What the Arts Can Do for Children

screencap002

When David Eby isn’t teaching music to children at the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon, he’s a professional cellist with the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Cello Project. David teaches cello at Lewis and Clark College and is a Teaching Artist for the BRAVO Youth Orchestra. He also works with the El Sistema program, which brings classical music training to disadvantaged youth.

David lives in south Portland with his wife Madhavi, their daughter Caitlin, and their Manx cat, Maggie. (David invites you to visit his website where you can learn about his insights on meditation for musicians, and the spiritual healing power of music in our lives.)

David Eby has taught in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than fourteen years – initially for two years in Portland, then twelve years at the original school at Ananda Village, near Nevada City, California, and now he’s back in Portland teaching again.

Q: David, let’s have an informal conversation about the role of the arts in helping kids be happy and successful in school and in their lives. Have you given much thought to the positive role that the arts can play in a child’s development, especially during the important “Feeling Years” from age 6 to 12? Has it been a theme in your life, and in your daughter’s?

David: My daughter Caitlin is in sixth grade now, and she’s performing with the Pacific Youth Choir in Portland. They recently sang Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Oregon Symphony. It was a spectacular, high-powered event – Mahler can be pretty heavy, but she was moved to tears by the beauty of it.

She gets a great deal of joy from the arts – from music, theater, and writing – and she’s very passionate about it. She grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools, and next year she’ll enter the Arts and Communication Academy here in Portland. I’ve taken her to choir practice since she was a little one, and as a result she knows our entire choir repertoire inside and out. (laughs)

In my life, the arts have been an absolutely constant theme. I picked up the cello when I was six, and I knew right away, with a solid intuition – “This is my instrument!” Music was something that stayed with me throughout my childhood, and playing cello and singing took me to some incredible experiences in my earlier years.

david-eby-300It was during that time that my heart was most open, and through music I was able to experience something greater than myself, whether we call it a higher inspiration, God, or our own highest potential. The name we give it doesn’t matter, so long as we recognize the amazing things that music can do for us.

There are two aspects to music. There’s the purely physical, sonic experience, and then there’s the interior, subjective response.

The sonic experience is what the sound waves are doing to our brain. Many studies in recent years have shown that music, and especially playing an instrument, builds important connections between the two hemispheres of a child’s brain, and that when a child is having a musical experience, many areas of the brain become engaged. It’s not just a single part of the brain. Music touches a number of brain areas simultaneously, and when we’re performing, the whole brain lights up in a striking way that the scientists can observe on brain scans. The effect is also there when we listen to music, but to a lesser degree, and even when we imagine music that inspires us.

So there’s the purely physical level, and then there’s an energetic level. And what I mean by “energetic” is the effect that the sound waves produce that touches us in a deep way. It’s what happens when we say, “That piece really moved me.” Or, “It struck a chord with me. I really resonated with it.”

It’s something that we can safely say lies beyond our intellectual perception, or the simple effect of the sound waves on the physical body and brain. There’s something that music can awaken that’s deeper than a collection of beats and sound waves and chords.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of music today, popular music, that is simply that – it’s just sounds and beats and rhythms and effects that are designed to be ear candy. It gets our energy moving and excites our emotions, but when it’s over it just dumps us back out on the curb again.

What intrigues me is a kind of music that does exactly the opposite, a music that bypasses the mind and draws us inward, into a oneness with something that’s greater than the little ego and that we recognize as being the highest part of ourselves.

Q: Are there levels upon levels of uplifting music – for example, music that can raise our spirits, and then music that can take us to an even higher plane?

David: Yes, I’m absolutely convinced of this. I coached at a music camp last week, where an amateur quartet played a Schubert piece, and it was really lovely. Schubert wrote some incredibly inspired pieces. Some of his songs have a powerful ability to cheer us up and make us smile and feel that life is good.

But I believe there are higher levels. Brahms said that he would contact a divine presence that was “superconscious” when he composed – he actually used that word – and that it was from there that he received his inspiration.

For me, music is a road map, or a kind of source code that can capture inspiration, and that captures the state of consciousness that the composers were able to enter and draw upon, and bring into their music.

We’re given these dots on a page, and when we perform it, there’s a big light that goes on somewhere on the scale of inspiration. And if you play the notes, and carefully tune in to the present moment, and if you’re very focused and receptive, you can get a taste or even become wholly immersed in what the composer experienced. And if the composer received it from a very high place, for example Handel’s Messiah, you can feel it touching your soul.

