By George Beinhorn, Palo Alto Living Wisdom School web content manager
In the late 1980s, I wrote a short article about an experiment by the elementary school children at the original Living Wisdom School near Nevada City, California.
Here is the complete thirty-year-old article. I present it with two thoughts in mind: as an example of how the LWS teachers encourage children’s expansive feelings, and as a reminder that love is the ultimate key to helping children thrive, both personally and at school.
The Love Plant
The primary school children of Living Wisdom School, age five through eight, have scientifically investigated the power of love.
In an experiment suggested to them by their teacher, Peter Kabir MacDow, the children planted five seeds in each of four pots.
In one pot, the “Dark Plant” received only water and was kept in a closet with no exposure to sunlight.
In a second pot, the “Too Bad Plant” received sunlight and water, but no extra soil nutrients or other attention.
A third, the “Everything But Love Plant,” got sunlight, water, and soil nutrients—the normal care a good gardener would give it.
The Love Plant got the same care as the Everything But Plant, plus the added ingredient of love.
It’s 9:30 in the morning. The children are working quietly at their desks. Peter asks them to bring the four plants to an open area on the rug. The children respond eagerly, smiling as they gather in a circle. It’s obvious that this is something they’ve been looking forward to.
First the plants are watered, then the Dark Plant is returned to the closet, and the Too Bad Plant is taken back to the window sill. The Everything But Love Plant is fussed over amid a discussion of the nutrients a plant needs to grow.
Peter: We’re going to focus our attention on the Love Plant now. This is the one we want to give our attention to. I’d like someone to explain what this experiment is all about—someone who’s been centered this morning. Tara, would you explain what the experiment is?
Tara: It’s to watch the plants grow and see what they do when you put them in different places, like put them in the sun, and put them in different kinds of soil, and put them in the dark.
Peter: None of us can really grow without all those things—the water and the sun and the air and the good soil—and something special is there, too.
(Several children begin talking at once.)
Peter: Let’s sit up, please. Sit up nice and straight. Now look at the plants. Look at them closely. You can see how well they’ve done. We’ve started these plants from seeds, and they’ve depended on us to take care of them and help them grow. Now, the plants that we gave a little bit to, they grew a little bit. The plants that we’ve given a lot to, they’ve grown a lot, they’ve grown a lot more than the rest of them. What we give is what has helped this plant; and we’ve been giving our love, which is one of the most important things that it could have. So we want to give it some more right now.
We can start by sitting up. Close your eyes. Inside of your mind, try to see the plant. Do this: Try to see the plant inside—it’s green, and it’s leafy.
As we sing, we’re going to try to feel that it’s pulling the plant up, making it great and big. All the leaves are spreading out and branching out and getting big. The blossoms are starting to come out on the plant, and the flowers.
(The children sing to the plant while projecting loving feelings toward it.)
The flowers this plant has are its gift to us. We give it love, and it gives us its beauty. Ready? Have the plant in your mind. As we sing, we can feel that we’re bringing it up. We can even bring our hands over it. Here we go, just bringing our energy up as we sing.
(The children sing again, then Peter leads them in a prayer. The quality in their voices is startling—it’s as if they are praying with one voice—vibrant, rich, enthusiastic. No voice wanders or lags; the children’s full attention is on what they’re doing.)
Peter (followed responsively by the children): Bless this plant. Fill it with Your love. Help it to grow strong. And beautiful.
The Love-Plant Model for School Success
In education, the worst mistakes generally begin with a tiny brain hiccup. Instead of nourishing the Love Plant in children’s hearts, we ignore its needs—we put it in the dark, in a feverish obsession with test scores and grades. We burn its joyful fronds with a deadly-boring standardized curriculum. Or we ignore the quiet instinct of our hearts that is telling us what the individual children in the class need in order to thrive.
There’s a current that runs through the Living Wisdom Schools. It’s a constant theme, that the right thing, in school and life, is to engage with love, and never limit the classroom instruction to force-feeding these young plants with barren ideas. The inborn excitement of math or science or history or English, beautifully taught by teachers who are free to be creative and independent and strong, infects the kids with a love and enthusiasm for learning that empowers them to blossom.
Our students do extremely well when they enter the San Francisco Bay Area’s most academically challenging public and private high schools. Yet parents who inquire about our school are often skeptical.
They worry that their kids will fall behind academically, because we spend so much time cultivating their hearts.
Or they raise reasonable objections.
Surely we’re successful because our students come from smart, successful families. Surely we accept only the top students. Surely our kids do well because of our fabulous nine-to-one student-teacher ratio. Surely our system, which spends so much time on “soft skills,” won’t help the kids compete when they enter the harsh, dog-eat-dog world of high school.
It’s true that many of our kids have highly educated parents. It’s true that our student-teacher ratio is as low as six to one in middle-school math, when the middle school teacher and two adult math aides are present in the classroom. But the truth is, we also accept students who are academically average.
Our successes are not due to those external factors; they are the natural outcome of an approach to working with children that takes account of each child’s hopes and dreams.
The high-pressure K-8 academic prep schools in the area don’t evoke our envy. To put it kindly, their results are no better than ours, because our philosophy is rooted in the Love Plant approach. A saying at our school is “Kids who are taught with love, love to learn.”
Our philosophy is based on the idea that life has meaning, that life’s meaning is reflected in school, and that the principles that work in life—at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, on sports teams, in the military, and at Google and other top corporations—are the same principles that help children thrive from kindergarten through college and beyond. Following these principles gives children two things that all people have craved since the dawn of time: continually increasing happiness, and regular, ongoing experiences of success.
If there’s a single core truth that we’ve learned in the forty-five-year history of the Living Wisdom Schools, it’s that, at school and in life, expansive attitudes of love, kindness, compassion, and joy improve performance, while negative, contractive attitudes and feelings destroy happiness and impede success.
In school, in sports, and in the Navy, respect for the uniqueness of the individual opens portals to breathtaking success.
Nobody believes Bill Aris.
People ask Bill, over and over, how his Fayetteville-Manlius High School (NY) girls’ cross country teams have managed to win the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) an amazing ten times. (NXN, where the nation’s forty best teams compete, is the de facto national high school cross country championship.)
Bill graciously shares his methods. He patiently explains how he trains his runners. And the other coaches suspect he’s signifyin’, as they say in the Ozark mountains.
