Head & Heart Ch. 8: Academics at Living Wisdom School

A conversation with LWS director Helen Purcell

Helen talks with parents about how we approach academics at Living Wisdom School.

 

Helen: Parents often ask us about “academic rigor” at Living Wisdom School. And I have to admit that when I hear those words, I think of “rigor mortis.”

Public and private schools generally try to measure academic rigor with standardized tests. And when colleges and universities evaluate applicants, they give high value to the child’s grade point average and how many advanced placement (AP) classes the student has taken in high school. Parents also judge a school’s academic rigor by the caliber of the high schools that have accepted its graduates.

A better approach to “rigor”

Parents’ concern with rigor connects to the idea that everything a school does should support the next step in the child’s education. Thus, in elementary school the curriculum should be planned so that child will be accepted by a prestigious high school, and high schools are expected to prepare students for acceptance by top-tier universities.

Science teacher Doug Andrews has the kids excited about biology.

Science teacher Doug Andrews has the kids excited about biology.

At Living Wisdom School, we take a very different approach.

First, we don’t give letter grades, which immediately knocks us out of the discussion of grade-point averages. Yet our graduates are accepted by the Bay Area’s finest high schools, where they do very well. They succeed in college, and they graduate and become successful adults.

Children’s confidence in their ability to overcome academic challenges grows by experiencing success in their daily classroom work. Our approach at LWS is far more helpful to a student’s academic success in math, science, and language arts than “studying to the test,” which promotes fact-cramming at the expense of gaining a deep, thorough understanding of concepts and problem-solving approaches, while taking into account the children’s learning styles and abilities.

We resist the notions of academic rigor that most other schools subscribe to – in fact, we do not want those concepts to enter into our thinking, because they are not focused on the learning process, and on developing the students’ ability to learn, and they can actually do great harm to the learning process.

Let’s imagine that you’re an elementary school student, and your teacher announces that you’ll have to take a test. You study for the test, and you focus on second-guessing the teacher so that you’ll do well. Your teacher has told you the coursework that you’ll be tested on, so you focus your efforts on learning those concepts. And that’s where the learning stops. It’s about learning just enough to pass the test, but not about becoming truly intelligent in the field of study.

Standardized tests or a “learning conversation” – which gets better results?

We give tests on a regular basis, and we continually measure our students’ academic progress. But the motivation for learning that our teachers work hard to cultivate in the students is intrinsic. What this means is that we want our students to learn to approach their studies with an attitude that continually asks: “What’s exciting about this?” “What’s wonderful about this?” “How is this useful?” “How does it connect with something else we know? How great will I feel when I master this subject and truly understand it?”

Photo: The LWS year-end ceremony. A fourth-grader receives his “quality,” honoring a personal strength such as courage, creativity, humor, etc.,  in which he has made progress during the school year.

Photo: The LWS year-end ceremony. A fourth-grader receives his “quality,” honoring a personal strength such as courage, creativity, humor, etc., in which he has made progress during the school year.

In our classrooms, there’s a rich conversation about learning, and I have to say that it’s rare in other schools.

I’ve been a teacher for more than forty years. I’ve taught in public schools, and at every level from second grade to graduate school. Over the years, I’ve become acutely aware of what’s happening in education. I’ve kept up with the latest trends, and I have many friends and relatives who teach in public schools and share their experiences with me.

The popularity of standardized testing, and the idea that “hard numbers” are the best way to measure learning have brought about an unfortunate tightness and rigidity in the curriculum. My teacher friends tell me, “My principal wants us to be on this page in the history book on this day.” That’s how stringent the state-mandated public school curriculum has become. And the teachers tell me that they are extremely limited and hamstrung in their ability give children an in-depth education in math, science, and the humanities.

Gary McSweeney (LWS middle school teacher): I read about a teacher in Palo Alto recently who quit her job after thirty-plus years in the public school system because she was no longer allowed to teach her kindergarten children about butterflies, and because she was no longer permitted to let them play.

