Ch. 24: A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar

Although Lilavati taught kindergarten at the time we spoke, she is intimately familiar with the needs of children throughout the Feeling Years, having taught for seventeen years in a public school, then first grade, yoga, and Spanish at LWS.

Q: Can you tell us about your background, perhaps going back as far as your childhood?

Lilavati: When our sixth-grade teacher asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember unhesitatingly raising my hand and saying, “A teacher!”

Lilavati Aguilar

I loved school, not so much for the school as for the learning, and I deeply wanted to be a teacher. I got sidetracked for a while, working as a bookkeeper. But when I had kids, I decided that I didn’t want to be a working mom, so I got a daycare license and started caring for a half-dozen kids in our home. When the kids reached preschool age, I started a preschool that ran for three and a half years, and I loved the experience so much that I returned to school to earn a teaching credential. So that’s how I came full circle back to my dream of being a teacher.

Q: Where did you start teaching?

Lilavati: I liked being with the littler kids, so I taught kindergarten, then I spent several years as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language). Running around teaching kids from kindergarten through eighth grade all day was a bit hectic, and I eventually decided that I would prefer something a little more focused, so for the next four years I taught seventh grade at Half Moon Bay, then I moved to Castro Valley where I taught middle school for seventeen years.

When I heard of Education for Life, I was immediately intrigued. I took a wonderful workshop with Nitai Deranja, the co-founder of the Living Wisdom School, and I remember thinking, “I believe this is how education should be.”

I realized there were parts of Education for Life that you could apply very effectively in public school. For example, EFL is very direct and experiential — it’s not just all about learning by reading books. So I became more hands-on in my teaching, giving the kids activities that helped them experience how the concepts they were learning could be applied in real life.

For example, if we were studying the archaeology of Early Man, we would make tools and bows and arrows, and we would bury them so that another class could come along and do an archaeological dig and excavate them.

I found that it was very motivating for them, and that the learning was deeper and more memorable, because kids always learn more when they can experience something directly, rather than just study it in the abstract.

In Education for Life, we’re constantly focusing on the child’s highest potential, and figuring out how we can help them realize their best self. As teachers we’re always asking “What does this child’s best self look like? What is their highest potential as a human being?”

When I was teaching sixth grade, where the Feeling Years end and the Will Power Years begin, at around age 12, I could see how they were starting to make that major transition from being idealistic little kids who loved stories and fantasy play and art, to teenagers who were more interested in challenges to their will power. And, of course, that’s why teaching middle school can be a rough ride. (laughs)

At any rate, even though I was teaching a big class in a public school, I found that I could encourage higher qualities in the kids, like kindness and even-mindedness and courage, that are essential features of a refined human being.

That’s a very strong part of the Education for Life curriculum. You’re looking to encourage and nurture their higher qualities, and it’s a very powerful way to teach, because it makes them feel that their needs are truly being met on a deep level, and that we aren’t just trying to stuff their heads with facts. We’re bringing their hearts into the process, and it’s profoundly motivating because they feel that we’re acknowledging and honoring their reality.

The experience of bringing EFL principles into a public school classroom showed me how helpful it is for kids to give them the non‑sectarian spiritual tools of yoga and meditation. With the backing of the school administration, I started a middle school yoga club. We meditated in class, and it was immediately obvious how it was helping them. When you teach kids how get focused and calm before they take a test, by taking a deep breath and relaxing for as little as a minute, the test results show that they actually do better.

The kids could feel the difference, and they loved it, and the parents were supportive, too, although there was some initial concern about whether it was “spiritual,” which you have to avoid in public school. But they were won over when they saw how it was helping their kids.

When I left the public school and came to Living Wisdom, I was a little worried about leaving the excellent yoga program we’d put in place — they had started calling it Mindfulness in the Public Schools, and it was going really well. But they brought somebody in to take it on, and I could see that they were doing a good job, so I was able to let it go.

I have to say that I’m happier at Living Wisdom School, because everything just makes more sense. I don’t have to be so careful with the vocabulary, because meditation and yoga are embraced as an accepted part of the curriculum, and as useful tools for helping the kids.

Q: What was the transition like to teaching at LWS?

Lilavati: One thing that stands out is that there’s a great deal of collaboration here among the teachers. Before I started, I took the online Education for Life program where you can talk with EFL teachers all over the world. You can try an aspect of EFL in the classroom, and then talk about it and receive suggestions for improving it. There’s a ton of online conferencing, and it’s a great way to connect.

When I came here, our director, Helen Purcell, told me she was looking for someone to co-teach first grade with Danielle, so that’s how I started. I’m teaching kindergarten full-time now, and I love teaching more than ever. I like the kids, and I have a lot of energy for what I’m doing. And even though the first year was a bit of a scramble because I was teaching yoga and Spanish to all of the kids from kindergarten to eighth grade, I had lots of support and it was fun to get to know all seventy-plus students and their teachers.

