Rose Atwell is tasked with preparing the seventy-plus students of Living Wisdom School for the annual all-school Theater Magic Production in mid-March. Her long experience in theater, and her genius for knowing exactly what each child needs, make her a perfect choice for this very important role.
Q: How did you come to direct the Theater Magic program at Living Wisdom School?
Rose: I was a full-time teacher at the original Living Wisdom K-8 school in Nevada City, California from 2007 to 2015, and I served as the high school drama teacher for part of that time.
I remember when I met with the teenagers to discuss our first performance. They said, “Can we do Lord of the Rings?”
I said, “Oh, no – it’s too big!”
But they weren’t fazed. “What if we write the script?”
I asked them some questions to determine how serious they were. They were very enthusiastic, so I said, “All right, if you write a script, we’ll do it.”
They spent lots of after-school hours writing the script and building the sets, and they put their hearts and souls into rehearsing and performing the play. It really stretched them, so there was lots of personal growth. We had a wonderful time together, and since then theater has become a focus of my work in the Living Wisdom Schools.
One of the great joys of theater is the sense of community that it creates. Working on a play together creates wonderful connections for the actors and the audience, and it gives the children a very valuable experience of being part of something larger than themselves.
When I came to the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to direct the Theater Magic program. The school puts its whole energy into the plays, and the staff and teachers give the children tremendous support so that they will have a profound experience with lots of learning and personal growth.
All of the students, from the youngest to the oldest, TK-8th grade, take part in the play, and they take it very, very seriously. They bring their best to the rehearsals, so there’s tremendous learning for them.
For example, if a very shy child is being challenged to project their voice and fill the room with their energy, we offer them endless support to grow into their role and discover what they’re capable of.
I love the months we spend together creating the plays, because they give the children so much, including the opportunity to experience the joys of cooperation and community. We have five-year-olds working alongside the eighth graders to perfect a scene. They’ll be working together to perfect a scene, and it’s beautiful to see how they’re helping each other. The middle schoolers are learning to help the younger children, and the little ones are having mature behaviors modeled for them by the older kids. We’re constantly witnessing how those connections inspire tremendous growth.
In all my years in theater, I’ve seen that the process is more important than the product. During the months of build-up to the performances, we’re focusing on the elements of joy, enthusiasm, courage, and community, because we know that if we can create a happy, safe, expansive environment, the children will thrive and the results will be beautiful as well. The adult audiences love the plays, and the four performances are always standing-room only.
It has become increasingly clear to me that my role is to be fully present with each child, and to help them have the happiest, most rewarding experience possible. I’ve come to a point where I can quickly sense if something is too big a stretch for a particular child – if it’s too scary at this point in their life.
We do ask a lot of them; for example, we ask them to fill a huge room with their voice and their presence in front of their peers. The plays are very professional, so there’s lots of memorization and lots to learn about polishing their craft as actors.
We spend lots of time helping them go deep in their roles, but if we see that a child is at a point that isn’t comfortable for them, we’ll immediately stop and let them go and be supported and relaxed, and take the pressure off.
In my role as an adult who’s guiding kids from age five to fourteen, I’ve learned that it’s really all about finding those points of personal growth, without ever crossing the line into a situation that would overwhelm them.
We’re always teaching to the individual child, tuning into their special needs and finding out if they are ready to move forward into a little more growth, or if what they need, for now, is more support and comfort.
Both are very valid needs, and we’ve learned to be very good at identifying the edge of what will be fun for the child and a good and appropriate next step, not only for the sake of the play, but for their personal growth and their next step in confidence, creativity, and expansion.
Those are the most important things we’re always watching for. I believe our ability to understand what the children are going through evolves through years of watching how they deal with being challenged at the near edge of their ability. We’re always focused on keeping it doable for them, so that they can feel happy and excited by the experience of discovery, but never swamped.
Q: Do you spend most of your time working with the youngest children?
Rose: No, I actually spend more time with the older ones, because the very young ones can only go for so long. (laughs)
For the kindergarteners, for example, our first priority is for them to be happy, to be having fun, and to feel good about what they’re doing. So we’ll give them something they can accomplish every day, something we know they can succeed at and feel really good about.
