Q: Are you trying to give the students an education that will support them with a sense of life’s meaning and joyful possibilities?
Gary: I truly believe that’s exactly what we are doing. When we talk about schools, we naturally think about math, science, and writing. But in our school we broaden the meaning of education. We’re not just about A’s, B’s, and C’s. We not only prepare them for high school Algebra 2 and Geometry, we prepare them for social situations and try to give them the strength and wisdom to navigate the negative aspects of life, such as the temptations of drugs and alcohol, etc.
We offer them discipline and a natural, nurturing environment — that’ a combination that is extremely helpful in preparing them for life beyond school.
Q: In traditional elementary and junior high schools, most of the day is spent on academics. With so many other activities at Living Wisdom School — field trips, theater, music, art, etc. — how do you find time for “serious” subjects?
Gary: Our parents may have little or no personal experience to relate to what I’m about to say. But perhaps, if they reflect on it, they’ll see that it just makes sense.
The world is changing. Even corporate America has begun to realize that the old assumptions about education no longer work as well — for example, the assumption that if you put a child in the classroom for 10 hours a day, he or she will be brighter than one who sits there for eight hours simply isn’t supported by research or experience.
Education is 95 percent about working with the child’s energy and nurturing them along. At LWS, we start each morning with what we call “Circle Time.” We go for a walk, we do energization exercises, we meditate, and then we go right into math.
A parent might look at that and say “Wow, you could be doing vocabulary or some other academic subject.” But it’s the core of our day. On the few days in the school year when there’s an interruption in our schedule and we can’t do Circle Time, it changes the energy of the whole day.
In LWS, our teaching is very much about energy, and it’s also about consciousness. There’s plenty of hard research that shows effective education isn’t about piling on homework, it’s not about grilling kids, it’s not about making education stressful. It’s about students being in an environment where they are inspired to think and contribute, and to integrate the curriculum. In our school, the academic program is based on the idea that history, language arts, science, and math are not completely separate fields that never touch on each another.
Our approach is about teaching kids to think, to learn how to learn, and to enjoy learning. Our motto, “Where learning and joy come together,” is more than words; it permeates every minute of the day. For 18 years, and for 30 years at the original Living Wisdom School, we’ve shown that if a child is happy and feels cared for, they’ll do well. It’s just common sense.
If you compare us with other schools that stress academics, I would put our kids up against them any day. Because education is not just about cramming information into the mind. It’s about “How do you think?” “How do you manage your time?” “How do you find your center, when you’re being asked to do many things?”
Our yearly theater performance is extremely challenging to the students, in terms of time management, and getting up in front of people and delivering lines, and learning about the culture and personal histories of the figures the plays are based on.
Academics are very rigorous at our school. The truth is that Living Wisdom School is as rigorous, I believe, as any of the schools that tout their academics. The difference is that there’s a tremendous amount of support for the students. Our classrooms are not competitive in the negative sense, where the students try to beat down the other students; rather, we encourage each student to face their own challenges and overcome them. In doing so, they find an inner strength that they weren’t aware of.
We strive for excellence in all our subjects. We strive for excellent behavior. We strive for excellent citizenship — for example, how the students relate to their teachers. Do they show proper respect?
On our way home from our most recent field trip, we stopped at a Fresh Choice restaurant and the manager came up to Helen and me while we were paying the bill. He said, “You know, a lot of school groups come through here, and I just want to compliment you on how well-behaved your kids are. Middle-school kids play with the food, they leave a mess and we clean up, we’re used to it, we don’t even mind it.” He said, “But your kids are really, really well-behaved.”
At the retreat center where we often stay on field trips, the staff always comments on how well-behaved the kids are. We think it’s basically common courtesy. But we do instill it in the children, and we insist on it.
My experience with the students is that when I’m really stern with them, and really ask a lot of them, challenge them, they thrive. Our drama coach does the same thing with the theater programs. He treats the children like professional actors. And Helen does it in Language Arts.
When you ask a lot of people, they respond. It brings out the best in them, and they like it, even when you have to discipline them. On our field trips, we’re with the kids around the clock, and you have to set boundaries for them. But they love it. They enjoy it, because it brings out the best in them, and it feels good.
Our yearly Theater Magic play is always about a great individual from history. This year, we’re doing a play about the Dalai Lama. The subjects of the plays are people who faced tremendous challenges, with courage and clarity and compassion. We’re always trying to get our kids to be compassionate with one another, to be courageous in what they take on, and have mental clarity about all the things they’re learning. Enacting the lives of great people is deeply inspiring to them, and it has a lasting impact.
