A Visit to 3rd Grade at Living Wisdom School

Ruth helps the third-grade girls with a difficult Menu Math problem.
Ruth helps the girls with a difficult Menu Math problem. Click photos to enlarge.

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.

DSC_7518-EditWe’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.

DSC_7676_00003We’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.

The girl on the right asked the other girl for help with a math concept. The other student immediately came over and helped her.
The girl on the right asked for help with a math concept. The other student spontaneously came over and tutored her.

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)

Language Arts prepares the children at LWS to organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly in all of their subjects.
Language Arts prepares the children at LWS to organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly in all their subjects.

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.

LWS teaches the children how to overcome challenges with calm, focused attention.
At LWS the children learn to overcome academic challenges with deep, focused interest.

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.

The kids celebrate Multiplication Sundae. Because every child mastered the multiplication tables, they got sundaes with all the extras.
The kids celebrate with their Multiplication Sundaes. Because every child in the class mastered the multiplication tables, they received sundaes with all the extras.

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.”

Wow! We solved the math problem!
Yay! We solved the math problem!

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.

DSC_7468-EditHere, 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.

Art plays a major role in the curriculum at LWS and has broad ramifications. The heart, not the mind, empowers a child to tell right from wrong, and to pursue their academic subjects with deep curiosity and enthusiasm. Alice is a talented young artist.
Alice is a talented young artist. Art plays a major role in the curriculum at LWS and has broad ramifications. An expansive heart, not the rational mind, is the faculty that enables a child to tell right from wrong, and to pursue academic subjects with curiosity and enthusiasm.

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.

DSC_7477-Edit
Ruth greets Bella and checks her homework.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

What Does “Spiritual Education” Mean?

Teacher with young children outdoors at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Nonsectarian spiritual principles are a daily feature of life at LWS. Attitudes of kindness, cooperation, concentration, and joyful aspiration are encouraged and celebrated. (Click to enlarge.)

by the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools

The first public service that Paramhansa Yogananda undertook after he became a swami was to found a school for young boys. Starting in 1916 in the village of Dihika, Bengal with only seven students, he was “determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood.” A year later he moved the school to Ranchi and founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya which is still in existence today. Almost sixty years later, in 1972, at Ananda Village, the first Ananda school was founded, based on the ideals and directions that Yogananda laid out about education. Starting also with only seven students, the original Ananda School now has a campus of seven classrooms with ninety students, plus branch schools in Palo Alto, Portland, and Seattle. The following article is from a talk that Swami Kriyananda gave in which he discusses the Education for Life system used in the Ananda Schools.

What I’ve tried to do in my life is to take Yogananda’s central teachings and apply them to many fields of life – business, the arts, relationships, raising families, schools, communities, and so on. The education of children was very dear to Yogananda’s heart, but what he actually said about it was very little. Through the years, we have taken what he has given us, meditated on it, and applied our understanding in the Ananda School classrooms in order to deepen our insights and attunement to Yogananda’s vision for spiritual education.

An “altar of all religions” in a classroom at Living Wisdom School. The shared principles of the world’s great spiritual traditions give us the scientific formula for success and happiness in life. (Click to enlarge.)

At Ananda we are trying to develop a system called Education for Life, something which is very much needed in society today. The reason for so many of the problems in our world is that we’re giving children what Yogananda called an essentially atheistic view of life. When we rigorously exclude all spiritual teachings and higher values, our children end up getting the message that there aren’t any higher values, and that there isn’t even a God. Children have a natural longing for values and ideals, but our society gives them a universe and a life in which they have no faith. The cynical teachings of modern education are so ego-oriented, and so money and job-oriented that when children grow up cynical and angry at the universe, it’s hardly something to be surprised at. It’s the fault of our society that allows that kind of thing to happen.

The purpose of spiritual education is to fulfill the divine potential of children, and to prepare them for life by giving them the tools they need to keep on learning throughout the many experiences that will come to them.