Surely he’s pulling their legs. At the very least, he’s got to be holding something back.
Coaches fall off their chairs when Bill explains that he spends relatively little time designing his runners’ workouts.
“I spend 80 percent of my time on psychological and emotional considerations of each kid,” Aris says. “I put 20 percent of my time into designing the training. I spend most of my time thinking about and trying to get to the heart and soul of each kid, to both inspire them and to understand them. I’m always trying to figure out what keys unlock what doors to get them to maximize their potential.”
Other coaches believe there’s no way Aris can produce national champions, year after year, without huge numbers of kids trying out for the team, and without recruiting.
In fact, Fayetteville-Manlius High School has 1,500-2,000 students, yet just 25 runners turn out each fall for cross country. And Aris doesn’t need to recruit, because his methods turn talented kids into champions.
Aris’s boys’ teams won NXN in 2014 and 2017. They’ve placed second several times, plus a third and fourth. To put this in perspective, it’s a tremendous achievement just to be among the forty teams invited to race at NXN. Consistently scoring in the top five puts the F-M boys in the absolute stratosphere of high school cross country.
At the library recently, I picked up a wonderful book. At first glance, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy would seem to have little to do with training high school runners. Yet Bill Aris and former U.S. Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff have a lot in common. They’re both renegade thinkers, in professions where the safest path to career advancement is to keep one’s head down and do things the way they’ve always been done.
Abrashoff describes what happened when the Navy gave him command of a deeply troubled ship with bottom-scraping efficiency ratings.
In the Navy, officers are expected to either get ahead or get out. If they aren’t being regularly promoted, they risk being seen as damaged goods—losers—and shunted off to posts where they can’t harm other officers’ careers.
It’s a system that breeds a paranoid management style, where the highest priority is to avoid looking bad. It encourages officers to micromanage their subordinates, to get results that will look good on their resumes.
Unfortunately, it’s an approach that ultimately produces mediocre results and has a terrible effect on a ship’s morale. When Abrashoff took over Benfold, most of the crew members told him they couldn’t wait to leave the ship and get out of the Navy.
What Abrashoff did was amazing. As I read the book, I laughed, smiled, and occasionally wiped a tear. Abrashoff decided to apply the lessons he had learned during a two-year stint as an aide to Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He would put the crew’s welfare first—just as Bill Aris does with his runners.
Abrashoff spoke personally with every one of Benfold’s 310 crew members, asking them about their backgrounds, their life goals, what they hoped to get out of their time in the Navy, and what they felt was wrong with the Navy’s way of doing things.
Above all, he invited their suggestions for improving procedures in their own departments. And he implemented them, even if it meant bending the Navy’s rules.
Within six months, Benfold was winning at-sea exercises against ships with much stronger ratings.
How did Abrashoff turn Benfold around? By adopting a simple guiding principle.
“I decided that on just about everything I did, my standard should be simply whether or not it felt right. You can never go wrong if you do ‘the right thing.’ ….
“If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, it’s almost surely the right thing—and you will be on the right track.
“If that doesn’t sound very profound or sophisticated, in the Navy, in business, and in life, it really is as simple as that.”
Let’s add: “In sports training, and in the classroom.”
We know when we’re doing the right thing in sports, and when we’re truly reaching the children in the classroom and helping them improve at their level—because it feels right. And we know, just as clearly, when we’re screwing up—ignoring the child’s reality in a headlong pursuit of test scores—because it feels subtly wrong.
It’s simple. Do the right thing as an athlete and your training will go well and you’ll enjoy it. Do the right thing for every child at school—get to know each student and work with their individual differences—and you’ll find them becoming amazingly enthusiastic and engaged, and loving it, because they feel respected.
Few believed that Abrashoff’s expansive leadership style would work—until Benfold began garnering a reputation as “the best damn ship in the Navy.”
Assigned to the Persian Gulf during the second Gulf War, Benfold became the go-to ship whenever commanders needed things done fast and correctly. When other captains wanted to improve their ships’ performance, they visited Benfold and talked with Abrashoff and his crew.
It’s an incredibly inspiring story. And the principles behind Benfold’s success are exactly the same as those that have brought the girls’ teams at Fayetteville-Manlius ten national championships.
In my working life, I occasionally help Donovan R. Greene, Ph.D., a highly regarded industrial psychologist. Companies hire Don to identify executive candidates who can strengthen their cultures and amplify their success. A habit that many of the best candidates share is “managing by walking around” (MBWA).
That’s what Mike Abrashoff did, and what Bill Aris does. Abrashoff spent countless hours visiting each of Benfold’s departments, learning its functions and where they fit within the ship’s overall operations. He met with each crew member and invited their thoughts on how they could do their jobs better. And he empowered them to make changes. He respected them and tapped their creativity, knowledge, and enthusiasm. Morale soared, and success came quickly.
It was uncannily similar to how Bill Aris guides his high school cross country teams.
Coaches don’t believe Bill because he doesn’t tell them what they want to hear.
They want to hear: “I get results by hard-nosed methods. I work my kids’ tails off, and I’m not above recruiting so long as I don’t get caught. We do huge mileage in summer, and I won’t tell you about our speedwork, because that would be revealing too much. But it’s all in the numbers.”
Does that sound like schools today? The obsession with numbers. The “studying to the test.” The government-imposed standard curriculum that leaves one-third of the kids bored out of their minds, another third unable to keep up, and only one-third challenged at their level.
When modern sports scientists from America and Europe travel to Africa to study the world-leading Kenyan elite runners, they bring along their little measuring sticks. They measure the Kenyans’ leg lengths, muscle elasticity, and calf and thigh dimensions. They weigh and analyze what they eat—how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein. They study how many miles they run, and how hard. And they write it all down in a little notebook full of numbers.
Few of them ask the Kenyans about their hopes and dreams. Yet if you invite the Kenyans to talk about what sets them apart from their American and European counterparts, they never mention numbers. They talk about qualities of the heart—not heart volume and such-like science, but the heart’s feelings.
They explain that they run based on inner feeling—they take joy in running together, and if their bodies don’t feel up to running hard on a particular day, they’re perfectly willing to pack it up and go home; whereas an American runner would be much more likely to force himself through the workout, haunted by a need to “make the numbers.”
