First Steps at Living Wisdom School

A Conversation with Kindergarten Teacher Mahita Matulich

Teacher Mahita Matulich reads to the kindergarten children at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto
Click photos to enlarge.

Q:  How did you become a teacher at Living Wisdom School?

Mahita:  I first heard of the school about six years ago. I was living in San Ramon, in my spiritual teacher’s ashram, and my roommate invited me to the school’s annual theater production.

I was completely blown away – I could not believe the quality of the performances, and the energy and poise of the children.

Over the next several years I saw the plays on Krishna, Hafiz, and the Dalai Lama. I would watch the plays and leave feeling so moved afterward. I had been studying early childhood education, and then my roommate introduced me to Helen and Gary, and I came on as an intern.

Q:  What has it been like to teach kindergarten here?

Mahita:  I love teaching here – it’s been a great blessing. But I was surprised by how much energy it took. During my first year, my greatest challenge was to adjust my energy to the needs of the children. The energy that’s required of our teachers is tremendous, especially when you’re working with young children.

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I have to be very mindful of my actions, my words, and my interactions with each child. With children of four, five, and six, even the smallest interaction can be very significant for them, especially when it’s coming from their teacher, and it requires that I be very aware.

Q:  Have you always wanted to teach? Kabir MacDow, our first-grade teacher, knew practically from the day he was born that he would be a teacher.

Mahita:  I’d never really thought about teaching, but I had some very strong ideas about education, based on my own early experiences. My mother is a professor and my grandmother was a teacher, so there was always lots of encouragement in our family to be lifelong learners. But I had no idea that teaching was what God had in store for me.

As a child, I had an incredible kindergarten teacher, and I have vivid memories of my experiences with her. In fact, my first three teachers touched my life profoundly, because they inspired our creativity and joy in learning. As a result I grew up knowing what a tremendous difference it makes for children to have strong teachers in their earliest years.

Q:  You mentioned creativity and learning in the same breath. That’s a strong theme in this school, isn’t it, to tie those together?

Mahita:  Oh, it’s huge. Last year, a woman said to me during an open house, “How do you get the children to do things?” And I just had to laugh aloud, because it’s so naturally a part of what we’re doing, and I’ve never had to consider how I could motivate the children.

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The way the children’s classroom experience is set up, they’re given a tremendous number of opportunities to exercise their creativity, and it really engages them in what they’re doing.

With a math activity, I’ll say, “What kind of math story do you want to write?” Or, “What kind of math story do you want to tell? Do you want to tell it with stuffed animals, or do you want to tell it using math cubes? Or do you want to tell your math story by drawing a picture?”

The emphasis on creativity that is such a major part of our school culture inspires the children to want to participate. They aren’t as likely to resist learning when they’re in a space that welcomes their ideas and their creative energy.

Q:  Is it bringing their hearts into the equation, instead of just drilling facts?

Mahita:  Yes, it’s bringing the heart, the enthusiasm, and honoring each child by letting them know, “You’re important, and what you value, and your experiences, are important to me.” It’s telling the child that it matters a great deal to me as their teacher how they want to pour their creativity into a project, and how they want to approach their math and other subjects.

Q:  Do you interact with the other teachers? Do you feel that you’re part of a team?

Mahita:  I do. It’s a little different because I’m working with the youngest children – I have mostly five-year-olds in my classroom, with a few four-years-olds and six-year-olds.

But I’m very inspired by the other teachers. I look up to them, and I know that I can count on them when I need their help. The feeling isn’t so much of a team; it’s more that I know they’re solid, and that they’ll be there. They’re like old trees that I can go sit under and get shade or relief or wisdom, and we can talk about any kind of situation that might arise with a child. If I’m trying to figure out how to help a child have more energy, or if a child is feeling sad, I can ask the teachers what they’ve done in similar situations. It’s a very solid support system.

Q:  Did your early education influence the kind of teacher you want to be?

Mahita:  As I mentioned, I was lucky to have amazing teachers in kindergarten and first and second grade. And then, after second grade, I became bored and disinterested with public school. I was a very smart child, and I wanted to learn – I wanted to feel engaged, and it wasn’t happening. So when I was in fifth grade my dad took me out of public school and home-schooled me. We were living in Santa Cruz, where there are beautiful redwood forests and beaches, and I spent two years with my father, learning about nature and reading and doing math outdoors. And that early experience has profoundly influenced the way I teach.

After being home-schooled, I skipped sixth grade, then I skipped eighth grade and most of high school, and I finished high school when I was fifteen. I went to a community college, and after getting my degree I spent some time traveling with my spiritual teacher. Then I became very interested in finding a career that would be in alignment with my goal of helping create a more peaceful world.

The experience of being home-schooled by my father showed me how powerful it is when you challenge children in meaningful ways. I feel it’s very important that the children in my classroom are challenged, and that they don’t become disinterested. If I sense that the children are sleepy, or there’s some grumpiness in the room, I’ll change the curriculum and take them outdoors for a nature walk. Seeing the colors of the flowers, and being outside under the sun and sky transforms their day, and they come back indoors with their energy renewed.

I try to incorporate nature into their daily experience, and I try to make sure they have some outside time together, to be among the trees and plants.

Q:  You said that you challenge them. Can you talk about that?

Mahita:  A very unique feature of this school is that we have an individualized curriculum, so that each child will be learning at his or her own level. It makes a lot of sense, because whether we’re doing math, reading, or writing, every child will be learning somewhat differently.

