“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Narani Moorhouse says with a quiet smile.
It’s a January afternoon at the elementary school on a grassy hill above the “downtown” part of Ananda Village, a thriving, fifty-year-old spiritual community in the foothills near Nevada City, California.
The children have skipped down the hill after school and Narani is enjoying the mild winter sun as she chats about education.
“I very clearly remember walking into the schoolroom on my first day of kindergarten and thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do when I grow up!’
“In school I was always watching my teachers, tracking their teaching styles and noticing what worked and what didn’t. And whenever I had babysitting jobs I would make up little lesson plans for the kids and play school.” When Narani laughs, it’s like a small explosion, a bright exhalation of joy.
Watching her teach her third and fourth graders, it’s clear that her enthusiasm wins their hearts. They might not betray the seven-year-old’s code so far as to admit that they like school, but watching them, it’s obvious that they love it.
In Narani’s classroom, “spiritual education” means encouraging all aspects of a child’s nature, with happiness as the constant goal. As she talks about her experiences, spiritual truths assume a living form.
The teachers in the Living Wisdom Schools understand that universal, non-sectarian spiritual principles are priceless keys for finding success and happiness in our lives. Modern research has shown that attitudes of kindness, compassion, empathy, and feelings of social connection have profound positive effects on our bodies and minds, stimulating electrical and chemical changes that benefit our health, promote mental clarity and calmness, and generate feelings of inner fulfillment and happiness.
Currently there are eight Education for Life schools in America and Europe. For information, visit edforlife.org.
Q: Can you recall an experience from your years as a teacher that revealed children’s spiritual potential?
Narani: I’m thinking of something quite wonderful that happened my first year at Living Wisdom School. I was reading books by or about Teresa of Avila, a great saint of the 16th century. I was teaching third and fourth grade at the time, and part of my way of being with the kids has always included sharing the uplifting things that I’m experiencing in my own life. I was so inspired by my reading, and in our morning circle, I said to them, “You guys, I just have to share this with you!”
St. Teresa had so much love for God. She dedicated her life totally to do whatever Christ might ask of her, and she had complete love for whatever came her way. So I was reading to the children about loving God so much, and doing everything for God, and how the nuns were symbolically wedded to Christ at the ceremony where they took their final vows.
I told them how the nuns lived in silence so that they could always be thinking about God. And then one of the little girls piped up and said, “I think we could do that!”
I said, “Weeellllll… How?”
So we played with the idea. I had wanted to be a nun in the worst way when I was young, but I’d never felt truly called to that kind of life. And yet, oh! – it seemed like such a wonderful thing. So I thought, “Okay, this is my chance.” [Laughs]
We worked out how we could play nuns and monks, and we decided that we would do our chores in silence, just like the nuns in Teresa’s convents, and that our “chores” would be our school assignments. We had someone be the bell ringer, and they would ring the bell every hour and we’d stop what we were doing and pray.
One of the kids said, “What will we pray about?”
I said, “You know, if you felt that you were married to God, you could talk to Him in the everyday language of your own heart. Maybe you would want to ask for help, or you might ask how you could communicate better with your mom or your dad or your best friend. That’s how you would pray.”
So we would stop and say our prayers, and I didn’t try to rush them, but whenever I stopped I was never the last one praying, because there was always at least one child still praying. And I knew it wasn’t play-acting, because their hands were clenched tight and you could feel the concentration in them.
The first recess came, and two of the little girls got a bucket and started cleaning the entryway floor. And – well! – I had said nothing to them about the happiness of selfless service!
I said, “Oh, you guys, I have to break our silence, because I just have to read this to you!” I got my book and read a passage where St. Teresa talks about service, and how, when you love God with all your heart, and you love others as your brothers and sisters, you just naturally want to do things to make their lives easier. And it’s not that you have to, but you just want to do things to help them.
I said, “I didn’t read this book to you, and you’re doing exactly what it says!” We had never scrubbed the floor before. [laughs] And they were out there with their buckets and rags scrubbing away, all without my asking, and it was amazing.
So the day went on, and it was so cute, because the little girls would button their sweaters over their heads like veils, and the boys were stuffing their arms in their sleeves like monks. It was a wonderful day, and everyone was real inward and happy.
The next morning, I thought, “Oh well, that was wonderful, but now it’s over.” And then at our morning circle one of the little boys said, “Can we do that again?”
I was feeling that I didn’t want to run it into the ground and spoil the blessing. So I said, “No, I think one day was enough.” And I had a rebellion on my hands! “No! No! We want to do it again! We want to do it again!”
Finally a little boy said, totally serious, “Look, I know God helped me with my work yesterday!” And I thought “Ooookkaaay….!” [laughs]
Well, we ended up doing it all week long. We spent the whole week in silence, and it was a little awkward to teach! [laughs] I mean, trying to figure out how to teach fractions without saying anything, where you can only write on the board. But it was wonderful.
It was unusually warm for January, and they were showing Friday night movies on the market lawn. “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” was scheduled for the coming Friday, and I thought, “Uh-oh, here comes all this St. Francis stuff!” And sure enough, when the kids came to school on Monday they were demanding, “Now we want to be Saint Francis and Saint Clare!”
I said, “Okay. How can we do it?” Well, the one thing they could think of was to beg for food. [laughs] And as a first-year teacher I just didn’t know if I could send them home with notes to their parents, “Please don’t send lunches with your children, because we’re going to go down to the market and beg from people after they’ve eaten their lunch.” [laughs]
So I said no, but later I thought, “What a shame!” Because Francis’ attitude was to accept whatever God gave him, and if God gave him food to eat, great, and if God didn’t, then God wanted him to be a little hungry, and that was okay, too. And I thought, what other chance would these kids have to be hungry and learn to accept it? Now, they probably wouldn’t have been hungry for very long as they walked among their families and said, “May I have what’s left of your sandwich?” [laughs] I doubt people would have turned them away, but it’s a shame that they didn’t have the experience.
I had shared with the kids about Teresa of Avila because I was so enthusiastic that I just couldn’t contain myself. And, in fact, that’s what I really garnered from the experience.
More than anything that I told them about Teresa, the kids picked up on my enthusiasm, and that’s really what gave it life for them.
It taught me something extremely important about encouraging children generally, and helping them understand spiritual principles, and ever since that time, whenever something really moves me, not only ideas but whenever something’s truly stirring me, I’ll share it with the kids. And, almost without exception, it’s been something that touched them deeply, too, because they could feel the love and joy in it. And it’s so different from when I’m just talking about some abstract aspect of academics or the spiritual life, because when it has that kind of enthusiasm behind it they’re able to feel it right away.
Q: Does that connection happen rarely, or is it a regular part of the education that children receive at Living Wisdom School ?
Narani: I believe you have to be open for it to happen at any moment. You can’t force it – if I were to try to recreate the experiment with the kids living as monks and nuns, I doubt that it would work, because it was a spontaneous thing that presented itself with inspiration, and I think it can happen at any time, but it has to come from that source of heartfelt inspiration and enthusiasm within.
Q: As a teacher at Living Wisdom School, do you have more opportunities to teach spontaneously than you would in other schools?
Narani: Because we work a great deal on the children’s character development, they need to be able to trust us, and to know from deep inside that we care for them as persons and as souls.
If you put thirty six-year-olds together for six hours a day, day in and day out, you have to spend an awful lot of time on classroom management: “Everyone, be quiet! Do this, do that.” But when it’s just twelve kids, there’s more time for learning and being together, and it does support a certain spontaneity.
If the sun comes out after the rain, and there’s a beautiful rainbow, and the most wonderful thing is to walk through this wonderful countryside, it’s nothing to manage it with twelve kids.
Q: How do you balance learning life skills with the academic side?
Narani: We have to prepare the kids for success in the real world. They won’t be able to feel really good about themselves if they aren’t successful in some outward way. So we’re very careful with the curriculum, to make sure that everything gets covered, and over the years in our school we’ve found that they’re very consistently ahead of grade level.
Last year a little girl from New Zealand visited our class. She was a first grader in a typical school where they moved the kids ahead quickly. She was in my class for two weeks, and she did fine. But after she left we got a call from her parents, telling us that her teacher was extremely puzzled. And then the teacher actually called me and said, “What did you do in your class?” Because this girl did not read when she left, and she came back able to sit down and read a book.
At first I couldn’t imagine what I had done. In fact, I hadn’t done anything more than I was doing with the other kids. We simply spend lots of time with books, and we sit down and read together. And that’s when I thought that our small, supportive group of children might have been all she needed to relax and allow her reading to flow forth with ease.
Of course it wasn’t as if I could have taught the girl to read in only a couple of weeks. But then it occurred to me that there might have been a degree of academic pressure at her school, whereas at Living Wisdom School we cover a great deal of ground in academics, but there’s always a warm, friendly feeling to it. The little girl was rather shy, and I daresay that she was able to relax and use the knowledge she had, and start moving ahead, free of the fear and tension that a large, impersonal classroom might generate.
One of the strongest attitudes I see in our teachers is a very, VERY deep respect for the children. Our role as adults and as leaders is extremely important, but at the same time we understand that these are souls, and they’ve been here before. They were old and they knew a lot, and while those past experiences may not be in their conscious memory, these souls are still very worthy of our respect, and of being treated in a kind, fair, and respectful way. And that attitude leads to a certain family feeling, and a genuine care and affection for the children.
Q: Has being on a spiritual path helped you as a teacher?
