What makes Living Wisdom School unique?

boys at living wisdom school leaning over desk laughing

Academic Excellence

Cultivating a lifelong love of learning and critical thinking in an atmosphere of respect for the individual

Education for Life

Building character; practicing emotional self-mastery, conflict resolution, maturity, and compassion for others

The Inner Life

A curriculum that honors the values universal to all religions

Boy seated at desk smiling with pen in hand, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES and dreams for your child—not just for kindergarten or first grade, but for the whole of his or her life? Financial security? A good job? A nice home? Happiness? Peace of mind? Love? A sense of empowerment, and an awareness of the greater purpose and meaning of life?

What role will your child’s school play in helping him or her realize these hopes? No other influence outside of the home will have a greater impact than the time your child spends in school.

At Living Wisdom School, the goal of education is the same as the goal of life: to help children become, on every level—heart, mind, body, and spirit—more balanced, mature, effective, happy, and harmonious.

We call this approach Education for Life. For over thirty years, we have helped children blossom in an extraordinary learning environment. Our students master skills that will help them immeasurably as they grow into adulthood.

At Living Wisdom School, your child will achieve:

Love of Learning to Last a Lifetime

Students learn how to learn, how to ask questions, how to listen and evaluate the answers. Children here learn to take risks and express what they think and feel, in an atmosphere of respect.

The San Francisco Chronicle praised Living Wisdom School as a model for an education that lacks the stress so many children experience in school today. Our small class size allows us to give individual attention to every child, every day. We offer an enriched, balanced academic curriculum that challenges the students at all levels of development.

Maturity—Learning to Work with Emotions

Success in life depends on a lot more than just finding a good job. One must also know how to interact and respond successfully to the people and circumstances that life brings. A fundamental goal of Education for Life is to bring each child to true maturity, which we define as the ability to relate to others’ realities, and not only to one’s own. In the process, each student becomes more aware of his or her emotional reactions, under the guidance of skilled teachers.

The Inner Life

While eternal spiritual principles lie at the core of our approach to education, we do not provide “religious instruction” in the traditional, parochial sense. The focus here is on developing qualities that are universally valued in all religions—-such as inner peace, love, wisdom, and joy. Children of many faiths attend Living Wisdom School, and find that their understanding of their own faith is strengthened by their experiences here.

What do you want for your child?

In addition to learning yoga and meditation skills, every spring the children take part in an all-school theater production based on the life of a great person. Through re-enacting the life stories of great men and women, the children discover the potential for greatness that lies within themselves as well.

“My daughter can be herself at Living Wisdom School. She knows no one is judging her, so she’s not afraid to try new things.” (Parent)

Parents Talk About Their Children’s
Educational Experience at Living Wisdom School

“Enthusiasm and self-confidence are what you need to be really successful in life. So often, when children go to school, they lose these qualities. Living Wisdom School makes them stronger.”

“My daughter can be herself at Living Wisdom School. When she was at public school, I felt she was trying so hard to find out who she was supposed to be that she missed noticing who she actually is. My child feels really secure. She knows no one is judging her, so she’s not afraid to try new things.”

Girl at desk smiling with pen in hand

“My son’s teachers have demanded and received from him a level of excellence far beyond even what I expected. And they’ve done it without ever making school into a pressure cooker. His self-esteem is so high.”

“When you have such high-quality teachers and so much individual attention, learning happens naturally. The teachers know what is going on with each child, and because the classes are small, it’s easy to accommodate differences. It’s not boring for the bright kids, the way school often is. They can really excel and just zoom ahead as fast as they want.”

“When she comes home from school, my daughter is so peaceful, calm, and happy. The children at Living Wisdom are very much like her—-the same sensitivity, the same values. I feel better, too, just being around the school. Living Wisdom feels like real family, in a way I haven’t seen at other schools.”

“They see children as individuals first, not just as five-year-olds who have to fit into a certain box. My son is very advanced in some areas, especially academically, but on track or even a little behind in others. His teachers are helping us understand him better, to accept and appreciate his unique differences.”

What a joy it is to see bright-eyed, happy students loving learning and deeply understanding what they learn. Within a culture of caring and respect, students tend to bloom in every way, especially in academics. The result is a community of life-long learners.

Boy at keyboard

Academic Excellence Without Stress

Much of the rote memorization, standardized testing, and hyper-pressure that is commonly applied to elementary school children nowadays is actually detrimental to their long-term development and success in academics and in life.

At Living Wisdom School, children are encouraged to become independently curious, enthusiastic, and disciplined in all their endeavors. We prepare our students to do well in standardized testing, and we assign ample homework, but at the same time, we know that children develop at different rates.

Forcing a child to learn too fast may constrict or bypass vital stages in his or her development. Other children need to advance more rapidly than usual, and they are given ample opportunity and encouragement to do so at Living Wisdom School.

Our low student-teacher ratio makes it possible for each child to receive individual attention, every day. As a result, students are able to thrive, but without the stress that usually accompanies high performance.

Follow this link to view a list of high schools and colleges that have accepted our students, and their accomplishments in adult life.

Interdisciplinary Study

The annual spring play is a unique example of our interdisciplinary approach to learning. Each child is involved in some aspect of the production, which portrays the life of a towering role model from history.