The Kenyans know that their bodies will tell them when it’s okay to run hard, and when it’s best to knock off. They’ve long since learned to do the right thing.
They talk about how the U.S. runners are so serious about their training, how obsessed they are with numbers and technology, and how it’s all geared toward some feverishly imagined far-off future result. Meanwhile, the Kenyans are intent on maximizing the joys of today.
Captain Abrashoff did a simple thing on Benfold—he created a happy ship. He gave his crew the freedom to enjoy doing their jobs well. Other ships’ officers and crew members were soon seeking excuses to visit Benfold, for the experience of being infected and inspired by its upbeat mood.
That’s the secret of Bill Aris’s success, and it isn’t complicated. Aris creates happy teams. How? By getting to know his runners and helping them realize their dreams. That kind of caring creates loyalty, enthusiasm, and success—on a Navy missile destroyer, a cross country course, and in the classroom.
School administrators and politicians should take a lesson from Aris and Abrashoff. Instead of cramming kids into a lockstep curriculum, thereby demotivating all but the average few, they could empower teachers to institute an individualized curriculum that would take the measure of each kid’s hopes and dreams.
When Abrashoff left Benfold, he studied surveys conducted by the Navy to discover why people weren’t re-enlisting. Surprisingly, low pay was far down the scale, in fifth place.
“The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.”
Abrashoff worked tirelessly to reverse these trends. He would not tolerate attitudes in his officers that might risk creating a bossy, feudal culture that would spread poisonous feelings of resentment throughout the ship.
Every crew member’s contributions were to be considered important, and they were to be made aware of their value to the ship.
By treating his crew as if they mattered, and giving them freedom to shine, Abrashoff built the best damn ship in the Navy—just as Aris has built the nation’s best high school cross country program.
Six months after Abrashoff’s departure, Benfold earned the highest gradein the history of the Pacific Fleet on the Navy’s Combat Systems Readiness Review.
Abrashoff tells story after story of how he transformed the culture of his ship, one detail at a time. It’s a deeply moving account. And ultimately the “method” can be boiled down to a simple principle: the best approach to organizational change and individual excellence is the one that creates the greatest fulfillment and happiness for the individual.
“Every year, I look at every kid in our group,” Aris said of his approach to training high school runners. “Number one, I try to find out what’s in their mind and in their hearts. How high is up, in other words. From there I build a training program around that.”
Speaking of the unique culture that Aris has built, award-winning running journalist Marc Bloom says:
“In all my 40-plus years (of being involved with high school cross country), I don’t think I’ve seen anything this extraordinary, at least on the high school level…. If you look at professionals it’s like looking at the Kenyans and the Ethiopians. On the high school level, F-M is so far better than anyone else.
“You say how do they do it?” Bloom added. “You can look at the physiological aspect and the running, but there is also a cultural foundation to it. It’s a different society. It’s a different attitude.”
It’s a culture that engenders good feelings within each runner and within the team. Aris persuades his runners to tap the joy of training for something larger than themselves. And it all sounds eerily like the culture at Living Wisdom School.
“When our kids train or race, they do so for each other rather than competing against each other. When one releases themselves from the limiting constraints of individual achievement alone, new worlds open up in terms of group AND individual potential and its fulfillment…. Each is capable of standing on their own, but when working together so much more is accomplished both for the group and individual. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts basically, nothing new here.”
Why aren’t people more receptive to these radical but exhaustively proven ideas? Why are so few listening—in school, in sports, and in business and the military?
Mark Allen, six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, may have the answer.
Before he began racing triathlons, Allen was a hard-charging All-American swimmer at UC San Diego. Swimmers do intensive interval workouts, and when Allen became a triathlete he trained full-out all the time, whether running, riding, or swimming. Yet year after year he fell just short of winning the Ironman.
Then Allen met coach Phil Maffetone, who had him do several months of easy aerobic training at the start of the season, followed by six weeks of very hard work. Maffetone understood Allen’s individual needs and adapted his training accordingly. That’s when the string of Ironman victories began.
In an interview with Allen, Tim Noakes, MD, author of the authoritative Lore of Running, asked him for his thoughts on why more triathletes hadn’t adopted the methods that had brought him so much success.
“Allen answered that many athletes are too ego-driven. They can’t wait to perform well and will not accept anyone else’s ideas.”
Why are our public schools and our academically obsessed private schools not adopting the principles that work so well in sports and in the Navy, and that have created happiness and success for so many students at Living Wisdom School, because they help each child learn more efficiently than the failed lockstep Core Curriculum, and the equally disastrous No Child Left Behind?
The answer is that politicians and school administrators are too heavily invested in their own ideas and obsessed with numbers—even when the numbers lie.
Bill Aris’s methods aren’t what the politicians and administrators want to hear. And that’s too bad, because there’s solid scientific evidence that the heart and brain can work harder with less strain in the presence of happy feelings. In the classroom, research shows that the brain becomes a more efficient learning machine in the presence of harmonious, expansive feelings—as opposed to the stress and emotional toll of a needlessly competitive, test-focused atmosphere.
Teachers and coaches who support the individual child, intent on helping them become happy members of a happy team, aren’t just wasting the kids’ time. They’re amplifying the children’s ability to learn, empowering these young learners by tapping the power of positive feelings to make each child’s brain a champion.
Imagine if you were a teacher, and there was a child in your classroom who clearly needed special attention and loving help—would you blithely ignore the child’s needs, prioritizing test preparation and grades? As parents and as a society, would we set up our entire school system so that teachers were forced to ignore that child’s unique circumstances?
Mass education is “dead-ucation.” Teachers who know how to elicit the individual child’s enthusiasm for learning, by giving them daily experiences of success at their own level, are able to educate them far more effectively than teachers who are required by government decree to cram a barely digestible load of facts into the students’ overworked and resisting brains.
(Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by LWS web content manager George Beinhorn. www.joyfulathlete.com)
Adapted from The Joyful Athlete: the Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training, by Palo Alto Living Wisdom School web content manager George Beinhorn.
 “The Secret to F-M’s Success: There Is No Secret,” Tom Leo and Donnie Webb, Syracuse.com, December 10, 2010. http://bit.ly/2JT3vnn.
If teachers were allowed to be coaches, our schools would rapidly become inspiring centers of learning, populated by happy students and their happy teachers.
In Tony Holler’s thirty-eight years as a teacher, he’s seen the best and worst of public education.