I feel that my job as an educator is to challenge the children in many ways, and not just academically. I do challenge them academically, of course. And if I see a child who’s accomplishing their math tasks easily, I’ll make sure they’ve really mastered those math skills, and then I’ll need to quickly think of how I can keep challenging them.

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In our school, we recognize the importance of creating a relationship of trust with each child, so that the children will feel safe when they’re being challenged to go to the next level with our help. If they think they can’t do it, you’re there to tell them, “I know you can.” And they’ll trust you enough to try, because they know you, and they know you aren’t going to judge them.

I also challenge the children to be their best selves. I have very high standards for them – I expect them to treat each other kindly, and to articulate their words with care, and to practice having consideration for others. I challenge them to learn how to self-regulate – how to choose an appropriate activity to calm their bodies, like deep breathing. Or maybe they need to sit and read a book for a while, until they can get calm and re-join the group.

Self-regulating is a skill that can be very challenging for four-, five-, and six-year-olds. The Education for Life philosophy has helped me understand how to help them manage their energy, and I’ve been inspired also by Bev Bos, a brilliant early childhood educator who believed in giving children a creative curriculum. My teaching has been very influenced by Bev, and by the Conscious Discipline methods we use here at Living Wisdom School.

Conscious Discipline is a set of tools that help children learn the basic things they need to say and do. For example, I will never tell a child, “Say it nicely.” Instead, I’ll give them the exact words:  “Say to your friend, ‘Can you please hand me the pencil?’” I’m modeling the sentences the children need to know in order to express themselves effectively, which is a big part of what we’re doing at this age, teaching the children what they should say, and how they should say it.

I believe in Conscious Discipline very strongly, because it’s a beautiful set of tools, and it works. I think it’s wonderful that we’re encouraged here to help the children acquire these essential skills.

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Q:  It sounds like you’re helping them develop skills that may not be directly related to academics, but will help them be successful in academics – how to master a challenge, and how to succeed in small ways and enjoy their successes.

Mahita:  And teaching them to love the challenges, and to feel confident within themselves that if something is challenging, they can do it. It’s about giving them a confidence from within, instead of trying to motivate them by external pressures and external rewards.

I think it’s very important that the children learn how to be intrinsically motivated – that they’re motivated from within themselves to do their best, and not that they’re motivated from outside. It’s why I don’t use sticker charts or reward systems. I’ve read lots of research on this, and I feel it’s best for the children if you can teach them, starting at a very early age, that the best rewards are when they’re able to look at their art or their math and feel very happy about it from inside.

Q:  Is there an emphasis on language arts in kindergarten, on helping them learn to read and write?

Mahita:  Yes, because developing literacy and language is extremely important for young children. There are many studies on the importance of exposing children to lots of new words, and to environments that are rich in a variety of print materials. They need to be exposed to a great many words for their optimal growth, and it’s why I read lots and lots of stories to them.

Storytelling and story reading play a huge role in the curriculum. I took a course on literacy and language development for young children, and I learned that the children need for you to read slowly, at a pace that’s significantly slower than you’d read to an adult. And it’s because they’re forming a tremendous number of new ideas in their heads at this age, and they’re learning to understand the context of each new word. So I’m very intentional in how I read to my class. I’ll make the voices of the characters in the stories, and in the second part of the year I’ll read lots of poetry to them, and I’ll get them started writing poetry, with some prompts, because it’s very helpful for developing their language and thinking skills.

As far as writing goes, at this age I’ll wait to see when each child is truly ready to start doing their own writing. Some of the children will be ready to start writing words and sentences halfway through the year, and they’ll be very excited. And some will still want you to write out the words for them, which is fine, because they don’t all develop the same skills at the same time. I teach writing on whiteboards instead of paper, because it’s easier to erase and edit when you’re very young and still developing your fine motor skills. And I teach phonics so they can start to recognize the sounds of the letters and work out the sounds of new words.

Language plays a huge role in how the classroom is structured. As I mentioned, I’m very careful about the language I use with the kids. I don’t tell them “Good job!” or “That’s perfect!” or “I really like it.” I stay away from those kinds of value judgments; instead, I’ll try to find out about them, and how they’re feeling and where their energy is. “Tell me about your art. Tell me what you did. Oh, wow, I can see that you put green and blue there. Tell me about that.”

Q:  They’re rewarded because you’re interested, and because they can tell you what’s fulfilling them?

Mahita:  That’s right. When the children first enter kindergarten, they’ll hold up their art and say, “Do you like it? Did I do it right?” And it might take a month or two, but then they’ll stop asking for approval, and they’ll start saying, “I did a masterpiece, Mahita!” Because they’re telling me how they feel about it rather than asking if it’s right.

Q:  Does it affect the way they approach their academic learning?

Mahita:  Very definitely, yes. They’re learning a process, and they’re learning to articulate, at a very young age, “This is what I feel, and this is what I need, and these are the tools I can use to calm myself and make myself feel better, and prepare myself to face this challenge.”

DSC_7378_00264_v1I don’t think that any human being can succeed academically, in the deepest, most lasting way and to their full potential, if they aren’t able to self-regulate. As the children navigate high school and college, they’ll face many stressful challenges. And having the tools to calm yourself and self-regulate and know what’s really alive within you will make a big difference.

I teach a high level of math in kindergarten. (laughs) Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I teach algebraic thinking at this age, and I really try to develop a solid number sense in the children. When they have a solid number sense, what happens is that they’ll breeze through math when they reach fourth and fifth grade, because they’ll have the right understanding, from tangibly working on these things since they were four and five.

Q:  You’re giving them content in kindergarten that they’ll be using in fourth and fifth grade?