Past plays have told the life stories of Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and Joan of Arc. The play becomes an overflowing source of learning in spelling, speech, reading, writing, history, and values. For example, the play Jesus, Holy Son of Mary inspired the children to study Greek and Roman history and mythology, while Krishna, the Beloved evoked rich lessons in the geography, politics, culture, and art of India and the Far East.

three young children playing violinWhile they rehearse and study, the children are internalizing the most dramatic, inspiring, and values-rich stories of the world. Thus, they receive, among many other lessons, priceless keys for deciphering the great literatures of the world. Through learning to perform, they practice being poised and graceful. They learn to concentrate, cooperate, receive directions, and take feedback.

How the Child’s Performance is Evaluated

The children receive portfolio assessment and narrative evaluations, both of which are universally recognized by high schools and middle schools. Because our students love learning, they perform well in standardized tests and are accepted by top private schools.

The Curriculum


In their science classes, the children are encouraged to become scientists. Using the scientific method, they learn from hands-on lessons about the wonder and beauty of the natural world. Field trips, presentations by guest speakers, and vivid experiments make the learning experiences unforgettable.

Math teacher cracks up class

Students study the Physical Sciences, Earth Science, and Life Science. Classes go on regular excursions to the Tech Museum of Innovation, the James Lick Observatory, NASA Ames Research Center, Intel Museum, U.S. Geological Survey, Point Reyes National Seashore, Yosemite National Park, and many other learning-rich destinations. Sometimes, the children are inspired to express what they’ve seen and learned in art and poetry.


All students at Living Wisdom School learn basic mathematics skills through the teaching of concepts and experience of games and manipulatives. The program of study is individualized so that each child can proceed at his or her own pace. Children who are able to work at higher grade levels are encouraged to do so. And children who need more time to master a particular skill set are given the opportunity and support they need. We emphasize how mathematical principles can help children in the exercise of ordinary logic.

At our end-of-year ceremony, the younger children are asked to stand and tell what they like best about school. Over and over, they say, “I love math!” The after-school Solvers League is popular with the older children and helps prepare them for national math contests.

At our end-of-year ceremony, the younger children are asked to stand and tell what they like best about school. Over and over, they say, “I love math!”

“A third-grader was given a 3 x 3 magic square puzzle (a grid whose numbers must add up to the same sum in all directions). He struggled for three days, then in the middle of class suddenly solved the puzzle. He exclaimed, ‘Yes! Yes!’ and kissed his paper three times. I then gave him a 4 x 4 magic square on which he struggled for four days. He finally solved it on Sunday night and phoned to tell me. A few mornings later, he was sick and debated whether or not to come to school. ‘Wait,’ he said, ‘Do we have math today? I need to go. My teacher needs me.'” (Teacher)

Helen Purcell teaches a middle school language arts class

Language Arts

In language arts, the children learn grammar as a gateway to clear thinking and writing. Literature is shared as an expression of great insights into life, human nature, and themselves. Reading is celebrated at all grade levels in myriad ways. Once a year, the school has an All-School Read-In. The children bring their sleeping bags and pillows and cuddle up for an entire morning of independent reading. The teachers serve treats, and the older children read to the younger ones. They also play word games and share special stories.

The study of Shakespeare is a yearly event, school-wide. The kindergarten might learn “To be or not to be” while tackling the letter “B,” and the primary grades might read a storybook version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the past, the fourth and fifth graders have read an abridged version of Twelfth Night, after which they have attended a local production.

two girls lie on floor smiling

Walk into the middle school class and you might find the students reading the unabridged version of A Merchant of Venice in the original Elizabethan English, in preparation for a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Writers Studio nourishes writing skills in a thousand ways. In spring, a literary magazine offers some of the best of each child’s work, and may include short stories, poetry, expository reports, and essays—-all illustrated with the children’s own black-and-white drawings.

“My son’s teachers have demanded and received from him a level of excellence far beyond even what I expected. His self-esteem is so high.” (Parent)

Girl raises hand in class

Social Studies/History

Social Studies lends itself to being easily integrated across the curriculum. When the children are studying Shakespeare as part of the English curriculum, their history classes are covering Elizabethan England. As part of their Shakespearean studies, the younger children have made pomanders and horn books, while the older children have learned in detail how daily life in the early 1600s differed from modern life in Silicon Valley, down to the sanitation systems. The production of the play Moses inspired an entire unit on Egypt across the grades. A California history unit initiated a wider study of California’s art and photography, as well as a trip to the Cantor museum, a tour of the State Capitol, and an excursion to the Gold Country.


Living Wisdom School prepares each student to work competently with computers. However, we strongly believe that computers are a tool and not a substitute for clear analytical thinking. Researchers have begun to identify delayed brain development in young children whose computer time takes the place of real-world play and socialization. Thus, we introduce computer activities in fourth grade. The students learn word processing and how to use the Internet for research projects. They also become familiar with basic computer hardware, including processors, drives, displays, printers, and digital video accessories.

Middle school boy with basketball at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California

Physical Education

Living Wisdom School is unique in the training that students receive in stress management. The children learn yoga and meditation techniques that have been clinically proven in studies at Harvard and MIT to reduce stress and increase mental clarity. Yoga postures give the student tools for a lifetime of enjoyment and health. We believe that play and recreation are vital for a child’s social and emotional development. Therefore we make abundant use of a large public park and playing field just a few minutes’ walk from the school. Soccer, basketball, running, and organized playground games provide ample opportunities for teamwork and individual achievement.

Theater Arts

As mentioned earlier, we challenge the students to participate in a yearly play, performed in spring, about the life of a great person from history. Because of their tremendous enthusiasm for the play, the children are eager to master the challenges of a sophisticated script.