The school authorities were imposing whiteboards and technology on the kindergartners, and for a while she tried to work within the system. But then she decided that she could not in good conscience continue to teach in that system, because she felt it was severely short-changing the students.

When she quit, several parents of students in her classes came to talk with us. They were deeply upset that Palo Alto had lost this wonderful teacher because the system insisted on imposing its will on every moment of her time in the classroom. Here was a fine teacher who quit because she was forced to meet the rigid state testing standards, in a school culture that had decided to stop letting the kindergarteners be children.

Helen: Our school is infused with a philosophy that allows spontaneity and encourages it as a key part of learning. It allows children to go much deeper into a subject, and as a result they learn more, retain more, and they learn how to learn, with the indispensable benefits of enthusiasm and delight.

When testing and learning collide

Photo: Constant, daily, personal help from the teachers and other students helps the children at Living Wisdom School relax, laugh, and find the inspiration in a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes concepts instead of isolated facts.

Photo: Constant, daily, personal help from the teachers and other students helps the children at Living Wisdom School relax, laugh, and find the inspiration in a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes concepts instead of isolated facts.

Classroom teachers have described the California public school curriculum standards as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

At Living Wisdom School, we aren’t interested in forcing kids to plow through a long textbook simply to ensure that when they take a test at the end of the semester, they’ll score seventy percent or higher.

We want our kids to be involved in the wonder and joy of learning. We want kids who are eager to come to school. We want them to be able to go home and have an intelligent conversation with their parents about what’s happening at school and what they’re learning, where they’ll have something genuine and enthusiastic to share.

If a child resists talking about school at the end of the day, we want the parents to be able to look at a portfolio of the child’s work and realize how deeply engaged they are in something wonderful and valuable, something that will support them at every step of their personal journey.

Later, I’ll say more about our system of portfolio assessment, because it’s an important alternative to standardized testing, and it’s much more engaging and productive of genuine learning than simply taking a test, getting a grade, and forgetting what you’ve memorized.

We’re interested in a curriculum that gives the child a love of learning and develops their ability to learn. We offer a curriculum that is rich and relevant because it makes learning alive and fun.

To make such a curriculum work, the teacher needs to be fresh. You cannot be glued to a mandated lesson plan that you’ve taught for five years.

A parent told me about a school where they have a full-time advisor whose sole purpose is to develop the curriculum. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t prevent the classroom teachers from fluidly adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the students sitting in front of them.

Can students be standardized?

Is it possible to standardize a group of people and get the best out of them?

As I look at you, I see that you are all very different and unique. And when I speak to you, I see that you are filtering my thoughts in unique ways.

Why is this? Because your personality, circumstances, character, and concerns are completely individual. And when I look at a group of children, I see a group of unique individuals with unique needs.

I never come into a class without a lesson plan, but I know that I can never assume that I’ll be able to stick rigidly to my plan. After forty years of teaching, I wouldn’t dream of “winging it,” because I always have a plan. But I’m free to wing it in this learning environment – to go slightly off-topic if it’s what will help the children.

Photo: Learning that is dry and boring bears little fruit. True academic accomplishment is born of enthusiasm arising from intense, focused concentration on concepts. Helen teaches a language arts class at LWS.

Photo: Learning that is dry and boring bears little fruit. True academic accomplishment is born of enthusiasm arising from intense, focused concentration on concepts. Helen teaches a language arts class at LWS.

As a teacher, you spend a great deal of time thinking about your lesson plan. You prepare it and get excited about it. But the moment you come face to face with the students, you have to be able to say “Aha, these students are itching to look at this side of the subject today, and it’s a very valid way to get into the lesson and help them learn.” So you start adjusting the plan.

If a child asks a thoughtful question, the teacher must be free to deviate from the curriculum and follow the energy.  You talk straightforwardly with the students and make a connection with the part of the curriculum that’s bringing out their curiosity and enthusiasm. Then another student chimes in, and all of a sudden you have an incredibly valuable dialogue with depth and breadth, always guided by the teacher, but where the teacher isn’t standing there with one eye on the clock and the other on the book.

