A Conversation with Lilavati Aguilar, 2nd Grade Teacher and Early Education Advisor

Q: You taught kindergarten for five years at Living Wisdom School. Now you’re teaching second grade, and you have many of the same children in your class that you taught in kindergarten. What qualities do you see in them that they’ve brought over from kindergarten, and that have helped them personally and in their school work?

Lilavati: It’s been fun to see how they’ve matured, and how they’ve grown in the behaviors and attitudes we teach all the kids as part of our Education for Life approach.

At Living Wisdom we start giving the children important life skills from the get-go. To give you an example, I taught the kindergarteners basic meditation practices that helped them be calm and focused. And now, in second grade, I’m impressed by how far they’ve come. Of course, it isn’t like we’re meditating for half an hour, but we’ll sit for five minutes, and maybe by the end of the year we’ll meditate for 10 minutes occasionally, and that’s doing very well at their age.

But you asked about the skills that help them do well in school, and the ability to be calm, focused, and cheerful is definitely an important one.

I find that they are able to bring the busy energy of the classroom into a calm, open, sensitive space by practicing the simple meditation tools we give them – I  can feel the energy in the room rise to a more calm, receptive, focused level.

When a child first comes to the school, there’s a brief transition, but they quickly pick up on the quality of the energy here, and the focused time we spend doing our breathing exercises helps them get acclimated.

The middle schoolers do a set of energization exercises for gaining control of the energy in the body as an aid for learning to be calm, focused, and energized at will. Last year, the thought occurred to me that the second graders have such calm energy, and maybe they would benefit from the exercises. So, I began teaching them halfway through the year. This year I introduced them at the start, and it’s been inspiring to see what the kids can do. In kindergarten, they learned about will power, and how they can be aware of their energy. These are important life skills, because they help us be energetic, self-controlled, calm, and centered, but open to the ideas and realities of others.

Our teachers talk often about the energy in the classroom, and the children understand what we mean. The students in my class are seven and eight, and if we aren’t careful, their energy can go all over. But we’ll do some energization, and it’s surprising how quickly their energy and attention gets focused, present, happy, and calm.

We start the day with these practices, just before math, and I find that their energy and attention carries over very directly into academics, and how they’re able to work with good energy, enthusiasm, and concentration. When they run into a difficult math problem, they know how to get very concentrated and work through it. A child will say, “I don’t know how to do this one – it’s too hard.” And I’ll say, “Okay, great, I’m glad it’s hard for you, because now you get to practice your will power. Remember how you focus your attention and use your will power when you energize? Now you can use it and see if you can work on the math problem.”

They know what we’re talking about, because it’s something they’ve experienced with their body and breath, so it’s real to them, and they know how helpful it is.

These are things we teach in the early grades as a foundation for learning to be successful in school and in their interactions with people, including their friends and teachers.

As they start the school day, these practices help them be happy and engaged, and they look forward to the breathing, meditation, and energization.

Q: What kind of meditation do you teach them?

Lilavati: We keep it simple. We work with the breath. That’s another big concept, learning to work with your breathing to calm yourself and get more focused, happy energy.

I tell them to take a big breath and exhale slowly and relax. Big breath – relax. I’ll say, “Now just let your breath flow normally and naturally and notice when your breath goes in and out.” So we take big breaths at the start, and then we notice our breathing.

We have to remind them not to control the breath. It helps them to touch two fingers together as the breath comes in.

After watching the breath for a while, I’ll ask them to close their eyes and listen and report what they hear. They’ll hear birds, traffic, and so on, and because they’re sharing aloud, they pay close attention.

After a few days of this, we’ll bring our attention closer to our bodies. I’ll say, “Can you hear your breathing? Can you hear your heart beating?” It isn’t easy to hear your heartbeat, but they’ll get very, very focused, and sometimes they’ll hear their heartbeat, or other body sounds. They might say, “I think I hear blood flowing,” because they know a little bit about the body from science class.

Next, we’ll put a hand on our heart, and I’ll say, “If you can’t hear your heart, can you feel it?” There’s something about concentrating on the physical body that captures their attention, because it’s a close experience, and we do lots of teaching by giving them their own direct experiences.

Q: Do you talk about the feelings of the heart?

Lilavati: That’s the next level. After a day or two of feeling the heartbeat, we’ll keep a hand on the heart, and I’ll say, “Now think of a time when you felt really safe and loved. Maybe you were hugging your mom or your dad. Maybe you were hugging your cat. Can you sit there and just feel love?”