Mahita:  Exactly. For example, I might put on the board:  “Ten is the same as five plus what number?” Or “Ten is the same as eight plus what number?”

Q:  That’s amazing.

Mahita:  And they’re doing it all the time, so it becomes very natural to them. I start teaching these concepts in the first or second week of school. And I do lots of things to make math fun. I have a Math Owl who tells math stories, and I do activities that bring out their natural joy at this age, through storytelling, role playing, improv, and so on.

Q:  The Education for Life book suggests that young children are working very much with their feelings, and that they need appropriate learning tools.

Mahita:  Yes, exactly. We’re using appropriate tools. We’re using the tools they naturally have. Children at this age play, and if we can incorporate play into what they’re learning, and make it playful for them, then the learning sinks in easily. And we can carefully observe what they’re learning, and what we can do to help them learn even better. I’m always watching them and thinking of what I can bring into the classroom that will help them in their play.

Q:  I visited the fourth-grade classroom, and the focus of the children was amazing. I asked a little girl if I could take her picture, and without glancing up from her book she said, “All right.” She absolutely did not want to be distracted from her math book. It was inspiring to see them working in pairs and deeply concentrated on their math. It’s not at all as if they wanted to be someplace else.

Mahita:  It’s pretty incredible. I think sometimes I might take it for granted because I’m in the middle of it all the time. But I have five- and six-year-olds who are so dedicated to what they’re doing that they’re completely absorbed, and they’re engaged and excited.

Q:  Five-year-olds are notoriously distractable. It’s fascinating to hear that they can be focused.

Mahita:  If you can frame an activity for children so that their enthusiasm is alive and they’re fully engaged, the learning happens naturally, and you’re there to support it.

I think it’s only when you don’t frame a lesson or an exploration of ideas properly, that the children are more easily distracted. I’m very, very carefully observing all the time what’s working and what isn’t, and what I need to fix. Maybe there’s a lot of joy around an activity, but maybe the energy is a bit too high. I have to be on my toes, and be ready to adjust to each moment, and stay flexible.

Q:  It seems very different from the old-fashioned classroom with the kids sitting in rows, doing the same thing at the same time.

Mahita:  I can’t imagine having kids sit at their desks all day, especially at this age. I can’t imagine how it would affect their learning and development. I’m continually problem-solving and adjusting my teaching. I always have a curriculum planned for the next week and month, but if an activity isn’t working, or if it’s taking too long, or if the children are taking it to another level, I will go with that. There’s no doubt that being flexible is a key requirement for being effective as a teacher.

Q:  One of the most common complaints among teachers in public schools today is that they have to follow a state-mandated curriculum, and it takes away their flexibility to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the students.

Mahita:  At this age, they’re naturally curious. They naturally want to learn, and I feel it’s tragic when a child’s curiosity is shut down in an attempt to deliver some sort of prescribed lesson plan. My hope is that when the children leave here, they’ll feel that they can ask questions and be curious, and cultivate their natural love of learning, and not feel that there’s only one right answer, or that they have to stay quiet instead of asking a question.

DSC_7313_00211_v1I joke that if you come into a kindergarten and it’s too quiet, there’s no way that learning is happening, because the kids are not naturally quiet while they’re learning. Sure, you want a reasonable level of quiet, but I feel that the best times of learning are when the children are excited and talking to each other about what’s going on, or they’re asking each other questions, or they’re asking me questions, so it’s very alive.

Q:  Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, found that the most successful Harvard freshmen were not those who spent all their time trying to grind out good grades. The most successful Harvard students were engaged with each other, asking questions and forming study groups. They were social and knew how to get the help they needed. They were the kids who talked about everything, and knew how to enjoy what they were doing, and how to connect with it. And it sounds rather eerily similar to what you’re teaching your kindergarten students. (See the article “The Happiness Advantage in School,” on the LWS website here; included are two fascinating TED talk videos with Shawn Achor.)

Mahita:  It’s so important for these kids to learn the skills of cooperating and problem-solving. I wish you could see how they grow throughout the year. At the start of the year there are always a few months where it’s just constant conflict resolution, and constant learning to use the right words, and constantly giving them the sentences and words that will help them be successful.

Then, after a few months, they’ve gained enough skills that I’ll be able to sit and observe them for extended periods during the day, and they’ll be completely, one-hundred percent able to navigate and cooperate. And it’s not because I’ve solved their problems for them, but because I’ve challenged them, “How can you solve that problem?” And they start to become thinkers. “Oh, we both want to play this game, but we want to play it differently, and how can we do that?” Or they start to figure out the right way to ask their friends for help when they need it, and how to make requests of each other, instead of grabbing.

It’s very rewarding to me as a teacher to see the transformation, and to think, “Wow, most adults can’t even do this.” Can you put twelve adults in a room all day, and they’ll get along? Most likely not, and these kids can do it beautifully.

Q:  Do you talk to the other teachers about how your students are doing after they leave kindergarten?

Mahita:  Definitely, yes. I wrote an email to a parent today, and I said, “As a teacher, you really love these children and care about them, and you can’t just switch it off.” It’s not like it switches off on the weekend, or when you go home. And for me it’s a big deal and very important to talk to the teachers that they’ll be going to, because I want the next teacher to have all of the information that helped me to help each child grow during their kindergarten year. I’ll talk about the reading level they’re on, and what I’ve found that can help the child in a variety of situations, and I’ll let the first-grade teacher know I’m always available if they have questions.

Teaching isn’t just about academics. It’s about having a sense of who each child is, and what’s important to them. And I’ll want to have a conversation with their next teacher about that, too.