If you try to push them too far, the happiness won’t happen. So we’ll give the kindergarteners a little dance, a poem, or a song, and then they can come to rehearsals and be part of the larger process and become inspired by the older kids.
It’s extremely sweet to see the kindergarten kids at recess, acting out everything they’ve seen, including the big kids’ roles. But when we’re working with them at rehearsals, we’re careful to keep it very doable and happy and enjoyable.
As the kids get older, they can take on more acting and dialogue. In the early middle grades, they might have a handful of lines, and they might also be in lots of scenes without saying very much. But they’re getting a feel for it. Then in fourth to eighth grade they can start taking on larger roles, so that they’ll be stretched more with memorization and projection, and holding the play together.
Q: Does the theater experience teach them life skills?
Rose: Yes, very much so. We are helping them learn to relate to people, to speak well and clearly in order to be understood, and to take the other person’s point of view.
Also, the theme of each play is the life of an inspiring individual who has demonstrated positive, expansive values. Beginning at a very early age, the children are living a story that is uplifting, hopeful, and inspiring.
“What we practice, we become,” and the attitudes and values we dwell on, we can expand into. The children are dwelling on stories that offer them beautiful personal traits and positivity. And what could be more important for children than to be absorbing and acting out uplifting values?
Acting-out positive qualities is a very powerful path to personal and academic growth. For each child, it’s an affirmation of positive, beautiful ways of behaving and being. We, as adults, talk about the power of our thoughts, and the children are memorizing lines that are infused with wonderful life lessons. And each year they add to the pantheon of heroes from various cultures.
Back in the classroom, they also get to dwell deeply on the themes of the play and the lives of these inspiring people. Of course, they will bring their own unique values and beliefs to the discussion. We aren’t trying to feed them a narrow belief system. We’re offering them universal, inspirational values of courage, kindness, compassion, and the like.
Q: With every student in the school participating in the play, it must be a lot of young people to relate to!
Rose: We work on one scene at a time. For example, we’ll rehearse Scene 1 from 10:30 to 1130 a.m. on Monday, and everyone who’s in the scene will be on stage. Then the kids in the next scene will come, so it’s always a small group and a mix of ages.
There may be five, ten, or twenty kids in the room, all amazingly well-behaved. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve honed the art of crowd control (laughs), but I will lay out the ground rules. “Okay, this is what you need to do. This is what I expect.” And they do it. The kids are amazing, and I think it’s a tribute to what the teachers are giving them in the classroom.
Q: Some years ago, when I filmed video in the kindergarten classroom, I found it amazing to see how the teacher could go off to help another group, and the kids at the first table would be completely engrossed in their work and very polite and considerate. So I’m guessing that you’re blessed to be working with kids who have a certain degree of maturity. How does it compare with the other theater groups you’ve been involved with, in college and community theater?
Rose: (laughs) Well, if you’re majoring in theater in college, you’ve probably going to have some creative energy, but you won’t necessarily be calm. There are wonderful, talented people in theater, but I think that if you’re going to do theater well and be successful, you have to be very solid and mature and aware of other people’s realities. If somebody isn’t respectful and aware, they aren’t going to go very far in a theater production community. It truly is the reality that you have to work with others in a mature way.
Also, to portray a character correctly, you must have empathy. In other words, you have to be able to relate to a reality that isn’t your own, and then share it with the audience. Learning to relate to realities outside of your own is an important element of an Education for Life.
The theater experience gives the children fantastic practice in not taking themselves too seriously; it challenges them to be aware of and examine the habits and thoughts by which they define themselves, and it teaches them that they can choose to change for the better.
Q: Do you work with the other teachers during the theater process?
Rose: Not until the final stages. A teacher will send three or four students for Scene 4, and the other students will remain in the classroom. The teachers are wonderfully supportive, but I don’t spend much time working directly with them until Tech Week, when we’re setting up the sound, the lights, and the sets, and organizing the scripts, and so on. Then everyone is pitching in together, but for a large portion of the rehearsal time, it’s just me and the students.
Q: Did you have special training in child psychology, teaching theater, or anything like that?
Rose: No, it’s all been hands-on. After I graduated with a theater degree from UC Santa Cruz, I spent a year working with Narani Moorehouse, a wonderful teacher at the original Living Wisdom School who has more than forty years of teaching experience, and I learned a tremendous amount from her.
