PENZA, Russian Federation -- In United States dollars, the books don't cost very much: about $5-6 each. But on a teacher's salary in contemporary Russia, it is a considerable sum, and the decision to buy requires a bit of sacrifice.
"I had the choice to buy some clothing or the books," said Irina Melnikova, a pre-school teacher at Public School No. 35 in this medium-sized industrial city on the Sura River. "But I decided that to grow as a professional, I need the books more than other things."
Ms. Melnikova is not alone. Since the first copy of "The World of Love and Unity" was published in 1996, it and subsequent titles in a series of books by Maria Skrebtsova and Alesya Lopatina have sold more than 120,000 copies in Russia and other CIS states.
The books, which offer step-by-step classroom lessons in moral education and other topics, have been purchased mostly by primary school teachers, who nearly always pay for them out of their own pockets.
Teachers and those few school officials who have also begun to use the books say there is nothing else in Russia like them.
"These books are very much needed by Russian society," said Tamara Tkatchova, director of the Ozarenie School (Reflections School), a public school in Kazan, Russia with about 250 students in grades 1 through 12. "They stand in contrast to everything else like them."
Relying on donations from parents, Ms. Tkatchova has purchased a full set of books for each classroom. She and her staff have built a major portion of the school's curriculum around the books, developing a series of "positive thinking" lessons from them, which are used at the start of every school day.
"I want my children to be compassionate and loving and wise and these books help us to develop those qualities in the children," said. Ms. Tkatchova.
Authors Skrebtsova and Lopatina say the secret behind the series' success is the incorporation of universal moral and spiritual principles, principles that they have drawn from wisdom literature from all cultures, but especially from the world's great religions.
"We start from the premise that what is 'good' comes from the prophets of the great religions -- and also from our common human heritage," said Ms. Skrebtsova, a 36-year-old former teacher of French and now full-time author.
And though the books are not specifically religious in their orientation, they draw extensively on the moral and spiritual principles of Faith in God.
Those principles, say Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina, suggest a new direction in education where the child is viewed not merely as an empty vessel to be filled up with knowledge and information but rather a unique individual with an innate sense of right and wrong, a sense that must be brought forth and properly developed if true learning is to be achieved.
"The human being is a 'mine rich in gems of inestimable value' that can be revealed only through education," said Ms. Lopatina, a 53-year-old former pre-school teacher, who also has degrees in mathematics, physics, and psychology. "Our books seek to 'open the soul' of the child to bring out the gems that lie hidden within."
It is a concept that is finding favor among the many educators who have discovered the books. They say the current educational system in Russia lacks any overall direction in terms of moral education, and the approach offered by Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina is sorely needed.
"Under Communism, there was a lot of ideology," said Ms. Melnikova, the teacher in Penza who spent her clothing money on the books for her classroom. "There was the Party, the Young Pioneers, all the rituals of the State. And in all that were moral examples to teach our children, like about wartime heroes and sacrifice.
"But now that is all gone and there is nothing to replace it," Ms. Melnikova continued. "But, for me, these are the first books that fill that gap."
Ms. Melnikova said that since using the books by Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina, she has seen a distinct improvement in the behavior of her students in the classroom -- a change that has been confirmed by the children's parents as well.
"Parents have told me that their children pay more attention to their advice, and that their children have started thinking and analyzing their own behavior more," Ms. Melnikova said. "The children don't behave just out of obedience, but out of their own reflection on what is good."
The methodology of the books is quite simple. Each is divided up into a series of classroom lessons. Each lesson begins with a preface for the teacher, suggesting a goal or purpose for the lesson. This is followed by a fable or legend, which is read to the class or read by the class. That is followed by discussions questions. Finally, the lesson is reinforced with a list of creative activities, such as the playing of a classroom game, an artistic exercise, and/or a short written assignment.
For example, in one of the books, a lesson entitled "Cooperation" begins with a series of questions to be asked of students, such as "What kinds of things does your family do together?" and "What qualities does a person need to be called a good co-worker?"
It then offers a short tale, titled "The Forest Singers" and written by Ms. Skrebtsova. The story tells of rehearsals among forest musicians -- a fir tree, a cricket, a nightingale, and a bluebell flower plant -- that goes poorly because each is "singing his own song." But the shining sun counsels them to decide in advance which song to sing first, whether a bird song or an insect song or a tree song, and then to work together. The resulting concert is a huge success.
At the end, the sun observes that the best present the forest ever received was that moment, when everybody learned to think "about someone else before himself."
