We encourage parents considering Living Wisdom School to watch the following talks by educator Sir Ken Robinson, in which he eloquently and humorously describes the central problems with education today and proposes solutions that have been implemented with stunning success for more than forty years in the Living Wisdom Schools.
Sir Ken Robinson works with governments, education systems, international agencies, global corporations and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations to unlock the creative energy of people and organizations. He has led national and international projects on creative and cultural education in the UK, Europe, Asia and the United States. Sir Ken Robinson is the most watched speaker in TED’s history. His 2006 talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (watch below) has been viewed online over 40 million times and seen by an estimated 350 million people in 160 countries.
He has been named as one of Time/Fortune/CNN’s ‘Principal Voices’. He was acclaimed by Fast Company magazine as one of “the world’s elite thinkers on creativity and innovation” and was ranked in the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top business thinkers. In 2003, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.
His book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin/Viking, 2009) is a New York Times bestseller. It has been translated into 23 languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide. His latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Viking, 2015), tackles the critical issue of how to transform the world’s troubled educational systems, and is now available in 15 languages.
Sir Ken was born in Liverpool, UK. He is married to Therese (Lady) Robinson. They have two children, James and Kate, and now live in Los Angeles, California.
I am delighted to share our experience of Living Wisdom School (LWS).
As an educator in the field of early learning at Stanford University, I know that the future of our society depends on its ability to foster healthy development in the next generation.
Extensive research on the biology of stress, conducted at the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of the stress-response systems of a child’s body and brain.
Toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health. Thus, learning to cope with adversity is an important part of any child’s healthy development.
The Harvard researchers found that when a young child’s stress-response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline.
As parents, we understand that we cannot save our children from life’s stressors. Having acknowledged this, the pressing issue for our family became how to provide our daughter with an environment that would nurture her spirit, her mind, and her soul.
In 2011, my husband and I came across Living Wisdom School’s website, after reading Autobiography of a Yogi and doing some research on meditation and spiritual living. The seed was planted for our family’s association with LWS, which would become an inspiring adventure for our daughter and our entire family.
Why did we choose LWS?
LWS is a rare environment where the founders have created a holistic approach to academic education that includes mindfulness and positive thinking, and where the teachers guide the children daily in consciously choosing kindness, joy, and happiness, with an emphasis on universal human values that nurture their strengths and positively reinforce their innate love of learning.
Here are some of the features that were important to us as a family, and that led us to select LWS and Education for Life as the right choice for our daughter:
Academics that provide our daughter with the skills she will need for her life’s work.
Self-regulating skills such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, and an emphasis on teaching kindness and joy as paths to understand and cope with this complex, changing world.
Helping children develop a mindset of choosing happiness even in adverse circumstances, with a strong focus on emotional self-regulation.
Confidence development through healthy competition in an environment of mutual support and discovery, to help our daughter understand that excellence is an important goal to strive for in all facets of her life, while experiencing satisfaction in the process.
Mindfulness practice, which research has shown decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, and strengthens compassion.
Constant personal attention from teachers who devote tremendous energy to understanding each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
Teachers who are given the freedom and flexibility to adapt and refine the curriculum to challenge and support our daughter in achieving at her own, individual pace.
A caring, nurturing community of children, parents, and teachers who are working toward the common good for the children, their families, and the world.
A sense of “work” and “mission” that aims at serving humanity and creating caring, compassionate and accepting global citizens. The LWS teachers consistently model these values – they “walk their talk.”
The annual Theater Magic program that engages the entire student body, and enhances academic learning in ways that we cannot begin to adequately describe.
Our daughter’s experience at LWS has been a blessing both for her and for our family. She is eager to go to school every day and loves her school environment. I cannot think of a better definition of school success.
Finally, it has given us joy to come to a deeper understanding of Education for Life over the years, because it has extended into our family and helped us consciously define our goal of authentic parenting.
Our daughter is progressing well in her academic environment, as she learns to manage her stress, choose happiness, and be a joy-filled child. What more could we ask?
Raju Parikh Bio:
Raju Parikh is the Director of Early Learning Programs at Stanford University.
My two children have attended Living Wisdom School for the last seven years. Before we discovered LWS, they were enrolled in four separate schools, and while each school had its merits, we never felt that they were completely right for us.
At LWS, I know without the slightest doubt that my children will be loved, taught, challenged, and nurtured every day – and what more could a parent ask?
The richness of the LWS Education for Life (EFL) philosophy arises from a deep, consistent valuing of the unique and special qualities of each child’s mind, heart, hands, and soul.