For example, the third graders study the vocabulary of the script as an important part of their language development. In the process, they learn to use the dictionary, and they master “big words” so that they can better understand their lines. During the many rehearsals, the children automatically pick up vast stretches of each other’s parts. As they say the words with understanding, those words become a permanent and treasured part of their verbal repertoire.

Through performing great epic stories, children learn clear lessons about the eternal battle between good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong. They learn that it is possible to confront and transcend evil. Over the years they acquire a repertoire of heroes against whom they can measure their own efforts to lead a good and fulfilling life. They become familiar with the Four Noble Truths of Buddha, the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Eight Beatitudes of Jesus, and inspiringly instructive passages from the Bhagavad Gita.

Two preschool girls smiling at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CaliforniaCountless times we have noted with quiet satisfaction how the children have internalized these truths, as they test them on the playground and in the classroom. Because the atmosphere in the school is respectful and supportive, the children rise triumphantly to meet the high standards we set for them. Fostering the children’s confidence is central to the success of our academic curriculum.

“When I first heard about the kind of plays they do, I thought it was way too much for the kids. I don’t just mean how elaborate it is. I’m talking about the plot… I mean, we’re talking elementary school! But, as usual, the teachers know what they are doing. “The kids are thrilled to be involved in something profound, rather than the plays children often have to do. By acting it out, they truly get the point of what makes a great person great: courage, dedication, selflessness, and love. And they remember it. For years afterwards, I hear them talking about the things they’ve learned from the plays, and using what they’ve learned as a standard for their own lives.

“The kids are thrilled to be involved in something profound, rather than the plays children often have to do.” (Parent)


Beginning in kindergarten, the school encourages students to pursue their natural love of music through singing and learning to listen. Dedicated, skilled instructors teach voice, recorder, and guitar. The children learn to read notes and rhythms in second grade, and in third grade they may choose to study recorder or violin. By fourth grade most students are able to play and sing in parts.

Dance and Yoga

The dance program, which runs concurrently with preparation for the all-school Theater Magic production, emphasizes movement exploration, invention, improvisation, and composition. The children gradually become capable of sustained physical effort while engaging their imagination to solve creative problems. It is inspiring to watch them move with intense determination blended with pleasure of self-expression. The execution of dance movements demands that young brains learn to integrate kinesthetic, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences. Yoga postures are offered year-round as an integrated part of the curriculum.

The Visual Arts

In all grades, the students have opportunities for creation in a variety of art forms including clay, drawing, and painting. Throughout the school, you’ll see artwork created by students of all ages hanging on the walls. Students explore different media, as well as a variety of artists, to create a foundation for lifelong appreciation of all art forms. The art curriculum is sometimes integrated with other elements, especially history and literature. The students help create props and backdrops for the annual play. Over the years, they develop sophisticated skills as artists and art historians, and they become veteran museum goers.

Personal poise and mature demeanor are the natural result of skills the children learn at Living Wisdom School.

Two boys at desk at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California

Conflict Resolution

Lack of conflict is not what builds character; rather, it’s how we learn to deal with life’s unavoidable conflicts that defines how we will lead our lives. Small class size means that conflicts must be resolved. The classroom is thus an excellent laboratory for mastering conflict-resolution skills.

“People excuse all kinds of meanness by saying ‘Kids will be kids!’ But at Living Wisdom, they don’t accept the assumption that kids have to be unkind to each other. Rather, they have demonstrated that children can learn to be kind, and that they will be much happier for learning.” (Parent)

Working With Emotions and Moods

When people feel sad, they often try to make themselves feel better by changing their environment. We encourage the children to recognize that they can learn to choose their responses to the world around them.

“My daughter has learned at school that she has the power within herself to make herself feel better. When she gets upset now, she often, all on her own, goes to her room, puts on a tape of music she got from school, and stays in there for whatever it takes for her to calm herself down and get centered. Then she comes out again. This is very impressive for a child of six. When I tell other parents whose children don’t go to Living Wisdom School, they are amazed that there is a school that teaches such valuable lessons.” (Parent)

Maturity and Compassion for Others

Two young children looking at globe, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, CaliforniaWhat is maturity? It is the ability to relate to others’ realities, and not only to one’s own. In a school setting, there are countless opportunities to learn to be mature. We begin by being authentic with the children. We don’t look away from life’s events, including illness, divorce, family tragedy, or death. We face these inevitable challenges head-on, and soon, children gain the courage to do the same.

At Living Wisdom School, we encourage the children to become more aware of the needs of others. As the children experiment with kindness and unselfish behavior, we are careful to bring their attention to how much better it feels to act from an open heart.

“My son is not a perfect child, but there is a kindness and gentleness he possesses that I don’t think would be there had he gone to another school. He was in an indoor soccer league last year, unrelated to Living Wisdom School. There was a mentally handicapped child on his team. Some of the other children complained about the presence of this child on the team because he didn’t play very well.

“At one of the practices, the handicapped child came up behind my son and grabbed his shirttail—-just as my son was ready to streak across the room. As my son is an avid, energetic player and one of the leading scorers on the team, I had visions of him slapping away the hands that were slowing him down. Instead, he slowed his pace to match that of the slower child, and they ran off laughing together. At Living Wisdom School, my son has learned to appreciate that people have different needs and different abilities, and that it’is possible to have fun without always having to win.” (Parent)

Building Character

Because so much of their children’s school experience at Living Wisdom School is just plain fun, and even magical, parents sometimes ask us, “After this idyllic experience, will my child be able to handle the real world?” And, invariably, we respond with a resounding “Yes!”

Living Wisdom School teacher Maria Jones helps her first-grade students with an art project.