It’s like a prescription for bringing your consciousness up onto a happier plane. It starts with the realm of pure ideas, and then it works through energy to create a sonic vibration that transmits those ideas to a deep place in us.

For me, it’s one of the things in life, like nature, that can awaken a remembrance in us, of a beauty that lies within us all, and an understanding of where our truest fulfillment comes from.

Our greatest fulfillments can never ultimately come from anything material. When you hear music, can you put your finger on it? Can you capture it? It’s played, and then it goes away. It’s this thing that’s completely immaterial, and yet it’s one of the greatest gifts that God has given us, because it leads us inward, toward the inner kingdom where our universal birthright of happiness lies.

Q: As you were growing up, and in your career as a cellist, was there a point where you felt that there was a ceiling on the inspiration that you could tap into through the kind of music you were playing?

David: Yes. First of all, I can tell you that when I was in the Feeling Years from 6 to 12, I was a complete music snob! (laughs) My teacher actually had to pull me aside and say, “David, I’m afraid I have to give you an unsatisfactory grade, because your attitude has been really, really bad in music class.” And I wasn’t quite sassy enough to say, “Well, yeah, because the music we’re having to learn really sucks!” (laughs)

It was totally, totally uninspiring. But, at the same time, I remember being deeply moved by the folk songs of the Seventies, especially the tunes from Godspell and others that were being sung at the time. My Dad is a Presbyterian pastor, and I grew up in those surroundings, with an awareness of the inspiration of Spirit.

So yes, I had many experiences that reassured me: “As long as I have the music, everything will be okay.”

I had incredibly inspired experiences that carried me through high school. But then toward the end of college, after I had gone through a great deal of formal training, I woke up one day in a kind of panic state, wondering, “My gosh, what have I done?”

I thought, “I’ll end up playing in an orchestra surrounded by miserable musicians, of whom there a great many, and cynical, jaded, uninspired conductors, and an audience that’s dwindling, and music that for the most part isn’t inspiring at all.

There’s a lot of music that is inspired, but orchestras oftentimes have to program “new music” to win the grants that will support the more inspiring stuff. And it’s very unfortunate that in contemporary music we have a great deal to learn about inspiration. Right now, it’s seems that the more outrageous and atonal and banging and confused it is, the better the music is purported to be. There’s a lot of powerful music – but uplifting? – hm, I don’t think so.

So I put my career on hold when I was in my late twenties, and I went off in search of that lost inspiration. And, interestingly enough, I ended up actually finding it.

At first I was looking for a way to serve society through music, which I felt would be a heart-opening and fulfilling thing to do. My first attempt was when I joined a troupe of storytelling musicians who were addressing the needs of children in the Feeling Years that we’ve been talking about, from age 6 to 12. We would take stories and set them to music, and we would become the characters and act out the stories, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I remember dressing up like the mayor of Hamlin – I would strap my cello to my body, and we would play and sing and enact the story. And for a long time I felt very inspired, because it really was serving the needs of young children who desperately need upliftment through the arts.

But then over time it turned out to be too much of an “art for art’s sake” kind of thing, with a precious kind of self-conscious flavor that sapped the feeling of expansion. So I bowed out and began working with the Suzuki Method, which is founded on a beautiful philosophy of creating children who won’t necessarily be professional musicians, but who will be human beings with beautiful hearts. And that was just an incredible experience, because there was a lot of wonderful material there.

But then I noticed that whenever I would go to a Suzuki conference, I would be surrounded by people who were ordinary music teachers who’d seized the opportunity to slap a button on their chest that said, “Hi, I’m a Suzuki teacher.” They weren’t looking for something that would be more deeply meaningful, in the way that I was.

Then, thank goodness, I found Ananda, and I started working as a teacher at the Living Wisdom School in Portland.

At that point, I had quit professional music, and I just dove headfirst into teaching, with these kids who were all in the age group of 6 to 12, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had, because of the tremendous energy I had to put out to manage the kids and connect with them. I had a class of all girls and one very shy boy who was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to put out much energy. So, for the first two years, it was just the typical, terribly difficult, soul-searing experience of being a beginning teacher.

Then we moved to Ananda Village, where I taught music in the Living Wisdom School for twelve years, and it was an incredibly fulfilling experience, and very, very successful.

Q: Here in Palo Alto, Helen and Gary often have to explain to parents why we spend so much time on the arts. The parents wonder if we might be neglecting the kids’ academic studies.