Tony teaches honors chemistry at Plainfield North High School, in the greater Chicago area. Tony laments the way teachers today are hamstrung by the mandate for a core curriculum, and by national policies such as “No Child Left Behind” that force them to give their students a standardized, lock-step education that ignores the students’ individual needs.
Tony says, “Schools force-feed the curriculum to students every single day. The political ‘war on education’ has forced schools into an all-consuming quest for higher ACT and SAT scores, disregarding the toll it takes on the students.
“I work at an excellent school. My principal asked the teachers what our school was doing well. My answer: ‘The trains run on time.’
“This was not the answer my principal expected. I would give my school an A-plus for organization and discipline. It’s the education that bothers me…. My own best teachers were artists. They didn’t paint by the numbers.”
Tony’s views on education are biting, but they are fueled by a desire to see young people thrive and be successful and happy, and a distaste for the obstacles that politically motivated policies place in their way.
For Tony, the flipside is that he is intimately familiar with a side of public schools where happy, motivated students learn to perform at high levels of excellence every single day.
The methods used on that side of the school campus look remarkably like the Education for Life approach of the Living Wisdom Schools. The problem is, you’ll rarely find these extremely successful, comprehensively proven methods practiced in the classroom.
Besides teaching honors chemistry, Tony coaches track and field. In sports, unlike academics as taught today, what matters isn’t test scores but solid results. On the football field, there are no test scores to distract attention from the scoreboard. Coaches must either adopt methods that bring out the best in every kid, or risk being fired.
Tony believes that if teachers were allowed to adopt coaching methods, it would transform our public schools overnight into vibrant centers of learning, populated by motivated, happy students.
Those methods are on display every single day, right under the noses of the school administrators and government policy makers—yet nobody is paying attention.
When Tony coached freshman football from 2010 to 2015, his teams went 49-4, averaging 44-plus points per game. When he taught at Harrisburg (Illinois) High School, his track teams won the state title in the 4×100 a remarkable four times. In 2018, his Plainfield North High track team won the 4×100 title in an Illinois state record time of 41.29. An hour later, a 15-year-old PNHS sprinter ran a state record in the 100 (10.31). The team won four gold medals and placed third, close behind two much larger track powerhouse schools.
Tony knows what it takes to nurture winners on the track and in the classroom. What follows is Tony’s overview of the principles that earned him election to the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and that he believes should be adopted in school classrooms everywhere.
Sports are not graduation requirements. Kids play sports because they are challenging and fun. Advanced Placement courses should similarly “sell” themselves, and not be forced upon all of the students by government decree.
Coaches don’t spend 80 percent of their time with the 20 percent of kids who can’t do the work. Students should be helped to succeed at their own level. A one-size-fits-all definition of success is ridiculous, and is bound to fail.
Coaches aren’t told how to coach. Schools should give teachers the freedom to tailor the curriculum to the needs of the individual student.
Sports programs are promoted. Kids play sports because they hear rumors about the great team culture on a football, basketball, baseball, or track team. Teachers should be allowed to make their courses exciting and attractive to the students—whatever it takes.
You play to win the game. Too many schools are diploma mills. Schools should set themselves no lesser goal than to help every single student experience the greatest possible success at their own, individual level of ability.
All men are not created equal. Every student is talented, but not in the same way as other students. The obvious fact of individual differences should be given primary consideration in the classroom.
Coaches don’t give grades. Grades are meaningful only as they measure each student’s progress. Grades should not be held up as the goal, or used as a motivator—or, worse, as a punishment.
Failure is not an option. Great coaches make sure that every player has daily experiences of success. This is the way to create excitement and enthusiasm for learning. How to give each student daily success experiences? By challenging them at their own level.
Coaches are leaders, not bosses. Rigid, authoritarian teachers are obsolete. Teachers must have the flexibility, skills, and experience to make learning exciting and to introduce every student to the thrill of overcoming challenges, again and again, every day.
Coaches don’t need advanced degrees. The value of an advanced degree has been artificially inflated in the teaching profession. Good teachers know how to help kids succeed, regardless of their academic credentials.
“I’ve spent thirty-eight of my fifty-nine years going to high school and hanging out with teenagers. As I enter the twilight of my teaching career, I dream of better schools. I dream of independent students who are bold and assertive. I dream of students who have the enthusiasm of athletes. I dream of teachers who run their classrooms like coaches, tailoring courses to the talents and interests of their students. If schools were more like sports, maybe kids would love school.”
Although Lilavati now teaches kindergarten, she is intimately familiar with the needs of children throughout the Feeling Years, having taught first grade and yoga and Spanish at Living Wisdom School. Before coming to LWS, she taught for seventeen years at a public middle school.
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 how I unhesitatingly raised my hand and said, “A teacher!”
I loved school, not so much for the school itself but 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 of my own, 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 for a teaching credential. And 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 little kids, so I taught kindergarten, then I spent several years as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language). I eventually decided that I would prefer something a little more focused, because running around teaching kids from kindergarten through eighth grade was a bit hectic. 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, about five years ago, I was immediately intrigued. I took a wonderful workshop with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom. And I remember thinking, “I believe this is how education should be. I wonder if I can apply these ideas with the thirty kids in my public school classroom.”
I realized that 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 only about learning by reading a book. My classes became more hands-on, with activities that helped the kids experience how the concepts they were learning would apply 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.
It was very motivating for the students, and the learning became deeper and more memorable, because kids always learn more deeply if they can experience something directly, instead of just studying 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 children 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?”
I was teaching sixth grade, where the Feeling Years end and the Will Power Years begin, at around age 12. I could see that the kids were starting to make the major transition from being these idealistic little kids who loved stories and fantasy play and art, to kids who were becoming more interested in challenges to their will power. And, you know, that’s why middle school can be a rough ride, because they’re in that major transition. (laughs)
At any rate, even though I was teaching a big class in public school, I found that I could encourage the higher qualities of 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, where you’re looking to foster and nurture and encourage those higher qualities. It’s a very powerful way to teach, because it makes the children feel that their needs are being met on every level, and that we aren’t just trying to fill their heads with facts. We’re bringing their hearts into the educational process, and it’s profoundly motivating for them.