We’ll picture the feeling, and we’ll keep the feeling of love and expand it. I’ll say, “See if you can have that feeling of love as it goes all around the classroom. See if you can make it go bigger and go all around the school, all the way to your mom and dad, wherever they are, and maybe all the way around the planet.”

We’ll do these heart work exercises, and maybe I’ll say, “Remember a time when you felt lots of happiness, or when you felt joy. Where were you? Try to picture it clearly.” And then we’ll fill the classroom with joy, and the school, and so forth.

So, we’re expanding and extending from something that they’ve experienced and are familiar with, and it’s always based on an experience, and not just talking abstractly about these things.

Q: Some years ago, when I observed in your kindergarten classroom, I noticed a feeling of harmony and an amazing focus that struck me as quite a miracle, at that age.

Lilavati: They are very engaged, even at age four to six. We have visitors coming through the school, because families will visit, or there will be researchers who are interested in the school and want to observe. So, the children are used to having people come in and out, and they might look up and notice, okay, there’s a visitor, but right away they’ll return to what they’re doing.

Q: A former kindergarten teacher here said that she spent the first three months helping the children learn how to behave in the classroom – how to be aware of the other kids, what was proper behavior, how to say certain things, how to listen, and how to treat people. For example, how to ask for things, because you don’t just grab, but you ask for it, and here are the words you can use to ask for what you want.

She said that after the first three months, which required a lot of her energy and attention, it was much easier, because they knew. And what they learned is valuable at any age because we have to be aware— “Oh, here’s how I can say this,” and respect the other person’s realities. We’re making those decisions all the time in a civilized society, and we’re evaluating what we can say to another person, and how to restrain ourselves to give that person space to talk. And it sounds like Civilization 101 starts in kindergarten at Living Wisdom School.

Lilavati: Exactly so, because yes, you do need to teach them these things. We also talk about “using your big voice,” so that you can be an advocate for yourself when you have a need.

You have to be able to stand up for yourself, but at the same time you need to be aware of the other person and their needs. It can take a lifetime to perfect these skills, but it starts in kindergarten, and we give them the words to be able to move around in the world together with other people.

If a child comes up and says, “Lilavati, they took my toy!” we don’t solve the problem for them, but we give them the skills to problem-solve it on their own.

The first question I’ll ask is, “So how did you like it?” Did you like it? “No.” And the way they respond tells you a lot. If they’re quiet and withdrawn and it’s “no,” you might have to help them get their energy bigger before they go and try to problem-solve. But if they’re ready to go over and clobber the other person, you’ll need to help them calm down with some deep breathing, and they’ll learn to take a big breath before they go over and talk about it.

Q: It sounds like you’re creating a happy atmosphere for academics, too. Meditation gives you focus, energization gives you energy, and learning right behavior, and learning at their own pace gives them happiness. You’re giving them skills to find their way around in the world, and I’m guessing that it helps when they’re learning new things.

Partner reading (discussed at end of the conversation). Eighth-grader Tima Steuck and transitional kindergartner Anika Rao share an exciting story. Click the image for larger view.

Lilavati: Yes, it’s true, absolutely. Absorption and focus and paying attention and being enthusiastic, and maybe having little victories every day. Those all start in kindergarten. And, again, I would take it back to how we are always talking about energy. We’re always watching to see, first, what their energy is like. Are they rambunctious and over the top and unable to focus? Then you’ll need to do some calming things like breathing and meditation. Or are they tired and checked-out and uninterested? Then you’ll need to help them lift their energy, maybe by doing the “awake and ready” exercise.

As a teacher, you constantly have to be aware and carefully notice what’s going on with them.

At Living Wisdom, the bonds between the children and the teachers are unusually close, because they are based, first, on the small class size, but also, primarily on the teachers’ deep awareness that they have to cultivate a bond with each child so that they can get to know them at a deep level and adjust the curriculum and guidance to the exact needs of the child on a daily basis.

By getting to know the child at a deep level, we are very clearly aware that one child will need to breathe and get calm and have quiet time, where another child might need the opposite.

When you have those connections, the students are much more open to receive what you’re asking or telling them. If they feel seen and understood and you ask them to stop doing something, they’ll listen. But if there is no bond, and there’s a feeling that the teacher is just saying what she wants, then there’s a feeling that it doesn’t have anything to do with them and their needs, and why should I want it, too?