At LWS the older and younger kids mix freely
and play together as friends.

Q: Having taught in public school and at LWS, you’re familiar with what it’s like for the kids in both systems.

Lilavati: One thing that struck me right away is that all of the kids here, especially those who’d been with the program since kindergarten, but also the kids who’d come recently, were kinder. They were also more focused, but it was the kindness and openness that really struck me.

In public school, everyone’s a little guarded and the students have to hold their energy back – you hear about cliques, and the kids will have their safe groups, but at LWS you can see that their hearts are open and that they know how to get along together regardless of the differences in age. The middle schoolers really do take care of the younger ones, and the little ones feel that they can go to the older kids for help or support or fun.

During the year when I taught Spanish to all of the kids, it struck me that they really knew how to be focused, and that they could pay attention, and that they were more centered. I think it’s partly due to meditation, because the kids have time every day to settle down and get centered.

Q: Like you, I’ve noticed the quality of kindness in the kids, how they cooperate, and how there’s an absence of putting people down. I’ll see them working together in pairs, and it’s remarkable how absorbed they are. Teachers with big classes in public schools will often spend lots of time on behavioral issues, but the learning here seems to go more smoothly and efficiently.

Lilavati: Yes, because each child gets to go at his or her own pace. If they’re advanced, they don’t have to wait for the class to catch up, so they aren’t just sitting there getting bored. And if they’re struggling and need attention, there’s a teacher or an aide or another student who’s more than happy to help. But if a student has the ability to race ahead in math, for example, they won’t be held back, because there’s support for them to learn at their own level.

When I co‑taught first grade with Danielle, we had some very gifted children. One little girl was starting fourth-grade math, and one of the boys was doing third-grade math. He was into inventions and figuring out how things work, and we were able to give him time to explore on his own or with the other students, with plenty of support from the teachers.

Q: How do you get to know the kids so that you can begin to help them individually?

Lilavati: You start making connections from the very first day. Eye contact is very important — making sure that when they come into the classroom they’re acknowledged. It might be with a hug, a handshake, or something else that says, “You’re here. I see you. You see me. We’re connected. Let’s have fun today.” It happens at the start of every school day.

LWS Science Fair

Also, as teachers we’re given the time and freedom to observe each child and see what sparks their interest, and when you see that twinkle in their eye, you have the freedom to notice it and encourage it.

Q: Can you describe a typical school day?

Lilavati: Kindergarten is quite different from the other grades, because the kindergarteners haven’t really entered the Feeling Years. They’re still in the Foundation Years from birth to age six, when they’re working on their gross motor skills, gaining their balance by playing on the jungle gym, and so on. So they require a lot more play time, and at this age they’re learning by playing in the sand, building things with blocks, digging in the dirt, and running around.

When I co-taught first grade, we would start with a fun activity to raise their energy and get them focused. They could decide if they wanted to play with Legos or draw, so they had some power to choose, with an underlying structure. Then we would have Circle Time and sing a few songs and chants, and we’d meditate a little and do a little yoga and stretching. It was the time for everybody to get centered and connected at the start of the school day.

After Circle Time we would go for a walk to get some fresh air and oxygen into their brains before we settled down to do math. All of the grades do math first thing in the morning, and you can feel the math energy running through the school. (laughs)

Then it’s time for snacks. And again, everybody’s on the playground together — the kindergarteners are right there with the eighth graders, and yes, they really do play together. It’s fun to see a giant eighth grader and a tiny kindergartener playing basketball, and how the eighth graders are supporting them. We’ve had some really good basketball players among the little guys, and it’s amazing to watch them. (laughs)

After snacks, we usually have language arts. In kindergarten we emphasize reading and phonics, but we also do Writer’s Workshop, where the kids can write about something that interests them. They write some amazing poetry and stories, and their best work is published in the school literary magazine at the end of the year, so they get to experience what it’s like to be a published author!

In the afternoon, they’ll have electives like Spanish and singing, and core subjects like science, social studies, and art.

Q: We haven’t talked about the Feeling Years specifically. What are your thoughts on teaching kids in that stage of their lives?

Lilavati: I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to that question. At around age six, sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the children are transitioning from the Foundation Years to the Feeling Years. As I mentioned, kindergarten needs to be very playful and physical and hands-on, but in first grade they’re starting to awaken to their social world.

At the start of kindergarten, and earlier, there’s a lot of what I call “parallel play,” where they’re playing together but they’re really just sitting side by side and playing.