With an individualized curriculum, you basically have twelve curriculums going on at the same time. And as teachers our job is to make sure that each child is getting his or her individual needs met every day.

 

 

 

Race to Nowhere: The Best Advertisement for LWS

We encourage parents who are considering enrolling their children in Living Wisdom School to watch the film Race to Nowhere, as we feel it makes the best possible argument in favor of the Education for Life approach.

NOTE: The film is available on Netflix, and on YouTube for a rental fee of $3.99. You can watch the trailer on YouTube here, and follow the link in the right column at the start of the trailer (it also appears at the end of the trailer) to rent the film.

Race to Nowhere describes, through segments with parents, educators, and counselors, the terrible toll that the current obsession with grades, test results, and acceptance by prestigious colleges is taking on children and their families. The filmmakers suggest solutions that have been in place in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than 40 years, and that have more than proved their worth.

Our educational approach addresses and effectively resolves all of the issues addressed in the film: the pressures that drive students to cheating and even suicide; the false definitions of success; the myth that an exclusive focus on academics is the fastest path to academic results; the equally false belief that results on standardized tests and volume of homework reflect academic progress; the severe impact of the current obsession with college acceptance on family life and children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

“When I decided to cut our homework in half, our AP scores went up!” — High school Advanced Placement biology teacher in Race to Nowhere.

Academic Achievement and Education for Life

Academic Achievement and Education for Life

The educational philosophy that we follow at Living Wisdom School is called Education for Life (EFL). It’s based on helping children achieve academic and personal success by a balanced development of their personal “Tools of Maturity”: body, feelings, will, and mind.

A well-rounded education nurtures a child’s enthusiasm, which in turn fuels academic success.
A well-rounded education nurtures a child’s enthusiasm, which in turn fuels academic success.

Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, emphasizes training only one of these childhood developmental tools – the intellect – at the expense of the child’s growth in other areas.

Let’s compare the results of these two very different approaches.

Education for Life and Testing

While Education for Life doesn’t emphasize academic testing for young children, our older students often express an interest in knowing how they are doing academically compared to other students their age.

When the EFL high school applied for accreditation in 2005, the process required the students to take a nationally recognized standardized test, administered annually.

The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Every year the students as a group have placed in the top 10 percent of schools nationwide on average, reaching the top 1 percent on one occasion.

Their SAT scores have been equally impressive, with the average EFL student scoring 1691, compared to the national average of about 1500.

How can EFL students compete so well against students in elite academic schools, when our focus includes significant time spent on the arts, outdoor activities, service projects, and travel?

Current research offers some insights.

The Body and the Intellect

It would seem obvious that a healthy body provides a sound foundation for a healthy mind. Disease, stress, and a lack of hygiene can erode the energy required for focusing the mind and working hard in academics. This relationship was clearly demonstrated by a study from the National Academy of Sciences in 2013:

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.

Feelings and the Intellect

Similarly, the ability to manage one’s feelings constructively can be a tremendous aid for maintaining mental focus in the face of interpersonal tensions or inner turmoil.

The advent of the term “emotional intelligence” in 1995 evoked a wave of research authenticating the importance of social and emotional growth.

A key report by J. Payton et al. surveyed data from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. The authors concluded:

SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades.

Will Power and Intellect

The connection between will power and the intellect is evident in qualities such as perseverance, concentration, and initiative. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D surveyed the results of over 200 studies.

People who have strong will power are better off – i.e., [they have] better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.

Conclusion and Prediction

It may take a while, but educators are acknowledging that too much one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive.

Even the “winners” with this approach are adversely affected. In a nationally televised interview in November 2011, an NBC reporter talked with an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, the top school worldwide as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where the students put in 12 hours of study per day, including weekends. The school administrator lamented:

Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.

For over 40 years, Education for Life has pioneered an approach that cultivates the child’s intellect without neglecting other important contributors to the student’s academic success, namely the body, feelings, and will.

Modern research shows that the future of education will favor schools that can implement an integrated, holistic approach, along the lines of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.

This article originally appeared on the Education for Life website (www.edforlife.org).

Dharmaraj Iyer: An MIT Graduate Reflects on Teaching in the Living Wisdom Schools

MIT graduate Dharmaraj Iyer taught at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.

Dharmaraj taught math and science for several years at the Living Wisdom Schools at Palo Alto, California and Ananda Village near Nevada City, California. This is his farewell talk to the students, teachers, and parents of Palo Alto LWS, where he taught for six years.

 

Thank you, children, thank you friends, thank you students, and thank you, Helen and everyone.

I want to start by saying that sun block is a wonderful invention. (laughter) I seem to rediscover it every year – but not right away. (laughter)

dharmarajToday marks six years to the day that I have been at the school. My first experience of Living Wisdom School was six years ago, at an end-of-year ceremony. And I want to say a little bit about the journey that got me to that place.

I was a graduate student at MIT in computer science, and I had been offered a summer job at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), not too far away. And my main interest in taking the job was so that I could live in the Ananda Community in Mountain View.

I had been a member of Ananda for three years, and I had always wanted to live in a community, but had never been able to until then.

So I moved here. I arrived at the community, and then soon after, in fact on the second day, having started my job, I talked to Asha Praver, who is one of the leaders of the community. And she said, “Have you ever had an interest in teaching children?”

I said, “Well…”

I mean, here I was doing research in Bayesian feedback algorithms for automatic text categorization. And along comes Asha and asks me, “Do you want to teach children?”

And I had to pause and take the question inside, because it was one of those moments when the mind just stops. And I said, “Yes – I would be interested in teaching children.” And it was a moment of inspiration that I acted on, because it felt right.

