Ch. 17: A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar

Although Lilavati now teaches kindergarten, she is intimately familiar with the needs of children throughout the Feeling Years, having taught first grade and yoga and Spanish at Living Wisdom School. Before coming to LWS, she taught for seventeen years at a public middle school.

Lilavati Aguilar

Q: Can you tell us about your background, perhaps going back as far as your childhood?

Lilavati: When our sixth-grade teacher asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember how I unhesitatingly raised my hand and said, “A teacher!”

I loved school, not so much for the school itself but for the learning, and I deeply wanted to be a teacher. I got sidetracked for a while working as a bookkeeper, but when I had kids of my own, I decided that I didn’t want to be a working mom, so I got a daycare license and started caring for a half-dozen kids in our home. When the kids reached preschool age, I started a preschool that ran for three and a half years, and I loved the experience so much that I returned to school for a teaching credential. And that’s how I came full circle back to my dream of being a teacher.

Q: Where did you start teaching?

Lilavati: I liked being with the little kids, so I taught kindergarten, then I spent several years as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language). I eventually decided that I would prefer something a little more focused, because running around teaching kids from kindergarten through eighth grade was a bit hectic. For the next four years I taught seventh grade at Half Moon Bay, then I moved to Castro Valley, where I taught middle school for seventeen years.

When I heard of Education for Life, about five years ago, I was immediately intrigued. I took a wonderful workshop with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom. And I remember thinking, “I believe this is how education should be. I wonder if I can apply these ideas with the thirty kids in my public school classroom.”

I realized that there were parts of Education for Life that you could apply very effectively in public school. For example, EFL is very direct and experiential—it’s not only about learning by reading a book. My classes became more hands-on, with activities that helped the kids experience how the concepts they were learning would apply in real life.

For example, if we were studying the archaeology of Early Man, we would make tools and bows and arrows, and we would bury them so that another class could come along and do an archaeological dig and excavate them.

It was very motivating for the students, and the learning became deeper and more memorable, because kids always learn more deeply if they can experience something directly, instead of just studying it in the abstract.

In Education for Life, we’re constantly focusing on the child’s highest potential, and figuring out how we can help children realize their best self. As teachers, we’re always asking, “What does this child’s best self look like? What is their
highest potential as a human being?”

Lilavati and kindergarten teaching aide Aram Magholi support a student while she gives her
Qualities speech during the LWS End-of-Year Ceremony.

I was teaching sixth grade, where the Feeling Years end and the Will Power Years begin, at around age 12. I could see that the kids were starting to make the major transition from being these idealistic little kids who loved stories and fantasy play and art, to kids who were becoming more interested in challenges to their will power. And, you know, that’s why middle school can be a rough ride, because they’re in that major transition. (laughs)

At any rate, even though I was teaching a big class in public school, I found that I could encourage the higher qualities of the kids, like kindness and even-mindedness and courage, that are essential features of a refined human being.

That’s a very strong part of the Education for Life curriculum, where you’re looking to foster and nurture and encourage those higher qualities. It’s a very powerful way to teach, because it makes the children feel that their needs are being met on every level, and that we aren’t just trying to fill their heads with facts. We’re bringing their hearts into the educational process, and it’s profoundly motivating for them.

The experience of bringing EFL principles into a public school classroom showed me how helpful it is for kids when you can give them the nondenominational spiritual tools of meditation and yoga. With the backing of the school administration, I started a middle school yoga club. We meditated in class, and it was immediately obvious how it was helping them. If you teach kids how they can take a deep breath and relax for as little as a minute, and get focused and calm before they take a test, they actually do better. The kids could feel the difference, and they loved it.

The parents were supportive, though there was some initial concern about whether it was “spiritual,” which you have to avoid in public school. But they were won over when they saw how it was helping the kids.

When I came to Living Wisdom School, I was a little worried about leaving the excellent yoga program we had put in place—they had started calling it Mindfulness in the Public Schools, and it was going really well. But they brought in somebody to carry it on, and I could see that they were doing a good job, so I was able to let it go.

I have to say that I’m much happier at Living Wisdom School, because everything just makes more sense. I don’t have to be so careful with the vocabulary, because meditation and yoga are embraced as an accepted part of the curriculum, and as useful tools for helping the kids.

At LWS the older and younger kids mix freely
and play together as friends.

Q: Can you tells us about your experience making the transition to teaching at LWS?

Lilavati: One thing that stands out for me is that there’s a great deal of collaboration among the teachers. As part of my preparation, I took the online Education for Life program, where you can talk with EFL teachers worldwide. You can try an aspect of EFL in the classroom, and you can talk about it and receive suggestions for improving it.

There’s a ton of online conferencing, and it’s a great way to connect. When I came here, Helen, our director, told me she was looking for someone to co-teach first grade with Danielle, so that’s how I started. I’m now teaching kindergarten full-time, but my first year was a bit of this-and-that. I taught Spanish and yoga to all the kids in the school, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I introduced some yoga sequences into our annual school play, on the life of Paramhansa Yogananda.

The variety made for an interesting start, but I love teaching more than ever since I’ve been here. I like the kids, and I have a lot of energy for what I’m doing. And even though the first year was a bit of a scramble, I had lots of support, and it was fun to get to know all seventy-plus students and their teachers.

Q: Having taught in public school and at LWS, you’re familiar with what it’s like for the kids in each system.

Lilavati: One thing that struck me right away when I came here is that all of the kids, especially those who had been with the program from kindergarten, but also the kids who’d come more recently, were kinder. Also, they were more focused. But it was the kindness and openness that really struck me about the kids.

In public school, everyone’s a little bit guarded, and the students have to hold their energy back. You hear about cliques, and the kids will have their safe groups, but at LWS you can see that their hearts are open, and that they know how to get along together regardless of the differences in age. The middle schoolers really do take care of the younger ones, and the little ones feel that they can go to the older kids for help or support or fun.

During the year that I taught Spanish to all of the kids in the school, it struck me that they really knew how to be focused, and that they could pay attention, and that they were more centered. I think it’s partly due to meditation, because the kids have time every day to settle down and get centered.

Q: I’ve noticed the quality of kindness in the kids, how they cooperate, and how there’s an absence of putting people down. I’ll see them working together in pairs, and it’s remarkable how focused they are. Teachers with big classes in public schools will often have to spend a lot of time on behavioral issues, but the learning here seems to go more smoothly and efficiently.

LWS Science Fair

Lilavati: Yes, because each child gets to go at his or her own pace. If they’re advanced, they don’t have to wait for the whole class to catch up, so they aren’t spending long periods sitting there getting bored. And if they’re struggling and need attention, there’s a teacher or a teaching aide or another student who’s more than happy to help. But if a student has the ability to race ahead in math, they won’t be held back, because there’s support for them to learn at their level.

We had some amazing children when I co‑taught first grade with Danielle. One little girl was starting fourth-grade math, and one of the boys was doing third-grade math. He was into inventions and figuring out how things work, and we were able to give him time to explore on his own or with the other students, with plenty of support from the teachers.

Q: How do you make connections with the kids so that you can start to help them individually?

Lilavati: You start making connections from the very first day. Eye contact is very important—making sure that when they come into the classroom they’re acknowledged. It might be with a hug, a handshake, or something else that says, “You’re here. I see you. You see me. We’re connected. Let’s have fun today.” It happens at the start of every school day.

As teachers, we’re given the time and freedom here to observe each child and see what sparks their interest. And when you see that twinkle in their eye, you have the freedom to notice it and encourage it.