In our school, we pay a great deal of attention to ensuring that each child masters basic skills, whether it be learning the phonetic alphabet, memorizing multiplication tables, or researching a term paper. But we also devote equal time and energy to developing character traits that will help the child be successful in later life experiences. The children do very well in other educational settings, where they become known for their kindness and friendliness, for their creativity in the arts, for their leadership, and for their academics and sportsmanship.

“When I think of the ways those of us who came through the Living Wisdom School program are different from others, it doesn’t come down to particular skill sets. It’s more than that: we understand energy in a different way.

“I remember one time I was hiking in Glacier National Park with my sister. We needed to get back to our campground before dark, so we started out on the trail that would get us there fastest, but much to our chagrin, we discovered that there was a grizzly bear somewhere ahead of us on the trail. It was pretty scary. Then, in that moment, it came into our minds to sing “Move All You Mountains,” a song about courage and perseverance that we had learned as young kids in school. So we kept on going, singing and laughing until we arrived safe and sound.” (Graduate of Living Wisdom School, Nevada City, CA, now in her early twenties)

“Both of my children, now in their late twenties, went through a Living Wisdom School Program. I notice that, as young adults in professional settings, they have an acute sense of how to work with others. Each in her own way, brings to her work a sense of how to get along with people, how to create community, and how to cope with challenges.” (Parent of Living Wisdom School graduates)

“At Living Wisdom School, my son has learned to appreciate that people have different needs and different abilities, and that it’s possible to have fun without always having to win.” (Parent)

We all have an inner life. Some describe it as spirituality, while others think of it as a “still place within” where we can collect ourselves and gather strength to meet the next challenge. Some think of the inner life as reverence for the mystery of creation or for a higher power that intelligently guides our lives. But whatever name we give it, the spiritual dimension of life, which is so natural and obvious to most children, is fully acknowledged in a Living Wisdom School classroom. Living by spiritual values, such as inner peace, love, wisdom and joy, is emphasized in all aspects of school life, and all religions are honored.

Altar of All Religions at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CaliforniaEach Living Wisdom classroom has a universal altar on which are symbols of all the world’s religions, plus objects and decorations the children individually find sacred and meaningful. Every morning, we set aside time for singing, quiet meditation, affirmations, prayer, yoga postures, and other activities that help uplift the child’s consciousness.

“My daughter all on her own put an altar in her room. She made it herself and changes it according to her mood. Right now it has on it pieces of colored glass, a little bear, a feather: nothing identifiably religious, just her own special icons. But she seems to understand that altar as a way of focusing her energy and appreciating and loving the world around her.” (Parent)

When it seems appropriate, we point out that certain attitudes and actions increase the children’s inner sense of well-being, while other choices take it away. Many parents have told us how much they wish they had been encouraged to learn these lessons when they were young.

“My daughter has learned at school that she has the power within herself to make herself feel better. This is very impressive for a child of six.” (Parent)


Children from Living Wisdom School have done very well, both in public high schools and in highly rated college preparatory high schools such as Menlo School, Harker, Presentation High School, San Domenico, St. Francis, Archbishop Mitty High Schools, and Crystal Springs Uplands School. One fifth grader who transferred into a large middle school is about to publish her first children’s book. A student from the Netherlands astonished us when she returned to her homeland and scored the highest in her class on the rigorous Dutch national examinations, even though she had arrived at Living Wisdom School the previous year with no knowledge of English.

Alumni from the first Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, California have graduated from, or are presently attending the Juilliard School, Stanford University, Georgetown University School of Law, UCLA, UCSC, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, Loyola University School of Law, the Chicago Art Institute, Santa Clara University, and Dominican University to name just a few. Among the school’s graduates you will find an Assistant District Attorney in New York City, a United States congressional staff member, a Suzuki violin teacher, the director of communications at an environmental think tank, a member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, an Education for Life teacher, a grant writer and fundraiser for CARE, and a commercial airline pilot.

Living Wisdom School Teacher Erica Glazzard at recess with her Kindergarten students

The Teachers

Our teachers are authentic, and the children sense it immediately. The teachers express in their own lives the positive attitudes, spiritual and moral values, and maturity that they seek to develop in the children. They are actively committed to their personal and spiritual development. They meditate regularly, and practice the principles of emotional self-mastery that form the foundation of our educational approach.

The teachers of Living Wisdom School are able to see the unique gifts in each child and to celebrate them in a hundred ways in the course of the school day: by encouragement, positive affirmation, challenge and support, celebration and joy. They understand that fine teaching is an art and a science, driven by inspiration, not coercion. They focus on the positive, not the negative—on solutions, not problems. Creativity and spontaneity as well as discipline and structure infuse their pedagogy. They, themselves, are life-long learners.

The Living Wisdom School Movement

The first Living Wisdom School was founded in 1971, at Ananda Village in Nevada City, California, to meet a deeply perceived need for a more balanced educational system. So much of education nowadays is focused on the intellect, while other, vitally important aspects of a child’s character are neglected.

Living Wisdom School was established to provide an education for children of all faiths that integrates body, mind, feeling, and spirit.

Young girl prays at Living Wisdom SchoolThe Palo Alto Living Wisdom School was founded in 1991. A third school was started in Portland, Oregon, in 1997. We now have schools in California, Oregon, Washington, Italy, and India, as well as an Education for Life Teacher Training degree program at the Living Wisdom College in Laurelwood, Oregon.

Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto is an independently incorporated educational institution. Students of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds are represented, making the school a dynamic multicultural experience for all the children.

The system of education used at Living Wisdom School is called Education for Life. It is more fully described in a book of that name by J. Donald Walters, available at most bookstores or online.