When we speak of spiritual education, we don’t mean a church kind of education. What we mean is to help children understand that they’re going to be a lot happier if they are kind to others, and if they work for high ideals. The child who has a little bag of dates and eats them all himself isn’t nearly so happy as the child who shares those dates with others. In all cases, we can see that people who are selfish just aren’t happy, and people who are selfless are happy. They can apply this understanding not only at school, but also at home and everywhere in life. If we can bring this kind of teaching to children, this then is spiritual education.

Another purpose of spiritual education is to build the person on all levels. We are triune beings composed of body, mind, and soul, and if any part of us is starved at the expense of the others, then we aren’t complete. It’s an interesting fact that people who write, as an example of a mental activity, will very often also do something physical to keep themselves grounded. When Yogananda first had an experience of cosmic consciousness, his guru, Sri Yukteswar, handed him a broom, saying, “Let us sweep the porch.” We have to learn to keep these worlds in harmony with one another. If we let one go in favor of the other, in some way we become unbalanced.

Young girl smiling at Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
An education that ignores individual differences and tries to run children through an assembly line is bound to produce shoddy results. An education that is deep, enduring, and effective must be highly individualized. (Click to enlarge.)

In the education of our children, we need to help them develop their characters and their minds, but we must also help them prepare for living successfully in this world. We don’t want them to go out into society and find themselves incapable of relating to what’s going on. They have to have the facts that are a part of our modern upbringing. But they don’t need to have those facts taught to them in such a way as to leave them believing that there’s no value in anything. There is a great deal of emphasis on the wrong things today. The basis of spiritual education is to prepare them for society in a way that will help them to remain idealistic.

Suppose you have children who have learned how to love everyone, who have learned the goodness of life. When they go out into the world they may face hatred, criminal activity, and many other negative things. Will they be able to handle it? This is probably the primary concern that people have with spiritual education. The answer is to be seen in those who live with love. It isn’t as if they become stupid or lose the ability to relate to the world as it is. In fact, the broadest understanding comes from that which is centered in love; the narrowest understanding is that which is centered in hatred. If you’re on the lowest level, you can relate only to the lowest level; if you’re on the highest level, you can relate to all levels. To see that this is true, we can point to examples of people who live that way and who are able to handle life’s many challenges far, far better. I have observed that people who are complete as human beings are generally more successful. A spiritual education can actually guarantee greater success even in the way worldly people define it.

A good example is Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda. He was the chairman of several large companies and owned several others. He had the clarity, calmness, and centeredness to be able to pull back from all the stress and excitement and see the way to resolve difficult issues. The secret of his success was the fact that his consciousness was rooted in God, and in the desire for right action.

Children are born with different inclinations, with different strengths, weaknesses, and educational needs. One of the unfortunate aspects of modern education is the assembly-line approach to teaching where the same information is more or less dumped out to everyone. There isn’t any philosophy; it is just information. Small classes, where the teacher can get to know each child personally, are essential for giving individual attention and for discovering what the natural level of understanding is for each child.

Rajarsi Janakananda, chief disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda
Paramhansa Yogananda’s chief disciple was James J. Lynn, a self-made American businessman who said he was able to accomplish in an hour what would take others many hours, thanks to his mastery of meditation methods such as those taught at Living Wisdom School. (Click to enlarge.)

By teaching children kindness, concentration, will power, strength of character, truthfulness, and other higher qualities, life is made richer. These are deeply important to the development of the human being, but such things are not taught today in public education. The ultimate purpose of life is not simply to get a job. So many people live this way and then die, not of old age but of deep disappointment with the life they have led. If you don’t know how to be truly happy, money won’t buy it for you.

Spiritual education is training people for life. How many people get married, and then get divorced because they don’t know how to get along with their spouse? They’re not educated for that. nor for life.

Education, rightly understood, is expansion of awareness. It is preparation for that process of real learning which takes place after we leave school, when we are in the constant struggle, the battlefield of life. By giving children the tools and understanding to make the right choices in life, we can lead them to lasting happiness. Then they will be able to achieve the kind of spiritual victories that are the true meaning of success.