Q: Can you describe a typical day at the school?

Lilavati: Kindergarten is quite a bit different from the other grades, because the kindergarteners haven’t really entered the Feeling Years. They’re still in the Foundation Years from birth to age 6, when they’re working on their gross motor skills, gaining their balance by playing on the jungle gym, and so on. So they require a lot more play time. At this age, they learn by playing in the sand, building things with blocks, digging in the dirt, and running around.

When I co-taught first grade, we would start with a fun activity to raise the energy and get the children focused. They could decide if they wanted to play with Legos or draw, so we gave them some choice, but with an underlying structure. Then we would have Circle Time and sing a few songs and chants, and we’d meditate a little and do a little yoga and stretching. It was a time for everybody to get centered and connected at the
start of the school day.

Recess.

After Circle Time we would go for a walk to get some fresh air and oxygen into their brains before we settled down to do math. All of the grades do math first thing in the morning, and you can feel the math energy running through the school. (laughs) Then it’s time for snacks. And, again, everybody’s on the playground together—the kindergarteners are right there with the eighth graders. And yes, they really do play together. It’s fun to see a giant eighth grader and a tiny kindergartener playing basketball, and to see how the eighth graders are supporting them. We’ve had some really good basketball players among the little guys, and it’s amazing to watch them. (laughs)

After snacks, we usually have language arts. In kindergarten we emphasize reading and phonics, but we also do Writer’s Workshop, where the kids can write about something that interests them. They write some amazing poetry and stories, and their best work is published in the school literary magazine at the end of the year. So they get to experience what it’s like to be a published author!

In the afternoon, they’ll have electives like Spanish and singing, and core subjects like science, social studies, and art.

Q: We haven’t talked about the Feeling Years specifically. What are your thoughts on teaching kids at that stage of their lives?

Lilavati: I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this. At around age 6, sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the children are transitioning from the Foundation Years to the Feeling Years. As I mentioned, kindergarten needs to be very playful and physical and hands-on, but in first grade they’re starting to awaken to their social world. At the start of kindergarten and earlier, there’s a lot of what I call “parallel play,” where they’re playing together, but they’re really just sitting side by side and playing.

But also in kindergarten they start to interact a little more, and you can see how the social-emotional component begins to come in, and how they’re playing together in a more meaningful way. I spend lots of time thinking about how to get the kids to connect in positive ways, and how to encourage that.

One of the key things we do at LWS to encourage cooperation, kindness, and helpfulness is to notice it and point it out to the children. If a child is doing something that expresses a higher feeling, showing kindness or being helpful, we’ll point it out so it doesn’t go unnoticed, and they’ll learn
how these positive attitudes work and how they feel.

Kindergartners read before a Theater Magic dress rehearsal.

I might say, “You put away the blocks after you were done! That was so helpful!” During our summer camp I watched two little boys who wanted to use the drinking fountain. It was a great big concrete thing with a water spout on top, and one of the boys climbed up so he could reach the water, but then he couldn’t push the button to make the water go. When the other boy pushed the button for him so he could get a drink, I walked up and said, “Wow! You pushed the button so he could get a drink! That was so helpful!” They both smiled real wide, and then the little boy got down and gave the other boy a great big hug and said, “You’re a good friend!” It was so adorable—you could feel the warm fuzzies all around. (laughs)

When they help each other, if you point it out they will notice how they’re feeling and learn that it makes them feel happy. Or you can ask them, “How did that feel?” so they can articulate it themselves.

If they grab a toy and the other child starts crying, they might be surprised. “Why are you crying? All I did was grab the toy!” You can ask them to stop and think about it. “How did that feel? That didn’t feel so good, huh? Well, how can we go back and make it better?”

Just as you have to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, you have to teach them how kindness works. How it feels when you’re kind, and how it feels when you’re not kind. So there’s a lot of teaching that needs to happen, beyond the academics.

Q: Does it create a better learning environment, when you’re addressing issues of feeling that could otherwise become a distraction in the classroom—if they’re arguing, getting angry, or just wanting to act out, and they don’t know how to manage their energy in a positive way?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s exactly why you need a school like this, where everyone feels safe and connected. Because it frees their brains so they can use what we call their “executive skills” in the prefrontal lobe. If children feel safe, connected, and loved, they’re much more free to learn.

Q: Do these behavioral things weave together with what you’re trying to accomplish with the kids in math and science and language arts?

Lilavati: They do. It’s something I’ve definitely noticed here. We’re always devoting a great deal of attention to helping the kids get back to a place where everyone is feeling positive. If there’s some kind of kerfuffle between the kids, an altercation of some kind, you make sure to address it right away, and you make sure it’s a learning experience, not a punitive experience, so they can see what doesn’t work and how it feels. Then you can help them correct it and understand how that feels.

You might say, “Let’s rewind the situation. What could you have said? You wanted the block. Okay, instead of grabbing, what could you say?” And if you do it every time something comes up, you end up with a safe, connected environment, so that when math comes around the kids feel completely free to concentrate.

Q: How does learning take place at Living Wisdom School? In math, for example, what is the instruction like? How is it different from what would happen in a classroom with thirty kids?

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney tutors sixth-grader Vinca.

Lilavati: In math class, again, there’s constant individualized learning. Also, we make it very experiential, so it’s not just all workbooks and lecturing. You have to make it more than a brain exercise; you have to make it a positive experience that engages them fully.

When I taught first grade and the kids were learning about money, we had them make art that they could sell. We invited the kindergarteners to come in and buy the items, and we gave them real money. The first graders had to tell the customer how much it cost, and accept the money and make change. So they were learning about money, but they were also learning math. It was an experience that was fun and real for them, and they learned a tremendous amount because it was very hands-on. There are lots of activities that we do to make the learning a real-life experience.

Q: Mahita, the former LWS kindergarten teacher, described how the kids were using fourth-grade math concepts in kindergarten.

Lilavati: Yes, because it’s allowed. At Living Wisdom School they can go as far as they want to, and they don’t have to wait for the other kids.

Q: What are your connections like with the kids?

Lilavati: When I taught Spanish to the whole school, it was a wonderful way to make connections, because I met every one of the kids, and now they all know me.

I was impressed by how open the students were toward me, even at the beginning. They are so open to people. “Oh, here’s a new person. I wonder what they’re like.” Rather than, “Oh, here’s a new person—better watch out until I know what’s going on with them.” Which is what you’ll often get in public school.

Q: Is there a different feeling between public school and Living Wisdom School, in terms of not having the state looking over your shoulder and expecting you to meet a set of prescribed standards? Obviously the kids need to be achieving at a certain level in academics, but how does it compare with the pressures of teaching a state-mandated curriculum?

Lilavati: We have very high expectations around academics. We look at the Common Core standards, to make sure the kids are keeping up. But so many of our kids are going way beyond Common Core because of the individual instruction. We make assessments, but not with a nervous feeling of “Oh, gosh, how are they going to do on the test?” Because most of them will be going so far beyond the test standards. The focus here is on “How high can they go?” As opposed to “Are they going to meet the standard?”

Paula and Milan.

We’re constantly looking at their highest potential, and finding ways to encourage them to push their limits. How high can they go and still maintain a certain comfort level? Again, rather than “Oh my God, we have all these tests we have to give them.”

Q: If a child is working at the upper level of their comfort zone, how would you work with that child?