As an education researcher, I’ve studied human development and learning from a cognitive and social perspective, absent the key dimension of the soul (in the most expansive sense of the term). When I first became acquainted with LWS, I felt that my academic background would surely prepare me to understand Education for Life. I dutifully read the Education for Life book and tried to assimilate its ideas into my own thinking and the frameworks that I had studied in graduate school.
But there were problems with that approach. EFL is so much more than an abstract system that I could absorb and intellectualize with my rational mind. I read the book several times and could scarcely decipher its meaning, thanks to the theoretical prejudices that my education and experience had fostered.
But as the years passed, and I began to understand EFL in greater depth, I realized that it can only be truly studied and evaluated in the living arena of the child’s daily experiences in the classroom and playground.
I watched with wonder as both of my children began to thrive under this approach, and I was thrilled to see how their growth was positively reflected in key moments of our journey as a family.
I’ve been deeply impressed by the many ways our children’s consciousness and learning have expanded through their participation in the yearly all-school Theater Magic play, the literary journal, the spring art show, the music concerts, and the various culturally inclusive celebrations and field trips across the school year.
Whenever my son has experienced obstacles in his academic subjects, his teachers have had the freedom and flexibility to give him all the help he needed, and to adapt the curriculum and the teaching approach to meet his unique needs.
Throughout my years of observing the LWS teachers, I’ve been gratified to see how much energy they bring to noticing and valuing the gifts that each child brings.
An LWS teacher told me that my son always played a key role in initiating and sustaining deep class discussions about the subject matter, and that he offered stimulating perspectives that advanced learning for everyone – and this was in fourth grade!
It was typical of the feedback I receive in parent-teacher conferences, and on report cards (which are ungraded, because the richness of the students’ learning at LWS cannot be reduced to a simple percentage or letter grade).
My children have very different personalities, yet they have both found LWS to be a place of adventure, friendship, and safety, free from the anxieties and undue pressures associated with many other schools, especially “high-performing” schools.
My daughter has experienced tremendous acceptance and love throughout her journey at LWS. The school has fostered her identity as an artist, as a primary medium through which she expresses herself. At the end-of-year ceremony, I was so proud to watch her give her speech about the quality that the teachers had observed in her over the preceding year. I held my breath when it was her turn to celebrate her quality. But like all the LWS children, she gave her short speech with complete confidence to an audience of over 200 students, teachers, parents, and relatives. She was able to show such poise because she believed in what she was saying, and she knew that she was surrounded by a community of friends who were cheering her on.
Our experience of LWS has given me confidence that I am fulfilling my sacred duty as a parent to give my children an education of the highest possible quality; an education that will not only set them on a positive path to college and career, but will help them know that they have the power to choose happiness wherever they go. The joy and wisdom that have unfolded for my children and my family through the LWS community are boundless.
Jack Dieckmann, PhD, LWS Parent
Educational Researcher, Stanford University
Jack Dieckmann Bio:
Jack Dieckmann serves as Director of Research at youcubed at Stanford University, a nationally recognized initiative for inspiring, educating, and empowering teachers of mathematics by transforming the latest research on math learning into accessible and practical forms. Prior to joining youcubed, he was Associate Director for Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), where he led the math team in performance assessment development. He received his doctorate in math education at Stanford in 2009. For the past 12 years, Jack has served as an adjunct faculty member in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).
When David Eby isn’t teaching music to children at the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon, he’s a professional cellist with the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Cello Project. David teaches cello at Lewis and Clark College and is a Teaching Artist for the BRAVO Youth Orchestra. He also works with the El Sistema program, which brings classical music training to disadvantaged youth.
David lives in south Portland with his wife Madhavi, their daughter Caitlin, and their Manx cat, Maggie. (David invites you to visit his website where you can learn about his insights on meditation for musicians, and the spiritual healing power of music in our lives.)
David Eby has taught in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than fourteen years – initially for two years in Portland, then twelve years at the original school at Ananda Village, near Nevada City, California, and now he’s back in Portland teaching again.
Q: David, let’s have an informal conversation about the role of the arts in helping kids be happy and successful in school and in their lives. Have you given much thought to the positive role that the arts can play in a child’s development, especially during the important “Feeling Years” from age 6 to 12? Has it been a theme in your life, and in your daughter’s?
David: My daughter Caitlin is in sixth grade now, and she’s performing with the Pacific Youth Choir in Portland. They recently sang Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Oregon Symphony. It was a spectacular, high-powered event – Mahler can be pretty heavy, but she was moved to tears by the beauty of it.
She gets a great deal of joy from the arts – from music, theater, and writing – and she’s very passionate about it. She grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools, and next year she’ll enter the Arts and Communication Academy here in Portland. I’ve taken her to choir practice since she was a little one, and as a result she knows our entire choir repertoire inside and out. (laughs)
In my life, the arts have been an absolutely constant theme. I picked up the cello when I was six, and I knew right away, with a solid intuition – “This is my instrument!” Music was something that stayed with me throughout my childhood, and playing cello and singing took me to some incredible experiences in my earlier years.