From the preface of Education for Life:

“The concept Education for Life can be understood in two ways, both of them intentionally so. Primarily, it is a system of education that will prepare children for meeting life’s challenges, and not only fit them for employment or for intellectual pursuits. It is also a way to see the whole of life, beyond the years spent in school, as education.

“For if indeed, as most people deeply believe, life has purpose and meaning, then its goal must be to educate us ever-more fully to that meaning. And the true goal of the education we receive during our school years must be to help prepare us for that lifelong learning process.”

Come Visit

For information about parent tours and school open houses, please call, email, or write us:

Living Wisdom School
456 College Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306
(650) 462-8150

More than Forty Years of
Educating Children for Life

Educating Middle-Schoolers at Living Wisdom School

A conversation with LWS middle school teacher Gary McSweeney

Gary McSweeney, middle-school teacher at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Gary McSweeney


Q: You spend a tremendous amount of time with the middle school children at Living Wisdom School. What kind of relationship do you try to establish with them?

Gary: It’s very individual. As a general rule, I try not to be “palsy-walsy” with them. I’m definitely an authority figure for them. I’ll have to ask them to do many things, but I do try to be friendly. I genuinely like kids, even though in middle school they can be a little exasperating at times.

Q: Because they’re starting to flex their independence?

Gary: Yes. In Education for Life, which our school’s philosophy is based on, J. Donald Walters describes the six-year stages of a child’s development. The years from 12 to 18 are what he calls the “Willful Years,” when they’re establishing their sense of identity.

Q: Do you try to teach the kids lessons about adult life at that age, when they’re getting ready to leave the nest?

Gary: To return to Education for Life, the teen years are a time when children naturally need people they can look up to. They want heroes, and I’m not sure our culture is holding many people up for them that meet that need.

In our school, we introduce them to hero-figures early on, primarily through our annual all-school theater production, where every child takes part. We’ve done plays on Martin Luther King, Jr., the Buddha, Christ, Krishna, the Dalai Lama, Moses, Joan of Arc, and many other great people.

When I work with the students directly, I try to give them a positive outlook for the future. I would love to see them never become cynical. So I try to inspire them with a sense of hope and optimism.

For example, we’re doing a unit about energy. They’re researching geothermal and solar energy, and they’ve all heard the news about global warming and climate change. You don’t want to sugar-coat the news and pretend that everything’s all right. But I like to give them something to be hopeful about, by pointing out the many ways the future’s bright.

The media are all-pervading, especially through the Internet, and kids are bombarded with negative images all the time. They hear about Darfur, the extinction of species, hate crimes, war, and it’s endless. I try to get them to be realistic but hopeful and engaged in being part of the solution, as opposed to a passive approach where they’re feeling hopeless.

Q: Living Wisdom School takes the students on lots of field trips. How do they fit into the school’s philosophy?

Gary: We take them on lots of one-day field trips. And three times a year we go away for a week. These experiences are absolutely pivotal. The first trip is to Point Reyes, where my family has a cabin. We go early in the school year, when we’re just getting to know one another.

The second trip is to a meditation retreat in the foothills of the Sierra, where we stay in cabins.

The third is generally a camping trip. This year, we’ll probably go to Yosemite. It gives the students a chance to live out in nature for a week, and it’s an amazing adventure. It’s less structured than the other trips, and for the kids who aren’t experienced campers, it’s an entirely new experience.

The learning that takes place on the trips is difficult to quantify, but it can’t be exaggerated.

My first goal is to help them be more aware, more conscious, and more responsible for themselves and each other. The field trips are laboratories for that level of learning, which is an important component of building their enthusiasm for learning.

They’re modeled after the way a spiritual teacher would work with people. He’ll work with each one individually, and encourage them to learn from their own experiences. The field trips are about learning to behave, but to be themselves and have fun and be safe, and to explore and learn. We give them lots of freedom, within very definite, clear boundaries.

We take them to some amazing places, and we challenge them. We camp outdoors, fix our meals, and clean up. So they have chores and responsibilities. At this point in the school year, they know what to expect, and they pitch in and help.

When you work with middle school kids, their learning needs to be experiential as much as possible. It’s much more difficult to get them to learn if you’re saying, “Here’s a book about a great person. Go home and read it, and we’ll analyze why this person was great.”

In the teen years, kids are looking to have their own experiences and make up their own mind.

Kids also learn a great deal when you take them into a new situation and let them learn from it. I give them tremendous freedom during the field trips, but the overarching theme is harmony. More than anything else, they have to keep harmony. We set firm boundaries, and the teachers will immediately step in if there’s friction. But otherwise it’s very hands-off.

One of the high points of the middle school field trip is the “day of independence.” We give them a very clear structure. We set basic rules: “Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t go past Bald Mountain.” And so on. But we give them free time to go out and explore in small groups, and at that age, they love it.

Again, it’s very experiential. They experience a freedom that comes with a responsibility. Last year they spent an entire day in silence. At other times, we’ll incorporate short periods of silence and reflection. We might go to Mirror Lake in the Tenaya Creek valley at Yosemite and write poetry for an afternoon. Or we’ll maintain silence from 2 to 4 p.m., and then we’ll prepare dinner.

The reason behind it all is to build reciprocal bonds that will carry over into school and the classroom. It tells them a lot about the culture that they’ll be part of in the school. The basic thing we want them to learn is: “When your energy is right, and you’re showing me that you’re responsible, I’ll give you more freedom.” It’s one of the most important lessons they need to learn before they can be adults in the truest meaning of the word.