Also, when I was a young person I was a student in the Living Wisdom Schools, and I’m sure I absorbed a great deal from the wonderful attitudes and practices of the teachers. Teaching has felt very natural for me, and perhaps I was born with a certain aptitude for it.
Q: It’s a blessing for the children to be exposed to inspiring people and ideas from an early age, and to have so many valuable learning experiences. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts with us.
A conversation with Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell
Helen Purcell has served for more than 20 years as Director of the K-8 Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California. Throughout her career in education she has taught language arts at the elementary, high school, and university undergraduate levels.
Q: Our subject today is your life in education — what you’ve learned as a teacher, and the experiences that persuaded you that it might be possible to help young people in better ways.
Helen: As part of my studies in earning my credential, I student taught an English course at Santa Monica City College, and among the discoveries I made in that first teaching assignment was that the relationship between the student and teacher is golden.
There was a young man in the class who was extremely bright, but he confided, “I’m not sure I should be taking your class because I’ve been living on a Pacific island for many years, and I hardly know how to speak English anymore.”
I said, “I can tell by the way you’re speaking that you’ll do just fine, so hang in there, and I’ll help you.”
As it turned out, he didn’t need much help, but because I had been so willing to help him, he was wonderfully supportive of what I was doing, and it made me powerfully aware of the importance of the relationship between the student and teacher.
I then taught for several years at a community college near Chico, California. It was in a remote rural area, and it drew many adults who were wanting to have an experience of college for the first time, as well as young people who were just stepping out into the world.
Because it was such a diverse group, I quickly realized that regardless of the subject you’re teaching, you are always teaching to the individual, and you need to consider their individual needs, which may be very different from your own, because if you ignore those differences, you’ll absolutely miss your goal of helping them, with their unique histories and their particular talents and graces.
This is a bedrock principle of the Living Wisdom Schools, where we are profoundly focused on getting to know each student so that we can help them move forward in the best way, starting where they are.
After teaching for several years at Chico, I taught at the University of Portland, and then at a community college in Oregon. I then decided to earn a high school teaching credential, because I felt that it would open a realm of teaching that was extremely interesting to me, and that had always been very dear to my heart. I knew that adolescence is an extremely important period in a young person’s life, and I felt that there were better approaches to preparing teenagers than the common practices in high schools at the time.
The Magic of Mixed Classes
The first high school where I taught was in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Most of the students came from white middle-class families, and some were just waiting to leave school and get a job, while others were planning to enroll at a community college or a state university, and a handful had higher aspirations.
I taught a combined class that included freshmen and sophomore students, and it was a wonderful experience, not least because the freshmen were learning social skills from the sophomores, and it reduced the behavior problems in my class. I realized that the school had been extremely wise in combining the classes, because a great deal of learning was being transmitted between the age groups, completely aside from what they were learning from me.
Being able to count on the students to help each other was a revelation, and I spent a lot of time thinking about that approach and incorporating it into my teaching. The camaraderie between teacher and students and student and student infused the entire learning process.
In the Living Wisdom Schools, we find that it works extremely well to have mixed classes where students of different grades and ages are learning together, because it creates a sense of responsibility in the older students that helps them develop a mature, inclusive outlook, and it helps the younger students both socially and academically.
It also showed me the wonderful sense of family that can develop in a classroom where mixed ages are learning together, even in a high school with 2000 students.
The high school administrators had been inspired to divide the school population into smaller elements, so that the same students would be learning together for the first two years. It made the transition to high school easier for the freshman, and it allowed the teachers to form closer bonds with and between the students. The older students developed a mentoring relationship with the younger ones.
The administrators were also intent on facilitating communication between the teachers, so that there would never be a student who was having trouble in math, for example, that I wouldn’t know about it, even though I was teaching English. To that end, the high school administrators gave the teachers time to get together once a week to discuss what was working for each of the students, and a staff psychologist would come to the meetings to offer his insights as needed.
This is another extremely strong feature of the Living Wisdom Schools, that the teachers are constantly talking with each other so that we are all intimately aware of what’s going on with every single student in the school.
Another lesson I learned while teaching in both college and high school was that the more human and real you are with the students, the less distance there will be between you, and that there’s a quality of naturalness and friendship that is absolutely essential for a teacher to have, if you want to be as effective as possible.