It was during that time that my heart was most open, and through music I was able to experience something greater than myself, whether we call it a higher inspiration, God, or our own highest potential. The name we give it doesn’t matter, so long as we recognize the amazing things that music can do for us.
There are two aspects to music. There’s the purely physical, sonic experience, and then there’s the interior, subjective response.
The sonic experience is what the sound waves are doing to our brain. Many studies in recent years have shown that music, and especially playing an instrument, builds important connections between the two hemispheres of a child’s brain, and that when a child is having a musical experience, many areas of the brain become engaged. It’s not just a single part of the brain. Music touches a number of brain areas simultaneously, and when we’re performing, the whole brain lights up in a striking way that the scientists can observe on brain scans. The effect is also there when we listen to music, but to a lesser degree, and even when we imagine music that inspires us.
So there’s the purely physical level, and then there’s an energetic level. And what I mean by “energetic” is the effect that the sound waves produce that touches us in a deep way. It’s what happens when we say, “That piece really moved me.” Or, “It struck a chord with me. I really resonated with it.”
It’s something that we can safely say lies beyond our intellectual perception, or the simple effect of the sound waves on the physical body and brain. There’s something that music can awaken that’s deeper than a collection of beats and sound waves and chords.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of music today, popular music, that is simply that – it’s just sounds and beats and rhythms and effects that are designed to be ear candy. It gets our energy moving and excites our emotions, but when it’s over it just dumps us back out on the curb again.
What intrigues me is a kind of music that does exactly the opposite, a music that bypasses the mind and draws us inward, into a oneness with something that’s greater than the little ego and that we recognize as being the highest part of ourselves.
Q: Are there levels upon levels of uplifting music – for example, music that can raise our spirits, and then music that can take us to an even higher plane?
David: Yes, I’m absolutely convinced of this. I coached at a music camp last week, where an amateur quartet played a Schubert piece, and it was really lovely. Schubert wrote some incredibly inspired pieces. Some of his songs have a powerful ability to cheer us up and make us smile and feel that life is good.
But I believe there are higher levels. Brahms said that he would contact a divine presence that was “superconscious” when he composed – he actually used that word – and that it was from there that he received his inspiration.
For me, music is a road map, or a kind of source code that can capture inspiration, and that captures the state of consciousness that the composers were able to enter and draw upon, and bring into their music.
We’re given these dots on a page, and when we perform it, there’s a big light that goes on somewhere on the scale of inspiration. And if you play the notes, and carefully tune in to the present moment, and if you’re very focused and receptive, you can get a taste or even become wholly immersed in what the composer experienced. And if the composer received it from a very high place, for example Handel’s Messiah, you can feel it touching your soul.
It’s like a prescription for bringing your consciousness up onto a happier plane. It starts with the realm of pure ideas, and then it works through energy to create a sonic vibration that transmits those ideas to a deep place in us.
For me, it’s one of the things in life, like nature, that can awaken a remembrance in us, of a beauty that lies within us all, and an understanding of where our truest fulfillment comes from.
Our greatest fulfillments can never ultimately come from anything material. When you hear music, can you put your finger on it? Can you capture it? It’s played, and then it goes away. It’s this thing that’s completely immaterial, and yet it’s one of the greatest gifts that God has given us, because it leads us inward, toward the inner kingdom where our universal birthright of happiness lies.
Q: As you were growing up, and in your career as a cellist, was there a point where you felt that there was a ceiling on the inspiration that you could tap into through the kind of music you were playing?
David: Yes. First of all, I can tell you that when I was in the Feeling Years from 6 to 12, I was a complete music snob! (laughs) My teacher actually had to pull me aside and say, “David, I’m afraid I have to give you an unsatisfactory grade, because your attitude has been really, really bad in music class.” And I wasn’t quite sassy enough to say, “Well, yeah, because the music we’re having to learn really sucks!” (laughs)
It was totally, totally uninspiring. But, at the same time, I remember being deeply moved by the folk songs of the Seventies, especially the tunes from Godspell and others that were being sung at the time. My Dad is a Presbyterian pastor, and I grew up in those surroundings, with an awareness of the inspiration of Spirit.
So yes, I had many experiences that reassured me: “As long as I have the music, everything will be okay.”
I had incredibly inspired experiences that carried me through high school. But then toward the end of college, after I had gone through a great deal of formal training, I woke up one day in a kind of panic state, wondering, “My gosh, what have I done?”
I thought, “I’ll end up playing in an orchestra surrounded by miserable musicians, of whom there a great many, and cynical, jaded, uninspired conductors, and an audience that’s dwindling, and music that for the most part isn’t inspiring at all.