Lilavati: Again, it’s completely individual. I’m thinking of a little girl who’s in first grade, but doing third-grade math. She was working with measurements and pushing her edges, because she’s very interested and loves math, but she wasn’t comfortable with measurements. She had to measure her classmates to see how tall they were and then make a little graph. And because she wasn’t sure how to use a yardstick or a tape measure, it was pushing her limits. But she really wanted to go there, and because we had two teachers in the class, I had the freedom to spend a whole period explaining tape measures and yardsticks.

Socially, she was fine with going up to the other kids and saying, “Can you come over here so I can measure you?” The kids thought it was great fun. But she was at the edge of her learning when it came to converting inches to feet, and dealing with the tools that had metric measurements on one side and inches and feet on the other.

At Living Wisdom School the children push their limits, not because we’re pushing them but because they want to learn, because it’s so rewarding for them when they’re able to go at their own pace. And as teachers, it’s a matter of helping them. That’s true for Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies—we’re constantly challenging them, but it’s completely individual, so they’re eager to learn because we’re helping them at their own level and it’s very rewarding for them.

Q: Are you saying that your role is to help the kids have success experiences?

Lilavati: Yes, that’s my job! (laughs) Really, that’s what I think a teacher is supposed to do.

In many schools you’re restrained from doing that, if you’re with thirty kids, or you’re in middle school and seeing ninety to a hundred and twenty kids every day. You do your best, but you can’t possibly give your complete focus to each child in that kind of situation.

Appearances can deceive! These children are not just having fun putting on the annual all-school play. They are deeply engaged with lessons in history, geography, language arts, communication skills, presentation, self-control, concentration, diction, public speaking, acting, singing, memorization, and not infrequently, math and science.

As a teacher you have time, in our school, to get to know each child and make a connection, and realize what brings their energy up, what they’re interested in, what their passion is, and what their talents are. And then you can help them build on their talents and their inclinations and help them overcome their particular challenges.

I remember a little girl in first grade who was very much into princesses. She was a fantastic artist and she made beautiful drawings—but math? Not so much. But you could say to her, “The princess had six shoes, and she bought four more shoes. How many shoes does she have?” You could bring her interests into the part of the curriculum that was challenging for her.

The Feeling Years are a very open time for learning, especially about higher values. We’re very careful when it comes to the books we choose for them to read—we’re always picking books that are going to be uplifting and support their positive feelings. The Theater Magic program very powerfully fulfills that need for them, because it’s about an inspiring person or a saint whose life story uplifts the children.

In my first year, we produced a play about Paramhansa Yogananda. It was so much fun, and of course the kids are amazing. Every child in the school plays a role in the play, and their maturity really shines. Even the littlest ones are so professional about what they’re doing—they want to know their lines and their cues, and they’re very serious, because they want to get it just right. Their enthusiasm for it comes from deep inside them. It’s not something we have to press on them.

With the kindergarteners, it’s a little different. At that age, it really is more like herding cats because they’re still focused on learning to deal with their bodies and senses. But with the first graders it’s a little easier, because they’re entering the Feeling Years. They can be more focused on their interactions and the inspiration of the play. And by the time they get to middle school they’re completely focused and very receptive to the learning that comes from such a big experience.

I just want to add that I feel immensely blessed to have found Education for Life, and to be able to work at Living Wisdom School. I go to work every day knowing that all of the teachers are not only trying to help the students be their best selves, but that they are bringing their own highest self to their role as teachers, and into every part of their life.

It helps that every teacher, no matter what their background, has a spiritual practice of some kind, where they’re learning to center themselves so they can teach from a deep calmness.

LWS is a safe environment for the teachers as well as the children. We can seek help if a lesson plan doesn’t work, or if an encounter with a student needs more attention. We can go to one another and know that we’ll be supported and connected. Because, just like the kids, we also need to feel safe and loved so all of our creativity and wisdom flows into our teaching. We are very fortunate to have this jewel of a school in our area, and I hope that more and more families will find us and recognize what an exceptional place for learning and growth it is.

Ch. 16: A Conversation with LWS Second Grade Teacher Kshama Kellogg

Q: A defining feature of the Living Wisdom Schools is an emphasis on adapting the curriculum and the teachers’ interactions with the children to their special needs in the years from 6 to 12—the “Feeling Years,” as they’re called in Education for Life, the book that outlines the schools’ philosophy.

Kshama Kellogg

Can you tell us how you address your students’ need to have their feelings brought into the educational process, and how it’s done throughout the school?

Kshama: When we talk about the Stages of Maturity that are discussed in Education for Life, we’re really speaking of how humans naturally develop and grow.

The Foundation Years from birth to age 6 are the time when children develop their awareness of the physical body and senses. Little children are constantly moving and touching and tasting, and generally getting to know the physical world, and how to live in their bodies. But when they begin to enter the next phase, from 6 to 12, they start wanting to relate to their emotional life, and to learn how to deal with the feeling side of their nature.

It’s a very social time, with a major emphasis on learning to relate appropriately to others. With children in the Feeling Years, we need to devote a great deal of time as teachers to help them understand the emotions that might be running through them in various situations. We need to give them the skills to bring their emotions into a place of calm feeling and understanding. And we do it with a broad array of classroom practices; first and foremost by being deeply aware of where each student is in their development, and what their next natural growth point can be.

We do an enormous amount of teaching through storytelling and the arts—the “media of feeling,” including music and dance and theater. For children at this age, anything that is heart-opening can become a highly effective medium for teaching the curriculum.

In math, for example, we find it’s tremendously helpful when they can connect their feelings to the subject. With my second graders, I might bring in stuffed animals to help them relate to certain math concepts. Or we’ll act out the concepts, because it brings math to life in a way that they can connect with and remember. It’s much more motivating and engaging than only using workbooks or the standard manipulative tools.

Q: Education for Life says that when we fail to guide children in their emotional development at this age, they will feel that something’s missing from their education, and they’ll be more likely to rebel and tune-out school in their teen years.

The Living Wisdom Schools have shown that this needn’t happen, when the students feel that their emotional needs are being met, especially their need for inspiration and high ideals. Education for Life laments the common practice of cramming children’s heads with facts at this age, at the expense of teaching them to work positively with their feelings as an important component of their ability to learn.

Kshama: In our school, we find that when the teachers are able to connect with the children at the level where they’re naturally growing, the learning flows much more easily and naturally.

Children at this stage are deeply engaged in imaginative play and creativity. So it’s no surprise that when we bring their feelings into the learning process, and help them learn how to work with their feelings generally, they resonate with school. When you can find ways to make what they’re studying come alive for them at a feeling level, they begin to experience school as a very interesting place of growth.

Kshama helps Milan.

Q: When you’re creating lesson plans, are you trying to bring the feeling element into them?

Kshama: We’re doing it all the time. But first, I think we need to make a clear distinction between “feelings” and “emotions.” There’s a very large difference between raw emotions and refined feelings. Our job as educators is to help children be aware of their inner states and learn how to transform turbulent emotions into calm, positive feeling.

It’s not at all a question of encouraging them to express their emotions willy-nilly. We’re trying to help them understand how to use their feelings in positive, expansive, mature ways that will contribute to their happiness and success.

Q: Education for Life points out that refined feelings enable us to tell the difference between right and wrong. We don’t decide if something is right or wrong based on reason alone, but by feeling it. The author says it’s a disaster when children aren’t taught to consult their calm feelings as a guide to what’s right and true.