The experience of bringing EFL principles into a public school classroom showed me how helpful it is for kids when you can give them the nondenominational spiritual tools of meditation and yoga. 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. If you teach kids how they can take a deep breath and relax for as little as a minute, and get focused and calm before they take a test, they actually do better. The kids could feel the difference, and they loved it.
The parents were supportive, though 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 the kids.
When I came to Living Wisdom School, I was a little worried about leaving the excellent yoga program we had put in place—they had started calling it Mindfulness in the Public Schools, and it was going really well. But they brought in somebody to carry 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 much 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: Can you tells us about your experience making the transition to teaching at LWS?
Lilavati: One thing that stands out for me is that there’s a great deal of collaboration among the teachers. As part of my preparation, I took the online Education for Life program, where you can talk with EFL teachers worldwide. You can try an aspect of EFL in the classroom, and you can 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, Helen, our director, told me she was looking for someone to co-teach first grade with Danielle, so that’s how I started. I’m now teaching kindergarten full-time, but my first year was a bit of this-and-that. I taught Spanish and yoga to all the kids in the school, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I introduced some yoga sequences into our annual school play, on the life of Paramhansa Yogananda.
The variety made for an interesting start, but I love teaching more than ever since I’ve been here. 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, I had lots of support, and it was fun to get to know all seventy-plus students and their teachers.
Q: Having taught in public school and at LWS, you’re familiar with what it’s like for the kids in each system.
Lilavati: One thing that struck me right away when I came here is that all of the kids, especially those who had been with the program from kindergarten, but also the kids who’d come more recently, were kinder. Also, they were more focused. But it was the kindness and openness that really struck me about the kids.
In public school, everyone’s a little bit 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 that I taught Spanish to all of the kids in the school, 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: 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 focused they are. Teachers with big classes in public schools will often have to spend a lot 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 whole class to catch up, so they aren’t spending long periods sitting there getting bored. And if they’re struggling and need attention, there’s a teacher or a teaching aide or another student who’s more than happy to help. But if a student has the ability to race ahead in math, they won’t be held back, because there’s support for them to learn at their level.
We had some amazing children when I co‑taught first grade with Danielle. 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 make connections with the kids so that you can start 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.
As teachers, we’re given the time and freedom here 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 day at the school?
Lilavati: Kindergarten is quite a bit 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 6, 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. At this age, they learn 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 the energy and get the children focused. They could decide if they wanted to play with Legos or draw, so we gave them some choice, but 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 a 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 to see 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 at that stage of their lives?
Lilavati: I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this. At around age 6, 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 also in kindergarten they start to interact a little more, and you can see how the social-emotional component begins 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 the children. If a child is doing something that expresses a higher feeling, showing kindness or being helpful, we’ll point it out so it doesn’t go unnoticed, and they’ll learn how these 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. When the other boy pushed the button for him so he could get 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, if you point it out they will 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 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’re not kind. So there’s a lot of teaching that needs to happen, beyond the academics.
Q: Does it create a better learning environment, when you’re addressing issues of feeling that could otherwise become a distraction in the classroom—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 they can use what we call their “executive skills” in the prefrontal lobe. If 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 kids in math and 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, not a punitive experience, so 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, 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.
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 and the kids were learning about money, we had them make art that they could sell. We invited the kindergarteners to come in and buy the items, and we gave them real money. The first graders had to tell the customer how much it cost, and accept the money and make change. So they were learning about money, but they were also learning math. It was an experience that was fun and real for them, and they learned a tremendous amount because it was very hands-on. There are lots of activities that we do to make the learning a real-life experience.
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 Living Wisdom School they can go as far as they 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 to the whole school, it was a wonderful way to make connections, because I met every one of the kids, 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 people. “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’ll often get in public school.
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? Obviously the kids need to be achieving at a certain level in academics, 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 so many of our kids are going way beyond Common Core because of the individual instruction. We make assessments, but not with a nervous feeling of “Oh, gosh, how are they going to do on the test?” Because most of them will be going so far beyond the test standards. The focus here 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 that child?
Lilavati: Again, it’s completely individual. I’m thinking of a little girl who’s in first grade, but doing third-grade math. She was working with measurements and pushing her edges, because she’s very interested and loves math, but she wasn’t comfortable with measurements. She had to measure her classmates to see how tall they were and then make a little graph. And because she wasn’t sure how to use a yardstick or a tape measure, it was pushing 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 the tools that had metric measurements on one side and inches and feet on the other.
At Living Wisdom School the children push their limits, not because we’re pushing them but because they want to learn, because it’s so rewarding for them when they’re able to go at their own pace. And as teachers, it’s a matter of helping them. That’s true for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies—we’re constantly challenging them, but it’s completely individual, so they’re eager to learn because we’re helping them at their own level and it’s very rewarding for them.
Q: Are you saying that your role is 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 in 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.
As a teacher you have time, in our school, to get to know each child and make a connection, and realize 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 their inclinations and help them overcome their particular challenges.
I remember 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 you 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 challenging for her.
The Feeling Years are a very open time for learning, especially about higher values. We’re very careful when it comes to the books we choose for them to read—we’re always picking books that are going to be uplifting and support their positive feelings. The Theater Magic program very powerfully fulfills that need for them, 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 in the play, 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 for it 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 little easier, because they’re entering the Feeling Years. 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 big 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 they can teach from a deep calmness.
LWS is a safe environment for the teachers as well as the children. We can seek help if a lesson plan doesn’t work, or if an encounter with a student needs more attention. We can go to one another and know that we’ll be supported and connected. Because, just like the kids, we also need to feel safe and loved so all of our creativity and wisdom flows 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.
Q: A defining feature of the Living Wisdom Schools is an emphasis on adapting the curriculum and the teachers’ interactions with the children to their special needs in the years from 6 to 12—the “Feeling Years,” as they’re called in Education for Life, the book that outlines the schools’ philosophy.
Can you tell us how you address your students’ need to have their feelings brought into the educational process, and how it’s done throughout the school?
Kshama: When we talk about the Stages of Maturity that are discussed in Education for Life, we’re really speaking of how humans naturally develop and grow.
The Foundation Years from birth to age 6 are the time when children develop their awareness of the physical body and senses. Little children are constantly moving and touching and tasting, and generally getting to know the physical world, and how to live in their bodies. But when they begin to enter the next phase, from 6 to 12, they start wanting to relate to their emotional life, and to learn how to deal with the feeling side of their nature.