Later my mind kicked in, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m not as experienced in science as I am in math. I’ve only taken courses in biology and chemistry in high school, and I only did physics through college. So I’m not sure I could teach the science as well.”

And she said, “Well, yes, but you’d be talking to kindergartners about the weather.” (laughter)

And so it was a bit hard to beg out of that. Asha invited me to come to the end-of-year ceremony, which was on Friday. This was 1999. And I was amazed.

I didn’t know any of the children. I didn’t know any of the teachers. I had just arrived here. So I came to the school’s end-of-year ceremony, which we’re having again today.

And I couldn’t believe the teachers, their poise, and their obviously caring nature. But what impressed me even more was the students.

The children, from age five to fourteen, were talking about a special “quality” that the teachers had given them. And I thought it was very inspiring that each child received a certificate of appreciation for a special quality that the teachers saw in them, and that the student had tried hard to develop during the year.

The students’ presence on stage simply bowled me over. Their ability to talk with poise and to give a mature speech, and the feeling that they projected – I was moved to tears a few times, by the sincerity and clarity with which the children spoke. And I said to myself, “I don’t really know the philosophy of this school, but I know that it works.”

Because you can’t fake those qualities. And that’s what made me sign up to teach here.

Now came the process of asking the school if they were interested in hiring me. Asha introduced me to one of the other teachers after the ceremony. She said, “This is Dharmaraj, and he’s interested in teaching at the school.” And this experienced teacher, with appropriate caution, said, “Well, that’s nice.” (laughter) “Many people are interested in teaching at our school, and we don’t necessarily have a whole lot of openings right now, but we’ll keep you in mind. What is your area of expertise?”

I said, “Math, science, and computers.” Her head swiveled sharply, and she lasered-in on me and said, “Really…” (laughter)

And it turned out that both of the science teachers, Sandy and Sonya, would be spending just one more year at the school, before they moved on. So I came just in time.

I visited the school over the summer, during the Selfish Giant theater workshop, and I came into a classroom and saw these beautiful children concentrating on their fantastic artwork. Three of the regular teachers were there, and they were guiding the children, and the children were clearly very enthusiastic and inspired.

I saw a little boy named Max who was deeply focused on his drawing, and I thought, “What a perfect little saint. What would there be to teach these children?! They must certainly teach themselves.” And little Max was working away, until finally he completed his drawing, and then as he finished it, he held it up and gazed at it for a moment in wonder. And then he said, “CLARE I”LL SELL YOU THIS FOR A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!! A MILLION DOLLARS!!!!!” (laughter)

So I thought maybe there was something that we adults could share.

But that day began a long journey of discovery in teaching. My friends would sometimes ask me, “How do you like teaching?” And I would say, “It’s really fun, and it’s really hard.”

It was very hard to have all of these thoughts about math, science, and computer science as I understood them, and then struggle to find ways to make them crystal clear to someone else.

I tended to learn more abstractly, at least in my recent years. And my students didn’t necessarily take to abstraction. They might prefer visual or auditory or written ways of learning. They might like to write about their experience in math, linking their language and mathematical minds together.

Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.
Dharmaraj teaches a lively middle school math class.

While I was still learning how to become a good teacher, Swami Kriyananda told me, “You need to make the abstract concepts clear by concrete examples.” So whenever I would teach science, I would try to give the children a hands-on experience, and concrete examples in their own lives. Because otherwise it was just words and abstract concepts. And that’s very cold and impersonal, and not very interesting and easy to forget.

But the real challenge, as every teacher knows, is not even the content, when you’re first starting out as a teacher. It is what we call “classroom management.” (laughter)

Classroom management, in the beginning, means, as a young teacher, trying not to cry. (laughter)

Then, as you progress, it evolves into trying not to yell. (laughter)

And then finally you get to the point of being able to try to inspire the children through calm, quiet words. For example, I would be doing my job as a teacher and thinking that it was completely impossible, and then I would see the example of one or another of the great teachers we have here. And one of them would just say at the end of an active playtime, very quietly, “Children.” (laughter) And all of the heads, all of the desks, all of the chairs, and all of the pencils in the room would move and point to her. (laughter)

And so I knew it was possible to learn this skill.

During my first year, Helen was my supervising teacher. She trained me throughout the first year I taught in the fifth through seventh grade classrooms.

She was immensely valuable, first of all in her example, of the way she was with the children, and the way she spoke to them. And also she was able to give me feedback, as I would stand up in front of the firing squad and deliver a few things before I went down in flames. And she would give me feedback about what went wrong, and why. She made all it very clear. And she tolerated my many woes.

There was a time, about halfway into the first year, when I said, “Does it get easier?” And she said, “Well, the first three years are awful, but then…” But I couldn’t get past that. “The first three years!!??” Because I was just trying to make it through next week. (laughter)

But of course, it was with a certain relish that I reached the third year and found out she was right.

But what made teaching hard, of course, was not the students. It was me having to face my own self, as we all do. When you ask seven students to do something, and they don’t, what are you going to do? Are you going to cry, yell, or calmly inspire?

That, again, is what makes teaching hard for every one of us. And when it comes to leading anyone, the hardest thing is the way you have to face yourself – and change.

Before I came to LWS, I wasn’t convinced that it was possible to teach in the right way. I didn’t know what the right way was. I knew that some of my own teachers had done it as I grew up, and some of them had not.

And, again, I wasn’t sure how to explain what the right way was. You would always have a gifted person here and there. But I didn’t really know if it was a skill that could be learned, on the whole.