Kshama: Our children receive an enormous amount of support for becoming aware of the difference. The teachers use conflict resolution techniques and other proven tools to help them handle the emotionally charged issues that are bound to come up at school. We help them increase their awareness of what’s happening for them at an emotional level, and we help them understand how they can work with that reality and come to a positive resolution.

Q: There was an incident that took place at the original Living Wisdom School in Nevada City many years ago. It had snowed overnight, and at recess the children got into a snowball fight. Some of the little kids were crying, so the teachers got the kids together to build a snowman. Later, the teachers asked them how they had felt during the snowball fight and while they were building the snowman together. They said things like, “I felt bad when I saw the little kids crying, but it felt great to build a snowman.” The teachers recognized a heaven-sent opportunity to draw the children’s attention to their feelings of right and wrong.

Kshama: We’re constantly helping them work with their feelings in all kinds of situations. We also help them be aware of what’s happening for other people in moments of conflict or pain, and we help them develop empathy. They acquire the problem-solving skills to create a healthy and supportive environment, where all of the kids can have a good experience
that feels wonderful.

Cameron and friends

Q: Do you model positive behaviors for them?

Kshama: Modeling is a huge part of the process. But the extremely important first step is to notice what’s happening with them.

As adults, we might put our own judgments on the children’s actions or emotions—“Don’t be angry!” But at LWS, the teachers learn to share their awareness in ways that will help the child understand what’s going on, and how they can deal with it.

Instead of saying “Oh, you are angry,” I might say, “Oh, your face is like this”—where I’m scrunching my eyebrows and making a frowny face. I’m modeling it for them, as a way to help them begin to find a solution.

I’ll say, “Your face looks like this—you might be feeling angry.” They’ll want to look up and see what’s happening on my face, and it gives them an awareness of what’s happening internally for them. It’s giving them a connection to the emotion that goes along with the experience they’re having. We’re helping them make that connection very consciously, so they can start to find a happier place.

Another example of how we work with their feelings is a situation that will come up in art class. Very often, children are conditioned to seek adult approval for what they’re drawing, instead of being encouraged to be alive in the experience. A child will come up to you and say, “Do you like it?” And instead of giving them back, “Oh, that’s a beautiful painting!” Or, “Oh, how lovely!” Or, “I love it!” you can say things like “Wow! I loved watching you paint that!” You’re giving them back their own experience. You’re celebrating them doing it, and validating their reality without imposing your own judgment on what they’ve created. So you’re helping them be aware of their feelings, instead of creating a situation where their feelings are devalued and they might be tempted to suppress them, which isn’t productive.

I can say, “Wow! Look at all the color you put into your painting!” So I’m not saying whether I like it, but I’m acknowledging that they’ve put a ton of color into their piece.

It might sound like a trivial thing, but we find that it’s very important. When you give their experience back to them in a way that they can own it, it has huge consequences.

With really young children who aren’t very adept at drawing, as adults we may try to guess what they’ve drawn, because we want to connect with them and support what they’re doing. But very often what they’ve drawn isn’t at all what we think it is. And as soon as we put our assumption onto it, it changes their relationship to it.

You can ask them, “Tell me about your painting—what did you do here? Tell me about this part.” It gets them sharing, and it keeps them alive in their own experience of it.

Validating their feelings is a very healthy step toward helping them develop a natural, relaxed self-confidence. It’s a major step toward helping them become happily engaged people.

From age 6 to 12, children have a pressing need to be introduced to inspiring figures that speak to their hearts. There are many educational approaches that use fairy tales and storytelling with children at this age, or that engage them in studying the lives of inspiring historical figures. At LWS, it’s a hundred percent of what we’re doing with our theater program. The yearly all-school plays are about some of the most wonderful role models that are available to humanity—they are about “human treasures” that can serve as models for all people. We’ve put on plays about Buddha, Bernadette of Lourdes, Kwan Yin, Jesus, Yogananda, Mirabai, Hafiz, St. Francis and Clare, Krishna, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, St. Teresa of Avila, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, and the Dalai Lama.

Every child has a role in the play, and the learning that takes place is beyond measure. The kids are not only learning about the life of the subject of the play, they’re also studying about the culture and history of the times in which they lived. And by memorizing the words of these great role models, they gain an internal library of wisdom and inspiration that will remain with them for years.

Pooja in costume for the annual school play.

Q: Does a feeling-based approach help the children become internally motivated to learn, instead of the teacher having to force-feed them or resort to a system of punishment and rewards?

Kshama: It creates a safe environment where the children can be who they are and know that there’s safety in the relationship with their teachers and between student and student. It creates a classroom community that’s based on respect and kindness and safety, so that real sharing and real learning can take place.

It’s enormously important for kids at this age, and it’s why we devote tremendous energy to creating a caring classroom and a caring school community. Because it’s simply the indispensable foundation for a healthy learning environment.

Q: The atmosphere in the classrooms I’ve visited is remarkable. When I grew up, the teachers had to spend lots of time “herding cats,” because the kids’ energy was often wanting to be somewhere else, and the teacher had to rope it back into the unfortunate fact that we had to do math or history or English. Whereas at LWS I can walk into Ruth’s third-grade classroom, or Lilavati’s kindergarten, or Gary’s middle school classroom, or Craig’s fourth and fifth grade class, and I’ll see that the kids aren’t rebelling. The kids are enjoying what they’re doing.

Kshama: When summer comes, the kids always beg us to keep the school open year-round. Many of them would prefer to be at school, learning and being with their school community, rather than heading off to their camps and other summer programs.

Q: One of the results of the “extracurricular” activities at LWS—working with their feelings through theater arts and music and art and field trips—is that you get a very focused atmosphere in the classroom when it’s time for academics. In Gary’s middle school classroom, I’ll see kids sitting around a table doing math, and maybe one of them will say something and they’ll laugh, but then they’re right back and centered in their work.

Kshama: Mm-hm. It’s a question of understanding what a child’s motivation is at this stage, and knowing how to work with their reality in ways that help them become happily engaged. It’s about giving them many joyful success experiences that will help them grow into a strong sense of their own abilities, starting where they are.

The attention that the teachers devote to finding out who each child is, and helping them at their own level in every aspect of their being and not just academics, contributes tremendously to help them develop a strong sense of their own identity and their ability to master challenges. It’s a joyful experience that carries over very powerfully into their studies.

Whether it’s math, science, writing, or reading, we’re constantly looking for ways to inspire the children to care about what they’re learning, because that’s when real learning takes place. And they absolutely love it.

Q: In Craig’s fourth and fifth grade classroom, I’ll see the kids working in pairs, and their body language makes it absolutely clear that they do not want to be distracted or disturbed.

Kshama: The students in my second grade class are seven and eight years old, so they’re still developing their early writing skills. We use a workshop approach, where we invite them to write from their own life experiences and from their own sense of the world as it’s developing for them. So it’s very real for them, and it provides a safe venue for them to be enthusiastically engaged.

Hands-on in science class.

They’ll tell stories about their experiences, or they’ll draw on their imagination to create wonderful fictional pieces. But it’s all about drawing on life as they understand it, and bringing it onto the page, instead of the teacher passing out story prompts that might feel artificial. Giving them ways to bring their own enthusiasm into the process is a wonderful step toward helping them become thoroughly engaged learners.

In science, our goal, especially with the younger ones, is to create a sense of awe and appreciation for the world and the universe we live in, and a feeling of connectedness, so that as we’re learning about science, we aren’t just thinking about how we can use our knowledge to make a profit, but we’re understanding how everything in the world is connected, so we will love it and want to take care of it and protect it.