Narani: One of the first things that comes to mind is a certain inner knowing that it isn’t all riding on me, and that I’m not going to make or break these kids.
In class, I may come up with something that’s intellectually challenging, but if it doesn’t have an inner spirit behind it, and a resonance with their heart and soul, there will still be a lack. But if what I’m giving them has a resonance with their heart, and an attunement with their spirit, then I find that it tends to be much more meaningful to them.
I remember a meeting that we teachers had with Swami Kriyananda, the founder of Education for Life. He said, “Always look to the consciousness behind anything that you bring into the classroom. Whether it’s music or an art activity or a game or the way you present history, look to the consciousness behind it.”
So we’ve developed aspects of the curriculum that reach beyond the intellectual. In teaching history, for example, we look at the soul development of people such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and how they grew to be great leaders by embodying spiritual values of courage and compassion, and by nobly holding to justice and truth. And in everything we do in the classroom, we try to bring out those deeper insights.
When I put my heart and soul into a lesson, and I find that maybe it isn’t coming off terribly well, I know that I can ask for guidance within, because I don’t feel that my brain is the only resource I have, but that there’s a greater resource I can draw on, that cares about each particular child and knows exactly what they need.
I’m not one to sit down and pray and see flashing lights and hear a voice telling me what to do, but there’s a sense of “Ah, yes!” An impulse will come, and sure enough, it will be just what’s needed, whether it’s about an academic subject or a social situation with the children.
Q: As our country’s schools increasingly seem to be floundering in confusion when it comes to teaching children about morality and values, many people are saying that outward solutions are the answer, whether it’s by enforcing a certain academic rigor, or setting rules, or putting police in the halls. Whereas you seem to be saying, help them discover what works best and that gives them the greatest happiness.
Narani: I feel that the inner and outer are both extremely important. It basically does come down to what’s going to make a child happy. And it means that they need to have control of their energy, and they need to have control of their attitude, and they need to learn how to deal with the things that their life is going to throw at them.
In playing a game, there’s the outward skill and there’s the quality of your character, and just behind the struggle to learn math concepts and spelling the children are also developing spiritual qualities. We try to work with both aspects, helping the kids learn to deal with what they’re given and be the best they can, both inwardly and outwardly.
A conversation with LWS Board President and middle school teacher Gary McSweeney.
Q: How has Living Wisdom School weathered the COVID pandemic? What has the experience been like for the students and teachers at Living Wisdom School?
Gary: COVID came upon us exactly a year ago. We’d barely finished the first dress rehearsal for our enormous annual school play, when the Palo Alto schools announced they would be closing because of COVID.
So, instead of a huge theater production with five packed performances, we had to shut down after our first dress rehearsal, and it seemed it would be all we would have to show for hundreds of hours of preparation, including designing and sewing costumes, countless hours of rehearsals, classroom discussions, memorizing lines, and much more.
Over spring break our faculty learned about Zoom, and when we came back to school we were a hundred-percent online. And, to be honest, we felt hardly any impact at all, because the transition was remarkably seamless and our families were tremendously supportive, and none of them left.
In early June we had a wonderful End of Year Celebration on Zoom. And then during the summer we decided to apply for a California state waiver so we could reopen in the fall.
The application process was a lot more complicated than we’d expected, with many delays. Meanwhile, parents were asking what would happen in September. Would we reopen? Would we be hybrid? And because of the delays in our application, we could only tell them that we didn’t know.
Just two days before school was scheduled to begin, we still hadn’t heard from the state, so our principal, Helen Purcell, called them and said, “We know you received our application, because you acknowledged it.” And they said, “Oh – we never received it.”
To make a long story short, they put the application on the fast track, and we received permission to open.
The first day of school fell during the very worst of the California wildfires, with an atmospheric inversion that turned the sky an ominous dark orange, and horrendous air quality – it was like a day on an alien planet.
We had permission for student from kindergarten through the first six grades to be on campus, for which we were very grateful. And of course we offered our parents the option of instruction on Zoom. But because of the foul-up with our application, compounded by people’s increasing worries over COVID and the ominous wildfires, we lost several families at the start of the year.
But we rallied, and our faculty did an amazing job. We’re now in Spring 2021, and we’re offering hybrid instruction, with about 90 percent of our students physically present on the campus, and just four of my middle school students staying home.
Fridays are entirely online for the whole school. First thing in the morning, we have our all-school circle on Zoom, in which we do yoga and sing uplifting songs, then the children split into various music, singing, and math classes.
We’ve enjoyed a very good year, despite the challenges. Families have been enrolling for next fall, and a number of the families that left are wanting to bring their children back right now.
To sum up, I would describe the year as miraculous, and I’m confident to report that the school is a very happy place.
Q: At the start of COVID, was there a concern that the school might lose some of its culture, which is such a key part of its success?
Gary: The culture is a huge part of the education we offer the children¸ with our strong emphasis on the quality of their interactions, a safe environment, and the unique learning opportunities offered by the theater program and field trips.
The personal interaction with other children is extremely valuable, even with masks, social distancing, and cohorts.
These new practices did change the dynamic somewhat, but once the kids who’re new to the culture understand it, they absolutely love it, and they want to preserve it, whether they’re physically together or interacting online.
As an example of how the culture is still very much in place, a new boy came into my class this year. He’s been attending in person, and he quickly picked up on the culture of respect and acceptance, and he has adapted beautifully.
It’s been wonderful to have the children in a classroom setting, learning in person, and interacting with each other. For the kids who are at home, I’ll go around every few weeks, and we’ll stay connected that way as well as on Zoom.
Q: In speaking with the principal of the Living Wisdom High School, she observed that in some other schools the kids have been afraid to participate online because they feel they might be put down or mocked, whereas in our high school that hasn’t been a problem at all.
Gary: Because our culture of acceptance and respect is so firmly in place, there really isn’t any of that kind of opportunistic bullying.
We’ve noticed that there are a small percentage of students who actually do better on Zoom – perhaps they’re more comfortable at home, I’m not sure. But despite some technical obstacles, with bandwidth delays and so on, we’ve had a great time this year, and the parents have been amazingly supportive.
More than 90 percent of our students are on campus now, and some of them are online intermittently. For the students who do really well with Zoom, I’ll ask a question and I’ll immediately see a digital thumbs-up indicating that they’re ready with the answer.
Otherwise, I’ve left chat on all year to provide an unbroken connection, because I think the kids at home, especially the middle schoolers, need an outlet where they can communicate with the kids who are here.
They can hear the conversations that are going on in the classroom, and we’ve made some adaptations to the tech, for example by always having a live mic so they can stay in touch with what’s happening.
Q: The all-school Theater Magic play has always been the major event of the year. It involves the children in so many ways, including the academic curriculum, and it gives them priceless guidance for developing confidence and poise. How has COVID affected that process?
Gary: We knew we wouldn’t be able to produce a play where the children would be rehearsing together onstage, so we came up with the idea of creating a film instead. We had last year’s script and costumes, so we decided that we would make a movie, and that it would be filmed entirely outdoors.
Our Theater Magic director, Rose Atwell, was very knowledgeable in helping us understand how we needed to proceed with making a film. And, also thanks to Rose, the process quickly became clear – we would make the film entirely on campus, where the children could get into costume in small groups, with separation, and come over and perform their scenes, then go back to class, and it would be a hundred-percent safe.
There’s a lot of downtime when you’re making a movie, and because we’re filming within a few steps of the classrooms, the kids can go in for a while, which helps make it a safe environment. There’s a lot of data on how it’s safe to have children in school if you’re carefully following the protocols, and we’ve done a very good job with our safety procedures.
Rose chose a number of locations on the campus where we could film without having modern buildings in the background, or FedEx trucks passing by. Of course, audio was a constant issue, with traffic noise and horns.
There’s been a wonderfully lighthearted feeling throughout, and today was a good example. One of the children had a part in all of the scenes, and she couldn’t come to school today. Another student immediately said, “I can play her part.” So we filmed her in the prologue, and when the other girl arrived, Rose was able to adjust. And through it all the kids were very flexible, very adaptable and good-humored and willing.
And, that’s life, you know, where you show up at work and you find that things aren’t ready, or they’ve changed. I think it’s been a valuable opportunity for the students to learn some important life skills.
“We’re ready for you. Oh, no, we’re not quite ready. Now we’re ready, let’s go.”
“Oh, did you hear the truck drive by in the middle of the scene? Let’s shoot it again.”
Meanwhile, the kids are being themselves, sitting patiently, and when Rose is ready, she’ll say, “Action!” and the kids will pull it together and deliver their lines. Then Rose will say, “Cut!” and they’ll relax and go back to being seven or eight or nine.
In some ways I’m enjoying it more than the normal process of putting on the play. It’s very different, for sure, because the children won’t see the finished product right away, as they would if they were acting on stage. But in the end it will be a polished movie with special effects and an excellent soundtrack.
They love the experience of putting on the play, especially before a live audience. Of course, you can’t touch that experience, but COVID isn’t asking what we want. It’s all about understanding what’s needed, and they’ve adapted beautifully.
I’m sure that if they had their choice they would prefer to do a live performance, because of the way the excitement builds. Today would have been our first full dress rehearsal, and then we’d be exhausted, and on Friday we’d have the second full dress rehearsal with hair and makeup.
There are lots of wonderful traditions and markers along the way, and tomorrow would have been a day to relax before the first morning matinee for school groups, where there would be 100 to 150 people in the audience, mostly children.