So, it’s extremely important, and it’s amazing how the kids will develop deep bonds with all of their teachers over the years, and with the whole school, so that they feel safe and able to calm down and take in information because they’re feeling understood.

So, yes, having those connections with the teachers and the other students helps their success in academics big-time. To give you an example, we hear about schools where the students are afraid to speak up in class or talk to their teacher about a problem they’re having in their life, because the classes are large and the focus is on mass education, and there’s no time or energy to individualize the curriculum.

Imagine the effect it would have on whether you would want to study or express your enthusiasm, if you were in an atmosphere where there was much less warmth and love, and more fear. It’s an amazing gift for children to be in this environment and this atmosphere where they feel safe, connected, and understood.

When I worked in public schools, I saw how many kids got lost, and how they had to push for their needs, and how they could get selfish as a result. Whereas at Living Wisdom, it’s so open and expansive that the kids are willing to help each other, because we are a close family, in truth. When there are misunderstandings, it’s unique here in how we’re able to work with them because of those bonds.

There were two little boys in my class who were very good friends, but one of them made a bad decision one day and said some mean words to his friend. We immediately stopped and talked about it, and I asked the little boy who’d gone over the top with his language, “Well, how do you think so-and-so felt when you said that?”

From having worked with his friends this way over the years, and being used to the vocabulary, he was able to think about it and say from the heart, “I think I hurt him. I think that was hurtful.”

When I asked him what he would say, he turned to his friend and said, “I’m so sorry.” And it wasn’t the halfhearted kind of “I’m sorry” where the teacher is making you say it. It was where they could both feel that it was genuine.

For lots of kids today, their lives can be very compartmentalized, and even fractured. But here it’s a whole-person kind of experience for them.

Q: I have to say that the atmosphere in the school feels like there’s a lot of friendship going around.

Lilavati: Some days they’ll get up on the wrong side of the bed, but when they come in you can see them relax because they know how to ask for help, and they can say, “I’m having a terrible morning,” and know that they’ll get help, and sometimes it will be from the teachers, but sometimes it’s from the other students who are understanding and kind.

Q: I saw it happen in third grade when a little girl was having problems and Kshama immediately noticed and started talking to her, and several kids came over, and a little girl made faces at her friend to make her smile.

Lilavati: Yes, exactly, and then each of them will come in with their own interests and passions, and they are validated, because our curriculum is flexible enough that if we see a passion for outer space or dinosaurs, we can support it and adjust the curriculum to include it. It goes back to knowing the students and having a bond, so that we can see how to help them go a little farther with what’s interesting to them.

We learn about their strengths early in their time here, and we figure out what makes them happy and how we can adjust the curriculum to give them what they need to know, in a context that will work for them. “Wow, I love dinosaurs.” They’ll share their love for dinosaurs with the class, and we’ll all learn. We feel it’s very important for each child to be able to express their special enthusiasms, because it carries over into their academic subjects and makes them happy learners and happy people.

Of course, there will be a feeling of, “Okay, this stuff I find incredibly interesting, and this stuff I don’t like so much, but I can use my will power to get through it.”

Q: Is math a big one, since people tend to be either into math or not.

Lilavati: They usually like math!

Q: Really? Have you figured out a way to work with children who aren’t math-talented? In one of the books about Living Wisdom School, Happiness & Success at School, there’s a chapter about a famous math educator at Stanford who found that math instruction needs to be highly individualized so that those who aren’t advanced can take small steps and be enthusiastic about their daily victories, so that they begin to enjoy math.

Lilavati: That’s our approach. We are always watching to see where they are individually, and we adjust the curriculum for them accordingly. There was a little girl who would just sit and draw pictures during math class, and now she’s in second grade and very proud of how well she’s doing in math, and she’s getting ahead of everyone else. It took time, but because we were able to support her and help her work at her own level, she was able to figure it out.

Q: Do you do partner walks and partner reading, where the young children are partnered with the older students?

Lilavati: Now that COVID is winding down, we’re doing partner reading again, because the kids missed it so much. The little kids and big kids both love having partners. If you have a partner for reading and you see your partner at recess, you know them as friends, so the big kids watch out for the little ones.

Our littlest girl this year, just a tiny slip of a thing, as cute as can be, was partnered with our tallest boy, and I have a picture of them, this long, lanky boy and this tiny girl, and they’re poring over a book together.


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