They’re at an age where they like to take risks. They like to climb rocks, and do things that challenge their will power. We visited Malakoff Diggins, which is a big Gold Rush excavation near Nevada City. We joined the students and teachers from the local Living Wisdom School, and they decided to play a massive game of Capture the Flag in the diggings, which are a huge place to run around. It was wonderful, and they had a great time.

Educating the whole child is completely about energy. We try to guide their energy toward wholesome choices. At the same time, we give them freedom to make mistakes, but never to the point where they’ll hurt themselves.

We want them to experience consequences. We take them into nature, and maybe it’s cold, and we’ll let them experience what it’s like to be responsible. “Oh, you forgot your jacket. We mentioned it to you three times at the campsite, but now you’re on the hike and you forgot your jacket.” Real-life consequences help them understand how to be aware and responsible. It’s one of the many reasons it’s wonderful to take them into nature. And it all translates directly to the classroom, where they have to be aware of others, and help each other, and feel supported and responsible enough to focus on the task at hand.

We’re compassionate. We’ll say, “You forgot your snack. Okay, have some of mine.” And they’ll say, “No, it’s okay.” But they’re learning to face the consequences of their actions. “I said bring a snack, and now we’re on the trail and there isn’t a store in twenty miles, and you’re going to miss a meal.”

We never take it to the point of pain, but they can learn a great deal without actually suffering. But it always has to be experiential, because there are some things they can never learn if you’re only talking to them, or preaching. It’s better when it’s real life and they can try different attitudes and decide, “That didn’t make me happy.”

In 2005, we took them to Tomales Bay. There was rain in the forecast, and looked like it would be the worst storm in forty years.

In two days we had four inches of rain with forty-mile-per-hour winds. The canoes were blowing off the beach. And it was one of our best field trips. When they got home, it was six or eight months before they reached that conclusion, but the trip came up vividly in many of their graduation speeches. It was a real experience – the wind blowing, the difficulty of tramping around in the rain. And we all had to deal with it and help each other.

The middle schoolers love the sweet taste of freedom, of being in nature and facing new situations together with their buddies. At this age, their peers are hugely important to them.

Q: Does the approach of giving them freedom to learn from their own experiences translate to the classroom?

Gary: It’s particularly clear when we’re preparing for our big yearly all-school play.

The students learn about the life of a great soul such as Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Moses, Kwan Yin, Rumi, or St. Francis. As the play approaches, we dive deeply into the history, art, culture, and philosophy of the period, and the teachings of the person who’s the subject of the play. The students’ lines are actual words spoken by these great souls. So, again, it’s very experiential.

While we’re preparing for the play, they have many hours of instruction in acting their part, and a tremendous amount of support. But the bottom line is that, come performance, I won’t be there, nor will our drama coach be there. So it’s very real, very experiential, and an intense, very real experience. They have to draw on their inner strength to get through four performances with standing-room-only audiences of several hundred adults, teachers, and students from other schools.

It’s important to point out that these are not ordinary school plays. Drama is an extremely useful learning instrument, because the students are deeply engaged in studying and writing and talking about the historical period. But the plays have a very special added emphasis, in that these are among the greatest people who ever lived.

They’re people who didn’t choose an average life. St. Francis abandoned wealth to follow a higher path. Buddha abandoned wealth and family. Christ went through great trials. The plays are about the tests and triumphs of these great souls, and the guidelines they’ve left us for leading a successful life. And because they’re acting out the parts, they aren’t merely learning it out of a book. They’re experiencing it directly with their bodies and hearts, in a way that they will remember for years.

In math and other classroom subjects, we try to get them to dig deep within themselves and do their best. It takes time to develop a relationship where we can engage them that closely, where they’ll want to do their best.

Gary McSweeney teaches math to middle schoolers at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Gary McSweeney teaches middle school math.

It takes figuring out what works for each child, and this is a cornerstone of our school – the focus on the individual child.

To give you an example. I was teaching math to the middle schoolers, and I said, “As a rule of thumb, we should do a half-hour of math every night.” I was laying out a broad guideline for all of the children, because I thought it would accommodate those who could go faster and those who learned more slowly, if they had a fixed time to aim for.

Later, one of the mothers said, “I think my son would do better if you broke it down into a number of problems. For some reason, a half-hour isn’t working for him.”

I figured out that if he did ten problems a day throughout the school year, he would keep up with the pace of the book. It worked amazingly well, because he would do ten problems come hell or high water. I would say, “You don’t need to do ten problems tonight, because we had play practice today.” “No! No! I’m gonna do ten!”

It takes tuning in to each child and figuring out what works for them. That’s the great bulk of what teaching is about – finding what works best to motivate each child for each subject. Then you have to work with their moods, and whatever they’re going through in the moment. We’ve created an intense, wonderful environment where we can nurture and care about our kids.

Part of the answer is to challenge them constantly on the level of their own energy, because that’s what brings out the best in them. The field trips accomplish this, and the play does it also. In the normal course of the year, in the classroom, we challenge them constantly to do better, at their level.

Each child comes to us with a unique set of issues. Are they strong in math? Will they ever be strong in math? Who knows? For lots of kids, math isn’t their strong suit, so you try to find individual ways to support them to help them succeed.

Some of the most inspiring success stories are about kids who never saw themselves as being particularly good as artists or mathematicians.

At one point, we invited a world-class mathematician, Keith Devlin, to visit our school and talk to the kids. He’s the “Math Guy” on NPR. Our former math and science director, Dharmaraj, knew Keith and got him to come to our school. And the first thing he told the kids was that he didn’t like math in high school. It meant nothing to him. But when he entered college and began to study biology, he realized that he needed to shore up his math skills, and that’s when he got excited about it for the first time.