Thursday would be another day to relax, and Friday night would be the first big evening performance for a packed house of adults, followed by the huge performance on Saturday night where we would be filming. At the end of it all, there would be a big celebration in the courtyard with parents and relatives and kids enjoying conversation and snacks.
There are lots of wonderful traditions that we’ve developed over the last twenty-eight years. But this year it needed to be a movie, so we can’t enjoy the big build-up as we’re getting near to the end. With a movie, you say, “That’s a wrap!” and then it goes into post-production. And, of course, they’re all asking how long it will take. But it will be a big project to edit the film and make something truly worthwhile.
Because of our tradition of very high production values, and because of the wonderful settings and costumes, we felt the footage deserved the utmost care, and, as always, we had lots of adults with very exacting standards working on the production, including Tandava who’s done a marvelous job rehearsing the music with the children on Zoom, and Asha, who’s extremely gifted at designing and sewing the costumes.
So it’s been every bit as much work as a live production, just with different problems. But film is a large part of what the kids will grow up needing to understand, for remote work and YouTube instruction and presentations, and so on.
One of my students is surprisingly good at editing film, and he’s doing a blooper reel, because we’re often laughing so hard on the set – when something strange happens or the kids mess up. And with film you can just shoot it again and do a re-take.
It’s been a valuable experience for the kids. They’re learning how work gets done in adult professional settings, where mistakes are an expected part of the process. They’ve learned to accept that the first take will usually be a throwaway, and the second will be a little better, and seventy percent of the third takes will be keepers. The spirit has been very high, and the students have been all-in with adapting to the changes – I think they’ll will look back on this year as a formative experience.
Naturally, they’ve complained about masks and being isolated from their friends. It wasn’t what any of us wanted, but the kids have grown as they’ve been challenged.
Psychologists say that it’s hugely important for middle schoolers to be able to reach out to their peer group, and we’ve been fortunate to provide them an environment where they can be with their friends and share memorable experiences like making the film.
Jack Dieckmann serves as Associate Director of Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE). Jack completed his doctorate in mathematics education at Stanford in 2009. He is also an instructor in methods and language courses in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). He has worked as a public high school math teacher, a professional developer, and an education research associate.
Jack: Good morning. We’re the parents of Joseph, who’s a student at Living Wisdom High School. We’ve been with Living Wisdom for more than nine years, and our daughter now attends the K-8 Palo Alto Living Wisdom School.
Given that my professional field is education, I spent a great deal of time trying to find the right school for Joseph – I visited and studied a wide variety of schools, and I interviewed the people, and I shadowed and observed.
And then I came across this jewel of a school, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, and I couldn’t believe it. I really could not believe that such a school existed, because I had never seen anything like it, and I had never encountered a school like this one in my work in education.
We enrolled Joseph at LWS for his first year with Kshama as his first-grade teacher, and it was fantastic. I couldn’t believe that I could leave my child, the most precious thing in my life, leave him there and feel totally confident that he would be loved, supported, and that he was going to grow and be nurtured. And I’ve had that feeling all the way through, including his time at Living Wisdom High School, where I know that I’m leaving him in good hands, and that he’s not only going to be challenged with a rigorous curriculum, but he’s also going to add meaning to his life.
Public schools do their best, but as a parent who taught math in public high school I know that they are large systems, and that the learning is very often first and foremost about how to obey rules, how to follow, how to be passive, and how to do the homework that’s handed to them. And the poor students do the best they can, but there’s no sense of agency or active learning or finding their place in the world, or finding meaning in what they’re doing. Adolescence in particular is such a difficult time, and those are exactly the kinds of questions they should be asking.
Living Wisdom offers a unique program that I wish all students everywhere could benefit from, because they’re giving the individual student a chance to understand who they are in relation to their world, and not just be sort of college-ready.
That’s a big term now, “college-ready.” But many students, even those who go on to college, and even those who get good college grades, don’t know why they’re there, and they don’t know the horizon they’re moving toward, because they’re just following the rules.
I’m very happy to say that our experience of Living Wisdom School has been the opposite – that we are not raising a passive rule-follower, but somebody who is trying to understand his place in the world, his purpose in the world, and who’s very actively contributing to that purpose.
Esther Peralez-Dieckmann has over 25 years of experience in workforce and economic development, human services, and policy advocacy. A well-known community leader, she has earned numerous distinctions for her work and leadership on behalf of women, children, and families. She currently is Executive Director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose.
Esther: I feel that the approach they take at Living Wisdom is very practical, because everybody wants their child to be loved, to be safe, and to want to go to school. And we haven’t had any issues with our children not wanting to go to school, because they’ve been very excited every day about coming to Living Wisdom.
When it comes to how we educate our children, my stance is practical, too, because everybody wants their child to get a good job someday and be very happy in their work. And as somebody with nearly thirty years’ experience in the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, one of the first things I look for, and that we need in the workforce, is people who can think critically, people with empathy, people who understand the needs of others and that know how to work with other people, and that can deal with adversity.
You need lots of personal skills to have a good career and to stay in a good job, and I feel those are among the skills my kids have picked up at Living Wisdom, including the ability to know yourself, to be loved and appreciated for your differences and for all the things you are, and to have the chance to explore figuring out who you are, what you love, and what’s your passion. And all of the steps, all of the activities, and all of the outings at Living Wisdom have been carefully designed to accomplish just that.
I’ve been thinking about resource allocation, because we all know that the economy isn’t great right now, and organizations and businesses are dealing with severely limited resources.
I’m thinking of when we took the Living Wisdom School students on a camping trip to the Malakoff Diggins in the foothills of the Sierra. At one point, it felt like we might run out of food – we were close to civilization, so it’s not as if we were endangering the children, but we were there for three days and we had to keep an eye on the supplies. I was very impressed by how the kids pitched right in and cooked and did the dishes, and generally accepted the situation and cheerfully helped out. And when I look back over the nine years we’ve been with Living Wisdom, I realize that all of those activities and experiences have had a tremendous relevance for helping our children learn to thrive in the real world, and that there isn’t a price you can put on them.
So if you’re looking at Living Wisdom as an option, I can say that you really must look at the total educational experience, and how you can raise children who’ll never want to stop learning. Because that’s really the way to advance in a career – always eager to learn while loving the process and knowing how to think of others. We’re trying to solve the problems that are affecting our world, and we urgently need thinkers like the students that are coming through Living Wisdom.
A conversation with LWS middle school teacher, founding board member, and parent Gary McSweeney
Q: What questions do parents typically ask about the middle school grades?
Gary: We’re asked about academics, of course, and specifically math, and then they might ask how it works to combine the three middle school grades, as we’ve done.
I learned recently that the Palo Alto Unified School District decided to do away with separate advanced math classes, and to begin combining the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in a single math class.
I’m guessing they’d seen research that indicated the older model wasn’t working all that well, where you’re separating the advanced students from the others. It was particularly interesting to me because we’ve been combining the grade levels in math, science, and language arts for more than forty-five years.
Our experience is that with any cross-section of students, regardless of their grade level, you’ll have kids who seem to be able to absorb the subject almost by osmosis, and kids who can get it if you explain it to them, and kids who struggle. And of course they all need to be helped at their own level. So the teacher’s work doesn’t really change when the classes are combined.
Today I’ve just come from a math tutorial with two eighth-graders and a sixth-grader, and it was clear that the same concepts applied across levels. It was a simple question that involved the algebraic method, but whether you’re in seventh grade or doing postgraduate math, you’re still applying the algebraic method but at deeper levels.
Our school director, Helen Purcell, grew up in a family with nine kids. Her father was an attorney, and he would always pose a question for discussion at the dinner table. It worked out very naturally, because the younger kids would listen and learn, and the in-between kids would chime in occasionally, and the older kids would lead the discussion.
It’s the same synergy in our classrooms, where the kids will be helping other kids, and the teachers and aides will be walking around and working with the individual students, and the students who are a little reticent will be listening in on the conversation.
One of the greatest benefits we’ve seen for the children is that it helps their relationship to math. Our kids, by and large, have a very positive and wholesome relationship to math because of our approach. It works because it’s highly individualized, and we’re helping them become engaged at their own level, which is always very individual. And I don’t think it would matter if there were college seniors among them, working at their level.
The larger issue is, are they relating to math, or are they just hoping the class will be over?
Beyond individual instruction, we find that when the kids help each other, it benefits them both. The kids are constantly helping each other, and it’s been shown that when you explain a concept to someone, it helps you interiorize and absorb the material, especially when you know the person and you care about them.
Maybe they’ve grasped a concept, and a friend will raise a hand and they’ll go over and explain it. And whether the child who asked for help gets it right away is almost secondary, because by explaining it the first child has a chance to become more clear on the concept. So that’s just one more way the learning is deeper when you combine classes, apart from the teachers working with each student at their own pace.
Q: Do you have math aides and assistants?
Gary: We’ve always had them. This year we had Tandava and Ruchi and Diana’s grandmother, and it’s been a wonderful experience for the kids. When you have someone like Tandava helping the kids, with a degree in symbolic systems from Stanford and experience working at Google, and a great deal of enthusiasm for teaching, it’s completely amazing for the kids.
We’ve been fortunate to have very good math assistants over the years. I’m thinking of Richard Fouquet who had degrees from Stanford and Harvard, and Eric Munro who retired from the tech industry and graduated from MIT.