It’s a very social time, with a major emphasis on learning to relate appropriately to others. With children in the Feeling Years, we need to devote a great deal of time as teachers to help them understand the emotions that might be running through them in various situations. We need to give them the skills to bring their emotions into a place of calm feeling and understanding. And we do it with a broad array of classroom practices; first and foremost by being deeply aware of where each student is in their development, and what their next natural growth point can be.
We do an enormous amount of teaching through storytelling and the arts—the “media of feeling,” including music and dance and theater. For children at this age, anything that is heart-opening can become a highly effective medium for teaching the curriculum.
In math, for example, we find it’s tremendously helpful when they can connect their feelings to the subject. With my second graders, I might bring in stuffed animals to help them relate to certain math concepts. Or we’ll act out the concepts, because it brings math to life in a way that they can connect with and remember. It’s much more motivating and engaging than only using workbooks or the standard manipulative tools.
Q: Education for Life says that when we fail to guide children in their emotional development at this age, they will feel that something’s missing from their education, and they’ll be more likely to rebel and tune-out school in their teen years.
The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that this needn’t happen, when the students feel that their emotional needs are being met, especially their need for inspiration and high ideals. Education for Life laments the common practice of cramming children’s heads with facts at this age, at the expense of teaching them to work positively with their feelings as an important component of their ability to learn.
Kshama: In our school, we find that when the teachers are able to connect with the children at the level where they’re naturally growing, the learning flows much more easily and naturally.
Children at this stage are deeply engaged in imaginative play and creativity. So it’s no surprise that when we bring their feelings into the learning process, and help them learn how to work with their feelings generally, they resonate with school. When you can find ways to make what they’re studying come alive for them at a feeling level, they begin to experience school as a very interesting place of growth.
Q: When you’re creating lesson plans, are you trying to bring the feeling element into them?
Kshama: We’re doing it all the time. But first, I think we need to make a clear distinction between “feelings” and “emotions.” There’s a very large difference between raw emotions and refined feelings. Our job as educators is to help children be aware of their inner states and learn how to transform turbulent emotions into calm, positive feeling.
It’s not at all a question of encouraging them to express their emotions willy-nilly. We’re trying to help them understand how to use their feelings in positive, expansive, mature ways that will contribute to their happiness and success.
Q: Education for Life points out that refined feelings enable us to tell the difference between right and wrong. We don’t decide if something is right or wrong based on reason alone, but by feeling it. The author says it’s a disaster when children aren’t taught to consult their calm feelings as a guide to what’s right and true.
Kshama: Our children receive an enormous amount of support for becoming aware of the difference. The teachers use conflict resolution techniques and other proven tools to help them handle the emotionally charged issues that are bound to come up at school. We help them increase their awareness of what’s happening for them at an emotional level, and we help them understand how they can work with that reality and come to a positive resolution.
Q: There was an incident that took place at the original Living Wisdom School in Nevada City many years ago. It had snowed overnight, and at recess the children got into a snowball fight. Some of the little kids were crying, so the teachers got the kids together to build a snowman. Later, the teachers asked them how they had felt during the snowball fight and while they were building the snowman together. They said things like, “I felt bad when I saw the little kids crying, but it felt great to build a snowman.” The teachers recognized a heaven-sent opportunity to draw the children’s attention to their feelings of right and wrong.
Kshama: We’re constantly helping them work with their feelings in all kinds of situations. We also help them be aware of what’s happening for other people in moments of conflict or pain, and we help them develop empathy. They acquire the problem-solving skills to create a healthy and supportive environment, where all of the kids can have a good experience that feels wonderful.
Q: Do you model positive behaviors for them?
Kshama: Modeling is a huge part of the process. But the extremely important first step is to notice what’s happening with them.
As adults, we might put our own judgments on the children’s actions or emotions—“Don’t be angry!” But at LWS, the teachers learn to share their awareness in ways that will help the child understand what’s going on, and how they can deal with it.
Instead of saying “Oh, you are angry,” I might say, “Oh, your face is like this”—where I’m scrunching my eyebrows and making a frowny face. I’m modeling it for them, as a way to help them begin to find a solution.
I’ll say, “Your face looks like this—you might be feeling angry.” They’ll want to look up and see what’s happening on my face, and it gives them an awareness of what’s happening internally for them. It’s giving them a connection to the emotion that goes along with the experience they’re having. We’re helping them make that connection very consciously, so they can start to find a happier place.
Another example of how we work with their feelings is a situation that will come up in art class. Very often, children are conditioned to seek adult approval for what they’re drawing, instead of being encouraged to be alive in the experience. A child will come up to you and say, “Do you like it?” And instead of giving them back, “Oh, that’s a beautiful painting!” Or, “Oh, how lovely!” Or, “I love it!” you can say things like “Wow! I loved watching you paint that!” You’re giving them back their own experience. You’re celebrating them doing it, and validating their reality without imposing your own judgment on what they’ve created. So you’re helping them be aware of their feelings, instead of creating a situation where their feelings are devalued and they might be tempted to suppress them, which isn’t productive.
I can say, “Wow! Look at all the color you put into your painting!” So I’m not saying whether I like it, but I’m acknowledging that they’ve put a ton of color into their piece.
It might sound like a trivial thing, but we find that it’s very important. When you give their experience back to them in a way that they can own it, it has huge consequences.
With really young children who aren’t very adept at drawing, as adults we may try to guess what they’ve drawn, because we want to connect with them and support what they’re doing. But very often what they’ve drawn isn’t at all what we think it is. And as soon as we put our assumption onto it, it changes their relationship to it.
You can ask them, “Tell me about your painting—what did you do here? Tell me about this part.” It gets them sharing, and it keeps them alive in their own experience of it.
Validating their feelings is a very healthy step toward helping them develop a natural, relaxed self-confidence. It’s a major step toward helping them become happily engaged people.
From age 6 to 12, children have a pressing need to be introduced to inspiring figures that speak to their hearts. There are many educational approaches that use fairy tales and storytelling with children at this age, or that engage them in studying the lives of inspiring historical figures. At LWS, it’s a hundred percent of what we’re doing with our theater program. The yearly all-school plays are about some of the most wonderful role models that are available to humanity—they are about “human treasures” that can serve as models for all people. We’ve put on plays about Buddha, Bernadette of Lourdes, Kwan Yin, Jesus, Yogananda, Mirabai, Hafiz, St. Francis and Clare, Krishna, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, St. Teresa of Avila, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, and the Dalai Lama.