Arthur Gu performs an advanced classical piece during the 2015 LWS Spring Concert
Arthur Gu performs an advanced classical piece during the 2015 LWS Spring Concert

It can be difficult to persuade them that forty years of experience have shown us that engaging kids in the performing arts has a very positive effect on their academic performance. There’s a strong component of feeling in the learning experience, and it needs to be cultivated, as an important cornerstone of the academic curriculum.

One of our students is a gifted young classical pianist. Arthur just finished third grade, and you can see that he’s totally focused and engaged when he plays, and it’s a quality that carries over to his studies, and his interactions with the other children.

In your years of teaching, have you noticed that the children’s lives are meaningfully enhanced as a result of the time they spend in the arts?

David: Without the slightest question. One of my first students in the Portland school was Keshava Betts, who’s now in his late twenties and lives in Los Angeles, where he plays cello very inspiringly. Keshava realized very early on that if he was feeling low, all he had to do was pick up the cello and play, and he would very quickly feel better. That’s a huge gift – to have the tools to raise our consciousness. It’s one of the most valuable skills we can learn.

I remember coming out of a horrible opera rehearsal one night. As I drove home in the rain, I was feeling drenched by the misery of it all. And then I began to sing a solo that I had volunteered to do, from the oratorio “Christ Lives” by Swami Kriyananda. It was just a way to pass the time on what would have otherwise been a miserable drive. I wasn’t expecting any great change in my consciousness, but then, whammo! I felt a tremendous current of joy. It was so powerful that I had to pull over to the side of the road and wonder, “What in the world just happened?! I don’t understand this. How did this happen?” (laughs)

The song I had started to sing was a very simple piece. It stayed within the octave, and it wasn’t sophisticated at all. Yet it left me wondering, “How did this move me so powerfully? How was it able to change me, in an instant?”

Swami Kriyananda talked about this force in music. He said that music, like architecture, can hold a vibration, and a state of consciousness. And when we walk into an inspired piece of music, it’s like walking into a beautiful building, and it can change our consciousness. We walk into a holy place and we feel uplifted, and we walk into a holy song, and the same thing can happen.

For me, it’s an awe-inspiring responsibility to provide uplifting music for children. I’m teaching music at the school in Portland now, and for the children to walk into these pieces, it changes them. It’s very important to provide opportunities for them to explore those higher places in themselves.

You can’t force it. It’s not something that you can ever hope to drive into them – “Now I want you to feel!” (laughs) And it’s the same with adults. There are adults who love the music, but they have a hard time tuning in to the inner experience of it. And it’s a joy to help them find that happiness in themselves.

I’m working with a music education program called El Sistema, which was started in Venezuela in 1975 by an educator, musician, and activist, José Antonio Abreu.

It brought intense classical music training into the slums, the barrios, and it transformed the whole society, to the point where eighty percent of the doctors and lawyers and educators came up through this system as children. That’s an amazing, powerful statistic!

We’re working with children in an impoverished area of north Portland. It’s hard to measure the changes in just the last three years, because how can you compare where a child is now, compared to some other potential for the child? But we’ve seen an incredibly positive development of personal skills and confidence and social maturity.

Q: These inner changes are starting to be documented by science. It’s been shown, for example, that in the presence of expansive feelings like love, compassion, kindness, and so on, the heart’s rhythms change from relatively chaotic to extremely harmonious. The scientists who’ve studied these changes have shown that those harmonious vibrations have a powerful effect on the body and brain. They’ve found that in school districts where they’ve taught their heart-harmonizing methods to children, including methods that employ music, the children’s grades uniformly improve.

There’s a YouTube video, “How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain”:

 

David: A wonderful thing about music therapy is that it brings the children into an uplifted, happy place in their consciousness, without your having to nag them into changing.

David, Caitlyn, and Michelle (2008)
David, Caitlyn, and Michelle (2008)

There doesn’t have to be a teacher or parent yelling at them, “Change your energy!” And the kid is going, “I don’t know how.” But if you have them perform uplifting music, it puts them in the right cycle automatically, and it does it effortlessly.

It’s been really fun for me, over the years, to have the children perform only Swami Kriyananda’s music for a time. I was amazed how the kids never tired of it. And if they want to learn some new songs, we were fortunate to have over four hundred pieces to choose from.