Teaching math at LWS takes lots of intuition and a personal touch, because you’re forming a relationship with the child and learning what works best for them. At Living Wisdom there’s less emphasis on the curriculum and more on the person – it’s about the teacher’s ability to reach the individual student in the way that will be most meaningful and helpful for them.
When schools talk about education today, it’s usually about how many of the teachers have advanced degrees, or the wonderful textbooks, or the online features. But I don’t think those are anywhere nearly as important as being able to answer a simple question, “Who is this child?”
How are the children able to relate to their teacher, and what is the school environment like? Those are the most important questions, and at Living Wisdom School we offer a wholesome environment where the kids can be relaxed and receptive.
Watch Gary answer parents’ questions during an LWS open house (50 minutes). Gary talks to prospective parents during the LWS Open House on February 1, 2020. The open house was attended by approximately 50 parents. After an introductory talk by school director Helen Purcell, the parents went to the various classrooms for Q&A’s with the teachers. In the video, Gary talks with parents of children of middle school age.
Q: The median high school grade point average of the LWS graduates over the last five or six years has been 3.85, so something seems to be working.
Gary: That’s another question parents ask – how will the students do when they leave our school? It’s why we track their high school grades after they leave us. The LWS alumni often come back to visit, and we ask them, “How’s it going for you at Saint Francis or Harker or Menlo?” We find that they are very well prepared, because they know the material and they’re thriving socially.
We’re extremely pleased that they do very well in their personal interviews, and that the high school counselors tell us how impressed they are by these young kids who demonstrate so much natural centeredness and self-possession and poise.
I feel that too much of education today is concerned with superficial things – the excessive focus on absorbing information today is very far from what kids truly need.
Q: There seem to be fewer discipline problems and classroom control issues at LWS than in other schools. Can you comment on that? Do the kids rebel when they don’t feel that the teachers understand them?
Gary: We were talking about this recently among the teachers. At our End of Year Celebration each child receives a quality, and then they stand up and give a short talk about the quality, and at the end of the ceremony the eighth graders give their graduation speeches.
We’ve held the ceremony for thirty years, and it’s one of the most inspiring events of the year. But we were speculating, half-seriously, about what would happen if a student stood up and went on a rant against the school. But I expressed the thought, “There isn’t a pent-up energy here that’s waiting to explode, because there isn’t an adversarial dynamic between the teachers and the children.”
The children are encouraged to think for themselves and voice differing opinions as a necessary part of their learning. If they say, “I don’t believe in God,” they are free to express their ideas and think them through, because we don’t shrink from facing the big issues.
It’s true that we don’t have a lot of the usual discipline problems, and I think it’s because we reach out to each child and motivate them individually. If you’re learning at your own level, it means that you’re having success experiences every single day at school, and it’s a very enjoyable experience, so you’ll want more, and you’ll be channeling your energies into the work because you enjoy that feeling.
Of course, what I’m saying is tempered by twenty years of working in the trenches as a teacher. Because you can’t hold out bright shiny ideas that aren’t related to what the students are actually experiencing day by day. You have to be very real, and it’s why we hire teachers who are capable of having a real relationship with the kids, a relationship that makes the child feel that they’re being seen. And as a welcome side-effect it eliminates a lot of the discipline issues.
Our founder had a significant dream that became the guiding impetus for the book Education for Life. He saw a group of teenagers lounging around, looking surly, and he talked to them about how the adults in their lives weren’t giving them anything to be hopeful about. So he wrote Education for Life to help teachers and parents reach kids and give them reasons to be positive and hopeful about life.
In a recommendation letter that I wrote for the high school applications of one of our graduates, I said, “You should consider this student, because she is very bright. She has real gifts, and her thinking is outside of the box. She’s very creative and able to come up with fresh perspectives. I marvel at her abilities. Many times I’ve thought that she is the definition of what a good school would be looking for, a student who is engaged and who thinks for herself.”
She needed some discipline, but I think we’ve proved that you can offer it in a way that doesn’t get the students’ backs up, because they know that you’re genuinely on their side.
When you can give them discipline with kindness, it frees up tremendous energy. We aren’t stressing the kids; we’re trying to work with them, encourage them, and inspire them. We would rather help the kids get to a point where they will show initiative of their own accord because they’ve discovered what they enjoy and what they really want. It’s far more effective to educate the child from the inside out, instead of from the top down or from the outside in.
Q: We talked earlier about how the students help each other in math class. Do you feel it’s a key to the success of the school? I remember helping my friends with math in high school, and what a happy experience it was.
Gary: Parents sometimes have trouble getting their heads around how our math class works, and I can understand why.
We go straight into math first thing in the morning after a brief Circle Time, and I don’t lecture during math class, because we’re all working independently. Everyone is sitting at a desk or a table working on math, and if they have a question we’ll go over and help them, or we’ll ask them to come over.
The ability to work independently, with complete focus, requires a great deal of inner motivation on the part of the students, and it’s why we spend so much time working with them individually. Because once you have that personal energy and enthusiasm flowing, you’ll have lots of successes that you can celebrate, so it becomes a self-feeding cycle that breeds motivation and initiative.
Some of the kids are unbelievably advanced in math, and others really struggle. One of the kids in my class was struggling in math this morning, and when he finally solved the problem we celebrated it. And the reason it can happen is that I’m free to work with him and make sure he’s having those success experiences, because I don’t have to answer to an administration: “Why is he behind in math? Why aren’t you making him keep up with where everybody else is?”
His parents told me that he’d been tested and that it was a brain issue – his brain simply doesn’t process math, so it’s like a foreign language to him. But I’ve never thought for one moment, “Oh, he’ll never be good in math.”
We had a student who didn’t feel that she was very good in math, and I kept telling her, “No, I think you are good, you just haven’t realized it.” And now she’s getting a PhD in genetics, which requires heavy math skills, and she has mastered them.
We give them the tools to be okay with themselves, and to be very real and work with themselves starting exactly where they are. And it’s something we don’t just talk about. We live it every day, because it works – making your own progress, helping the other kids, and feeling good about it. I see it all the time, how when you work with the kids at their own level, there are countless moments where the light will go on, “Wow, yeah, I know how to do it!” – whether it’s math, guitar, drama, sports, or language arts.
I’m talking about math because parents nearly always ask about it, but the principles are equally true in history or language arts or personal development. “Wow, I’m learning how to make friends.”
After morning Circle and just before math, we meditate briefly, and I doubt that any of the children would be able to say very much about what they’re getting out of it. But I’ve seen over the years that it serves them very well. When they meet life’s tests, they’ll be able to look back and remember, “I was able to focus and get calm and see things from a more solution-oriented perspective.”
It’s not just a mental exercise, it’s an experience of learning to get control of the energy in their body, heart, and brain. And it helps them gain access to inner mental resources that will be there for them the rest of their lives. I don’t have any illusions that they’ll all become lifelong meditators, but when we meditate briefly together in the morning there’s a tangible power in the room, of calmness, focus, and joy.
Q: I’ve observed that the kids know how to be very serious and concentrated. It’s amazing to see the kindergarteners and first, second, third, or fourth graders being really serious and intent about what’s going on, and in the next moment they’re laughing and happy. But they seem happy when they’re laughing and happy also about being serious.
I watched a fourth-grade girl reading a book at a table in the courtyard during morning recess. She looked completely absorbed, and I was curious to know what kind of book was capturing so much of her attention. I had my camera, and I said, “Can I take your picture?” She said, “Okay,” and immediately turned back to the book, as if she didn’t want to be distracted for a second. And I looked over her shoulder and saw that she was studying math.
It seems quite a testimonial for the school, that the kids can be both serious and happy. Because you can tell the parents, “We have a happy school,” and what are they going to do with that? It may be a completely foreign concept to them, or they might form the wrong impression, imagining that you’re indulging the kids, just letting them play.
Gary: It’s very unfortunate that it’s so foreign in education now. On the other hand, there are lots of forward-looking companies where cooperation and happiness have become a major part of the cultural goals, and where people are living these principles. And that’s what we have at our school, including the culture among the teachers.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author whom I greatly admire, said that when you’re dealing with children, you have to be what you’re saying. You can tell them to be good, but you have to model the behavior for them. So our faculty spend a great deal of time cooperating on being models for the kids, and it helps that we genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
There’s a spirit that you can feel when you walk onto the campus. It’s harmonious and joyful. We have the usual issues, of course. For example, putting on the play is a very intense experience for everyone, and this year we had just one dress rehearsal after seven weeks of intense preparation, before we had to pull the plug because of COVID-19. And that’s a subject that we’ll revisit with the kids, because it’s full of lessons about real life. And even though the kids may be young, there’s a soul there, and you can’t just brush these things aside, because the kids need to learn about life by talking about what’s going on.
I’ve had some very interesting conversations with five-year-olds here. And you might think that we’ve been asked virtually every question a child could possibly come up with, but there’s one group of kids that will always surprise you with something new and fresh, and that’s the teenagers. They will invariably find a way to come at it from a new direction, and maybe the ideas are wacky, but often they’ll be very fresh and insightful.
I’ll give an assignment, and I’ll find myself asking a student, “Where did you come up with the idea to do it that way?” [Laughs] But then I’ll have to admit, “Okay, it works.”
It’s a wonderful environment. My son attended LWS from kindergarten to graduation, and he’s in India now, developing Living Wisdom Schools. As part of his work, he’s been visiting other schools, and he tells me that these principles are showing up all over the world today.