Q: Tanaka Shozo, a famous Japanese conservationist of the early twentieth century, said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”

Kshama: Yes, and we do a lot with nature, because it’s hugely important for the students, especially if they’re growing up in the city, to make sure they’re connecting with the natural world. And when we’re doing lab sciences, we’re making sure they are coming to life in a way that is interesting and tangible for them, and that helps them make connections outside the classroom so they can really understand why they’re learning it. It’s an extremely experiential approach to the curriculum, and as you said, it touches their hearts so they’ll remember and care.

Q: I talked with Gary about his approach to math in middle school. He gives the kids daily problem sets that they work on in class, and he corrects them and goes over every single problem with each student individually until he’s sure that they’ve grasped and interiorized the concepts.

They’re challenged at the edge of what they can handle individually, with the result that they have an ongoing sense of the joy of overcoming challenges. There are one or two math aides working with the students in the classroom, and it’s almost entirely individual tutoring.

The teachers and aides are always checking to make sure the students are working at the upper limit of their abilities, “pressing their edges” and feeling very good about overcoming the obstacles.

Kshama: It’s the approach we take throughout the school. We’re giving them success experiences and a depth of understanding, so they can feel they’re holding the material in a way that they can apply it to new situations.

In public schools and academically focused private schools, the teachers are often required to cover a certain amount of material within a prescribed time. It means that they’re pressured to herd the students through the curriculum together at the same pace. But then you can end up overly concerned with “studying to the test,” with the result that there’s a very thin layer of comprehension.

Our goal is to take the students as deeply into the material as we can, and give them the support and positive experiences to internalize it and understand the concepts in depth, so they can use that understanding as a building block for taking the next step.

As teachers, we’ll have students who are working on many different levels of math in our classroom, and we’re always discovering creative ways to support them. It’s important that they feel engaged at their own level, and not just be spinning their wheels, quickly completing an assignment and being bored while they wait for the rest of the class, or struggling because the other students are working on something they aren’t ready for.

Q: There seems to be a strange magic at LWS, where the attention to the individual is like a jet booster for academic success. If you weren’t familiar with the school, you might think, “Okay, the teachers are spending way too much time on the individual child, and they’re going much too deep in their academic subjects. They’re doing lots of art and theater, and how are the kids going to move ahead at a reasonable pace?”

Yet we continually hear stories of second-graders who are doing fourth-grade math, and kindergarten kids using fourth-grade math concepts, and eighth graders testing into second-year or third-year high school math.

Perhaps you touched on the answer: that you don’t have one-third of the class being bored out of their minds because you’re trying to move everybody ahead in lockstep, and another third of the class struggling because you’re going too fast, and only a third of the class being taught at their own level. When you’re teaching the individual child, it’s more efficient, and the class can move forward at the fastest possible speed.

Vinca Lu gives her Quality speech at the 2018 LWS End-of-Year Ceremony.

Several years ago, there was an exceptionally talented girl at LWS who was the only sixth grader in California to achieve a perfect score on the Math Olympiads M exam for eighth grade and below, out of 19,541 students who took the test. She was highly gifted, but at LWS she was able to go at her own pace.

In 2018, another sixth grader at LWS, Vinca Lu, got 23 correct answers on the Olympiad E for sixth graders, scoring in the top 2 percent internationally. And on the Olympiad M test which is designed to challenge eighth graders Vinca (who by age should be a fifth grader) scored 24 out of 25, again placing in the top 2 percent internationally. Her teacher, Gary McSweeney, revealed that Vinca had received no special preparation for the tests, evidencing that advanced students are rigorously challenged in math at LWS.

Kshama: The students are not all punched from the same mold; they are highly individual, and each one will have areas of strength and challenge. The problem with a cookie-cutter approach, where you’re trying to stamp out standardized children with standardized math skills who can pass standardized tests, is that it ignores the inescapable reality of individual differences.

We keep our class sizes deliberately small and the student-teacher ratio low so that we can connect with every student every day, and understand where they are and what they need, not only in their academic subjects but in their social and emotional development.

Also, we have a community of teachers who are expected to be committed to a personal centering practice of some kind. All of the teachers either meditate or have some kind of mindfulness practice. For myself, I find it’s a huge component in my being able to walk into the classroom and be fully present with my students, and able to relate and make connections and have insights about what’s needed to help each child on a level that isn’t superficial.

Q: How do you work with students who might be coming into your classroom for the first time?

Kshama: Fill them up with love! (laughs) Really, I’m quite serious. On their first day we welcome them into the class community. We’re about to start school now, and most of the students will be returning, but there will be a few new ones. And my job is to welcome everyone in the spirit of a family to help everyone feel that they are welcome, that they’re important, that we’re all starting a year-long journey of friendship and growth together, and that we need to be a supportive community for one another so that everybody can grow.

Fourth and fifth grade teacher Craig Kellogg poses for a photo with a student after the Year-End Ceremony

We’re crafting lots of experiences that are team-building and collaborative, and making sure there are lots of opportunities for the students to connect one-on-one with each other.

It requires an enormous amount of modeling helpful behaviors, and coaching the children on the playground so they can learn to integrate with one another and learn how to play together successfully. And those bonds carry over to the classroom.

It’s absolutely crucial to remember that every student is unique. Last year, there was a student in my class who was facing some temporary issues in his personal life. The kids were aware of what he was going through, and every single student in the class rallied around the child to create an environment where he could blossom. We created moments where he was connecting one-on-one with the other children, and moments where the whole class was supporting him, and we watched him rocket through the challenges until he was fully connected with the class. It was incredible.

An important part of our process for creating a caring classroom community is that every teacher meets with every student at the start of the year, in the days before school begins. The kids bring their school supplies, and we use the time to set up their desks, get them situated, help them pick out their backpack hook, and do all the little mundane things that need to happen, in addition to spending quality one-on-one time together to make a connection with the child before they arrive on the first day of school as a group.

It’s the start of their LWS experience, and it reflects the experience they’ll have every day, with a growing network of personal connections with the teachers and students that encourages enthusiasm, engagement, and being challenged to learn at their own pace.

Teaching here is amazing. It’s fantastically rewarding to see our students thriving personally and academically, and to follow their successes throughout their years at our school and beyond. We are always discovering new ways to help the students, and I feel that our successes in terms of academics and happiness prove the value of what we’re doing.

Ch. 15: Two Kinds of Feelings

By J. Donald Walters, author of Education for Life and co‑founder of the Living Wisdom Schools

 

How many adults, what to speak of children, recognize the difference between emotion and feeling? Very few.

And how many children, consequently, are taught that calm, sensitive feeling is an invaluable tool for the complete understanding of most subjects? Or that turbulent feelings—that is to say, the emotions—and not feeling per se prevent clear, objective understanding? Again, very few.

Few children, again, are taught the extent to which reason is guided by calm feeling, but distorted by the emotions. And few are taught that by developing calm feeling they will improve their understanding of objective reality on every level.

Feeling, when it is calm and refined, is essential both to truly objective and to mature insight.

There are ways of clarifying feeling, just as there are principles of logic (already taught in the schools) for learning to reason correctly. Feeling can be clarified, for instance, by learning how to distance feeling from one’s personal likes and dislikes, withdrawing one’s awareness to a calm center in the heart. Feeling can be clarified by directing the heart’s energies upward to the brain, and thence to a point between the eyebrows that was anciently identified as the seat of concentration in the body. Clarity of feeling can be assisted by calming the flow of energy in the spine, by means of certain breathing exercises. These exercises are a priceless contribution of the science of yoga to the general knowledge of the human race. It would be a grave error to ignore them on
the grounds of one’s unfamiliarity with them.