The lesson then offers more discussion questions, and then lists some suggested activities. These include a game in which children try to tie a knot first with one hand, and then with two; a written assignment to list tasks that people can't do by themselves (such as building a house, steering a ship, etc.); and an assignment in which children talk about what kinds of laws might make life better for everyone around the world and then draw a picture of a new world that shows what would happen if such laws were put into effect.
In the West, workbooks for teachers that offer carefully designed lessons -- with follow-up activities -- are not uncommon. But in contemporary Russia, where tight budgets for education have left few resources for new instructional materials, the books by Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina stand out as highly innovative and appealing.
"These are very practical books," said Galina Gerasimova, a teacher of grades 1-4 in the public school no. 7 in Orsha, Belarus. "I knew everything I should teach the children, but I didn't have concrete tools to do it. I was like a musician who knew how to play, but just didn't have sheet music."
Ms. Gerasimova started using the books three years ago and has been so taken by them that she has bought nearly 100 copies and given most of them to her fellow teachers and to parents. "Every time there is a holiday, I present one of my friends with one of the books," she said.
Another thing that sets the books apart from other volumes on moral education in Russia and, perhaps, around the world, is their extensive use of myths and legends -- more commonly known as fairy tales. The authors have both used traditional tales, and composed new ones themselves. But their use is a feature that seems to have a special appeal here.
"In old times, many people enjoyed fairy tales in Russia, and Russian people continue to like them very much," said Alexandar Tkatchova, a teacher at the Ozarenie School in Kazan, where the books are used extensively. "Because wisdom was given from people-to-people through fairy tales."
Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina say the use of legends and tales not only have universal appeal but also offer an easy medium for moral instruction, which they see as the heart of their project.
"We believe it is not possible truly to educate children unless there is a moral basis underlying the process," said Ms. Lopatina, saying that attempts merely to teach "knowledge" -- such as science, mathematics, and history -- become a fruitless exercise in memorization unless the students see a purpose for learning.
"Teachers spend years of their lives and millions of nerve cells on getting children to assimilate knowledge, while the children make every effort to repulse that knowledge, and resort to squirming out of work and trickery and whatever else it takes avoid lessons they neither like nor understand," she said.
Their idea was to collect legends and tales with high literary merit that recount humanity's spiritual accomplishments in one place, as a means to "stir the mind and heart of the pupil from the very beginning, to impart to him the thirst for knowledge and the thirst for moral and intellectual nourishment," said Ms. Lopatina.
Teachers who use the books say that approach works. "When I started my teaching, I thought just giving information -- just pure knowledge -- was the most important point," said Alla Markova, 33, vice director at Public School # 151 in Penza. "But after a while, I realized that moral issues and development of character were also very important. If a person has very good logic and very good grades, but no ethics, that can be dangerous.
"But if you work with the system that is in these books, you can achieve very good results. It is a system that you can use in every subject. If you teach ethics first, you can teach the logical aspects of any science afterwards," said Ms. Markova.
In their effort to promote their method of moral education, Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina have founded the Center for Moral Education and Creative Development of Personality, which is based in Moscow, where the pair live.
The Center, with them as principals, serves as both a publishing house for the books and an agency for their promotion. And to that end, Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina have criss-crossed Russia and the CIS states over the last nine years, giving workshops and lectures based on the books and their principles.
"We have visited more than 160 towns and cities, in not only Russia but also Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Lithuania," said Ms. Skrebtsova. They have also set up a network of book agents in many towns, who likewise seek to promote their acceptance and use.
So far, they have published 14 titles in the series, expanding beyond books that simply present lessons in moral principles to books that also include elements of biology and language development. For example, one title, "Tales of Words and Letters," includes more than 100 stories, games and activities about letters and words, aimed at making the teaching of reading, writing and speaking fun. They are currently working on a book that uses the same methodology to present mathematical concepts.
Nevertheless, the presentation of moral concepts remain the lynch pin of their approach. "For example, our stories about letters and words not only help children to learn reading and writing quickly, but also teach them to be friendly and kind," said Ms. Lopatina.
In 1998, the Russian Association of Book Publishers awarded their publisher an honorary diploma for the books, and bestowed on them the title "Best books of the year."
But teachers who have discovered the book -- and who use them in their classrooms are in fact the biggest supporters of Ms. Skrebtsova and Ms. Lopatina.
"These books are a mine of wisdom, of parables and legends, in which all the world's wisdom is concentrated," said Lena Morozova, a 26-year-old primary school teacher at Public School No. 26 in St. Petersburg. "They prepare the children for the future, for all problems of life that people must deal with."