There are principles that schools are tapping into everywhere, but the advantage that we have here is that when you have an entire faculty that’s dedicated to working in this philosophical space all of the time, something very special can happen, where you are no longer just a good teacher who happens to listen to their students, but there are lots of great teachers all around you. So you develop a faculty and a community and a school environment that are all supporting these methods, and you begin to see something extraordinary.
Q: The middle school students are at the age when they’re starting to flex their willpower. And how do you deal with that energy? Parents send their child here for six hours a day, and how are the teachers finding ways to help the kids express their willpower in positive ways?
Gary: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Because whatever you’re doing, you’re going to have to learn to set boundaries, and with the middle schoolers it often translates to something as simple as telling them, “Come on, guys, when you walk in the door you’re in silence – no, I mean silent!”
They’re going to need a certain amount of discipline to be able to weed out the distractions in their life and accomplish their goals,
One of the most interesting things I’ve experienced as a teacher is that I’ll set a firm boundary for a child, and maybe I’ll go home and wonder, “Gosh, did I go too far?” But invariably the next day the child will be right next to me during morning walk, because they feel safe. And maybe it’s a cliché in education and parenting, but there is no avoiding the fact that the kids need you to set boundaries for them.
When you set fair boundaries, and it’s done in a spirit of love, it nearly always works. And if it doesn’t seem to be working today, it does work in the longer term. We find that when the kids come back to visit they tell us how grateful they are for what they received at LWS.
Helen, our school director, also teaches language arts, and she has the students’ respect. Doug, our science teacher, rarely raises his voice, and whenever he says the slightest thing in the way of correction, I’ll revisit it with the kids. I’ll say, “You guys, Doug never says anything.” And because they know it’s true, they’ll correct their behavior, because they realize they’ve stepped over the line.
The need for correction is an integral part of our process, certainly in the upper grades. Because otherwise the kids just feel adrift, and it doesn’t serve them.
Great teachers – whether they are school teachers, sports coaches, drama directors, or spiritual teachers – discipline the people who can receive it. And those working under them love them for it.
I find that when it’s given in a spirit of kindness, it’s essential. I’ll say, “You have to put out more energy. You don’t have your homework.” And the kids will push you, because that’s what teenagers do – they want to know where the boundaries are.
I think of Steve Jobs, who was famous for his creative discipline that made so many contributions to Apple’s success. Bruno, our music teacher, is relaxed and cordial in his manner, but he’s super-dedicated to his craft, and the same is true of Claudia on recorder and keyboard, Rose in drama, and Helen in language arts.
We hire teachers who are serious and who have high expectations. Our fourth and fifth grade teacher, Craig Kellogg, is right on top of the kids when it comes to practicing good sportsmanship, or putting out energy in math, or being neat in their work.
The kids have to learn that there will be a need for an appropriate amount of discipline in everything they do. And it doesn’t have to be oppressive or depressing, because the trade-off is that when you develop self-control it’s very empowering, and it opens doors to success experiences that come with a significant amount of joy.
You can’t just tell every kid, “Oh, you’re empowered, let me give you a trophy.” That model doesn’t work. In truth, it’s good to include people, but you have to be real and let them know, “You can do better.” Because it’s what will serve them.
Q: You see kids blossoming at the school, and maybe they haven’t blossomed before, or maybe they are naturally upbeat and positive about everything. I’m thinking of a boy who graduated last year, and who did well at everything – sports, guitar, academics, theater, friendships. I see lots of kids here who are excelling in whatever they’re doing, and I get the feeling it’s because they’re in touch with the nature of who they are at their core, and they recognize what’s needed to achieve something in their own way and feel the glow of success. I’m assuming from what you’ve said that you don’t just try to help them develop those qualities in math class, but that you’re watching them on the playground and all the time.
Gary: There’s a term we use in Education for Life, “specific gravity.” And Gaurav, the boy you mentioned, is a very good example. He had initiative, and it didn’t matter what challenges he might be facing, he would always try his best. His whole family is structured that way. It’s an amazing family, very happy and wonderfully generous of heart. His sister graduated this year, and another sister is coming along in middle school.
We have a student now who, if you put a challenge before her, you know she’s going to rise to the challenge, and it doesn’t matter what it is. And maybe she doesn’t have the natural outward bubbliness that some of the other children have, but when she sees a challenge she meets it, because she likes the feeling of accomplishment.
There’s another girl who has a hard time accepting any sort of praise, even though her results are most impressive. She’s always driving, driving, driving. And you have to work with the child’s individual nature, and try to help them discover a little joy in the mix.
We only get the kids for a few years, and we try to guide and encourage them and show them what’s possible. As opposed to just helping them claw their way to a good grade point average in a culture where it’s all about the numbers – the grades and test scores, and admission to prestigious school X. And of course those are good things, because doing well in school is good, and exercising will power to excel in school is good.
But there’s an entire separate side to the education equation, where you’re looking at whether the child is happy. Because when you can bring the whole child to school, so to speak, you find that they all have tremendously important tools that will help them succeed as students and persons, beyond just warehousing facts in their brains.
The high school acceptance counselors always ask us how a child has been able to react to criticism or setbacks. It’s a classic question that they ask. And some of the kids frankly haven’t had a setback, so we don’t always know how to answer. But some kids have had big challenges. And the point is, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to evaluating a child’s potential and helping them. Some kids will come in with a heavy load, while some are more or less able to breeze through, and some will exercise their initiative from day one, and other kids won’t. So, again, you have to work with the individual child, and you have to build a relationship with them so you’ll know where the gaps are and what will work best for the child as you’re helping them develop their unique strengths.
Q: I’ve noticed that the children here aren’t overly concerned with trying to conform to an image. When I observed in Ruth’s third-grade class, I noticed that there was a group of girls who were close friends, yet they were very unique and different. One seldom smiled and was serious all the time, and one was always bubbling with laughter, and the third was somewhere between. It was interesting that there didn’t seem to be any sort of student-run culture where a child is always feeling pressured to fit a certain mold, for fear of being excluded.
Gary: No, you’re allowed to be yourself at Living Wisdom School, and it sometimes means that the individual child may be a bit of a curmudgeon, always thinking serious thoughts, and some are naturally bubbly and every day is amazing.
Of course they do change over time. A child can go through lots of changes if we have them for the full nine years, because they’ll be dealing with life’s challenges, and it’s part of an education for life, too. At LWS that’s part of what school is about for them. Parents will ask us, “What math book are you using?” Or “How do you teach three grades at once?” And those are important questions, but it’s ultimately about how well we’re working with the energy of the kids.
There’s a lot of interest in the middle school this year, with a waiting list, so we have several shadow students, and I talked to two of them at the end of their shadow days.
I said, “So what do you think of the school?” And one of them said, “All the kids are so happy here. It’s really unusual.” Because he hadn’t seen that in his school experience. The other child used the word “open.” She said, “Everyone is so open.”
One of the shadow students was running around with the kids as if she’d been here forever, and I assumed that she knew them. She was playing and laughing and hugging the kids, and I asked her, “Do you know these girls from your neighborhood?” “Never met them!” But she was wide open. And at our school there’s not this consciousness of constantly measuring people, “Oh, you’re just a shadow student.” There’s a deep acceptance that is really quite amazing, and it’s been there from the first days of the school.
Q: In many schools there seems to be a culture of power, where if you have the power of prestige or the power of being really smart, or the power of belonging to an inner circle, or from a wealthy family, you’re accepted, but if you aren’t, you’re nobody and you’re excluded and maybe mocked and shunned. “Maybe I’m not a jock, but I’m smart.” You have these categories, and you have to defend your self-definition and be really good at something or else you’re sort of a shadow person, like a mole.
Gary: It’s sad. After talking with prospective parents, our director, Helen, has often remarked that the bullying issue is not small in the school culture today. Many parents tell us, “Well, he’s been bullied.” And it’s not just a bit of teasing, it’s really nasty. And that ties into exactly what you’re saying, that it’s about power, or feeling un-empowered and turning into a bully to get power. And it’s very sad.
Our practices on exclusiveness are very clear, and we go a very long way beyond just giving them lip service, as some schools do. Every one of the teachers is constantly modeling inclusiveness, and if they see it’s not happening, or if there’s the slightest hint of exclusion, they address it immediately, on the spot. Because we take it very seriously, and we put real effort into it.
Q: I’ve heard many stories about how a teacher will notice something negative going on, whether it’s a tiny hint of bullying, or a kid in a bad mood, or someone saying something hurtful, and they’re all over it right away, starting in kindergarten.
Gary: Oh yes. And our kindergarten teacher, Lilavati, is very gifted and sensitive that way. We give it a lot of attention in our faculty meetings – “Have you noticed so and so this year?” “Oh, yeah, and what can we do about that?” “Well, I’ll see him on the playground.” Because among the teachers it’s all hands on deck, like an extended family of teachers each of whom might have different connections with the kids, and maybe someone can reach a particular kid, so they’ll reach out to them and respond, even if they aren’t the child’s classroom teacher.
Q: On the issue of test-taking, it seems artificial to study to the test, because it implies that you’re going to stay up late and ace the test, but then it’s gone. And I’ve observed in the middle school classroom during math that there appears to be a culture where each child is immersing in a subject not only because the school has an individual approach to teaching, but because of the approach to math specifically, which is that you’re constantly reviewing with the individual child and insisting and ensuring that they get a sound understanding of the principles at every step of the way.
