Baha'i classes find wide appeal
SYDNEY, Australia — About 6,000 primary schoolchildren in Australia are attending Baha'i classes, which are offered in more than 300 state-run schools.
The classes are offered mainly to provide religious instruction to Baha'i children.
Yet more than 90 percent of the children in Baha'i classes are from families who are not members of the Baha'i Faith -- indicating the wide appeal of the Baha'i approach to religious education.
Among the parents sending their children to Baha'i religious classes at their local primary schools is Vicki Thomas, a 33-year-old resident of St. Ives, a suburb of Sydney.
Ms. Thomas, who is not a Baha'i, says she wants her three children to grow up with some kind of religious feeling.
"My children are very young, and they don't need anything too heavy at this stage, but it's important to me that they do have a faith education," said Ms. Thomas.
"I liked the open-minded approach of the Baha'i curriculum," she said.
Australian parents have the option of enrolling their children in Special Religious Education courses at state schools, thanks in part to a century-old law requiring schools to offer religious training if parents want it.
As might be expected in Australia where some 70 percent of the population identify themselves as Christian, many more children attend religious classes offered by Christians in state schools. Classes are also offered in by Buddhist and Muslim groups, among others.
Moral values stressed
In accordance with the Baha'i belief that all the world's great religions share the same divine origin and have been revealed progressively to humanity, the approach of Baha'i Education in State Schools (BESS) includes an introduction to the world's other great religions.
BESS classes also stress the development of moral values as taught in all world religions, such as patience, honesty, and compassion, as well as Baha'u'llah's social principles, such as the oneness of humanity, the equality of women and men, and the promotion of racial and religious tolerance. Prayers and meditation are also incorporated.
"Parents appreciate that we teach the students to respect the different cultures and religions of the world in the classes," said Yvonne Perkins, a spokesperson for the Baha'i community of Australia, which has about 10,000 members.
"They also like the moral basis of the program, and the fact that we encourage children to look at their own behavior and how improving it helps them to contribute to a better world," said Ms. Perkins.
The law in most Australian states and territories allows students to obtain specialized religious education in the school setting.
Special Religious Education (SRE) is offered by religious groups, approved and administered at the state level.
The BESS program was established in the late 1980s, when the Baha'i community was approved by the New South Wales State Government as a provider of Special Religious Education.
Today, BESS classes are taught by hundreds of Baha'i volunteers in most states of Australia.
They receive ongoing training in religious education, undergo child protection training, and are registered according to the policy of state-level education departments. They use curriculum resources developed for BESS classes by Baha'is who are professional educators.
An example is the situation in Western Australia where the State's Department of Education and Training is involved.
"The Baha'i Special Religious Curriculum -- the Peace Pack -- has been reviewed and subsequently endorsed by the Department for trained Baha'i personnel to deliver," said Brian Rogers, the Department's principal curriculum officer.
"In endorsing the program, the Department looked at general issues such as pedagogical approach rather than specific information, which is left to the individual religious bodies to decide," said Mr. Rogers.
The BESS program encourages children to identify those virtues they already possess, and those they need to develop.
The classes adhere to the Baha'i principle that education should help people think independently. Hence, BESS teachers do not seek to convert or indoctrinate their students, but rather to encourage them to think about their spirituality and the ways they can serve humanity.
Children from families who are not Baha'is may only attend BESS classes with parental permission.
"We've experienced an enormous growth of interest and numbers in BESS classes over the past decade in particular," said Ms. Perkins. "The classes have expanded in number and size largely through word of mouth, and through the results that parents see in children who attend them.
"Children love the way the classes are taught -- the program is quite varied, with a lot of arts and crafts, meditation, and stories -- so it keeps their imagination stimulated," Ms. Perkins said. BESS teachers also incorporate singing, dancing, games, and other participatory activities.
Many teachers draw on a Baha'i curriculum known as the "Peace Pack." It was initially developed in Western Australia by professional teacher Georgina Sounness and professional illustrator Terri Turner.
"The whole purpose of it is to empower children to believe that peace is achievable and to give them the tools to become peacemakers and assist them in bringing it about," said Ms. Sounness.
To help children imagine a peaceful world, the authors use the idea of building a "Peace House" with cardboard, paint, and felt.
Children understand that if one part is missing, the house isn't complete, Ms. Sounness said. "If the oneness of mankind is missing, or gender equality is missing, there will still be an absence of peace."
Changes in behavior
The response from parents to the BESS classes has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I've had parents call to thank us for giving their children a spiritual education," said Ms. Sounness. "They want to give that to their children but are often at a loss on how to approach this.
"They've given written permission for their children to attend the classes, so they know what they're receiving, but beyond that they fall in love with the curriculum too."
Ms. Perkins said many parents have commented on how their children's behavior has improved through attending BESS classes.
"Our teachers work from the view that while a child's qualities might be masked by poor behavior that's developed over time, everyone nevertheless possesses something wonderful.
"Baha'i teachers actually search for those good qualities in the children, to show the children the wonderful qualities they have, ignoring labels like 'poor concentration' or 'badly behaved'," said Ms. Perkins.
"For a child, to have someone encouraging you to develop your good attributes once a week instead of focusing on what's wrong with your behavior -- this can all make a dramatic change to a child's life."
Robert Chivers, a 50-year-old software developer in Perth, who has taught BESS classes for three years, said parents often say they see improved behavior after the classes.
"Parents notice the difference on the days the children have Baha'i classes -- for example, their children are calmer, and talk about using virtues," Mr. Chivers said.
BESS teacher Venus Nasrabadi said the number of pupils in her class has risen dramatically over the past eight years.
"Children really do recognize God, in the sense that they have a feeling for their own spirituality, and I give them a lot of creative activities which illustrate the themes they're learning," Ms. Nasrabadi said.
"For example, in teaching about Moses, we made paper baskets to illustrate the story that His parents had to put Him into a basket and place him in a river, and that helped introduce our study of Moses and His achievements and the Jewish faith.
"For Mother's Day, the children made a gift card containing a prayer for mothers from the Baha'i writings, and covered them with sequins, shells, and colors. Later, their mothers told me that they absolutely loved this craftwork partly because it is a gift thanking them for their service as parents, and also because their children are learning respectfulness."
Michelle Ostowari, 47, is married to a Zoroastrian and chose BESS classes for her daughter, being "the closest thing" she could find to a Zoroastrian class.
"It's been very good for my daughter; she has become genuinely tolerant towards everyone, no matter whether they're Jewish, Muslim, or whatever -- she gets on with everyone, and we're delighted that, for her, religion will never be a barrier to friendship," Ms. Osowari said.
Jan Heath, a 46-year-old teacher in Brisbane, who is not Baha'i, sends her son to BESS classes at the Fig Tree Pocket State School. She says the class has helped him develop respect and tolerance for others.
"My son certainly seems to be heading towards growing into a caring young man," said Ms. Heath. "He may have done this anyway, but constant reminders and praise in Baha'i classes can only help. I feel that the teachings reinforce our family values."
Ms. Thomas, of the Sydney suburb of St. Ives, likewise said her children seem to enjoy the Baha'i classes.
"There is an emphasis on peace and unity in the Baha'i teachings, which the children love," said Ms. Thomas.
"They come home with beautiful work and beautiful quotations, and there's a real gentleness of spirit that comes across, which is really beneficial for them," said Ms. Thomas. "It's definitely one of the highlights of the week -- they look forward to their Tuesday mornings so much."
Reporting by Corinne Podger.