But they’re also starting to interact a little more in kindergarten, and you can see how the social-emotional component is starting to come in, and how they’re playing together in a more meaningful way. I spend lots of time thinking about how to get the kids to connect in positive ways, and how to encourage that.

One of the key things we do at LWS to encourage cooperation, kindness, and helpfulness is to notice it and point it out to them. If a child is doing something that expresses a higher feeling, by showing kindness or being helpful, we’ll point it out so it doesn’t go unnoticed, and they’ll learn how those positive attitudes work and how they feel. I might say, “You put away the blocks after you were done! That was so helpful!”

During our summer camp I watched two little boys who wanted to use the drinking fountain. It was a great big concrete thing with a water spout on top, and one of the boys climbed up so he could reach the water, but then he couldn’t push the button to make the water go; and when the other boy pushed the button for him so he could take a drink, I walked up and said, “Wow! You pushed the button so he could get a drink! That was so helpful!” They both smiled real wide, and then the little boy got down and gave the other boy a great big hug and said, “You’re a good friend!” It was so adorable — you could feel the warm fuzzies all around. (laughs)

When they help each other, and you point it out to them, they’ll notice how they’re feeling and learn that it makes them feel happy. Or you can ask them, “How did that feel?” so they can articulate it for themselves.

If they grab a toy and the other child starts crying, they might be surprised. “Why are you crying? All I did was grab the toy!” You can ask them to stop and think about it. “How did that feel? That didn’t feel so good, huh? Well, how can we go back and make it better?”

Just as you have to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, you have to teach them how kindness works – how it feels when you’re kind, and how it feels when you aren’t kind. So there’s a great deal of teaching that really needs to happen, beyond the academics.

Q: Does it create a better learning environment when you’re addressing those issues of feeling that could otherwise become a distraction in the classroom — for example, if they’re arguing, getting angry, or just wanting to act out, and they don’t know how to manage their energy in a positive way?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s exactly why you need a school like this, where everyone feels safe and connected, because it frees their brains so that they can use what we call their “executive skills” in the prefrontal lobe. When children feel safe, connected, and loved, they’re much more free to learn.

Q: Do these behavioral things weave together with what you’re trying to accomplish with the curriculum — in math, science, and language arts?

Lilavati: They do. It’s something I’ve definitely noticed here. We’re always devoting a great deal of attention to helping the kids get back to a place where everyone is feeling positive. If there’s some kind of kerfuffle between the kids, an altercation of some kind, you make sure to address it right away, and you make sure it’s a learning experience for them, not a punitive experience, so that they can see what doesn’t work and how it feels; then you can help them correct it and understand how that feels.

You might say, “Let’s rewind the situation. What could you have said? You wanted the block. Okay, instead of grabbing it, what could you say?” And if you do it every time something comes up, you end up with a safe, connected environment, so that when math comes around the kids feel completely free to concentrate.

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney tutors sixth-grader Vinca.

Q: How does learning take place at Living Wisdom School? In math, for example, what is the instruction like? How is it different from what would happen in a classroom with thirty kids?

Lilavati: In math class, again, there’s constant individualized learning. Also, we make it very experiential, so it’s not just all workbooks and lecturing. You have to make it more than a brain exercise; you have to make it a positive experience that engages them fully.

When I taught first grade, the kids were learning about money and we had them make art that they could sell. We gave the kindergarteners some real money and invited them to come in and buy the items. The first graders had to tell the “customer” how much the item cost, and accept the money and make change. So, while they were learning about money they were also learning math. It was a fun experience and very real for them, and they learned a tremendous amount because it was so completely hands-on. We do lots of those kinds of activities to make learning a real-life experience for them.

Q: Mahita, the former LWS kindergarten teacher, described how the kids were using fourth-grade math concepts in kindergarten.

Lilavati: Yes, because it’s allowed. At LWS they can go as far as they are able and want to, and they don’t have to wait for the other kids.

Q: What are your connections like with the kids?

Lilavati: When I taught Spanish in all the grades, it was a wonderful way to make those connections because I met everyone, and now they all know me.

I was impressed by how open the students were toward me, even at the beginning. They are so open to the people they meet. “Oh, here’s a new person, I wonder what they’re like.” Rather than, “Oh, here’s a new person, better watch out until I know what’s going on with them.” Which is what you’re more likely to find in some other schools.

Paula and Milan.

Q: Is there a different feeling between public school and Living Wisdom School, in terms of not having the state looking over your shoulder and expecting you to meet a set of prescribed standards? The kids obviously need to be achieving at a certain level, but how does it compare with the pressures of teaching a state-mandated curriculum?

Lilavati: We have very high expectations around academics. We look at the Common Core standards, to make sure the kids are keeping up, but the simple fact is that so many of our kids are going far beyond Common Core, because of the individual instruction.