Gary: The question of depth came up recently during the pandemic. Some of the kids will say, because we’re teaching remotely and the school is shut down, “Oh, I went online and did some math.” And maybe they’re watching some videos from Khan, and I have no complaint about Khan, but if I’m doing math online I’m naturally going to go to the problems I know how to do, and I’m going to avoid the harder word problems about percentages because I don’t like word problems.
The student said, “I haven’t been doing the math textbook or the curriculum, I’ve just been online.” And I said, “My experience is that when you do that you just end up jumping around.” And he said, “You know, that’s right, I was kind of jumping around.”
There’s a superficiality in education now, where you’re skimming the surface, touching all the right buttons, because you’re being dragged along with one eye on the mandated curriculum and the other eye on tests and grades. And every math teacher I’ve met feels this way. But what it neglects is the student’s need to understand the principles and concepts in depth. Have you actually mastered them, or are you just gliding over the surface? Because if you’re just skating over the surface it’s bound to catch up with you.
Any book you’re using, whether it’s CPM or Envision or Singapore, will help you build a solid foundation in math, just as when you’re learning guitar or keyboard and you want to learn the basics thoroughly and soundly – finger placement, chords, etc. And in math, too, you have to build a solid foundation, because there are no shortcuts.
In any good math curriculum, you need to keep circling back so the students are constantly getting exposed to the underlying concepts.
I may allow the students to go forward for a while, even though I know they haven’t fully mastered the concepts, because in our school they will always get a chance to fill in the gaps, instead of being dragged along by an externally mandated schedule. At some point, the gaps in their understanding will begin to show, and it might be a humbling experience to realize that, wow, I never really got it.
A student asked me why he needed to do proofs if he knew the answer. I said, “Don’t take my word for it. Go talk to our math aides, Eric or Richard.” Richard went to Harvard and Stanford, and Eric went to MIT. And sure enough, they gave him the same answer: “Proofs are good.” Because it isn’t only about getting the right answer, it’s knowing how to get the answer, which is the more valuable skill.
And that’s what math is ultimately about. It’s training the brain to think clearly, and to analyze things and come up with answers. Those are skills you can apply in any area. Computers can do math a lot faster than we can, but it’s about developing clear thinking and logic. The ability to solve any kind of problem is as important as being able to jump straight to the answer.
We have a student who can go straight to the right answer, because he’s very gifted. But it doesn’t really work at Living Wisdom. And in language arts, too, if you’re wanting to analyze a poem or write an essay with originality and spark, you can’t just check off the five bullet points and say, “I got the answer.” We want them to experience depth in everything.
Q: You mentioned Hazie, who graduated from LWS and now teaches math at the Living Wisdom High School. When he was twenty, he had basically exhausted what the American universities could teach him in math, so he had to go to Germany where they’re more advanced in math education. And now he’s come back after a long time away, because he said that he was getting along fine academically in those other school environments, but he realized that he had started to become depressed because he was accepting other people’s standards of behavior and values. And in his mind, he had to refresh the principles that had made him happy at Living Wisdom. He was in graduate school in Germany when he had that crisis of faith, and he decided to return and become a teacher at LWHS.
Gary: He recently said something interesting. He said that kids nowadays are asking their teachers, “What do I need to do to get an A in your class?” And he never answers that question, because we’re here to learn math and master principles. It’s not about following the steps to get an A – that doesn’t fly at Living Wisdom, because we all know that it doesn’t work in life.
When we had him as a student, Hazie was so precocious in math that the only way I could help him was basically to tell him to be a bit neater in his work. That was about the only help he needed. But he’s very grounded, perhaps because he’s also been active in martial arts for twenty-three years, so he has a great deal of inner discipline, and he says that the students have to learn the math foundations. Which is a very healthy approach, because there are no shortcuts in life.
Q: Kids who are as smart as Hazie can sometimes become isolated at school, but he never was at Living Wisdom. When I interviewed him, he told stories about being very socially connected all the way through school, even though he was often a great deal smarter than anybody else in math.
Gary: He was part of an interesting class that included several other very advanced math students. He had two buddies in particular, and they were rowdy and did wacky things. And after those three left, another group of three came, and now there’s another threesome. A professor at Stanford was the world’s leading expert on groups of three. [Laughs]
There are many teachers today in other school systems who essentially are Education for Life teachers, whether they call it that or not. Most of us have had an EFL teacher at some time in our lives. My high school history teacher didn’t have a great delivery, and he wasn’t there to please us or be funny, but I remember him for his fairness, and the respect we had for him, because he was deeply engaged with his subject and he made it alive for us.
I remember my geometry teacher who was so kind, even though he was a former Marine drill sergeant. And maybe you’d think he would have been a terror – you picture a drill sergeant yelling at the recruits. But he was so gentle. “Mr. McSweeney, you fell into the latrine on that one!” You know, “Let me show you where you made your mistake.” [Laughs] He was so nice, and I still love geometry as a result. I’m less fond of algebra, possibly because my two algebra teachers were like drill sergeants, always yelling.
I think education is gradually coming back to its senses, where teachers and administrators and parents have started to understand that you can’t just educate one part of the child for thirteen years and expect them to be happy and successful and well-prepared for life.
One of our LWS parents is applying to Nueva School for her child’s high school, and we asked her, “Oh, what’s that like?” She thought about it, and she said, “You know, they do a lot of the same things Living Wisdom does. They don’t give letter grades anymore, and they emphasize the individual approach.” And as she ran down the list of the similarities, I was thinking, “Well, that’s good.” They’re positioning themselves as a cutting-edge school, and we’re hearing about many other schools that are trying to be more humane.
Lots of schools went off the rails for a while with test scores and grades, and even UC is thinking of doing away with the SAT, or making it optional. And that’s no small thing, because it will have major repercussions.
The cynical side of me is thinking that education today is basically an industry, with powerful players that include the testing services and the textbook and test-prep course and book publishers. So there’s an element of greed to it. But parents can override that in a heartbeat by switching their vision. “I’m not putting my child on those cold and inhuman rails, I’m choosing a well-rounded school.” And if enough parents do that, the market will respond.
Q: I’m friends with an honors chemistry teacher in Illinois. who’s also a very successful track and field coach. He retired recently, and he has strong views about how education took a wrong turn, to the point where he felt that he had to become an advocate for the students, Because he saw that education was basically creating unhappiness concentration camps for thousands of kids, partly because everybody was so intimidated by the prevailing idea that success will come for kids at some indefinite point in the future if you made them suffer horribly now.
As a result there’s this ridiculous thinking that every child has to get into Harvard, or else they’re a failure. It’s extremely polarized thinking, and it’s so unrealistic that it’s heartwarming to hear that people are waking up and coming out of that hypnosis.
Gary: I think they’re trying to. It may be unrealistic to expect that the education mainstream will suddenly change. But there is a grassroots movement that seems to be leading to a shake-up, because people are looking for alternatives. Many of the kids at our school are really bright, so it’s not as if they couldn’t cut it in a mainstream school. But the parents have very carefully chosen not to do that. “I don’t want that competition for my child. I want my child to do well. I want them to learn the basics and excel, but I don’t need them to be indoctrinated with the wrong self-image: ‘I’m so great, I got an A in science and I’m going to make lots of money and be happy when I grow up.’” And all the attitudes that go along with that kind of thinking.
Q: There are some LWS parents with impressive credentials – they include tech industry executives and Stanford professors who’ve brought their children to Living Wisdom because they want them to have a balanced education.
Gary: We have friends in the School of Education at Stanford, and they applaud what we’re doing. Jack Dieckman told me, “What’s really important when a kid graduates from middle school is their relationship with math – how do they feel about math?” It’s not, “Are they doing geometry? Are they doing algebra?” It’s how they feel about their math ability. And if it’s intact, you’ve done well.
You do have to plan for the longer term. I mentioned the student who hated math, who’s now getting her PhD in genetics. Some kids struggle until after high school, and then the light goes on.
A teacher wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. She said, “I’m very sorry that I’m going to have to give up teaching. It’s been my whole career, and I love teaching. I love seeing the students, but this pressure to give standardized testing is taking all the fun out of it for me, and I can no longer teach.” She was a kindergarten teacher, and she was horrified that they are giving timed standardized tests to kindergarteners.
Q: They aren’t letting them have recess because it’s time away from math. It’s insane.
Gary: Well, again, there’s a huge profit motive when you get into that system, with the standardized tests and the textbook industry. So it’s not brain surgery to see where the impetus is coming from to keep that system going. There’s an industry around standardized testing, and when you start talking about how each child has unique gifts, I can’t imagine how you’re going to monetize that, but I’m sure they’ll try to figure out a way. [Laughs]
The book Education for Life begins with the question, “What do you want for your child?” And you might say, “Well, I want them to receive a good education.” And then the author asks, “What is a good education?” And he talks about how it includes questions of values, and how the child will grow as a person, and how this completely unbalanced view has come in, where it’s entirely about academics.
Because what you want them to become is people who tell the truth, who have integrity, who know how to work as part of a team.
When Google looked at the personal qualities of their most successful employees, they found that the most successful employees and research teams expressed qualities of cooperation, the ability to listen, the ability to change when proven wrong. And way down in eighth place on the list were STEM skills. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)
They discovered that success at Google depends very strongly on the values we’re emphasizing in EFL. And I think the proof is in the power that the kids have when they get to high school. My son did very well in navigating high school and finding his way.