Through music, children are able to tap into a higher awareness that’s always with them, without having to struggle to quiet the mind, or to get past the intellect. We would do these positive, uplifting songs, and they loved them – like “Mañana, Friends,” or “A New Tomorrow” or “If You’re Seeking Freedom.” And it was amazing how it would change their mood.

Q: Thank you, David. At Living Wisdom School, we’re inspired by the streams of energy and joy and consciousness that flow through our school, both in academics and the arts.

 

 

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.

DSC_7235_00146_v1

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.

DSC_7279_00185_v1

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.

DSC_7383_00269_v1

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.

DSC_7361_00250_v1

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.

 

 

 

If You Have Problems Viewing the Application Form

If you are unable to see the application form, please follow the directions given below for your browser.

If you have one or more script-blocking browser plugins installed (e.g., Adblock Plus, NoScript), remember to disable them for the Living Wisdom School Application page.

Firefox:

In older versions of Firefox, the option to enable/disable JavaScript is found under Tools > Options. In recent versions, Firefox 23 and later, JavaScript is turned on by default. If you don’t see the application form, the cause may be that one or more ad-blocking plugins are installed in your browser (e.g., NoScript or Adblock Plus). To re-enable JavaScript, choose the appropriate option in the plugin.

Safari:

MAC:

  1. Open Safari if it is not already open.
  2. Choose Safari > Preferences, and then click Security.
  3. Make sure these checkboxes are selected: Enable plug-ins, Enable Java, and Enable JavaScript.
  4. Make sure this checkbox is not selected: “Block pop-up windows.”

WIN:

  1. Open Safari.
  2. Click the Tools icon at the top-right of the app window.
  3. Click Preferences.
  4. Click Security.
  5. Select Enable JavaScript.
  6. Close the Preferences window and restart Safari.

Internet Explorer:

  1. From the browser’s menu bar, choose Tools > Internet Options.
  2. Click the Security tab.
  3. Click Custom Level.
  4. Scroll down to Scripting. Choose “Active scripting” > Enable.
  5. Click OK twice to exit Internet Options.
  6. Reload the current page.

Google Chrome:

  1. On the browser toolbar, click the Chrome menu icon at upper right.
  2. Select Settings.
  3. Click Show advanced settings…
  4. In the Privacy section, click Content Settings.
  5. In the JavaScript section, select Allow all sites to run JavaScript.

2013 Student Math Awards

Year after year, students from Living Wisdom School perform extremely well on two difficult international tests of mathematics achievement.

In most schools, only the most gifted students take the Math Olympiads and American Mathematics Competition exams for junior-high students (AMC 8).

In contrast, at LWS, all students in grades 3-8 take these challenging tests. The results are presented below.

Elizabeth, Andrew, and Freya receive their math awards at the LWS End of Year Ceremony. Congratulations to Freya for her perfect scores on the AMC 8 and Olympiad M! (Click to enlarge.)
Elizabeth, Andrew, and Freya receive their math awards at the LWS End of Year Ceremony. Congratulations to Freya for her perfect scores on the AMC 8 and Olympiad M! (Click to enlarge.)

Most schools offer special tutoring for top math students who plan to take these tests. At Living Wisdom, our regular math curriculum is the only preparation we offer (although individual students may seek extra preparation on their own).

For an in-depth conversation about how middle-schoolers learn math at LWS, follow the link to this very interesting interview with middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney.

The AMC 8

The AMC 8 for junior-high students includes many problems that demand math skills and experience far beyond those provided in most junior high math classes.

Congratulations to Freya Edholm of LWS, who achieved a perfect score of 25 – the only perfect score by a sixth-grader in the state of California. Of the 20,571 sixth-graders who took the AMC 8 worldwide, only 6 achieved a perfect 25. And of the 152,691 students in grades 5-8 worldwide who took the AMC 8, only 225 students achieved a perfect score. The average score was 10.67.

The Math Olympiads

In 2013, 103,592 students participated in the Olympiads from 49 states, 9 American territories, and 25 foreign countries. In most schools, only the best math students participate, but at LWS all students take the Olympiad M exam for 8th grade and below and the Olympiad E for 6th grade and below.

Of the 19,541 students who took the Olympiad M exam for 8th grade and below, Freya Edholm of Living Wisdom School was the only 6th-grade girl in the state of California to achieve a perfect score of 25. Congratulations, Freya!

Elizabeth Peters and Andrew Dollente won the silver pin for scoring 17 and 19 points respectively.