We make assessments, but not with the nervous feeling, “Oh gosh, how are they going to perform?” — because most of them will be going so far beyond the test standards. Our focus is on “How high can they go?” As opposed to “Are they going to meet the standard?”

We’re constantly looking at their highest potential, and finding ways to encourage them to push their limits. How high can they go and still maintain a certain comfort level? Again, rather than “Oh my God, we have all these tests we have to give them.”

Q: If a child is working at the upper level of their comfort zone, how would you work with them?

Lilavati: Again, it’s individual. I’m thinking of a little girl who’s in first grade, but she’s doing third-grade math. She was working with measurements and she was kind of pushing her edges, because she was very interested and she loves math, but she wasn’t comfortable with measurements. She was working on an assignment to measure her classmates to see how tall they were, and make a little graph. And because she wasn’t sure how to use a yardstick or a tape measure, it was stretching her limits. But she really wanted to go there, and because we had two teachers in the class, I had the freedom to spend a whole period explaining tape measures and yardsticks.

Socially, she was fine with going up to the other kids and saying, “Can you come over here so I can measure you?” The kids thought it was great fun, but she was at the edge of her learning when it came to converting inches to feet, and dealing with tools that had metric measurements on one side and inches and feet on the other.

At Living Wisdom School the children are always pushing against their limits, not because we’re pushing them, but because they want to learn, and because it’s calmly rewarding for them when they’re able to go at their own pace. For us as teachers, it’s just a matter of helping them. That’s true for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies — we’re challenging them constantly, but the challenge is always very individual, so they’re eager to learn because we’re helping them go one step farther starting at their own level, and that’s very rewarding.

Q: In other words, is your role to help the kids have success experiences?

Lilavati: Yes — that’s my job! (laughs) Really, that’s what I think a teacher is supposed to do.

In many schools you’re restrained from doing that, if you’re with thirty kids, or you’re teaching in a middle school and seeing ninety to a hundred and twenty kids every day. You do your best, but you can’t possibly give your complete focus to each child in that kind of situation.

Appearances can deceive! These children are not just having fun putting on the annual all-school play. They are deeply engaged with lessons in history, geography, language arts, communication skills, presentation, self-control, concentration, diction, public speaking, acting, singing, memorization, and not infrequently, math and science.

As a teacher here, you have time to get to know each child and make a real connection, and to get a deep understanding of what brings their energy up, what they’re interested in, what their passion is, and what their talents are. And then you can help them build on their talents and inclinations and help them overcome their special challenges.

There was a little girl in first grade who was very much into princesses. She was a fantastic artist, and she made beautiful drawings. But math? Not so much. But I knew that I could say to her, “The princess had six shoes, and she bought four more shoes. How many shoes does she have?” You could bring her interests into the part of the curriculum that was a challenge for her.

The Feeling Years are a very open time for learning, especially about higher values. It’s why we’re very careful when we’re choosing books for them to read — we’re always picking books that are going to be uplifting and will support their positive feelings. The Theater Magic program very powerfully fulfills that need for them, too, because it’s about an inspiring person or a saint whose life story uplifts the children.

In my first year, we produced a play about Paramhansa Yogananda. It was so much fun, and of course the kids are amazing. Every child in the school plays a role, and their maturity really shines. Even the littlest ones are so professional about what they’re doing — they want to know their lines and their cues, and they’re very serious because they want to get it just right. Their enthusiasm comes from deep inside them. It’s not something we have to press on them.

With the kindergarteners, it’s a little different. At that age, it really is more like herding cats, because they’re still focused on learning to deal with their bodies and senses. But with the first graders it’s a bit easier, because they’re entering the Feeling Years, so they can be more focused on their interactions and the inspiration of the play. And by the time they get to middle school they’re completely focused and very receptive to the learning that comes from such a huge, expansive learning experience.

I just want to add that I feel immensely blessed to have found Education for Life and to be able to work at Living Wisdom School. I go to work every day knowing that all of the teachers are not only trying to help the students be their best selves, but that they are bringing their own highest self to their role as teachers, and into every part of their life.

It helps that every teacher, no matter what their background, has a spiritual practice of some kind, where they’re learning to center themselves so that they can teach from a deep, intuitive calmness.

LWS is a safe environment for the teachers, as well as for the children. If a lesson plan isn’t working, or if an encounter with a student needs more attention, we can always find help. We can go to one another and know that we will be thoroughly supported and connected. Just like the kids, we also need to feel safe and loved so that all of our creativity and wisdom can flow into our teaching. We are very fortunate to have this jewel of a school in our area, and I hope that more and more families will find us and recognize what an exceptional place for learning and growth it is.

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