When our graduates leave college, we don’t want them to be thinking, “Wow, I got all these good grades, but I’m so poorly prepared for this job!” Because they don’t have the skills that Project Aristotle discovered people need to be successful at a company like Google.
Q: When I talked with your son recently, he said that when he graduated from St. Francis High School he knew everybody in the student body. So he was socially very well-adjusted.
Gary: [Laughs] When he went to his first dance, he didn’t know anybody, so he went out on the dance floor and met one kid, and she had a couple of friends, and the next thing you know fifty of them were dancing together. He ended up becoming the student body vice president and hosting a radio talk show.
He wanted to be involved in theater, but he didn’t get the part, so he said, “I’ll do tech.” And that’s pure EFL, where you learn to be resilient and optimize your options and resources. He ended up studying film, and it became his livelihood. But most important, he just kept putting out energy. In his freshman year he got cut from the soccer team, but he went out again sophomore year and made the JVs. And through it all, by being resilient and always finding opportunities, he had a lot of fun and he’s been very successful.
Q: You can hear it in his voice, which is strong and centered and aware of other people’s realities. You sense that there’s an ability to navigate any environment he’s in.
Gary: I would say you’re describing the typical LWS graduate. There’s a self-possession. There’s an ability to deal with life that is palpable when you meet these kids regardless of their grade level. I’ve been involved in the middle school for twenty years, and when I meet the kids from the other Living Wisdom Schools, they all have this awareness. They’re aware of others and they’re aware of situations and how to deal with them maturely and objectively.
Q: People in education don’t always visualize what they’re going to accomplish with the standardized curriculum and the tests. Because what kind of people are they trying to graduate? They’re going to graduate millions of people who are good in math, okay, and millions of people who know how to manipulate the system of the academic world. And when they leave school, you find them doing lots of things where math and STEM might not be the focal point.
Your son is making films very successfully in India, and he’s helping start EFL schools there. But you also have graduates like a young man who works at Motley Fool, a leading financial research and consulting company, and he’s one of their senior counselors because he’s a financial wizard. And then you have the person who’s doing genetics research, and you have Hazie who’s in love with math, to the extent that he was doing extremely abstract advanced math that didn’t have anything to do with the real world, but he loved it because it was his nature.
And who’s to say that any one of those people is not successful? And who’s to say that the geneticist was a failure because she wasn’t good at math initially? But she saw that she had to learn it, and she had the foundation of personal qualities that allowed her to solve the problem and succeed.
Gary: We give them a foundation that serves them very well as they go along, and when life throws curves at them they know how to cope. That’s what any parent would want for their child. That’s what a true education is. Are you ready to deal with what life is going to throw at you?
It goes back to when Yogananda laid out the principles for an Education for Life that will train you to be successful in your human relationships and your work, with all of the emotions and feelings and willpower and self-control that are required, and that we emphasize from a very young age.
Q: Your life is going to put you in those situations, in school and after, and if you aren’t trained to deal with them, they’re going to smack you and maybe you’re going to be spinning. But these kids know how to navigate the situations their lives might put them in.
And as Aryavan and Hazie described in my talks with them, when they got in those situations they could look back and remember, “I know how to be happy, and here are the qualities I need to manifest right now. I need to manage this with a little kindness, or a little inner strength, or a little resistance or perseverance.” And if you’re working with your academic skills at Google, you’re going to need those life skills. Otherwise, just the ability to be a computing machine isn’t going to get you through, if that’s all you’ve got, and it’s going to isolate you very quickly, because you won’t know how to get along with people.
Well, thank you, Gary, it’s been interesting. I hope it will help parents understand what their kids will experience at Living Wisdom School.
The Yearly Living Wisdom School Awards Ceremony is perhaps the most inspiring public event of our entire school year. Each child receives a “Quality” reflecting an area in which they have shown special growth in the preceding year. Follow the links below to watch the students give their end-of-year speeches.
This year’s ceremony was conducted on Zoom, which had a not inconsiderable advantage — instead of watching the children receive their awards from distant removal of the audience, we have the privilege to meet these inspiring young people up close and personal. Enjoy!
We spoke with Aryavan McSweeney, a Living Wisdom School graduate who attended LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduating from Cal State Fullerton he worked as a filmmaker in India and northern California. He now lives in India where he and Ishani are developing new Education for Life schools.
Q: You were in kindergarten when you entered Living Wisdom School. That was a long time ago – do you remember your first years?
Aryavan: I do remember – because I have very positive memories of Living Wisdom School. So much so that I’ve dedicated a major chunk of my adult life to trying to spread the word about Education for Life, and I’m motivated by my experience at the school when I was younger.
I don’t recall many details of my time in kindergarten, but my general impression is that school was always fun and joyful. I remember looking forward to coming to school every day, and that was always true. I can’t imagine how I could have been better prepared for life after I left LWS.
Q: How was the transition to high school? You went to a highly regarded private school in Mountain View, didn’t you? Was it difficult in certain ways, or was it a breeze?
Aryavan: When I came to St. Francis, I was surprised to discover that I was a much more outgoing person than I had thought. I went to the first school dance and found myself wanting to meet people, and putting out lots of energy in a way that I wasn’t aware was part of who I was.
I think I was much more fearless than I imagined. So the transition was very good socially, but the shift to a more heavily structured, book-based academic system was less inspiring.
I didn’t find the academics too challenging, I just didn’t like it, because I knew from my experience at Living Wisdom what schoolwork could be like. But I was at an age when I was open to new experiences, and I just assumed “Okay, this is what high school is like.”
For most of the people I met at St. Francis, it was a natural continuation from elementary school, but it definitely wasn’t like that for me, and it’s part of why I’m highly motivated to try to see a change on a larger scale in schools everywhere.
All of the teachers at St. Francis were very sincere, and they were probably allowed more flexibility than at other schools, but it did feel like they were on a track from which they couldn’t deviate too far. Some of my teachers had amazing creative energy, but I missed the exceptional instruction at Living Wisdom School – and even more so when I went to college, where there were similar limits on how creative the professors could be.
I had nice relationships with some of my teachers at St. Francis, and the school felt really good generally, but the system was a bit on rails, and you could feel it. I hadn’t been used to that, because even though the teachers at Living Wisdom School did have their daily lesson plans, it felt like every day was new and creative and different, and the highest priority was always on the needs of the individual students. In high school it was more like, okay, here’s the syllabus, and here’s exactly what we’re going to be doing every week for the rest of the year.
It was fine, in its way, because you do need to cover a certain amount of material, but the creativity of the instruction was very noticeably less. There was a lot of lecture in high school, and a lot less hands-on work – and, again, I thought, “Okay, this is what you do in high school.” But I’m much more aware now that the same information could have been delivered in a more inspiring way.
I felt very well-prepared socially for the transition, in terms of my ability to make friends and meet people. High school can be a little cliquey, generally speaking. Ours wasn’t as bad as some, but there were the usual groups – the athletes and the nerds and this and that – all of the distinctions you normally find because people tend to gather according to their interests.
But I do think it was also a product of the system, because at Living Wisdom School we were so deeply integrated, not only because we were smaller but because we had so many interactions between the grades on a very dynamic level. When I got to high school I just assumed I was going to be everyone’s friend, and in fact, by the end of high school I was vice president of the student body, and I’m sure my earlier experience helped.
I knew just about every person in my class, and maybe I didn’t have deep friendships with everyone, because it was four hundred people, but I felt I could talk to them all, and that there weren’t any insurmountable boundaries.
I had friendships across many different types of people and groups, and my feeling, at the time, was that it was a result of the way Living Wisdom School had prepared me.
A good example from my years at Living Wisdom was our all-school walks to the park for phys ed, and how each of the middle schoolers would pair up with a kindergartener or a first grader. And instead of it being a big, heavy, mandated thing, it was very lighthearted and natural, and we would end up talking to the person and getting to know them. But I was amazed, on the few occasions when I would see high schoolers interact with younger kids, by how different it was. And maybe it’s fine if it’s a friendly rivalry between the seniors and the freshmen, but seeing juniors and seniors not even be able to relate to the freshmen was mystifying to me.
And then, also, the way they related to older people. The way the students related to their teachers in high school was completely foreign and unfamiliar to me. And even when the teachers might have allowed some familiarity, it was such a contrast to Living Wisdom, in part because of the tremendous familiarity between the students and teachers, and between the younger students and other levels of students, where there was a soul-to-soul relationship, instead of it only feeling like a casual acquaintance. In high school, I noticed that a lot of my peers related really well to each other, but not so well outside of their own circle.
I did sometimes get stressed about grades, I think partly because so many of the people around me were worrying about them. But I was very much more interested in the social side of high school. And of course I know that people might misunderstand me when I say this, but I knew that having fun was my priority, and I saw the other things as a bit more transitory. And once I got into the rhythm of high school I was very successful academically, even though it wasn’t my primary interest.
I didn’t see academics as an end in itself. I would see people fall into a rut of studying with their nose to the grindstone, which is all right if it’s expressing who you are. And I was capable of studying hard when I needed to. But I saw the social aspect as being much more important, and I was less likely to believe people when they said, “You need to concentrate on studying so you can get into a good school.”