Diana tells the audience about her quality during the LWS End of Year Ceremony.

Only by calm inner feeling can a person know definitely the right course to take in any action. Those who direct their lives from this deeper level of feeling achieve levels of success that are never reached by people who limit their quest for answers to the exercise of reason. Reason, indeed, if unsupported by feeling, may point in hundreds of plausible directions without offering certainty as to the rightness of any of them.

Children need to learn how to react appropriately. This they can never do if their reaction springs out of their subjective emotions. Considerable training is needed to learn how to harness feeling and make it a useful ally. What children are taught, instead, as they grow older, is that feelings are inevitably obstacles to correct insight. The scientific method is offered as a model. “If you want to see things objectively,” they are told, “you must view everything in terms of cold logic.” I remember a professor when I was in college who boasted, jokingly, that X-rays had shown his heart to be smaller than normal. This, to him, was a sign of intellectual objectivity, which he prized.

Ignored is the fact that, usually, the greater the scientist, the more deeply he feels his subject. Or that, as Einstein put it, the essence of true scientific discovery is a sense of mystical awe.

Feeling can never in any case be suppressed. Shove it out of sight at one point—where you can at least see it and try to deal with it—and it will only pop up at another, often a place where you least expect it. Many times, when long-suppressed feelings have at last burst upon people’s consciousness, those feelings have assumed terrible and unrecognizable shapes. Sometimes they have actually incited to riot.

Right feeling is an important tool for achieving maturity. It must be cultivated, and not merely ignored, suppressed, or treated as something about which nothing ‘reasonable” can be done.

Ch. 14: The Super-Efficient Classroom

When children feel that their teachers understand their unique talents and motivations, they are much more likely to love school and excel in their academic subjects.

A conversation with Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools.

Q:  Parents who visit the Living Wisdom Schools often question the schools’ philosophy. They’re naturally concerned that their children receive a first-class education. But they often aren’t aware of the powerful connections between academic success and a child’s feelings, particularly during the years from 6 to 12. Parents are often concerned that time spent on feelings is wasted, and would be better devoted to academics.

Nitai: The traditional image of a teacher is that he or she will come into the classroom prepared with a good lesson plan. But the risk in adhering too rigidly to a plan is that the teacher will overlook the reality of the individual child—the child’s unique abilities, needs, motivations, and the daily fluctuations of his or her mind and heart.

A good teacher will, of course, have a solid lesson plan, but their first concern will be to get to know each child, and to be able to relate appropriately to their realities.

When a teacher can do that, it’s a wonderful boon for the children, because it gives them a sense that the teacher understands their worth and their abilities. It’s an experience that most kids aren’t getting today at school. They’re treated as cogs in the school machinery—as just one more anonymous child swimming in the great ocean of students.

The tragedy is that the kids start to identify with being a cog in the system. Whereas if a talented teacher is acknowledging their reality, what we see is that the child comes alive and wants to learn because somebody is investing the time and energy to value and encourage them where they are.

LWS fourth and fifth-grade teacher Craig Kellogg helps Tima negotiate the complicated process of finding his costume and being in the right place at the right time before a dress rehearsal of the school play.

My forty years as a teacher have convinced me that this is the indispensable foundation of academic excellence, because at that point you can do amazing things with the kids and the curriculum. It’s why I’m encouraging this quality more strongly than ever in my workshops for teachers.

It’s a skill that you can develop endlessly. As adults, we know that when we’re communicating at work or talking with friends, we need to be able to set our own mental buzz aside and understand where they are.

Q:  Is it a skill that you look for in the teachers you hire?

Nitai: Let me share two stories. I gave an online workshop recently for teachers in Italy. I had to speak through an interpreter, and I wasn’t sure they were getting the concepts. So I told them, “I want you to work on this, and come back next week prepared to share stories about opening up to children’s realities.”

The next week, a woman said, “I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both about two years old. I thought, ‘Okay, here’s my assignment. I’ve got to figure out how to relate to their world.’”

When she looked at the kids she saw that they were chomping very contentedly on their pacifiers. Noticing an extra pacifier lying on a table, she picked it up and put it in her mouth and sat on the floor with these two little babies. (laughs) She reported that the kids suddenly stopped what they were doing and looked up at her and got big smiles on their faces, and one of the kids came over and gave her a big hug.

It was a powerful demonstration of how beautifully this principle works at all ages. How can you expect to teach children effectively, if you can’t get on their wavelength?

Another teacher in the workshop works as a math aide with 12-year-old kids. He told us about a boy in his class who absolutely hates math. The kid came slouching into the classroom with his hoodie pulled up over his head and walked over to a table where he sat down, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)

Stefan, the math aide, watched the boy and thought, “All right, I’m going to see if I can tune into this boy’s world.”

He went over to the table and nudged the boy on the shoulder.

The boy was surprised and said, “What?” Stefan said, “Could you move over a little?”

The boy grudgingly scooted over, and Stefan let himself fall into the chair, put his arms on the table, and threw his head on his arms. (laughs)

The kid started giggling, and finally he picked up his head and they ended up doing some math together. Stefan said it was remarkable how willing the kid was to work on his math when he realized that the teacher could get on his wavelength and sympathize.

During the years from 6 to 12, the classroom should be a place of adventure—it should be a combination of theater, science laboratory and space ship. The classroom at that age should be an enclosed reality that you can turn into just about anything, to draw the kids into the feeling side of the learning experience.

When a teacher at our school wanted to introduce the kids to the science of the rainforest, he turned the classroom into a tropical jungle. There were so many plants and trees in the room that you had to brush the branches aside to get through the door. The point is that you aren’t just reading about the rainforest in a book, you’re having an experience of the rainforest. It’s a prop, you might say, that helps the kids feel what the rainforest is like. And the end result is that because they can feel it, they begin to care for it, and to be interested in learning about it.

The Palo Alto Living Wisdom School puts on an amazing Theater Magic play every year, where every child in the school takes part. All of the kids get completely involved in the self-contained world of the play. If the play is about Joan of Arc, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Dalai Lama, or Buddha, or Kwan Yin, or Abraham Lincoln, or Krishna, they’re deeply studying the history and customs of the times, while they’re acting out the lives of these great figures. Most of the kids are picking up each others’ lines as well as their own, and it’s hugely motivating for the kids because their feelings are fully engaged. And, again, the result is that they’re absolutely lapping up the academic side of the experience.


First-graders sing a song during a dress rehearsal for The Life of Abraham Lincoln.

In our science classes, we approach the curriculum in the same spirit, where you’re playing the role of a scientist, and you’re doing real-world experiments as you learn. It’s a pretend world, which is appropriate for children at that age, when their imagination and feelings are at their peak and you’re building the curriculum on that very powerful force.

When I co-taught fifth-grade, we introduced the kids to the Ramayana, one of the world’s great teaching epics. It’s chock-full of deeply absorbing adventures that carry moral lessons in a very convincing way.

We introduced the book by reading some of the stories to the kids. They quickly became interested, and we started acting out the stories. We made a quilt on themes of the Ramayana, and this great saga became a central part of their lives for the semester. For three or four months, you would come into the classroom and find yourself in the world of this great teaching epic from India. You were in an altered reality, and not just a bare and sterile classroom.