Every child has a role in the play, and the learning that takes place is beyond measure. The kids are not only learning about the life of the subject of the play, they’re also studying about the culture and history of the times in which they lived. And by memorizing the words of these great role models, they gain an internal library of wisdom and inspiration that will remain with them for years.
Q: Does a feeling-based approach help the children become internally motivated to learn, instead of the teacher having to force-feed them or resort to a system of punishment and rewards?
Kshama: It creates a safe environment where the children can be who they are and know that there’s safety in the relationship with their teachers and between student and student. It creates a classroom community that’s based on respect and kindness and safety, so that real sharing and real learning can take place.
It’s enormously important for kids at this age, and it’s why we devote tremendous energy to creating a caring classroom and a caring school community. Because it’s simply the indispensable foundation for a healthy learning environment.
Q: The atmosphere in the classrooms I’ve visited is remarkable. When I grew up, the teachers had to spend lots of time “herding cats,” because the kids’ energy was often wanting to be somewhere else, and the teacher had to rope it back into the unfortunate fact that we had to do math or history or English. Whereas at LWS I can walk into Ruth’s third-grade classroom, or Lilavati’s kindergarten, or Gary’s middle school classroom, or Craig’s fourth and fifth grade class, and I’ll see that the kids aren’t rebelling. The kids are enjoying what they’re doing.
Kshama: When summer comes, the kids always beg us to keep the school open year-round. Many of them would prefer to be at school, learning and being with their school community, rather than heading off to their camps and other summer programs.
Q: One of the results of the “extracurricular” activities at LWS—working with their feelings through theater arts and music and art and field trips—is that you get a very focused atmosphere in the classroom when it’s time for academics. In Gary’s middle school classroom, I’ll see kids sitting around a table doing math, and maybe one of them will say something and they’ll laugh, but then they’re right back and centered in their work.
Kshama: Mm-hm. It’s a question of understanding what a child’s motivation is at this stage, and knowing how to work with their reality in ways that help them become happily engaged. It’s about giving them many joyful success experiences that will help them grow into a strong sense of their own abilities, starting where they are.
The attention that the teachers devote to finding out who each child is, and helping them at their own level in every aspect of their being and not just academics, contributes tremendously to help them develop a strong sense of their own identity and their ability to master challenges. It’s a joyful experience that carries over very powerfully into their studies.
Whether it’s math, science, writing, or reading, we’re constantly looking for ways to inspire the children to care about what they’re learning, because that’s when real learning takes place. And they absolutely love it.
Q: In Craig’s fourth and fifth grade classroom, I’ll see the kids working in pairs, and their body language makes it absolutely clear that they do not want to be distracted or disturbed.
Kshama: The students in my second grade class are seven and eight years old, so they’re still developing their early writing skills. We use a workshop approach, where we invite them to write from their own life experiences and from their own sense of the world as it’s developing for them. So it’s very real for them, and it provides a safe venue for them to be enthusiastically engaged.
They’ll tell stories about their experiences, or they’ll draw on their imagination to create wonderful fictional pieces. But it’s all about drawing on life as they understand it, and bringing it onto the page, instead of the teacher passing out story prompts that might feel artificial. Giving them ways to bring their own enthusiasm into the process is a wonderful step toward helping them become thoroughly engaged learners.
In science, our goal, especially with the younger ones, is to create a sense of awe and appreciation for the world and the universe we live in, and a feeling of connectedness, so that as we’re learning about science, we aren’t just thinking about how we can use our knowledge to make a profit, but we’re understanding how everything in the world is connected, so we will love it and want to take care of it and protect it.
Q: Tanaka Shozo, a famous Japanese conservationist of the early twentieth century, said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
Kshama: Yes, and we do a lot with nature, because it’s hugely important for the students, especially if they’re growing up in the city, to make sure they’re connecting with the natural world. And when we’re doing lab sciences, we’re making sure they are coming to life in a way that is interesting and tangible for them, and that helps them make connections outside the classroom so they can really understand why they’re learning it. It’s an extremely experiential approach to the curriculum, and as you said, it touches their hearts so they’ll remember and care.
Q: I talked with Gary about his approach to math in middle school. He gives the kids daily problem sets that they work on in class, and he corrects them and goes over every single problem with each student individually until he’s sure that they’ve grasped and interiorized the concepts.
They’re challenged at the edge of what they can handle individually, with the result that they have an ongoing sense of the joy of overcoming challenges. There are one or two math aides working with the students in the classroom, and it’s almost entirely individual tutoring.
The teachers and aides are always checking to make sure the students are working at the upper limit of their abilities, “pressing their edges” and feeling very good about overcoming the obstacles.
Kshama: It’s the approach we take throughout the school. We’re giving them success experiences and a depth of understanding, so they can feel they’re holding the material in a way that they can apply it to new situations.
In public schools and academically focused private schools, the teachers are often required to cover a certain amount of material within a prescribed time. It means that they’re pressured to herd the students through the curriculum together at the same pace. But then you can end up overly concerned with “studying to the test,” with the result that there’s a very thin layer of comprehension.
Our goal is to take the students as deeply into the material as we can, and give them the support and positive experiences to internalize it and understand the concepts in depth, so they can use that understanding as a building block for taking the next step.
As teachers, we’ll have students who are working on many different levels of math in our classroom, and we’re always discovering creative ways to support them. It’s important that they feel engaged at their own level, and not just be spinning their wheels, quickly completing an assignment and being bored while they wait for the rest of the class, or struggling because the other students are working on something they aren’t ready for.
Q: There seems to be a strange magic at LWS, where the attention to the individual is like a jet booster for academic success. If you weren’t familiar with the school, you might think, “Okay, the teachers are spending way too much time on the individual child, and they’re going much too deep in their academic subjects. They’re doing lots of art and theater, and how are the kids going to move ahead at a reasonable pace?”
Yet we continually hear stories of second-graders who are doing fourth-grade math, and kindergarten kids using fourth-grade math concepts, and eighth graders testing into second-year or third-year high school math.