There’s a lot of music that is inspired, but orchestras oftentimes have to program “new music” to win the grants that will support the more inspiring stuff. And it’s very unfortunate that in contemporary music we have a great deal to learn about inspiration. Right now, it’s seems that the more outrageous and atonal and banging and confused it is, the better the music is purported to be. There’s a lot of powerful music – but uplifting? – hm, I don’t think so.
So I put my career on hold when I was in my late twenties, and I went off in search of that lost inspiration. And, interestingly enough, I ended up actually finding it.
At first I was looking for a way to serve society through music, which I felt would be a heart-opening and fulfilling thing to do. My first attempt was when I joined a troupe of storytelling musicians who were addressing the needs of children in the Feeling Years that we’ve been talking about, from age 6 to 12. We would take stories and set them to music, and we would become the characters and act out the stories, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
I remember dressing up like the mayor of Hamlin – I would strap my cello to my body, and we would play and sing and enact the story. And for a long time I felt very inspired, because it really was serving the needs of young children who desperately need upliftment through the arts.
But then over time it turned out to be too much of an “art for art’s sake” kind of thing, with a precious kind of self-conscious flavor that sapped the feeling of expansion. So I bowed out and began working with the Suzuki Method, which is founded on a beautiful philosophy of creating children who won’t necessarily be professional musicians, but who will be human beings with beautiful hearts. And that was just an incredible experience, because there was a lot of wonderful material there.
But then I noticed that whenever I would go to a Suzuki conference, I would be surrounded by people who were ordinary music teachers who’d seized the opportunity to slap a button on their chest that said, “Hi, I’m a Suzuki teacher.” They weren’t looking for something that would be more deeply meaningful, in the way that I was.
Then, thank goodness, I found Ananda, and I started working as a teacher at the Living Wisdom School in Portland.
At that point, I had quit professional music, and I just dove headfirst into teaching, with these kids who were all in the age group of 6 to 12, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had, because of the tremendous energy I had to put out to manage the kids and connect with them. I had a class of all girls and one very shy boy who was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to put out much energy. So, for the first two years, it was just the typical, terribly difficult, soul-searing experience of being a beginning teacher.
Then we moved to Ananda Village, where I taught music in the Living Wisdom School for twelve years, and it was an incredibly fulfilling experience, and very, very successful.
Q: Here in Palo Alto, Helen and Gary often have to explain to parents why we spend so much time on the arts. The parents wonder if we might be neglecting the kids’ academic studies.
It can be difficult to persuade them that forty years of experience have shown us that engaging kids in the performing arts has a very positive effect on their academic performance. There’s a strong component of feeling in the learning experience, and it needs to be cultivated, as an important cornerstone of the academic curriculum.
One of our students is a gifted young classical pianist. Arthur just finished third grade, and you can see that he’s totally focused and engaged when he plays, and it’s a quality that carries over to his studies, and his interactions with the other children.
In your years of teaching, have you noticed that the children’s lives are meaningfully enhanced as a result of the time they spend in the arts?
David: Without the slightest question. One of my first students in the Portland school was Keshava Betts, who’s now in his late twenties and lives in Los Angeles, where he plays cello very inspiringly. Keshava realized very early on that if he was feeling low, all he had to do was pick up the cello and play, and he would very quickly feel better. That’s a huge gift – to have the tools to raise our consciousness. It’s one of the most valuable skills we can learn.
I remember coming out of a horrible opera rehearsal one night. As I drove home in the rain, I was feeling drenched by the misery of it all. And then I began to sing a solo that I had volunteered to do, from the oratorio “Christ Lives” by Swami Kriyananda. It was just a way to pass the time on what would have otherwise been a miserable drive. I wasn’t expecting any great change in my consciousness, but then, whammo! I felt a tremendous current of joy. It was so powerful that I had to pull over to the side of the road and wonder, “What in the world just happened?! I don’t understand this. How did this happen?” (laughs)
The song I had started to sing was a very simple piece. It stayed within the octave, and it wasn’t sophisticated at all. Yet it left me wondering, “How did this move me so powerfully? How was it able to change me, in an instant?”
Swami Kriyananda talked about this force in music. He said that music, like architecture, can hold a vibration, and a state of consciousness. And when we walk into an inspired piece of music, it’s like walking into a beautiful building, and it can change our consciousness. We walk into a holy place and we feel uplifted, and we walk into a holy song, and the same thing can happen.
For me, it’s an awe-inspiring responsibility to provide uplifting music for children. I’m teaching music at the school in Portland now, and for the children to walk into these pieces, it changes them. It’s very important to provide opportunities for them to explore those higher places in themselves.