 

The curriculum straitjacket

A prescribed curriculum puts the teacher in a straitjacket. That approach doesn’t work nearly as well as when the teacher has the freedom to tune in to the individual student and utilize the opportunities that occur in the moment, and to mine those moments for all they’re worth.

True learning doesn’t happen by memorizing the nuts-and-bolts of the curriculum. It happens when you ask big questions about the subject and invite the children to relate to them in their own authentic way.

Photo: Academics start early at LWS. Learning is a long-term project, with the students challenged to move forward at their own pace. The long view allows the teachers to gradually turn weaknesses into strengths.

Photo: Academics start early at LWS. Learning is a long-term project, with the students challenged to move forward at their own pace. The long view allows the teachers to gradually turn weaknesses into strengths.

Parents sometimes ask me, “Helen, how can you teach a language arts class with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders?”

They imagine it must be difficult, but it’s really a piece of cake. It doesn’t bother me in the least that the sixth graders don’t know as much as the seventh or eighth graders, and it doesn’t bother me if a sixth grader knows more than the eighth graders. And the reason is that we don’t look at our students as hierarchical groups sorted by age. We look at them as groups of individuals.

When you standardize the curriculum, you risk losing sight of the child’s individuality, including their unique motivation, enthusiasm, and abilities. They respond joyfully to the curriculum when they feel seen, heard, cared for, and supported, each in their own way.

A child is a person first, a student second

I know it’s a cliché to say that every child has unique needs. But it isn’t a cliché when it comes to finding out the best way to teach each child.

I have a student in language arts who slouches and tries to hide behind the person in front of him. Now, it’s my job to notice that – not to embarrass him, but to find the moments when a flicker crosses his face that tells me he has something to say. He probably won’t say it unless I ask him a question and start a conversation.

Another student never volunteers, but she’s always thinking, and I know she’s the one who’ll give a deep answer if I take the time to notice her – “Would you mind telling us what you think?”

There’s no pat formula for this kind of learning conversation – you can’t standardize it, but it is very rich and effective.

How LWS creates great teachers

Photo: Erica helps a student learn a new word. Even in second grade, the emphasis is not “pass or fail” but “succeed in small ways every day, and you’ll succeed in big ways often.”

Photo: Erica helps a student learn a new word. Even in second grade, the emphasis is not “pass or fail” but “succeed in small ways every day, and you’ll succeed in big ways often.”

Parent: Can you tell us how you coach other teachers?

Helen: In a school such as ours, with such a unique classroom philosophy, it’s essential that the teacher be in tune with what we’re doing.

We call our philosophy Education for Life, and it informs how we relate to every student, and how we adjust the curriculum for each child.

In a nutshell, we choose our faculty by evaluating how deeply the teacher is in tune with our approach. (See Chapter 15, “How Living Wisdom School Trains Teachers.”)

 

Our school’s philosophy is built on happiness and success

The core of our philosophy is that we help children understand how to be successful and happy, as opposed to a curriculum that just drills them endlessly and can risk setting them up for learning difficulties, conflict, burnout, and failure.

I’ve interviewed prospective teachers who had impressive resumes and held state credentials and had many years of experience in other systems, but who could not make the leap to what we’re doing.

 In contrast, there are people who may not have an advanced degree or decades of experience, but who instinctively “get” what Education for Life is about.

An excellent example is Craig Kellogg, who started teaching fourth grade several years ago.

Craig didn’t have a lot of classroom teaching experience, so he started out as a full-time intern for a year, mentored by a very experienced teacher. Equally important, we all realized that he had a deep attunement with our philosophy. It was clear in the way he was able to form bonds with the students and understand their needs and guide them accordingly. He has become a wonderful full-time fourth-grade teacher.

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