But then I met the wonderful teachers here and watched them through the years. I met Helen and saw the way she taught. I saw all of the teachers, all of them teaching in the right way. And again, I wasn’t even sure what it was, but I knew it was right, because I saw that it worked beautifully, and it felt right. And the children showed it.

Then Gary came, and Ghislaine, and Megan, and I saw that they all taught in the right way, too. And so I began to wonder, “What is it that’s so special about our experience here?” Because it wasn’t only the gifted teachers, and the wonderful students, and the dedicated parents.

I realized that part of the power of our school, and what made it all work, was the Education for Life philosophy. The power of small classroom sizes. The power of circle time. The power of meditation and prayer and chanting. The spiritual lives of the teachers, and the students, and their families. And the plays, through which the children are able to live the life of a great saint, by acting out that life, and experiencing it, and trying to understand it. Because they’re the ones who are going to have to tell the story. And, of course, it is the active blessings of Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda, who are the founders of our educational philosophy.

And these, of course, are all things that some might say, and some do say, “Do these interfere with the students becoming really good at academics?”

And, in fact, as we’ve all come to see, they not only do not interfere, but they support and enhance the academics. First of all, the proof is self-evident in the top-level high schools and universities where our graduates go, and where they thrive. Those who wish get into extremely competitive high schools in this area and outside of the Bay Area.

Our students who can go extremely fast with the academic curriculum are allowed to do so. They take it as fast as we can give it, and we give it as fast as they can take it.

There are students who go into high school placing out of algebra, having completed the entrance exams. They do very well on the standardized tests. This year, Rose placed out of first-year science, and she’s moving right into sophomore biology. They’ve had their poetry published. There are so many outward accomplishments that support the claim that the academics are only enhanced by all of these cross-curricular enrichment programs.

But what of the students who take the curriculum more slowly, at their own pace? I’ve always been glad to say that I have always felt, and I think it’s always true, that the students who need more time are not left behind at LWS. In fact, Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician at Stanford University, visited our school last year, and afterward he said to me, “This is a wonderful school. Do all of your students excel in math?”

I said, “Well, all of the students in the school, through the efforts of the teachers, all of the teachers, may not excel in math, but they all like math.” And he was very impressed, and I was very proud to be able to say it.

Now, Samantha and Sarah are looking at each other. (laughter) But I said it because I felt it was very true. And that was something I could be proud of, and we can all be proud of.

Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer
Dharmaraj and Dharmini Iyer

It’s six years later now, and just as I felt the call to move here and start teaching, Dharmini and I feel the call to move on. We have wanted to move to Ananda Village for a number of years, and now finally the time has felt right. She will be working at the Expanding Light guest retreat center, with the guests there, and possibly also working with some students in music. I’ll be teaching in the fourth through sixth grade classroom there, and I’ll help with high school math and computers.

Good-bys are always hard. There’s no shortcut around the sorrow of parting. But this not really a funeral, I’m not dying. In fact, we’re not even moving until July. So we’re going to be here for quite some time, and I’m already planning my first return visit in the fall.

Also, Therese Ducharme, who is taking over the math and science teacher position, was my first choice. And I’m so glad and relieved to pass the torch on to her. I know she’s going to do a magnificent job.

So here we are, at the end of six years, and I’ll just say that I’m very grateful for my time in service to you all here. The teachers are my friends. And my dear students, and all you dear, dedicated parents and friends, it has truly been a tremendous blessing in my life. Thank you.

 


Science at Living Wisdom School — A Conversation with teacher Doug Andrews

Doug Andrews has taught science at LWS for 10 years. Doug has a degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He recalls, “I was in a PhD program for biochemistry. I had wanted to go to medical school, but I had three small kids, and I was a single parent.

doug-andrews“I was working at the molecular level, researching drug transport across membranes, and I realized that what I liked best was working with people, which was my motivation for wanting to go to medical school. I was looking for a more meaningful way to be useful in the world, and it’s how I eventually ended up at LWS.”

Doug spoke with George Beinhorn, a LWS staff member who serves as our webmaster, editor, writer, and photographer.

GB: Good morning, Doug. I had a long conversation recently with our school’s newest teacher, Kabir MacDow, who has worked in education for over 40 years. Kabir believes the principles we practice in the classroom at LWS make learning more efficient. As an example of inefficient learning, Kabir described how children in some public schools in India attend school six days from morning to mid-afternoon, and after years they come out unable even  to read well. In part, he believes it’s because the teachers are focused on rote memorization, but partly it’s also because they aren’t trained to bring out children’s enthusiasm for learning.

At LWS, we sometimes talk about educating children’s consciousness. And I believe it’s an unfortunate word, because it’s abstract and doesn’t clearly say what it means. It’s unfortunate, because if we look at the nuts and bolts of what happens classroom here, it’s inspiring.

Education for Life is based on the idea that we have five human tools for interacting with the world: our body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. And Kabir’s point is that learning becomes much more efficient when we address all five tools, instead of limiting our focus to the mind alone.

Science teacher Doug Andrews has the class excited about biology.
Science teacher Doug Andrews has the kids excited about biology.

A child is a tightly integrated system, and if you confine yourself to improving the mind, it’s like  tuning the carburetor on your car when the tires are flat and the fuel pump is broken. But if you include the peripheral tools when you educate children, you find that it greatly enhances their ability to learn, because you’re bringing more energy to the process – the enthusiasm of the heart, the deep interest of the mind which improves mental focus, and the natural energy of body, heart and soul.

So by drawing in all aspects of the child, you’re making a major contribution to their academic readiness.