When I was in graduate school, we were never taught how to form a unique relationship with each student, yet it was one of the most priceless lessons I gleaned from my years teaching in high school and college.
In my credential program we were taught about the sociological characteristics of various cultural groups, and so on, but they failed to teach us the most important thing of all, which is how to help the individual student, regardless of the class size.
One of the first things I did to humanize the classroom environment and turn it into an incubator of good energy and open communication was to arrange the desks in a semi-circle instead of in rows. It meant that even though I remained the guiding presence, I was no longer the visual center, and because the students were facing each other it encouraged communication.
One Student, One Voice
I made a special point of encouraging each student to have a voice, and that isn’t something that happens unless the teacher actively encourages it. In most classes, you have the academic superstars who will be engaged and will talk a lot, and you’ll have kids who are natural communicators who’ll enjoy speaking up, but you’ll also have lots of quiet ones — and you must find a way to reach them and give them the energy they deserve.
At about the time I began teaching high school, our founder published Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet Today’s Challenges, and I was thrilled to discover that he had put words to many of the lessons I was learning, and that he had built on those ideas and taken them even farther and deeper.
He suggested that, as a cornerstone of our educational philosophy, we should ask the most fundamental question of all: “What is the point of our lives?”
The answer that he offered was: “What all people are seeking, behind the colorful multiplicity of their stated motives, is to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering.”
For high school students and for younger and olderstudents as well, finding their own, unique way to be happy will never be exclusively about getting good grades. It needs to include the whole child and all of the ways they are uniquely relating to their lives and to the world. One of the major steps toward learning to be happy and mature is to learn to relate to the realities of others.
When you can help young students acquire those very important interpersonal skills, it changes everything, because being able to relate affects the child’s ability to be happy and to do their best in school.
We Grow at Our Own Level
It wasn’t long before I began to notice that when the students felt that they were being seen and valued and included, the kids who weren’t among the academic superstars began to shine.
When they entered my classroom, they quickly realized that the school equation had changed, and while I don’t think they were always consciously aware of it, I made it a bedrock principle that I wanted to give them a great experience of school, and help them know how valued they were.
One of the ways I invited their participation was by asking the kids to give me their feedback at the end of the year.
I said, “What did you like during the year? What worked for you, and what would you suggest I could do differently that would work better for you?”
They could choose to write their thoughts, but because we were easy with each other by the end of the year, many of them chose to share their impressions verbally.
I would say, “Everything you tell me will be valuable, so go ahead and say it.”
There was a girl in one of my classes who was autistic, and she had two areas that she loved — she knew all about Star Wars and the Bible. So I made her our go-to person whenever we needed information in those areas. It came up surprisingly often, and nobody ever teased or harassed her, whereas she had been treated brutally in the past.
After class, she was afraid to walk down the hall alone, so I would take her arm and we would walk together. In my class she had a special place.
Unlike her other courses, she didn’t need an aide in my classroom, because she had learned to be more independent. I made whatever accommodations I could for her, but she felt thoroughly accepted, because the truth is that the other kids had learned to accept and value her. When I asked for their feedback at the end of the year, the autistic girl spoke up and said, “This is just the best class!”
When one young man in my senior class raised his hand, I said, “I’m so glad you want to contribute, because we don’t hear your voice often enough.” I said, “I know from reading your work that you have good ideas.”
He said, “I would never speak up in any of my other classes.” And when I asked why, he said, “Because no one makes fun of anybody in this class, and in my other classes I wouldn’t get out more than two or three words before somebody would be putting me down.”
I said, “Is that true?” And the whole class nodded, yes, and it broke my heart, because I sadly realized that in four years he had never experienced the kind of acceptance that empowers kids to grow freely and go far.
Teaching in a public high school, I had many experiences that showed me the worth of the principles we practice every day in our Living Wisdom Schools, and how powerfully those principles can affect the students’ experience of school, and how they free them to do their best, academically and personally.
A prime example of how we recognize our students’ growth is the Qualities Ceremony during our year-end celebration. The teachers honor each student with a positive quality that they have developed over the previous nine months, a quality that reflects greater maturity.