We all know people for whom school wasn’t terribly relevant, yet they were very bright and achieved a great deal in their lives. Then there are people for whom academics come easily, but who aren’t good people. At our school, we emphasize both. We help the students cultivate expansive values of kindness and compassion, and we challenge them to put out energy in academics, whether the results are impressive initially or not.

Middle schoolers on a field trip at Tomales Bay.
Middle schoolers on a field trip at Tomales Bay.

The most important lessons we try to teach the kids involve putting out energy. You’ll have a child for whom academics come easily, but he isn’t trying. And he’s sitting next to a student who’s trying hard but isn’t getting it. Which student would you rather work with? You’d much prefer to work with the one who’s trying hard.

You’ll have kids who are very solid in academics, who may even be academic superstars. But there’s the emotional side of the child’s development – of learning how to behave, and balancing the intellect with the heart, with compassionate feeling.

We continually work on both, and all of our teachers do this. Because teaching, to a tremendous degree, is about working with the student’s energy in the moment. That’s why it can be very hard to articulate “the method” that we practice. You end up saying, over and over, “It depends on the child. It depends on the situation.” And it’s literally true.

You can work with each child more effectively as you get to know them and build a relationship with them. Sometimes it can take a year or longer to develop a deep bond, where they truly begin to trust you and let their guard down. It’s about helping them find the energy in themselves to do what they set out to do.

There’s no simple formula that seems to work for everybody. It’s much more about supporting them individually, and keeping it real.

Some educators did a study where they asked a group of first-graders, “How many of you are artists?” And every hand went up. But by the time they reached sixth grade, very few hands went up. They had acquired lots of limiting self-definitions — “I’m not good at math. I’m not good at art. I’m really good in history.” But we encourage the kids to put those definitions aside, because at age 12, you don’t really know what you’re good at.

They need to have an inner experience of what you’re trying to teach them. You can tell them verbally a thousand times, but until the knowing comes from inside, and until they get some real success in math or art, it doesn’t work. It has to be more than words. What counts for them is real experience.

Middle schoolers from Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California enjoy a canoe outing on Tomales Bay.
Middle schoolers enjoy a canoe outing on Tomales Bay.

So it takes building a relationship, where you can guide them to have many success experiences. But you have to get their energy involved, so that the learning becomes a direct personal experience.

Q: In Education for Life, the author says that engaging children’s feelings is a first step toward awakening their interest.

Gary: The best teachers can get children enthused about a subject. It’s all in how you lay the groundwork for an assignment, or a field trip, or the annual play. When you can get them enthused, they’ll put out plenty of energy, and then they can have the full personal experience of whatever they’re doing or learning.

If you aren’t putting out lots of energy, you aren’t going to fully experience math, or history, or poetry. Shakespeare is wonderful, but if you aren’t listening with attention and energy, he isn’t going to be great for you. So you have to find ways to get the students to initiate some energy.

That’s why the annual school play is so rich for the kids. When you’re on stage, playing the part of Sheriff Bull Connor, and you’re ordering the police to beat up black people, or you’re acting the part of a black person who’s getting beaten up, it goes beyond a lecture. It goes beyond watching a video. It becomes “Oh, God, that must have been terrible, to have fierce dogs charging at you.”

It’s a turning point for the children when history becomes alive at that moment of their lives. Then it becomes a question that’s personally meaningful. “Why did Buddha give up a palace?” The plays use the words of great people from many traditions, like Rumi, the Buddha, and Teresa of Avila. So the children get a touch of that person’s level of consciousness. “Wow, this was real to the person when they said it — this isn’t theoretical. They were talking from their own experience.” So they can experience that particular spark of divinity, that spark of the real purpose of life, those real answers to the question “What are we doing here?”

Much of education nowadays is about getting into a good high school in order to get into a good college and get a good job. It’s all about financial security, and it’s all posited on some future imagined happiness.

Walters starts his book Education for Life by asking “How do we define success?” Because when you talk about education, that’s what you’re talking about. And our definition of success at Living Wisdom School is that a student who might want to go the route of science or business or finance or the law, should also have a sense of their place in the world.

We’re trying to help kids feel that they belong in the world, and that there’s a context for what they’re doing and what they’re seeing around them. I often think how crazy it is to grow up today. It was crazy when I grew up, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War, and riots in the colleges. It was very unsettling.

And now you’ve got terrible tragedies happening with frightening frequency. The senseless violence is crazy; and how are you going to make heads or tails of it, when you’re 12?

Another concern I have is the influence of technology. One of the boys in my class had been a very good student, but then he suddenly starting doing terribly — he turned in sloppy assignments, just junk to barely get by, to a point where I thought he might actually be on drugs.

Later in the year, he pulled out of it, and I asked him, “What happened?” I had a really good relationship with him. It was the third year I had him in my class, and now he had actually been rude to me. I said, “What’s the story?” And he said, “Oh, I was addicted to a video game.” During all his waking hours, he was playing the game. It was a very real addiction, without the slightest shadow of a doubt.

Q: Research has shown that watching TV or a video screen stimulates the back part of the brain. It’s why you can sit in front of the TV and zone-out for hours. Hours pass, and it’s time that you haven’t spent in the forebrain, where qualities such as ambition, concentration, planning, and perseverance are localized. Children’s prefrontal cortices don’t develop fully until their mid-twenties, and if you’re spending all your free time in some other part of the brain, you’re not developing essential tools of a mature adult.