You can’t force it. It’s not something that you can ever hope to drive into them – “Now I want you to feel!” (laughs) And it’s the same with adults. There are adults who love the music, but they have a hard time tuning in to the inner experience of it. And it’s a joy to help them find that happiness in themselves.
I’m working with a music education program called El Sistema, which was started in Venezuela in 1975 by an educator, musician, and activist, José Antonio Abreu.
It brought intense classical music training into the slums, the barrios, and it transformed the whole society, to the point where eighty percent of the doctors and lawyers and educators came up through this system as children. That’s an amazing, powerful statistic!
We’re working with children in an impoverished area of north Portland. It’s hard to measure the changes in just the last three years, because how can you compare where a child is now, compared to some other potential for the child? But we’ve seen an incredibly positive development of personal skills and confidence and social maturity.
Q: These inner changes are starting to be documented by science. It’s been shown, for example, that in the presence of expansive feelings like love, compassion, kindness, and so on, the heart’s rhythms change from relatively chaotic to extremely harmonious. The scientists who’ve studied these changes have shown that those harmonious vibrations have a powerful effect on the body and brain. They’ve found that in school districts where they’ve taught their heart-harmonizing methods to children, including methods that employ music, the children’s grades uniformly improve.
There’s a YouTube video, “How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain”:
David: A wonderful thing about music therapy is that it brings the children into an uplifted, happy place in their consciousness, without your having to nag them into changing.
There doesn’t have to be a teacher or parent yelling at them, “Change your energy!” And the kid is going, “I don’t know how.” But if you have them perform uplifting music, it puts them in the right cycle automatically, and it does it effortlessly.
It’s been really fun for me, over the years, to have the children perform only Swami Kriyananda’s music for a time. I was amazed how the kids never tired of it. And if they want to learn some new songs, we were fortunate to have over four hundred pieces to choose from.
Through music, children are able to tap into a higher awareness that’s always with them, without having to struggle to quiet the mind, or to get past the intellect. We would do these positive, uplifting songs, and they loved them – like “Mañana, Friends,” or “A New Tomorrow” or “If You’re Seeking Freedom.” And it was amazing how it would change their mood.
Q: Thank you, David. At Living Wisdom School, we’re inspired by the streams of energy and joy and consciousness that flow through our school, both in academics and the arts.
We spoke with Ruth Rabin who teaches third grade at Living Wisdom School. All of the photos were taken during a two-hour period on a regular school day about two weeks before the end of the school year. The interviewer was our webmaster and photographer.
Q: Did you always know that you would be a teacher?
Ruth: I think I did. When I was in elementary school I would stay after school and help the teacher erase the blackboard and get the classroom in order. My friends and I would often play teacher, and I loved it.
After college, I worked in France, teaching in a public junior high for a year. Then I worked in Israel for a couple of years, and when I came back I taught for several years at schools in Foster City and Palo Alto.
I loved teaching, but then I got married and left to raise my kids. When my kids grew up, I thought about exploring a new field. I said to a friend, “I wish there were something I loved and that I was really good at.” He said, “There is – it’s teaching.” And I thought, “It’s true, I love teaching.”
I found a job at a school in San Jose where it was wonderful to work with the children, but the school was poorly run. It closed in mid-year, so the kids were left without a school, and the teachers found themselves suddenly without a job.
I had a friend who taught at Living Wisdom School. She said, “Send me your resume and I’ll give it to Helen.” Two weeks later, a position opened in second and third grade, and I was hired. It was a miracle how I landed at this glorious place, after a scary experience losing my job, and it touches me whenever I think about it.
I love this school. It’s a very joyful place. I wish my own children had come here, and that I’d been able to come to a school like this as a child.
I’ll wander into Erica’s second-grade classroom next door, and I’ll look around and think, “Oh my gosh.” And Erica will visit my classroom and say, “Oh my gosh.”
There’s a unique camaraderie and joy with the other teachers. If we have a question – like “How can I set up this lesson so that it will help the students in the best way?” – I can go to any of the teachers, and we’ll work on it with our combined experience and find a solution.
Many amazing things have come out of those conversations. It’s a wonderful aspect of our school culture that the teachers are free to learn from each other and that we can go into the other classrooms and observe.
For the students, there’s an incredible amount of learning that goes on here, with amazing creativity and joy along the way. I love coming to work every day, and I don’t think many people can say that.
Q: One of the things I’ve observed is how you interact with the children. On one occasion, a little girl in your class was afraid to go and get her costume adjusted by the seamstress before the dress rehearsal for the school play. You were counseling her, and you were very attuned to her need and able to help her with compassion and wisdom. I thought it exemplified something I regularly hear the teachers say, that it’s essential to create a relationship with each child, so that you can understand who they are and what their needs are.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things I love, the familiarity that you develop with each child here. It’s a relationship of respect and trust. We know each other, and if something’s going on, I’ll know about it, and I can help them.