It’s an approach to learning that catches the kids’ attention very powerfully at this age. They absolutely love it when there’s a story involved, whether it’s a story about math, science, history, literature, or the arts—because they want to experience life, and they have a highly developed sense of adventure, but they aren’t old enough yet to go out and experience real life for themselves. The teacher’s job is to scale it down so they can experience it in stories and theater and music and painting, because they can’t go to an actual rainforest.

After they leave the Feeling Years, they enter the adolescent years from 12 to 18. Few people understand that this is the time when you can take them out of the classroom and get them engaged in doing real-life things. It’s no longer a time for studying things only in books; it’s a time to introduce them to real life by giving them their own adventures. In our school, we’ve gone to Mexico where we worked at an orphanage, and we’ve gone to India where we met the Dalai Lama.

Each of the six-year stages of a child’s development has its own unique methods for capturing the children’s enthusiasm and interests at that age, and for bringing it into the curriculum.

Maria Montessori, the famous educator, said that when children reach age thirteen, you should put them on a bus and start driving them around and not let them off until they’re eighteen. (laughs)

Q:  You’ve given examples from Pre-K to middle school and beyond, and a child’s feelings seem to be important at every stage, when it comes to finding ways to get them excited about learning. If I understand what you’re saying, it’s that the teacher needs to get to know them, and find out what they’re interested in, and make use of their own natural wellsprings of energy and enthusiasm to help them move forward in their academic studies.

When you challenge children at the upper level of their ability, they become happily engaged.

Nitai: That’s exactly it. When I began teaching, I was very intrigued by a document that Paramhansa Yogananda developed for a school that he had started in India. He called it the Psychological Chart. It was a way to help you find out, among other things, what the student’s deepest motivations are. I’ve been working with it, adapting it for a document that we plan to call the Student Portrait.

It was a bit confusing at first to try to figure out how to use it, because it covers so many facets of a child’s character. But the point is that when children come into the classroom, you need to look at the key elements of their lives—their family life, their character, their response to being disciplined, and so on—there are twelve categories in all that you can look at, with lots of fine detail. And the insights of the parents can be a great aid in helping you understand the child.

Yogananda used an interesting word: “salient.” You look for the salient characteristic of the child—what is the core motivator in that child? And then you can use that as a leading quality to help you work with them.

It might be something that’s coming from the child’s life outside of school, or it might be some special quality of the child’s own nature.

There was a boy in one of my classes who was extremely competitive. It was the boy’s salient quality, and I always had to take it into account or else it would get out of hand and cause a disruption. But if I accounted for it, we were able to find a way to make school work really well for him.

To keep it fresh in his mind, I would walk out to PE with him and talk about competition, and what it means to win and lose. Because otherwise he would go out and be completely focused on winning.

Final number from The Life of Abraham Lincoln.

One of my kids who’s now a young adult has a job as a chef at a famous yoga retreat. In high school, the only salient quality I could find that truly captured his interest was food. He was pretty much oblivious of everything else, but his eyes would light up the moment you mentioned food. So we were able to work with that quality to make school interesting and motivating and inspiring for him.

I find that you can use this approach to help almost any child. Sometimes the salient quality will shift—there will be a clear characteristic that will evolve into something a little different, perhaps because of events in the child’s life, or an inner transformation. But there’s usually one salient thing, and it gives you a very useful clue for zeroing-in on the child’s interests.

Knowing each child’s salient quality helps break any tendency to think of the kids as cogs in the machine, because every one of us is absolutely unique.

Q: In an earlier chapter, “It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children,” you quoted a New York Times article. The author lamented that kids today are praised for earning good grades, but they aren’t learning about grit and perseverance and enthusiasm, and how to get along with people, and other qualities that are crucial for success and happiness. We’ve all heard of people who didn’t have much formal education, but who were successful because of their drive, initiative, curiosity, and their heart’s enthusiasm, and their ability to get along with others.

Nitai: Yes, and it’s wonderful that people in education today are starting to realize this. It’s related to the idea that kids need to be themselves, and that we need to do the things with them that are meant for kids, rather than force them to conform to the adult world all the time. So, yes, I completely agree. I scratch my head, because it’s hard to understand why people can’t see that.

LWS second-grade classroom rules

Even at the level of grades and test scores, the research tells us very clearly that happy kids perform better than stressed kids. And it seems so obvious. Why did we go the other way? Why did we imagine that by pushing and pressuring we would get more learning?

Q:  It seems like owning a car and not understanding how the car works so you can put the right fuel in it.

Nitai: Yes. (laughs) It’s like putting gasoline in an electric engine because you don’t understand what it needs to function properly.

Q:  I read a book by two authors whose previous work I admired. In a chapter on education, they were ranting that all of this new stuff about feeling-based education is hogwash, and that the traditional ways of teaching are just fine. And never mind if kids today are exposed to violent video games, because they’re basically good kids and they won’t be affected. I was surprised, because I knew the authors to be courageous researchers and independent thinkers. But they were captured by this idea. And I realized that they were reacting to the kind of feeling-based education that is truly going in the wrong direction, where teachers latch onto the idea that feelings of all kinds are good. “It’s healthy for the kids to scream and shout and express their anger openly and not suppress it.” And it’s because they aren’t aware of the difference between raw emotions and refined feelings. They don’t understand that it’s essential to help kids learn to direct their emotions in ways that will support learning and help them thrive as human beings.

Nitai: People tend to judge any movement on the basis of what’s happening at the fringe. The topics in our Education for Life approach to educating children are the topics of life and eternal truth, translated to the world of the child. They are the ideas that describe how life works at every level. There are endless ramifications to explore, and I’ve been blessed to be able to specialize in the particular application of those ideas in education.

Q: There’s an idea that we know from the Education for Life book, that what all humans are seeking is to experience ever-increasing happiness and to avoid suffering. And when we can tap into that basic human drive at school, it seems to release a tremendous amount of energy in the children.

Nitai: Yes, and it’s very unfortunate that the educational establishment tries to press kids into the same mold and ignores that very powerful natural drive to be happy. There are natural laws of how human life works. Those laws are a feature of a universe that is constructed for the purpose of helping souls learn to be happy and successful. And helping children to explore how this life works is tremendously important at all ages.

Kids are always doing it anyway, and in some ways they’re better at it than we are, because as adults we tend to let our thinking processes get in the way. Children are constantly exploring life and experimenting. What will happen if I throw the ball over the bush? What will happen if I dance? What will happen if I eat this? And to be a teacher who can value that, and see it as a core feature of an ideal education, puts us in touch with how the process of education works, rather than just artificially trying to redirect behavior.

I tell people, “You want to get into the child’s world.” And they’ll respond, “Well, I was over there with the kid and they weren’t really doing anything.” And I’ll say, “Go back.” (laughs) Because they were doing something—and maybe they just weren’t doing something that made sense to you, but they were doing something that made a lot of sense to them, and we need to try to tune into that.

Q:  When I talk to the teachers at Living Wisdom School, they say that if a child is doing art, for example, it can be harmful for an adult to rush up with their own ideas and say, “I really love that!” Or, “That looks like an airplane!” Because you’re imposing an idea on them that might not actually be the child’s own. The teachers told me that a more fruitful approach is to say, “Oh! You put so much blue in there!” And get them talking about what’s coming out of their world.

Nitai: Exactly. That’s what motivates me to try to keep spreading these methods as best I can, so that more and more five-year-olds can start their lives in harmony with these principles that will give them success and happiness in life, instead of having to learn them, perhaps painfully, a lot later.