Gary: I have a student who’s addicted to computers. He’s very bright, and he’s into programming. You can see where it might work for him as a career, but something is completely missing in the equation. The tech side is interesting, but it’s in the forebrain where he would find real inspiration, or expansion of his awareness, by developing the other tools he’ll need to be truly successful in his chosen field.

“Clever” is almost always held up as the goal. Many kids who do well in school are actually just very clever. As far as I can see, it isn’t the crying need of the world now, to have more clever people. It’s to have people who have tremendous energy and will power and a deep commitment to do good.

It’s the same with people who become true experts in many fields. We brought in an expert in yoga who showed us various postures, and I asked him, “How many hours a day do you work at this?” He said, “Oh, about six.”

A virtuoso violinist came to the school. She was a Chinese woman, and I asked her, “Oh, by the way, how many hours do you practice a day?” She said, “About six hours a day, if I’m lucky. But I don’t really see it as practice. I just love doing it!”

When these kinds of people come to the school, and the kids can see what they’re like, whether they’re artists or executives and engineers from Silicon Valley, the kids invariably see a model of being very bright, heart-oriented, forward-thinking, and expansive. Success inevitably ties into energy, and being able to martial energy and keeping your energy straight.

There’s a magic in our school, but without the spiritual component, I don’t think you can be truly happy, even if you’re doing wonderful things externally, such as designing software that will help people. What if you suddenly get a brain aneurysm, or someone you love dies? And then there’s the huge question of where they went. What happened?

Quiet moment during LWS middle school field trip to Tomales Bay.
Quiet moment during LWS middle school field trip to Tomales Bay.

There’s a wonderful scene in our Buddha play, where the young Buddha rides through the city in his father’s chariot and sees suffering for the first time. “That person is sick? What do you mean, sick? Can that happen to me?” And then he sees someone who’s growing old, and someone who’s dying.

Our culture seems to think that you can’t answer these questions. “Oh, well, that’s religion, that’s way far over there.” But really, it’s everyone’s question. It’s a matter of discovering the universal principles of life that apply to everyone, regardless of their creed.

We’re arriving at a point where you no longer need to be dogmatic about your religious beliefs, and you can talk to kids about those big, universal human questions.

Many people have said to me, “Private schools are selective, so you don’t get the problems we have in public school.” But that’s just a bias born of ignorance of who we are and what we’re doing. “All the kids are wealthy, and all the kids are happy.” And I can only say, “If only!”

If you can give children hope, then you’re giving them a very great deal. Regardless of their native abilities, to give them hope and a sense of their place in the world is priceless.

Q: Do the students who’ve been at Living Wisdom School for a while help the others that are coming in?

Gary: We have a really wonderful school culture, as far as accepting new kids and making them feel at home. When children leave elementary school and enter a public school with 1200 students, it’s a big shift for them, and some of them just don’t do well with the transition. The kids who are new here appreciate our school, because of the contrast with these big, impersonal schools. And the kids who’ve been here longer are versed in how things are done, so they do help the newcomers.

I’m amazed at how kids will come into our school and behave. Then I realize, “They aren’t used to Living Wisdom School; they’re acting the way they’re accustomed to.” They’ll tease other kids, or they’re mean on the playground, and when I call them on it, I see the response in their eyes: “This is what we all do…” I say, “I don’t know about other schools, but we don’t do it here.”

The older kids help the newer kids by their example. Usually, there are one or two kids in the class that I can really count on. Hadley, right now, is dynamite. She can be very quiet, yet set a strong example.

One girl, Rose, did eighth grade over, because she wanted to spend an extra year in our school. Another girl stayed an extra year because she said she needed to get more mature before she went on to high school. Neither of these kids needed it from an academic point of view — they weren’t being held back, but it served them beautifully. One of them, Sinead, is at UC Berkeley, and Rose is at The Bay School of San Francisco. But they intuitively knew that another year of our school would serve them.

Gary McSweeney helps a middle school student with math at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.
Gary helps a middle school student with math.

Several years ago, we had a boy who just took to everything we offered — the academics, the spiritual, everything, and he loved it all. We had him for a year before the family moved to Texas. His mom wrote us from Texas and said, “Elliot’s year at Living Wisdom was a godsend to him.” He’d been beaten up at a public school, to the point where they broke his collar bone, and the school administration brushed it off, saying, “Well, these things happen.”

When he came to us, and we heard about his history, we wondered, what will this kid be like? But he was just wonderful, very engaged and bright and high-energy. Public school works for some kids, so it isn’t an issue of black and white, but for a lot of them, they die in that environment, and when they get to our school they feel like they’re respected, and that they can be freer about their expression. Some kids just blossom in our school environment.

It’s so expansive for them. It’s so much more inclusive and broadening. That’s what we’re trying to create, a place of inclusiveness, an understanding of the whole picture of educating each child, and an expansive environment where the children have a chance to grow in all ways.


How Children Learn Science at Living Wisdom School (Audio)

In this entertaining audio interview, former Living Wisdom School math and science director Dharmaraj Iyer explains why an unusually high proportion of LWS students rate science and math among their favorite classes, and why LWS graduates do well in these subjects when they go on to high school and college.

At LWS, science education is not directed at preparing children to “test well.” The low student-teacher ratio allows students not only to master the California State Board of Education science content standards, but to acquire a love of science through fun-filled challenges in problem-solving and hands-on experiments.

Play the mp3 interview (36 minutes):

Download the mp3 interview (MP3 file, 33 MB)