Perhaps you touched on the answer: that you don’t have one-third of the class being bored out of their minds because you’re trying to move everybody ahead in lockstep, and another third of the class struggling because you’re going too fast, and only a third of the class being taught at their own level. When you’re teaching the individual child, it’s more efficient, and the class can move forward at the fastest possible speed.
Several years ago, there was an exceptionally talented girl at LWS who was the only sixth grader in California to achieve a perfect score on the Math Olympiads M exam for eighth grade and below, out of 19,541 students who took the test. She was highly gifted, but at LWS she was able to go at her own pace.
In 2018, another sixth grader at LWS, Vinca Lu, got 23 correct answers on the Olympiad E for sixth graders, scoring in the top 2 percent internationally. And on the Olympiad M test which is designed to challenge eighth graders Vinca (who by age should be a fifth grader) scored 24 out of 25, again placing in the top 2 percent internationally. Her teacher, Gary McSweeney, revealed that Vinca had received no special preparation for the tests, evidencing that advanced students are rigorously challenged in math at LWS.
Kshama: The students are not all punched from the same mold; they are highly individual, and each one will have areas of strength and challenge. The problem with a cookie-cutter approach, where you’re trying to stamp out standardized children with standardized math skills who can pass standardized tests, is that it ignores the inescapable reality of individual differences.
We keep our class sizes deliberately small and the student-teacher ratio low so that we can connect with every student every day, and understand where they are and what they need, not only in their academic subjects but in their social and emotional development.
Also, we have a community of teachers who are expected to be committed to a personal centering practice of some kind. All of the teachers either meditate or have some kind of mindfulness practice. For myself, I find it’s a huge component in my being able to walk into the classroom and be fully present with my students, and able to relate and make connections and have insights about what’s needed to help each child on a level that isn’t superficial.
Q: How do you work with students who might be coming into your classroom for the first time?
Kshama: Fill them up with love! (laughs) Really, I’m quite serious. On their first day we welcome them into the class community. We’re about to start school now, and most of the students will be returning, but there will be a few new ones. And my job is to welcome everyone in the spirit of a family to help everyone feel that they are welcome, that they’re important, that we’re all starting a year-long journey of friendship and growth together, and that we need to be a supportive community for one another so that everybody can grow.
We’re crafting lots of experiences that are team-building and collaborative, and making sure there are lots of opportunities for the students to connect one-on-one with each other.
It requires an enormous amount of modeling helpful behaviors, and coaching the children on the playground so they can learn to integrate with one another and learn how to play together successfully. And those bonds carry over to the classroom.
It’s absolutely crucial to remember that every student is unique. Last year, there was a student in my class who was facing some temporary issues in his personal life. The kids were aware of what he was going through, and every single student in the class rallied around the child to create an environment where he could blossom. We created moments where he was connecting one-on-one with the other children, and moments where the whole class was supporting him, and we watched him rocket through the challenges until he was fully connected with the class. It was incredible.
An important part of our process for creating a caring classroom community is that every teacher meets with every student at the start of the year, in the days before school begins. The kids bring their school supplies, and we use the time to set up their desks, get them situated, help them pick out their backpack hook, and do all the little mundane things that need to happen, in addition to spending quality one-on-one time together to make a connection with the child before they arrive on the first day of school as a group.
It’s the start of their LWS experience, and it reflects the experience they’ll have every day, with a growing network of personal connections with the teachers and students that encourages enthusiasm, engagement, and being challenged to learn at their own pace.
Teaching here is amazing. It’s fantastically rewarding to see our students thriving personally and academically, and to follow their successes throughout their years at our school and beyond. We are always discovering new ways to help the students, and I feel that our successes in terms of academics and happiness prove the value of what we’re doing.
By J. Donald Walters, author of Education for Life and co‑founder of the Living Wisdom Schools
How many adults, what to speak of children, recognize the difference between emotion and feeling? Very few.
And how many children, consequently, are taught that calm, sensitive feeling is an invaluable tool for the complete understanding of most subjects? Or that turbulent feelings—that is to say, the emotions—and not feeling per se prevent clear, objective understanding? Again, very few.
Few children, again, are taught the extent to which reason is guided by calm feeling, but distorted by the emotions. And few are taught that by developing calm feeling they will improve their understanding of objective reality on every level.
Feeling, when it is calm and refined, is essential both to truly objective and to mature insight.
There are ways of clarifying feeling, just as there are principles of logic (already taught in the schools) for learning to reason correctly. Feeling can be clarified, for instance, by learning how to distance feeling from one’s personal likes and dislikes, withdrawing one’s awareness to a calm center in the heart. Feeling can be clarified by directing the heart’s energies upward to the brain, and thence to a point between the eyebrows that was anciently identified as the seat of concentration in the body. Clarity of feeling can be assisted by calming the flow of energy in the spine, by means of certain breathing exercises. These exercises are a priceless contribution of the science of yoga to the general knowledge of the human race. It would be a grave error to ignore them on the grounds of one’s unfamiliarity with them.
Only by calm inner feeling can a person know definitely the right course to take in any action. Those who direct their lives from this deeper level of feeling achieve levels of success that are never reached by people who limit their quest for answers to the exercise of reason. Reason, indeed, if unsupported by feeling, may point in hundreds of plausible directions without offering certainty as to the rightness of any of them.
Children need to learn how to react appropriately. This they can never do if their reaction springs out of their subjective emotions. Considerable training is needed to learn how to harness feeling and make it a useful ally. What children are taught, instead, as they grow older, is that feelings are inevitably obstacles to correct insight. The scientific method is offered as a model. “If you want to see things objectively,” they are told, “you must view everything in terms of cold logic.” I remember a professor when I was in college who boasted, jokingly, that X-rays had shown his heart to be smaller than normal. This, to him, was a sign of intellectual objectivity, which he prized.
Ignored is the fact that, usually, the greater the scientist, the more deeply he feels his subject. Or that, as Einstein put it, the essence of true scientific discovery is a sense of mystical awe.
Feeling can never in any case be suppressed. Shove it out of sight at one point—where you can at least see it and try to deal with it—and it will only pop up at another, often a place where you least expect it. Many times, when long-suppressed feelings have at last burst upon people’s consciousness, those feelings have assumed terrible and unrecognizable shapes. Sometimes they have actually incited to riot.
Right feeling is an important tool for achieving maturity. It must be cultivated, and not merely ignored, suppressed, or treated as something about which nothing ‘reasonable” can be done.