what kind of educational materials we’ll have for our children.’”

And their children would love them, as proved by the reaction from devotee youngsters. “Hey!” they’d yell as they looked at the pictures. “There’s people with tilak and neck beads in these books!” They were just so excited to see story books with characters that they could relate to.

Teachers were also enthusiastic about the series, and the way it encouraged children to go deeper into the meanings of the stories or the feelings of the characters. They were also extremely appreciative of the fact that Dr. Best Learn to Read is the first literacy program in the world to incorporate both whole language and phonics systems, as well as instructions for teaching each method, making it extremely flexible.

Bhaktivedanta Manor’s Gurukula and nursery schools, as well as the government-funded Krishna Avanti school in London’s borough of Harrow, are already using the series in their classes. ISKCON schools in Alachua, Florida and Hungary have ordered copies. And four government schools in Wales are ready to “pilot” the series, with a possible view to using them in all public schools as a supplement to teach children about Indian religion and culture. If this happens, publisher Mantralingua will approach other public schools throughout the UK and the world.

Meanwhile in India, copies of the series will be sponsored and sent to a number of schools. “Most schools in India, especially the ones that serve poor children, are not wealthy,” Urmila explains. “They usually teach English using reading books that are of low quality and are not even written with proper grammar or spelling—and which cost only about five rupees each. So it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for them to afford high quality materials.”

Sponsored copies will be going to ISKCON Mayapur’s international school, and to the Sandipani Muni school in Krishna’s birth place Vrindavana, which provides education for the village’s poorest children. In addition, copies without the TalkingPEN and audio features will be sent to a teacher at a deaf school in Indore, central India, who will distribute them to thirty deaf schools throughout the country. ISKCON Sannyasi Bhakti Purushottam Swami has also pledged to organize the distribution of the series to 300 schools in India—but of course that means Urmila and her team need to get 300 series sponsored.

Urmila feels that it’s a very important effort, with roots that go deeper than one may think. “Many of us may go to India and see that they are adopting the worst of the West, and we want to do something about it,” she says. “Educating the children differently is one of the biggest things we can do, a very powerful way to influence Indian culture to go back to her roots.”

She adds, “A lot of Indian youth are rejecting their culture as old fashioned village ideas—even vegetarianism is on the decline—and would rather adopt the ways of the West. But if they see such ideas presented in top Western quality, with first-class paper, Disney level illustrations, and using high-tech western technology, the children in India—and the teachers, parents and schools—will be much more likely to accept them.”

And Urmila hopes that her series is just the seed for more and more people to come forward and make their own high quality teaching materials.

“When I was watching the publishers assembling the packs with the pens and putting everything in shrink-wrapped, beautifully designed boxes, I felt like I was floating,” she says. “After having worked in education for nearly thirty years, and always wishing we could have first class teaching materials about Krishna, vegetarianism, reincarnation and more, it was amazing to finally have them.”

Urmila explains that this was also a project close to ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada’s heart—one he talked about in the early 1970s. “I can just imagine him sitting there and looking through these books about Krishna for children in 25 languages…” Urmila says, her voice filling with emotion. “And I’m sure he would be so happy that we have such a nice facility for our children.”

If the series sells well, it could launch a whole slew of other development ideas that are waiting in the pipeline. The first step would be to print larger quantities of each book, create a school pack, and try to get the price down for schools in India and all over the world.

Other ideas include reading books for older children, English grammar books, a DVD self-study course, and a high school level science book.

“In the future, I’d like to see us have an education office, with 200 people working full-time on writing, illustrations, layout, and testing,” Urmila says. “And producing full materials for ages two through adult across a whole spectrum of different educational topics.”

Dr. Best Learn to Read publisher Mantralingua will be demonstrating their catalog including Dr. Best Learn to Read at the World DIDAC India Exhibition in Mumbai from September 23rd to 25th. The books will also be demonstrated at the ISKCON temple in Vrindavana, India during Kartika (October/November).