For a child who genuinely understands right and wrong, for example, it might be the quality of Justice. Or it might be Friendship, Kindness, Courage, or any other quality you would wish for the child to develop as part of becoming a confident, happy person. Then at the End of the Year ceremony, the child – even the youngest ones – will say a few words about their quality – how they understand it, how they worked on it, and how they feel about it
I was still teaching in public high school when I decided to start celebrating the students’ successes at the end of the year with a quality. I asked the office staff to help me print the beautiful certificates, and they got into the spirit of it, too.
I gave my students individual qualities of Courage, Joy, and so on. Then, at the final class of the year, I explained what I was doing, and I handed them their certificates.
I vividly remember giving one girl the quality of Delight, and how vehemently she protested — “This isn’t true!”
I said, “But it is! You are absolutely delightful. I always love having you in my class.”
She said, “No, no! This is not true! I am not always delightful.”
I said, “Wait a second, I’m not saying that you’re always delightful. This is saying that you are mostly delightful, and even if you have your off-days, as we all do, I see you as delightful.”
I asked the class, “Am I right? Is she delightful?” And they shouted, “Yes, yes! You are!” And I could see that she was having to take that quality into herself and accept it as a defining part of who she was.
Of course, it was absolutely true, because from the moment she came into the class she had a way of making everything lighter and happier and funnier, and a way of including everybody and being responsive — all of the qualities that make a wonderful member of the community and a wonderful learner.
Later, as I reflected on that first informal Qualities Ceremony, I thought, “It’s such a simple thing, and it took so little time and effort on my part, but I think it was life-changing for her…and for who knows how many others.”
Does Education for Life Work?
Now, some people might say, “These are soft skills, and they are not what’s going to get you through life,” but I would disagree very heartily, because everything I’ve learned as an Education for Life teacher tells me that when you approach children in a way that acknowledges them as whole persons and in their deepest essence as shining souls, they respond beautifully. This became the spirit behind every encounter I had with a new student. My first thought was always, “This is a shining soul.” We must acknowledge them as a unique light, and our job is to help them shine ever more brightly.
And how can we do that?
When a teacher is holding that thought uppermost in every encounter with a student, it gets communicated both subtly and overtly. Then the student feels that their experience of school is much deeper, and more personal.
When I was a little girl, the teacher would give us gold stars for good behavior or for penmanship. It was a formal system of external rewards. You can have a reward system in an Education for Life school, but it will take on a very different meaning, because it’s all about the individual relationship with each child.
One child needs to learn to believe in herself, and another needs to learn to respect and believe in others. Whatever the lesson is, it’s always individual.
I believe this is another major point in favor of our system of education. It’s so real, because it’s based on helping them where they really are, and according to their own nature.
At the big high school where I taught, I was able to accomplish a great deal by teaching to the individual students in my classroom, and yet there were outside forces wanting us to march along in orderly rows.
There was a young girl in my class who was very popular and well-liked. She was a cheerleader and part of the homecoming queen’s court, and she was also very bright. At the same time, her whole life was geared toward getting a super grade-point average and going to a great college. Because she was measuring her success entirely by grades, she didn’t get nearly as much out of my class as the other kids.
For her final exam she wrote an essay which was okay but not great, and after a great deal of careful thought, I gave her a B-plus for the course, although I knew she would be disappointed. And, sure enough, she came to me and said, “I need an A! Why didn’t you give me an A?”
I explained that an A is something you earn by going beyond simply regurgitating the information — it indicates that you’ve engaged with the subject, that you’ve taken it in and made it part of your awareness in a creative way.
But she wasn’t convinced, and I wasn’t surprised when I got a call from her father.
I felt a great deal of regret for her, not for the B grade, but because the other kids had grown so much more, each at their level.
Education for (Real) Life
Our class included students from typical middle-class families and others who had come to America as refugees and immigrants. We were discussing immigration one day, and a boy from a white middle-class family made a negative remark about Asian people who were seeking refuge in this country and taking jobs, and so on.
There was a girl from Laos in the class, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, where am I going to go with this?” But before I could say a word, the Laotian girl spoke up, which was remarkable in itself, because she had never spoken in class.
She said, “For your information, I am a refugee, and I have as much right to be here as you do!” The boy stammered out a response, but the class came together and confronted him with the flaws in his reasoning.