Bombarding them with information and facts, cramming their minds full of facts in the name of educating them — there’s just no research that backs it up. It takes a bit of courage on the part of the parents, perhaps, to see how our way might work. A bit of imagination. A bit of thinking outside of the box.
I think the schools that boast about their academics are playing upon the fears of parents. Parents naturally want their children to be well-prepared — that’s natural. And they know how competitive it is in real life, because they’re working in that environment.
So the parents wonder, are we just a little bit too soft and nice — and once the kids hit high school or real life, will they just melt? But that hasn’t been our experience, at all.
Parents often seem to assume that what their child needs in order to achieve in high school and college is to have a box of facts of a certain size. Whereas we’re showing that it doesn’t work that way.
Theodore Timpson, a former teacher here at LWS, pointed out that the body of available information just keeps growing. In every field, there are constant breakthroughs and new findings. How can anyone keep up? What’s really needed is to train kids to navigate information. You don’t need to know it all, but you need to know how to find what you need, and how to understand it and work with it.
One of our graduates turned down Stanford to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, because that’s her passion. She wrote us a letter, thanking us for training her. Again, here’s a student thanking her grammar school for training her to navigate that world. She thanked us for training her in common sense. She said, “Because, as a performer, once I have common sense up on stage, I always know what to do.”
She’s singing in the San Francisco Opera, and not in a role that was specially set aside for a young person. She auditioned and made the San Francisco Opera. But she had the courage to turn down Stanford, and her mom just rolled her eyes — “I couldn’t believe her turning down Stanford.” But she went for the Conservatory because she found a music teacher she believed in who would take her on.
So she’s following her passion. It’s inspiring that these kids are finding their own way, figuring out what they need to do.
There are plenty of signs in our culture, if you look for them, that the other model of education is not working. Recently here in Palo Alto, there were some real tragedies, with four or five teenagers separately committing suicide on the railroad tracks. Suicide is now the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers, for the first time in recorded history.
So there are signs that the current system of education is not working. And I would challenge parents who express doubts about what we’re doing. I would say, is this other system working, in truth? Are these kids coming out better?
Our educational philosophy at LWS is based on the ideas in the book, Education for Life. The book begins by asking the question “What are your hopes for your child’s education?”
Of course, you want them to be able to read and write and be successful. And then the question is, how do you best prepare them? And the old model is tempting. Most of the LWS parents had that model in their education. And we’re inviting them to offer their child something different. But once you truly understand what we do, it’s not that different. It’s simply common sense. It’s academics, but it’s also about finding the best way to excel in academics and in life.
What’s revolutionary is that our schedule is not crammed with academics. We do have science and math, and our kids do very well. But we also notice the gifts each child has, and we support them in those gifts, and we give them time to blossom, whether those gifts are in math, sports, the arts, entrepreneurship, etc.
Keith Devlin, a famous mathematician, came to our school to talk to us. He said he didn’t even like math until he got to college. He was interested in biology, and a professor told him, “If you’re going to major in biology, you have to know math.” So he reluctantly signed up for a math course, and at that point he went, “Wow, this is so much fun.” Now he’s on NPR, where he’s known as the Math Guy.
So we look at the longer rhythms of a child’s development. “What are your gifts? Oh, your talent is art.” It doesn’t mean that it can’t be art and math. But we want these kids to be themselves, and to help them be their best.
There’s a term that’s deeply embedded in modern education research, called “integrated thematic curriculum.” It’s an acknowledgment that children learn best when they have more than one hook on which to grasp a new piece of learning. As the children form new connections in their brains by approaching a subject from different angles and in different contexts, their brains grow more dendrites, than if they were doing rote “workbook learning.”
The theater experience is part of a tree with many branches — it’s one part of the landscape of learning that’s offered in the school, where they’re learning many subjects that overlap. They’re learning about art, reading poetry, studying geography, and they’re placing it all in space and time, in abstraction and concreteness. The learning experience is completely vivid, and it allows them to make countless fresh connections. It’s the deepest kind of learning. It isn’t isolated from traditional academic classroom work, but it’s not rote — it’s experiential, and it’s bone-deep.
The attitude that these methods nurture toward writing during the early years becomes very important when the students get to middle school. At that point, there’s a shift from highly personal writing, toward expository writing — essays, reports, and so on. It’s a time when they need to learn the rudiments of a good analytical essay.
However, we don’t forget the groundwork that’s been laid in the early grades. We incorporate it — if you’re writing a paper on Shakespeare, for example, with a character analysis, we might read the play, then go to the theater and see the play, and maybe we’ll do a readers’ theater. But we try to become those characters, so that when they start to write, it’s coming from their own experience of the characters.