Doug: That’s it. That’s everything. You’re refining the tools that contribute to learning. And it becomes especially clear in science that how you teach makes a huge difference.

The way science is taught in schools is often very uninspiring. Obviously, there are good teachers who are able to make science interesting. But what they’re doing individually, at LWS we’re doing philosophically across all our grades and academic disciplines.

First, we take into account that children in the K-8 grades are nearly all in the age group of 6 to 12. And these are the critical “feeling years” of a child’s development. The feelings years are extremely important in a child’s growth, because they set the stage for the child’s character, for their ability to know right from wrong, and for their ability to be enthusiastic about learning. And if you want to get the best out of the student in academics, it’s critical to bring out their enthusiasm, their energy, and their natural ability to love.

Math and science volunteer and Harvard graduate Richard Fouquet had a long, successful career as an engineer and flight manual publisher. Click to enlarge.
Math and science volunteer and Harvard and Stanford graduate Richard Fouquet had a successful career as an engineer and flight manual publisher. Click to enlarge.

In science, it matters only very secondarily if a child in 5th grade knows about atomic structure. But if he/she is highly enthusiastic about some aspect of science, and if the teacher can tap that enthusiasm and guide it creatively and rigorously, the child will learn to love science, and he or she will develop a love of the scientific method.

That’s the most important aspect of science education. I may not be able to hold all the details of my particular branch of science in my brain. But if I know the basic principles and how to find the information I need, and if I have a natural enthusiasm that makes me curious about finding the answers, I’m three-quarters of the way toward being a successful scientist.

I feel this is the best thing I can give the students, because enthusiasm is the motor that drives academic success. And it’s what parents continually tell me they respect about science at LWS. At our year-end ceremony, parents unfailingly tell me, “We want to thank you, because our child says that science is her favorite subject. And when we ask her what field she wants to study, it’s always, ‘I want to study science.’”

GB: The parents approach you and tell you that?

Doug: Oh, totally. Totally. And all of the work I do is directed toward the single goal of making sure the kids love science when they leave for the next grade.

I don’t put the students on a rigid program to finish X pages in X time, because that approach sucks all the life out of science. It really is of no particular value at all. I’m completely okay with the idea of finding our way through the academic curriculum by making science something that we can explore with energy and enthusiasm.

In the end, they learn more, retain more, and become more interested and more adept at applying the scientific method.

In the younger grades, for example, I may start a conversation with the kids about “things that fly.” I’ll ask them, “What flies? Tell me some things that fly. It doesn’t matter if it’s alive or if it’s a machine. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from outer space. Whatever it is, let’s talk about things that fly.”

If you find that this particular group loves the idea of airplanes, well, airplanes have a lot of science in them. There are lots of things you can look at with airplanes, in terms of the shape of the wings, the shape of the propellers, wind currents, lift, and so on. We can build model airplanes and compare the designs and try to understand how they work, and why one works better than the others. And that’s science.

I can then go back and ask them, “What else flies?” And we might end up talking about butterflies. So we’ll take a day trip to Natural Bridges to see the butterflies in season. And we’ll study the life cycle of butterflies. So we’re following their enthusiasm and bringing in science as a way to understand how the natural world works. Child with Bubble, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

Bubbles fly, and bubbles are fun, and we can figure out which kind of solution yields the best bubbles, and why. We can make solutions and compare them, and then we’ll look at the science of why it works. And when we get to the level where we’re opening the book and drawing on the chalkboard and talking about the science, it’s a whole lot more fun because their enthusiasm is high.

I don’t know how most science teachers survive, when they’re required to follow an externally dictated curriculum. Bless them if they’re able to do it and make it interesting.

But Kabir is right. The philosophy that we’re privileged to work with here allows us to be scientists working together, which is a much deeper approach that pays big dividends in learning.

I remember, as a kid, going shopping and seeing my teacher, and not feeling that I could go up to them and say “Hi.” But when I run into our kids outside of school, they’ll often come up and talk. And that’s because we’re enthusiastic about having fun doing science together.

What I look for in the children’s science fair projects is the level of challenge in the experiment, the presentation, and how well they conducted the experiment. (See 2015 LWS Science Fair photos.)

GB: Are you working with each of the students individually on their projects in school?

Doug: I do. And the way it works is that, between the two classes, I have 40-44 kids that I’m checking in on. And it’s not like I can go in depth with each of them. So I have them propose an idea six months ahead. And once of the proposals are in place, I’ll ask them for procedures. And then I keep them on track with collecting their data. In the last couple of weeks I’ll help them work on their presentations. Then they’ll do a dry run, where they bring their project to school and do a dress rehearsal, so they’ve had some experience sharing what they’ve done.

GB: Do the classroom teachers help them on their science fair projects?

Doug: Not usually. They have their own schedules. But undoubtedly the parents are involved. I encourage the parents to see the science fair as a golden opportunity to do something creative with their kids, and many of them do.

Some kids don’t want their parents involved. For example, Vidushi is not a kid where that would ever be the case. She would not have to lean on her parents, because she would do it all on her own.

GB: Does developing enthusiasm in science help them with their other studies?

Doug: Well, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing science or language arts or history. We all come into life with certain interests, and some people love math or geography or astronomy. And it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in. What matters is that you have the energy and enthusiasm to be able to understand it and love it.

If you’re inclined toward math, and you have it pounded into your head that you have to get through X pages – that’s a sure way to pull all the life and enthusiasm out of the student in math class.

GB: It’s an external motivator. And the research clearly shows that enjoying the process – being internally motivated – yields work of greater quantity and quality.