I was so proud of her, that she had felt free and courageous enough to take him on. She said, “By the way, if you go back far enough, you’re an immigrant, too!”
I believe that the freedom to engage with real-life issues is at the core of an Education for Life, because true education isn’t only about mastering information, it’s about mastering how you want to live your life, and how you can be a good person, and how you can be part of a family and part of a workforce.
Of course, it takes a great deal of hard work to master a professional field, but in the end I believe a successful life comes down to certain universal and indispensable principles — that if you want to be truly successful, you have to be honest with others and with yourself, and you have to value others and search for the highest in yourself and others and behave accordingly.
And when you fall down, you have to be able to pick yourself up and try again. And if somebody else falls, you don’t gang up on them, but you go over and say, “Let me help you.”
We see that behavior in our school every day, because the culture is based so completely on being able to tune in to each other’s reality. If a child skins a knee, everybody runs over to help. They use the tools we’ve given them. And then the teachers will come over, and the children will make way, because there’s tremendous respect that’s based on the caring and love the teachers have for the children.
I marvel at the good fortune of the children in this school, because they’re allowed to be who they are, and they are given every opportunity and support to grow into their own fullest nature.
The children in our school are very individual, and they will need this or that kind of special help. And while they don’t always live up to their highest potential, their highest is what we’re always holding out to them.
If children get into it with one another, as they will, we guide them to understand, “That person’s reality is different from mine, and it isn’t necessarily bad.” And in that way they learn to navigate even very nuanced situations on their own.
The teachers have earned the students’ respect, so they are able to involve themselves at a deep level with them, because they are honest with them, and they love them.
If a child feels loved and seen by someone in authority, the defenses around the heart go down, and then that child can take any kind of correction, because s/he knows that it’s offered by a friend who wants to help.
Creating a Safe School Environment of Growth and Joy
Q: I’ve been struck by the atmosphere in the school, and how it seems to harmonize lots of things.
Helen: I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching here twenty-odd years ago, I met with a group of parents who wanted to learn more about the school. Afterward, a woman stayed behind. She said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, and I don’t have a child for your school. I’m a spy.” Of course, she got my attention.
She continued, “I’m a psychologist, working on my PhD, and I used your school as part of my research, but I need you to know that your school is very different from other schools.”
She said, “When I came through the gate I felt a change in the energy, and I didn’t know exactly what it was. But then I saw the children walking between classes, and every single child had a smile on his or her face.”
She said, “Then I understood where the mysterious energy came from. It’s because you have happy children.”
I said, “Well, that’s the truth. The children who are in our school are basically really, really happy.” And she said, “You have no idea what it’s like, by comparison, to go into some of these other schools.”
“Oh, I do,” I said – “from the children who come here from those schools. They share their experiences – the lack of freedom, the bullying, the cliques, the competition, the stress.”
I believe that when you look at children as souls, and not merely as personalities, it instantly deepens and expands the relationship. When you visit the classrooms here, it strikes you that the students aren’t afraid. There will be times when they aren’t able to rise to the highest level they could, but the overarching truth is that they are essentially loved, and when you take fear out of the equation, almost anything is possible.
Encouraging High Aspirations
A keystone of our philosophy is a principle that we call “directional relativity.” The idea is that everyone in the world is looking for happiness and freedom from suffering, and the only way we can get there is by working with ourselves exactly as we are, right now. So we’re all moving in the same direction, toward greater happiness and freedom, but we’re going forward at our own pace, starting from the unique place where we are.
I don’t think I could go into a classroom and be an effective teacher without having that principle in mind, that you’re always looking at the individual child and very clearly understanding where they are, and then you’re imagining where they can go, and you’re helping them go forward in that direction.
So there’s a sense of directional progress but without a fixed timeline, and you’re always tuning into the individual child and evaluating their points of readiness.
A child takes a test, and they’re upset about their grade. We don’t see that as a bad thing, because it signals that they want to improve. So the teacher will give them lots of encouragement and support. “I love the fact that you want to do better!”
It’s the idea that we’re always wanting to move forward, starting where we are, at the level of our own abilities, without the slightest sense of being judged, and we communicate that security to the children through our expectations, our language, and our support. So it all works together in the child’s favor, and when you can communicate that sense of support and faith and promise, there’s no telling how far the child can go.
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!