By LWS director Helen Purcell
In Education for Life, our founder writes: “A growing child requires faith almost as much as he requires air to breathe.”
One of our highest priorities at Living Wisdom School is to give our students faith in life, faith in themselves, and faith in their future. We are upbeat, optimistic, and affirmative, and yet we have our feet planted firmly on the ground.
We teach what we call “success attitudes.” We are upbeat, but authentically so. We don’t link our philosophy to the self-esteem movement, which has students repeat lots of affirmations that generally have little connection to reality. Proponents of the self-esteem movement believe that if you tell children how good they are, and repeat it often enough, they’ll gain faith in their goodness and express it. But we feel that it’s an insult to the child’s uniqueness, and that it neglects their needs, which are always unique and individual.
In our school, we’re extremely interested in creating moments when the child can experience a success, whether large or small. We notice when they’re trying hard, and when they’re being mature, and we foster it with encouragement and enthusiasm.
They love to receive that kind of genuine earned attention, because they know that it is real. It isn’t a vapid statement about a goodness that the teacher imagines for them. We’re encouraging the children to build on the real successes that they achieve. They are highly motivated to replicate those success experiences that are so internally rewarding.
True education is a long-term affair
We often talk about “helping children express their best.” But we have to accept that achieving their best isn’t something they will achieve overnight.
It’s a long process, and we don’t chop the curriculum into small bits where we test them and tell them they’ve “passed” or “failed.” Instead, we guide each child through the curriculum at their own speed, with a focus on making it a series of success experiences at every step of the way.
When the children feel that we’re acting in their long-term best interests, they’re able to relax and be themselves, instead of forcing themselves to conform to some image that the teacher is holding out to them. And when they feel relaxed and free to be themselves, they are able to immerse themselves in the moment with creativity and focus. Instead of being nervous and stressed and forced to conform to a mold, they can apply their complete energy and creativity to overcoming challenges and accomplishing satisfying goals, without fear of soul-crushing criticism.
Early lessons in maturity
The author of Education for Life describes maturity as “the ability to relate to realities other than one’s own.” It’s a simple formula that implies a great deal about the best kind of education.
Before we can relate to realities outside our own, we must have a firm sense of who we are. We must be able to stand strong in our own reality and learn to expand and embrace other realities.
This is a basic principle for success in many areas, including schoolwork, relationships, science, sports, and running a business. And learning it at a young age gives us a tremendous advantage.
When we know how to behave with self-control, we’re able to give others the space to be themselves, and to understand them. Self-control helps us avoid getting lost in our own emotions and remain open enough to understand them. It’s a skill that’s rare among adults, and in our school the students start learning it on the day they enter kindergarten.
It’s why we devote great energy to helping each child develop a sense of their self-worth. When children have self-confidence, they will surprise us by what they can achieve.
This is evident than in the speeches the children give at the end of the school year. Each child stands up before an audience of more than two hundred parents, relatives, and students and talks about the quality that the teachers have chosen to celebrate in them.
I wonder how many of us could have walked on stage when we were five years old and spoken to a large audience with poise and confidence.
Learning and self-worth go hand in hand
In her graduation speech last year, eighth grader Mariah Stewart said, “I used to be afraid of everything. I was even afraid to get up in front of the class and give little presentations, and now I’m not afraid of anything or anybody.”
A child’s sense of self-worth is deeply related to their ability to learn. Children who are strong and confident are more free to accept difficult challenges in learning, and they aren’t threatened by the fact that mistakes are a natural and inevitable part of the process.
You cannot divorce a child’s inner life and attitudes from the curriculum.
When the children give their year-end speeches, all of them, without exception, demonstrate a maturity born of inner strength and an expanded heart. It’s evident even in the short speeches of the kindergarteners.
Let me describe how the “Qualities” ceremony works.
A kindergarten teacher gives her student the quality of Friendship. Well in advance of the award ceremony, she talks with the child about what friendship means, and why she has received the quality. The teacher may explain that friendship is about being able to extend our hearts to others.
Once the teacher feels that the child understands her quality, and that she has truly appreciated it in herself, she knows that the child is ready to give her speech with understanding and enthusiasm. After sharing and celebrating this deeply personal value with two hundred people, she will remember it for the rest of her life.
When my daughter was twenty-one, I pulled out her old school projects and Qualities certificates and put them in a scrapbook. When she opened the book and saw her Qualities awards, she was so excited. She said, “Mom, I never forgot this! I remember it so clearly!”
In our school we want each child to be so aware of their strengths that they will always be working enthusiastically at the outer edges of their growth.
LWS builds on what each child can do, instead of filling them with a dread of failure
We don’t ask children to do things they aren’t prepared for. We celebrate what they can do. The qualities we give them at the end of the year reflect the successes they’ve achieved.