I’ll say, “I’m noticing that your energy’s a little off. Tell me what’s happening.” Because we know them well enough to recognize when something’s out of their norm.
We’ll talk about whatever the challenge is, instead of ignoring it and assuming that it will just go away, or that their parents will deal with it, or much worse, that we might try to discipline them for their “off” behavior without understanding what’s really going on.
Yesterday, I was saying to the kids, “Some of you haven’t made art for our class poetry book. Come on, let’s get this done!” And one of these little eight-year-old girls said, “You’re really frantic today!” (laughs)
I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I am, I’m feeling frantic.” And the little girl said, with so much confidence, “Well, don’t worry, we’ll get it done.” I said, “You’re right. I was feeling frenetic.” And it was funny, because they jumped in and said, “We know that word!” They recognized it from our vocabulary lessons.
But she said it so kindly – it wasn’t that she was scolding me, “What’s wrong with you?!” She noticed that I was feeling frantic, and she was free, in this environment, to try to help. It’s a natural part of the school culture to talk about issues that are getting in the way. And this ease of communication has a very positive effect on their development and their learning.
Q: In a traditional school where the children are focused almost entirely on academics, they can sometimes get so much in their heads that they miss the experience of having their hearts educated, which Education for Life says is extremely important at all ages, but especially from six to twelve. Is that something you emphasize? If you’re doing academics, do you find that those attitudes of kindness and cooperation are helping the children in their studies?
Ruth: Without question. I feel that where there’s laughter and joy, there are much greater possibilities for learning. If you walk into any classroom here, you’ll see that the students are working very hard, and the reason there’s so much learning, and the kids are so deeply engaged is because they feel the work is theirs.
We’re constantly adjusting the curriculum to meet each child’s individual needs, so that the learning is always on their level. And because it’s so individually focused, we’re able to raise the bar in a way that each child gets to experience the satisfaction of rising to it. As they discover that they can face a challenge and overcome it, their enthusiasm for learning grows exponentially, and it’s a huge step for their all-around development.
Soon after I came here, a little boy got up at the year-end ceremony and said, “At first it was hard, but now I know that I can always ask for help. And if I need to know how to spell ‘ampersand,’ I can ask.”
They aren’t afraid to ask, because the culture isn’t about who’s best or who’s ahead. “What page are you on? I’m ten pages farther.” That never gets talked about here, because they know that it simply doesn’t matter.
In math, the children are free to ask each other for help, even before they ask me. They’re constantly teaching each other, and they’re learning to solve problems by finding the resources they need.
A child will say, “Can somebody help me?” And you’ll always hear, “I will! I will!” They’re competing to go and help each other, and they discover that teaching is a wonderful way to review what they’ve learned. Imagine how great a child must feel when they can help another child with a math problem.
We’re doing Menu Math, which is very challenging. One of the problems is, “How much is the restaurant bill with an 18 percent tip?” It’s quite advanced for third grade math. We were getting close to the end of math class the other day, and I hadn’t covered the problem, so I said, “Let’s come back to it tomorrow – we don’t have to cover it today.” But one of the girls said, “I know how to do it – my mom showed me.” And she got up and taught the whole class how to calculate an 18-percent tip. It was marvelous, because the kids were going, “Oh, yeah! I get it.”
Then they said, “Ruth, can we go to the board and try to figure it out by ourselves?” And I just had to laugh. I said, “Well – yeah!!” Because I was delighted.
The learning is natural and joyful, because we always monitor their comfort level. I tell them, “Let me know if it’s too easy, because it’ll be boring, or if it’s too hard, because it’ll be frustrating.” And the kids will say, “Ruth, this is a really good comfort level for me. It’s really challenging, but I can do it.”
I had a child in my class who used to say, “This is hard!” And now he’s saying, “This is challenging.” Because he’s learned to work through the challenges and master them. I’ll say, “Is it a good comfort level for you?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s pretty challenging.”
Or they’ll say, “Ruth, this is too easy.” And I’ll go over and find out if they’ve truly mastered the lesson, and then I’ll move them along, because there’s no point in staying on something they’ve already mastered.
It’s very important that they’re comfortable saying, “This is too hard.” Because it means that they aren’t intimidated by the teacher, and they can ask for help when they’re stuck. In this culture, they don’t have to feel afraid that they’ll be teased if they admit that they’re having trouble.
How much are you going to learn if you’re stuck, and you’re afraid to say to the teacher, “I can’t do it”? It’s the natural thing to say. Why should you pretend to be farther along, when you haven’t built a solid foundation? And these kids completely understand that.
