Buddhist animal stories can help pupils with special needs explore the complex subject of human values, says Anne Krisman
Think of animal stories and Aesop's Fables come to mind. These are well-loved and well-worn ways of communicating moral teachings and values. Buddhist Jataka Tales (www.jatakkatha.com) offer a fresh way of exploring values such as kindness, charity, non-violence and love. These stories, dating back to the third century BC, focus on the Buddha's previous births in the form of animals, such as an elephant, a deer, a swan and a rabbit.
My Year 10 special school pupils, who have general learning difficulties, begin with a simple activity. I read out statements such as: "respect old people", "love your parents", "be kind to others" and "animals and people are equal". They are allowed to give up to five points to each statement, depending on how much they agree with it.
The numbers one to five are put on the floor and pupils stand by the vote they gave each statement. This makes it clear which values are shared by the class, such as "be kind to others". There is a discussion about equality between animals and people. Some feel they can love their pets, but not the wasp that flew into the room.
I tell the Jataka Tale of The Elephant and his Old Blind Mother, which depicts disability as an opportunity to show compassion. It tells of Buddha's birth in the Himalayas as a baby elephant. His mother looks after him and when she grows older and becomes blind, he does the same for her. When the king captures the elephant, he refuses to eat until he is returned to his mother. His pleading is so powerful that the king frees him. When he returns to his ailing mother and washes her eyes, her sight returns.
Some pupils empathise so much with the elephant that they ask to change their votes, reflecting how they had reconsidered their thoughts about respect for old people.
Pupils depict the story as a silhouette. They use crayons to make a sunset background and add black paper cut-outs of the elephants. Some show them with their trunks linked, depicting love. They add what they feel is the moral of the story. One girl, whose mother had died, touchingly writes: "Look after each other, you don't know when you might lose that person."
Anne Krisman is head of RE at Little Heath Foundation School in Romford, Essex.