For example, a child might spend the entire school year working on two or three important attitudes. We’ve given qualities of Courage, Clear Thinking, Artistic Expression, Perseverance, Independent Thinking, Self-Confidence and Poise in Performance, Humor, Sincerity, Vitality, Luminosity, and Artistic Imagination, to name a few.
The quality a child receives is not chosen by a single teacher. The faculty choose the qualities together, because a special feature of our school is that every teacher gets to know every child.
The child’s teacher will suggest a quality, and another teacher might say, “Oh, but I had this interaction with him, and it makes me wonder if this quality would be good for him, too.”
The Qualities meeting is one of our best faculty get-togethers, because we are focusing on the best in each child, and the progress they’ve made.
Last year, a new student entered our school as a fourth grader. For young children, entering a new school is a major challenge. But he adapted wonderfully, and we decided to honor him with the quality of Courage.
Our commitment to noticing, supporting, encouraging, and celebrating each child’s strengths and helping them develop positive personal faith in themselves translates as academic success in many powerful ways. (You can watch videos of the Qualities ceremony on the LWS website: www.livingwisdomschool.org.)
Every child can succeed
When I taught in a big public high school, I was assigned to teach two senior language arts classes. The first class was advanced placement, and the second was the lowest-level English class.
I walked into the low-level English class, and one of the girls let out a big sigh and exclaimed, “Ugh – I’m gonna flunk again!”
I said, “No! You are not! This is senior year, and we’re going to do something different.”
The kids had been subjected to four years of relentless affirmation that they were stupid, and I decided it was time to challenge their self-image.
I said, “I’m teaching AP English down the hall, and I’m going to teach you the same curriculum.”
They were terrified!
“No! We can’t do it!”
I said, “Yes, you can!”
And we did. We read Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. They wrote a modern prologue to the Canterbury Tales – in verse! And they had fun.
Instead of framing every assignment as pass-fail or tagging them with a judgmental grade, we took one small step at a time, while supporting each other along the way.
I said, “You can re-write your essays as many times as it takes, until you and I are both happy.” And they were amazed. It was a novel idea that they could work on something until they liked it and were satisfied and felt successful.
At the end of the semester, I gave them individual qualities that were beautifully inscribed on elaborate certificates, just as we do at Living Wisdom School. And, as I mentioned earlier, I vividly remember one girl’s reaction. She said, “This can’t be true. You’re giving us these qualities, and they’re all positive!”
It couldn’t be true, because the old system was based on noticing what was wrong, and what a person couldn’t do, and judging them by how far they were falling short.
And just think what that would mean to you as a young person. If you define people in terms of what they can’t do, it’s bound to become their self-image. And when you believe you can’t do something, you will never try.
In middle school at LWS, we challenge the old paradigm the same way I did with those high schoolers in Oregon. I’ll step aside now, and let Gary, our middle school teacher, tell how he and the math aides react when a student gets something wrong on a test.
At LWS, learning continues after the test
Gary: We grade the test and give them their scores, then Eric and I will sit with them and go through every single problem they got wrong. We’ll make sure they understand the concepts and how to do the math. We work with them individually on every single concept until they get it right.
We set up the tests so that sixty percent of the questions are a review of concepts that they’ve already learned and been tested on. So they’re continually reviewing concepts, and when they graduate they’re really, really solid in math, because they haven’t skipped along the surface, just taking tests for a grade.
We see the results when they graduate and enter high school. For example, Mariah Stewart “tested out” on the high school math entrance exam.
Helen: What does that mean, “testing out”?
Gary: The high schools recognize that an A grade in one elementary school isn’t the same as an A in another, so they test the entering students to find out what level of math they’ve actually achieved. The high schools ask for recommendations from Eric and me, but the students still have to take the placement test.
Mariah tested out of Algebra I. She didn’t finish the geometry book at LWS, but the high school entrance exam proctor asked if she would like to take the geometry test, and she said, “Sure.” She tested out of geometry, and she was placed in Algebra II and Trig as a high school freshman.
Now, because Mariah and her mom are very conscientious, she’s working on geometry over the summer so she’ll be solid when school starts in the fall.
In public school, there’s a tendency for students to want to “just get through the course.” But our four middle school math teachers – Richard, Eric, Leslie, and I – stress content, understanding, and mastery. It’s why Percy finished the geometry book in eighth grade and tested out of geometry as a high school freshman.
Kieran had an entrance appointment at Mid-Peninsula High School, a highly regarded private school in Menlo Park. The interviewer spent two-and-a-half hours talking with him one-on-one, and after the interview she told Percy’s father, “He’s really solid in math.” The children get a solid education here, and they really know the content.
We’re fortunate to be able to interface with the top high schools while we’re helping our students prepare for the transition. This fall, I’ll give a class for the middle schoolers where I’ll introduce them to the high school entry process, so they’ll be aware of the entrance requirements at each school and how to submit their applications and transcripts.