 

Ch. 13: It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children

By Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools

About fifty years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began to challenge America’s attitudes toward food production.

Nitai Deranja

The prevailing view was that vegetables should be judged by their appearance—bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable. So American agriculture adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support growing great-looking tomatoes.

But a tiny fringe group, which gradually became known as the organic farming movement, pointed out that the real value of tomatoes lies not in their color but their taste and nutritional value, which were being sacrificed to improve their appearance.

It took a while, but people began to listen. A recent study1 revealed that seventy-five percent of Americans now buy at least some organic food.

Today we face a similar misconception about our children’s education. We all want our kids to succeed—no doubt. The problem is how we define “success.”

As with the misplaced emphasis on bigger, redder tomatoes, many people now assume that student success can be measured in numbers, using standardized tests.

These tests are mandated in almost all schools, and they exercise an enormous influence over our children’s future.

With such important consequences, it seems appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.

Below are some topics covered in one of the most widely used standardized tests for fifth through eleventh graders.2 As you scan the list, note the number of items you might be familiar with, and how important this information has been in your adult life. (These items are not taken from the more rigorous “advanced” level of the exam, but from the easier, “proficient” level.)

  1. The function of the esophagus
  2. The difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
  3. The reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
  4. The contributions of Hammurabi
  5. The differences between metals and nonmetals
  6. The form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
  7. The Schlieffen Plan
  8. The Tennis Court Oath.
  9. The Social Gospel movement
  10. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation

The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, and the Code of Hammurabi may not be useful in certain specialized fields. It’s that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we’re making the same mistake people made in judging tomatoes—we’re focusing on superficial appearances at the expense of real substance, as measured by actual benefits to the individual child.

When we pressure teachers and administrators to make sure every student is exposed to the “right” facts, the end result is that creativity and enthusiasm are replaced with what’s been called “dead-ucation.”

In a recent New York Times article, a long-time teacher questioned the overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing today:

“This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”3

A parent lamented her son’s experience of dead‑ucation:

 “I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…. These energetic, engaged, accomplished six-year-olds turned into 12-year-olds who ask, ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ That flame they had at age 6 didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.”4

And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the winners in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”5

The time has come to ask what an alternative, more “organic” approach to education might look like.

What if our schools shifted at least some of their focus from testing relatively useless facts to include the following measures:

  • How to take initiative and exercise creativity
  • How to concentrate
  • How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
  • How to be responsible
  • How to live healthfully
  • How to overcome negative moods
  • How to respect different points of view
  • How to discern the difference between right and wrong
  • How to find peace and contentment within yourself
  • How to know yourself and express your highest potential

How many of these items have proven useful to you in your adult life?

Which kind of knowledge would you deem more important for your child’s success?

Certainly, turning around the vast, hulking battleship of public education would appear to take enormous effort. But in the long run, it will probably not take much more time or energy than the switch from chemical-based food production to organic farming.

The traditional school subjects (“Readin’, Writin’, ’Rithmetic”) will always be the foundation of a well-grounded education, but our approach needs to incorporate these broader, more nutritive skills.

Much work has been done. We just need to share our resources and insights, and support each other as we make the needed changes.

The fruits of this movement will give our children a useful, enjoyable education, and a better guarantee of success.

References

  1. The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural,” 2/22/2010.
  2. Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), www.starsamplequestions.org
  3. “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?” New York Times, 9/14/2011.
  4. www.montessorimadness.com
  5. “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World,” www.msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011.

Ch. 12: How Raw Emotions Interfere with Learning

In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman tells how the pioneering Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria first suggested in the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was a key brain center for self-control and restraining emotional impulses.

Luria found that patients with damage to this area “were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger.”

A study of two dozen men and women convicted of heat-of-passion murders “found that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex.”[1]

In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and raw emotions exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” emotions. As the Duke news release put it, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.”

This is interesting news for educators, and for students preparing to take tests, since it confirms the age-old maxim that deliberately focusing attention tends to calm the pre-test jitters, while uncontrolled emotions are dangerous because they can interfere with concentration and good decision-making. At Living Wisdom School, the students are taught simple meditation techniques that help them focus their energy and attention in the prefrontal cortex while studying, preparing for tests, and dealing with turbulent emotions.

“We’ve known for a long time that some people are more easily distracted and that emotions can play a big part in this,” said Kevin S. LaBarr, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and an author of the study described above.

“Our study shows that two streams of processing take place in the brain, with attentional tasks and emotions moving in parallel before finally coming together.” The two streams are integrated in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate, located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion, which is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional responses.[2]

It’s easy to test this finding, by holding our attention with relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate, just behind the point between the eyebrows, a practice that tends to soothe any troubling emotions we may be feeling, by helping us feel more calm, positive, focused, and in control of our emotions.

Researchers now suspect that calm feeling (as distinct from raw emotions) and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, the researchers are finding that reason is deeply compromised unless it is balanced by the feelings of the heart.

Neurologist Dr. Antonio Damasio studied patients with damage to the connection between their brain’s prefrontal cortex and amygdala—the two most important centers of reason and emotion in the brain. He found that when these patients lost their ability to feel, they made terrible decisions in their business and personal lives, and became incapable of making the simplest decisions, such as when to make an appointment, even though their reasoning powers were intact.

“Dr. Damasio believes their decisions are so bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning…. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past—everything takes on a gray neutrality….

“Evidence like this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.[3]

Clearly, there are risks in trying to make decisions based on feeling alone. Our decisions may be subtly compromised by our personal desires and raw emotions—our hearts may not be sufficiently calm and detached to be trusted.

Our feelings are more reliable when we check them against our reason, common sense, and experience. Are our heart’s feelings truly calm and dispassionate, or are we just telling ourselves what we want to hear? Cool, clear reason can help us decide. Our sense of the right decision will be more often correct when we hold ourselves in a state of “reasonable feeling.” It may help to imagine that our awareness is centered in an axis of energy between the forehead and the heart.

At Living Wisdom School, the students learn to consult their calm feelings while listening to the voice of calm reason. Learning to access and use these human tools gives them an advantage when it comes to mastering the academic curriculum.

Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath have found that it’s surprisingly easy to prove that intuition exists, and that its accuracy increases when we deliberately calm and harmonize our feelings.

LWS eighth graders Vivek and Sofia receive tutoring
in high school geometry and trigonometry.

In a study of intuitive ability, the subjects were shown images of soothing subjects, interspersed randomly with emotionally disturbing images. Monitoring the subjects’ EEG (brain waves), ECG (electrocardiogram), and heart rate variability showed that they reacted emotionally to the images five to seven seconds before an image appeared. Confirming the folk wisdom that women are more intuitive than men, female subjects reacted with greater accuracy and sensitivity.[4]

Surely the message for students and educators is clear: expansive thoughts, actions, and feelings have been scientifically shown to boost brain efficiency and happiness.

At Google, at Harvard, in ancient Indian ashrams, and in the classrooms at Living Wisdom School, happiness and success go hand in hand.

[1]Emotional Intelligence. (New York: Bantam Books, 1995) 314.

[2] Duke University press release, August 19, 2002.

[3] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1997) 27–28.

[4] “The Sixth Sense—More and More, Science Supports It,” Gabriella Boehmer, Institute of HeartMath; the study referenced is: “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart,” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Feb 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1: 133–43; “Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 2. A System-Wide Process?” McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Apr 2004, Vol. 10, No. 2: 325–36.