Doug: Yes, and one thing we do very well here is that we look at the children as individuals, rather than as an age group or a grade level or a group to be processed through an education machine. It’s not unusual here to have a child who’s chronologically in 2nd grade but academically and developmentally on a level with the 3rd graders. And that’s where they’ll go, because that’s where they’ll get the most academically.

But if a child needs to spend more time among his peers, we won’t artificially put them in a higher grade; instead, we’ll encourage them to work individually in their present class. For example, the child may not be socially ready to move up a grade. In that case, we might make it a gradual transition, so they’ll be ready to work at a higher level with appropriate social skills.

Keshav is a golfer, so it was natural for him to study golf balls. Manufacturers advertise their golf balls as traveling farther because of the way they’re made, and Keshav tested and compared various models to see if the claims are true. Keshav is a mathematician by inclination, and you can see that he generated plenty of statistics to support his work. It was a fine experiment and a really excellent presentation.
Doug admires Keshav’s exhibit at the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Keshav is a golfer; he tested the claims of golf ball manufacturers that their balls fly farther. Click to enlarge.

Many schools will advance a student based on academic ability alone, without any regard for the rest of the person. At LWS, we aren’t so blinded by academics that we’ll sacrifice the child’s long-term success by pushing them forward at all costs. That’s short-term thinking, and it commonly ends up demotivating the child, if they’re doing well academically but they’re uncomfortable with their social situation.

GB: Talking with the teachers, I hear them speak about how the culture of the school is built around social connections with people, and understanding other people’s realities. If you watch re-runs of Veronica Mars, you see a high school environment that’s a war zone, basically. It’s a jungle. And it’s not like that in this school. When I visit the classrooms to observe, or to take pictures for the website, I’ll often see the older kids helping each other, or helping the younger kids.

Doug: Because I teach science, I’m not a full-time classroom teacher. But I benefit greatly from what the classroom teachers are doing. For example, when I lead a science lab, I can expect that when I assign lab partners, I know I won’t get a lot of resistance about who the kids do or don’t want to work with. Many times, I’ll know that I can absolutely count on the students wanting to help, because the children have learned to enjoy helping in this school culture. The idea of being kind, of being of service, of being helpful to another person – you’re not “training” kids to do that. You’re simply creating a school culture that reinforces those natural tendencies that are present in human nature.

It’s the culture that allows that level of compassion to become the focus. In every classroom from K to 8, the kids are motivated to be that way, because the culture gives them a chance to experience how helping makes them feel great.

They know they aren’t going to mock or make fun of someone. And if they see a 6th grader who needs help, they’ll naturally and comfortably offer it.

So, as a science teacher, I get the benefit of that culture in my classroom. I see it working, and I’m very aware of it, because it’s a blessing to be able to teach science in an accepting, cooperative culture. And it’s one more way Education for Life makes learning efficient.

You can see it even in the early grades. The 3rd graders in Ruth’s class are wonderful. They’re sophisticated in a way that you wouldn’t expect, probably because of the culture in Silicon Valley. So they have a lot of information, and they’re very curious, and they’re really sweet. In 4th and 5th grade they can get a little sassy – nothing wrong with it! (laughs) But in 3rd grade they’re sweet and they’re not self-conscious, and they’re having fun.

This is Diana again. Her family are from Russia, and she could not be brighter.
This is Diana loading a volcano with fuel at the 3rd grade exhibit during the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Click to enlarge.

It showed in the volcano project that we did with the 3rd graders for the science fair this year. It was typical 3rd grade energy.

In other years, we’ve done a project that asks which bubble gum blows the best bubbles – we called it Bubbleology. It’s actually a great science experiment, because it’s a way to create a logical pathway for thinking through a problem. We’ll compare various brands of bubble gum, and it gets into materials science and physics and math.

The scientific method is something most people have a vague idea about. Everybody knows there’s a specific method that you can follow, and in the West we want to have information verified objectively and scientifically. But it’s a two-edged sword. First, because many people don’t need to know information scientifically, because there are many kinds of information they need to discover for themselves subjectively. But on the other hand, when it’s about coming to an intelligent, logical conclusion, it’s helpful to have the standard process to go by. Diet and exercise are great examples, where you may know the scientific principles, but you have to apply them with respect for individual differences that can be significant, and that can vary daily.

Ten Questions 6: How well do the children adjust to a large high school?

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Q: How well do the children make the adjustment from a school with fewer than 100 children, to a high school that may have 2000 students?

Photo of large crowd of high school students
How well do LWS grads adjust to life in a mega-sized high school? The life skills children learn at LWS enable them to thrive in any school environment, large or small. (Click to enlarge.)

Helen: We received a striking testimonial that speaks to this. One of our graduates is now in high school, and he wrote us an unsolicited email expressing how astounded he was by what he termed the lack of awareness among his friends, of their impact on other people. He said, “They banter back and forth, and I can tell when somebody’s feelings are getting hurt, but when I bring it up to them, they haven’t even noticed.”

He said, “This is something you taught me.” What he meant by “you” is the culture of the school, because we are seamless in our commitment to nurturing these kinds of awareness.

One of our students told us she went to freshman orientation at Menlo, and the teachers spent a great deal of time and energy reassuring the freshmen that they didn’t have to be afraid of them. And she was sitting there thinking, “Why would any student be afraid of a teacher?” Because we nurture a culture of tremendous respect and affection for one another. We have a very healthy environment.

Our students thrive in high schools large and small – they make the honor role, succeed in sports, and enjoy friendships with like-minded friends. Character development and life skills are tools that work anywhere.

Back to Questions Parents Ask.