So they monitor their comfort level, and they’re happy to challenge themselves because they know they can get help when they need it. Not because they have to prove that they’re better, but because they’ve learned, over and over, how wonderful it feels to master a challenge.
In every classroom here, the teachers are helping the children understand that the greatest joys come from their own learning, and not from measuring themselves against an artificial standard. It’s why they love the challenge of learning new things, because they enjoy that inner feeling of accomplishment.
We do some very sophisticated language arts learning in our third-grade classroom, and the kids love it. They love the challenge of learning big words. They’ll say, “Ruth, I was reading a book, and it said the guy was ‘cantankerous.’” And I’ll say, “And you knew what it meant!” And they’ll say, “And I knew how to spell it!” (laughs)
There’s such pride in their learning. When I compare the years I taught in several very good, academically oriented schools, I think we have a very rigorous academic program here. Very, very rigorous. But it’s done with love, and with confidence. Because it’s done with very high goals, and realistic expectations.
Q: It sounds different from a typical public school classroom where the teacher has to hustle the students through a state-mandated curriculum on a rigid schedule.
Ruth: My son was bored in public school. He’s quite smart, and his high school teachers were telling me, “If you want to motivate your son, put him in Advanced Placement classes, because they’ll challenge him.”
I said, “But he won’t really learn anything. It will just be more homework, and what he wants is depth.”
He wanted to be able to explore his school subjects in depth, and it wasn’t happening in his school, because it was all about getting through the material on schedule and studying to the test.
I don’t blame the teachers, because they aren’t being given the freedom to truly teach a subject. “We have to get through the chapter. There’s no time for questions. Let’s keep moving. Let’s not go too deep, because you have to be ready for the test.”
It’s very liberating for the teachers and students when you don’t have to teach that way. In social studies the other day, we were talking about the Central Valley of California. The children were looking at a map, and someone said, “What’s the San Andreas Fault?” And all of a sudden the lesson changed to earthquakes and plate tectonics, and we watched some YouTube videos about the science of plate tectonics and earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault.
Then we talked about how we’re living just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, and we went outside and looked for cracks in the sidewalk and tried to decide if they were created by trees or the earthquakes in this area.
So the lesson shifted from social studies to the geology of the California mountain ranges, and the fact that there are volcanoes in the mountains. And the idea that there are volcanoes in California got them very excited, and it shot off and became a lesson in the science of vulcanology.
As a teacher, having the freedom to take a lesson wherever the children’s natural enthusiasm leads them is marvelous. It makes the learning very real for the children, where it’s not just about looking at the pages of a book – “Oh, there are some mountains in California, and here’s a map and some dry facts.”
If you start with the strange and shocking and exciting fact that there are volcanoes in California, it unfolds naturally into the science of how mountain ranges are formed, and how the earth’s crust is shifting, and what it looks like in California, quite near to where we’re standing.
I feel very blessed to teach in a school where I have the freedom and autonomy to teach in a way that engages the children and gives them a genuine learning experience.
Q: A friend of mine teaches honors chemistry at a high school in Illinois. He’s also the freshman football coach, and his teams have won 39 games in a row. He’s completely at odds with the idea of a state-mandated curriculum. He wrote an article called 10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles, the point of which was that teachers must be free to help the individual child, in the same way that any competent sports coach would do.
Ruth: It’s the only way to bring out the very best in each child. And you need to know the child well enough to know what their best is.
In math class we have a Multiplication Sundae game. As the children gradually master the multiplication table, they earn part of an ice cream sundae. But the key point is that the whole class has to master the table. It’s fine if you know your sixes and sevens, but if the whole class hasn’t got them, they’ll have to help each other.
Q: Do they tutor each other? I read a quote the other day from David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: “The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called ‘self-regulatory behavior.’ It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”
Ruth: Very definitely. They work together. There’s a tremendous amount of partner learning and peer teaching in the classroom. This year’s class learned their multiplication tables perfectly, so at the Multiplication Sundae party they’ll have ice cream with all the trimmings including sprinkles and chocolate chips. But it’s really about the learning experience, and the joy of learning together, and not setting yourself apart from others and competing with them in a shallow way.
Which is not to say that we don’t encourage the ones who can learn really fast. But it’s never a bragging thing, where they’re trying to make the others feel inferior. Never.
It’s taking pride in what you’ve done. It’s being able to say, “I’ve studied hard, and I know this.” Because why should they hide it, even if the others are still working on it?
When we do our multiplication drills, there are three students who can rattle them off without a hitch. They can just shoot them off, and we all know who they are, but there’s no comparing. There’s a feeling that it’s wonderful for them, and we’re proud of them.
Q: The kindergarten teacher, Mahita, talked about how it’s important to praise the children in the right way.