And their essays, as a result, are vivid. But it sets the context for teaching technical details that they might not otherwise learn until they were freshmen in college — thesis statements, topic sentences, and so on — things I used to cover when I taught college writing classes. But these kids are ready for it. Of course, it’s at a different level of sophistication, but the basics are there.
Also, with all the writing they’re doing in middle school — expository writing, creative writing, reports, etc. — they’re always referencing their own experience and their own predilections; i.e., what they value. So, if they’re writing a research paper, for example, it won’t be on some preconceived idea that I’ve dished out to them, but on their own burning question.
Several years ago, one of our middle school students wrote a terrible research paper. We tried working with him to improve it, but at a certain point we realized that it was beyond salvaging. The next year, I encouraged him to write about something he was personally interested in. He was Indian, and he wrote a great research paper on the caste system. He caught fire and learned the documentation skills he needed. So it was a great learning experience for him, to find that he could trust his sense of what was important and interesting.
Q: In the classroom, how much individual attention are you able to give each child?
Gary: A few years ago, a girl from our school transferred to a public school. Students who’ve spent all or most of their elementary years at LWS sometimes wonder if they might be missing something. So she went to public school for a year, and she came back to LWS at the end of the year. With just two weeks left of school, we let her back in, and she later told us that she learned more in those two weeks than in her whole year of public school.
At the public school, it was continual workbook learning. It might give a parent a sense that “Oh, things are okay, they have lots of homework.” But I would suggest that parents ask some basic questions – What exactly are the kids learning? Are they enthused about learning, or is it onerous? Is it just workbook learning?
This girl went to the teacher at the public school and said, “You know, I really understand this stuff, and I can prove to you that I understand it. Do I have to do all the exercises?” Because it seemed so rote. And the most the teacher felt she could do was cut back a certain amount on the rote work, even though she agreed that the student knew it.
In middle school, in our math department, each child is working at his or her own pace. We correct their tests and go over what they don’t understand, but where they show real competency, they are encouraged to go on. That is how we can accommodate kids who are at very different levels of math in the same class, all learning at the same time, and being supported at their own level.
We’re blessed in this school to have an amazing student-teacher ratio. In middle school math, for example, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we have three teachers for 15 students, or a 5:1 student-teacher ratio. And on Thursday, we have two teachers, for a 7.5:1 ratio.
It’s a phenomenal program. It works for the kids who are struggling, it works for the kids who are doing well, and it works for the kids who can go really fast.
When my son went to this school, I knew intuitively that everything was fine. I knew it by watching Bryan’s energy. When he came home from school, and when school would begin again after a break, I always noticed that his energy would be high.
So, really, I think parents have to use their intuition. They know their children, and they need to ask, “Is my child happy?” and “Is he or she learning?”
There will be challenges wherever they go to school – a play date doesn’t work out, or they argue with a friend. Those things happen at LWS, as they do anywhere. But if a parent takes a moment to reflect – Is my child happy? – I think that’s what counts.
I never had a doubt about this school when my son was here. And time has proven my judgment correct. Bryan went on to do well in high school and college, and his mother and I know it was the formative years that made the difference.
I encourage parents to come see our play, come to a music concert, and talk to the kids at LWS about their field trips.
The teachers here accept the child who’s sitting in front of them. Not every child will be taking calculus their freshman year, I can assure you. But we believe there’s not a child on the face of the earth who doesn’t have a gift. And if they’re allowed to be who they are, they can find themselves according to their own gifts, whether it’s through academics, art, music, dance, theater, or the gift of making friends.
Our education system now in this country is wound a little tight, and I encourage parents to remember “These are children – they need time in nature, they need time on field trips, and they need time to do math. But they also need time to sort through things.”
I think if parents keep asking that question – “Am I doing the best thing for my child?” – I think they’ll find that their child would be very happy at Living Wisdom.
Teachers in most schools, public and private, have to try to teach to the middle of the class. And in our math department, for example, we don’t have to teach to the middle. Teaching to the middle leaves out the super-talented ones, and it doesn’t really serve the ones who need more support. In our school, the classes are small, but because of the very low student-teacher ratio, the teachers can shoot high and still bring all the children along.
LWS teachers answer parents’ questions about Living Wisdom School. To learn about research that supports LWS teaching methods and philosophy, continue to the Education Research section below. The questions were answered by Helen Purcell, school director, and Gary McSweeney, middle school teacher and Education for Life board member.
We’ll be happy to answer any other questions you may have. Please feel free to contact us one of three ways: (1) Call the school office at (650) 462-8150 to schedule a call-back from Helen or Gary; (2) call to schedule a guided tour of the school during which we’ll answer your questions; or (3) email us your question(s):
Thank you for your interest in Living Wisdom School!