By the time I entered college, I had begun to feel that there was a bit too much emphasis on conforming my nature to fit into the surrounding environment. I went to Cal State Fullerton in Southern California, and the experience was responsible in a very large way for my coming onto a spiritual path at a young age, because there was such a strong contrast between what I had experienced at Living Wisdom, and the materialism I was witnessing around me, and how it wasn’t making people happy.
I saw that people were relating to academics from a concern for material wealth – I’m talking about the students, not the teachers. The school was in Orange County, which has a very materialistic orientation, and the contrast with my earlier experiences was so striking that I was completely overwhelmed and mystified for a time. And then, not long after I left, I found my spiritual path because it was exactly what I needed. But I was mystified that people could be so obsessed with outward things.
Q: I assume you studied film, because it’s the field you’re working in now.
Aryavan: Yes. For a very long time I never really knew what I wanted to do. I picked film because I had to pick something, and I had enjoyed making videos and short films in high school, so I thought that until something else came along I would try it. I knew I wanted to do something creative, and film seemed like a good track.
Q: What was the transition like after college? Did you immediately start making films about the Living Wisdom Schools and related subjects, or did you enter the film industry?
Aryavan: In my last college semester I took a class called “The Biz.” The teacher was a very successful Hollywood producer who had produced the blockbuster Final Destination movies and other major films, and we were excited to have her with us. But what I remember most vividly was when she said to us, “You are going to have to work on projects that you’ll absolutely hate for at least five years before you can do anything you’ll like.”
That was her big inspiration, and it was at that moment that I realized I wouldn’t be working in the film industry. The vibe I got from the class was that this wasn’t the kind of industry I wanted to participate in, because it seemed extremely cold, and everything in the class was about money, which I guess makes sense for a class on “The Biz.”
She painted a picture that was informed by her own experience, and people obviously do make things they believe in, even in Hollywood. But it was very clear that I didn’t want to do things that I didn’t believe in, for any period of time.
So I started brainstorming ways to create my own series and pitch it directly to the networks. And that was something that had been instilled in me at Living Wisdom School. It was a complete refutation of the pervasive idea in the film business that you have to suffer in order to advance toward your goals, and not just work hard, but you have to subjugate your values if you want to succeed.
That’s something I found myself rejecting immediately, even as I saw my classmates nodding in agreement. So it set me apart, and I think it came from Living Wisdom School. Because we were taught to face our obstacles creatively and express positive, expansive values.
Again, those tendencies were latent in my own nature, even in eighth grade, where the teachers weren’t necessarily verbalizing those things, but we were definitely picking them up – that we could influence our circumstances in positive ways that would bring us happiness.
I don’t remember any teacher at Living Wisdom ever saying, “Live to be happy – don’t live to be rich.” But I knew the deeper values that were implied, and they were well-aligned with my nature. So when I was presented with opportunities to work purely for money, I rejected them completely.
My best friend in college entered the film industry, and he ended up creating a nice career for himself, but whenever I talk with him, he’s saying to me, “You’re living the dream – and how did that happen?”
He works for Apple and he’s making outrageous sums of money. He’s been very successful and he has a good life. He has a wife and a new child, and they’re happy, but something’s missing and he knows it. And our lives could not have gone in more opposite directions after college.
I wasn’t planning to make films for the Living Wisdom Schools. I had no long-term plans, except for maybe going back to LA and trying to build a creative life for myself.
Just before my senior year in college, I went to India as my graduation present, and I met Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools. I was still planning to come back and try to create something in the film world, but then my life led me in mysterious ways in a different direction.
The trip to India was super cool. The moment I showed up, I discovered that Swami wanted to film a series of TV programs, and that he wanted to hire people he knew. In the meantime, the original videographer suddenly couldn’t come to India, and I got the job.
So I’m suddenly recording TV programs, which is way above my pay grade in terms of the skills I’d learned in school, and I ended up learning more about video from that experience than from school. I had to do lots of things I wasn’t comfortable with, and it was like a postgraduate education. [Laughs]
Q: There must have been wrenching times, when you wondered where you were going.
Aryavan: I had this weird mental logic, where I would tell myself, “Okay, I’ll go back to my old life, but at least I’ll have spent time working for an inspiring figure, so this is an awesome opportunity, and I’ll be able to go back and do normal stuff with what I’ve learned.”
Q: How did you meet your wife, Ishani, who works as your partner in film?
Aryavan: I was in India, and the producers of The Answer, a film about Swami Kriyananda’s youthful search and his meeting with Paramhansa Yogananda, were in India to work on the film.
I had signed up to do some behind-the-scenes work on the movie, and I had spoken with Ishani several times, and then I was in the room when she got a call asking her to do makeup for the film, because she had been a professional makeup artist for fashion and photography in New York.
She didn’t really want to do it, because she felt she was done with makeup, and she was enjoying not doing it.
I knew there weren’t going to be many people I knew on the film, so I said, “You have to do it, because I won’t have anyone to talk to if you’re not there!” So I convinced her, and she did it.
The experience of making the film was total chaos, with lots of craziness and conflict. It was one of the craziest professional experiences I’ve had, and through it all Ishani and I became closer and closer, just holding onto each other for a bit of sanity and positive magnetism.
What with all the intensity, we built a deep friendship in a very compact amount of time. We learned a lot about each other in those extremely intense months, and we decided that this would be a good thing.
Q: How did you come back to the Living Wisdom Schools as the focus of your work?
Aryavan: Toward the end of his life, in 2012 and 2013, Swami Kriyananda began saying repeatedly that I should work with children, that I should be in education, and I should work in Education for Life. And the upshot is that when he left his body in 2013 there was a clear direction that he had left for me.
I wasn’t uninterested in teaching – I did find the idea somewhat interesting, and I didn’t have anything else in my life that I was deeply passionate about. I enjoyed film, but I never felt that it was the one big thing that would feed me. So it took a while before I began to feel a flow of enthusiasm for Education for Life and the vision of how it could literally change the planet.
Q: When you began making films about Living Wisdom School, did that give you a clue? Was there a special energy that you wanted to have more of in your life? Because the first 6-minute film you made about the school is beautiful!
Aryavan: I feel it’s one of the best videos we’ve made. The content was so rich that it virtually made itself, and that made it so much easier for us.
We had a really great time making that film, and when I think about the experience, it’s obvious that I would be getting into education, although I was the last person to know. [Laughs]
At a point when I was still undecided about what I would do with the rest of my life, the thought came that I had been really happy as a child at Living Wisdom School, and that that level of happiness had faded over time, and maybe it was something about the school, and the people I’d been around.
I had loved helping with the LWS summer camps, and I was always looking for opportunities to come back and visit the school, and to be with the children in that environment.
I believe that’s a big part of what makes Living Wisdom School so exceptional. The environment is so uplifting and joyful on a deep vibrational level that it’s the kind of place you want to be. And when I think of how learning happens at LWS, I realize it’s the best possible environment for kids to learn and just be in. It was such a pleasant, joyful, uplifting place to be that when I look back at it now, it’s very clear why I would end up wanting to create that kind of experience for other children.
I hadn’t thought of getting into education, yet it now seems obvious, because everything about the Living Wisdom Schools is attractive to me, and I find it deeply inspiring.
Education for Life is not complicated. You just have to believe in being happy and joyful, and in having more of that experience in your life. And for me, sharing that experience with others, especially children, has been deeply fulfilling and gratifying.
Q: It’s amazing that for six hours of the day, and nine months out of the year, there’s an intense environment where kids can thrive – it’s like a super cosmic happiness school for kids, and a wonderful success incubator and nursery.
Aryavan: I totally agree. Of course, I’m biased, but when you visit the school and you meet the kids, and you hear the stories of kids who’ve come from tough backgrounds or tough schooling experiences, and you compare it with their experience at Living Wisdom School, the idea that you can create an environment where children can feel loved is already a huge win.
And then you add learning to the equation, and it’s brilliant. But even if we didn’t run a school, and if we just ran a place where children felt whole and safe and happy, that would actually be enough to guide them for the rest of their lives. And that we’re doing anything else is a bonus.
When a child has the opportunity to experience what that kind of pure happiness feels like, and to know that they can create it for themselves and navigate the world based on that feeling – who needs more than that, once they have that sense of themselves and who they are and what their abilities are, and the enthusiasm to do great things?
Our whole approach is about helping kids thrive during the years from roughly age six to twelve, when their feelings are at the forefront of their personal development, and helping them acquire a good mastery of their feelings as a tool of maturity, all while you’re recognizing the highest, appropriate use of the intellect.
We all have to deal with the four tools of maturity that kids develop in the years from birth to age twenty-four. You can see examples all around you, of people who have strong will power, for example, but it’s often directed in ways that aren’t going to give them happiness and fulfillment. And the true meaning of the intellect is that it needs the inward process of uniting the feelings and mind in expansive and wise ways.
Feeling is the one that always seems to get left behind in our current educational system. And so the intellect becomes a purely outward thing, where it’s all about grades and test results, and the feelings become nothing, because we just shove them aside and bury and disparage them. And then we’re surprised when people rebel, or when they have midlife crises, or they reach the pinnacle outwardly and realize that there was nothing in it worthwhile.
If you look at the graduates of Living Wisdom School, and the relationships they have with their work and their families and friends, that’s where you begin to see the potential for a revolution, because it’s offering the kids so much more. It’s telling them about life the way our lives were meant to be. This life was meant to be so much more fulfilling than people are giving it an opportunity to be. So, yes, we’re training people to be happy.