Ruth: Acknowledging them for who they are, and for their accomplishments and their mastery, and not just because they’ve jumped over a stick that you’re holding at some arbitrary height.
There’s a popular idea in education today that you shouldn’t take pride in something you’re good at, because someone else’s feelings might get hurt. But I don’t believe in that idea for a moment. I don’t believe in lowering yourself so that other people won’t feel inferior. I feel that everyone should be proud of their accomplishments, and proud of each other, and very proud of their friends.
When one of the children was assigned her lines for the school play, she received fewer lines than she’d hoped. Her mom told me that her daughter came home and said, “I’m a little disappointed, but my friend got lots of lines, and I’m so proud of her.”
Can you imagine? There was no envy or resentment. She thought, “This is what I have, and it’s really good, but my best friend got this, and I’m so happy for her.”
Q: It’s a principle of the world’s spiritual teachings that our happiness grows as we expand our awareness to include other people’s realities. I would imagine that it’s a hugely important lesson for young children, for their happiness now and in the future.
Ruth: Yes, and it happens a lot in our class, where the kids will go, “Yay! Good for you!”
Q: In the high school where my friend teaches, there’s a requirement that every student has to take chemistry and physics. And of course the result is that those classes get watered-down for the less-qualified students who don’t want to be there in the first place.
Ruth: Nobody expects that in life. If something’s wrong with my car, I’ll take it to a mechanic, instead of thinking I should know how to fix it myself. But in public high schools everyone’s expected to take Advanced Placement courses, and they might not be allowed to excel at what they’re really good at, if it happens to be music, painting, or auto repair, because those things are no longer honored in public school.
Here, it’s about everybody being where they need to be. We’re very careful to observe the children and keep the curriculum individualized and fluid, so that each child can go ahead at their own pace. It’s very clearly understood that the kids need to move at a pace where they’ll be challenged and able to grow and thrive. They might need to move forward or back, and it’s adjusted all the time. I have a second-grader who comes into my math class because he’s able to do third-grade math, and last year there were three second-graders who would come in and join us for math.
Q: I saw a little girl who’s in fourth grade sitting outside at a picnic table reading a book during recess. I asked if I could take her picture, and without turning her head she said very impatiently, “Yes!” It was clear that she did not want to be distracted. I was curious to know what she was reading that was so interesting to her, so I peeked at the book, and it was math.
Ruth: That’s very funny, but it’s not at all uncommon. On Fridays we have math games, and some of the kids will say, “Can we work on Menu Math?” which is a lot harder, just because they love the challenge.
I love it here. And it’s partly because we embrace every aspect of the individual child, including the spiritual.
I’ll occasionally bring in my Jewish culture. In our tradition we have something called a mezuzah. It’s a parchment scroll that’s inscribed with the most important prayer in Judaism, and it can be ornate and fancy, or very simple.
The prayer says, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.” Jewish homes will have a mezuzah on their door, and the reason is so that when you go in and out you’re reminded of how to live your life as a good person. As you go out, it reminds you that this is how you live as a righteous person. And when you come in, you remember to do the right thing – to have integrity, and to think about what you’re doing, and always try to be in alignment with right action.
I explained that to the children, and they made mezuzahs and wrote poems about how they want to live their lives. And when I send them home they’ll roll them up and put them outside their bedroom door.
We also made something called a Chamsa. A Chamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol that’s shared by the Jewish and Islamic cultures. It’s the hand of God that’s offering blessing and protection. We made Chamsas out of heavy copper foil that the children tooled and decorated, and then they wrote poetry about the times when they feel the hand of God.
Q: Is it something you have to nag them to do?
Ruth: Not at all. We talk about what God is, and they write about it in their poetry. What is God to other people? What is God to me? When do they feel that energy? When do they feel that protection? When do they feel that love? Do they feel it when they’re in nature? Do they feel it when they’re with their family? When they’re playing? When they’re laughing? They understand that feeling, and they always know what I’m talking about, because it’s a universal experience, and children live more in their hearts and souls than most adults do.
Q: Do you have children in your class who are new to this school?
Ruth: Yes, we had three new kids who came into our classroom in the middle of the year.
Q: How long did it take them to settle into the culture?
Ruth: One of them has taken a bit longer. He talks about it in his Qualities speech. “I came in, and I had my methods, and I had to learn Ruth’s methods.” (laughs) We had a new boy and two girls this year.
I told the kids, “Remember the girls who came to visit?” And they were all excited, “Are they going to join our class?” I said, “And remember the boy who came? He’s going to be in our class, too.” “Yay!” So there was complete acceptance.
It’s been a really great year. This time of year is always bittersweet, because your connection with the children is so deep, and then they have to leave. I love every class that I’ve had, and every one is very special.