Inclusiveness Training at Living Wisdom School

Eric Munro’s two boys attended LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. Eric tells how inclusiveness training at LWS helped his sons. Eric graduated in electrical engineering from MIT and has served as an LWS math and science teacher and math volunteer.


At the annual LWS family campout, I sat by the campfire and watched my older son play.

Zachary was playing with the younger kids, giving them piggyback rides.

The man next to me said he was impressed to see Zachary playing Frisbee with the younger kids earlier in the day. He said, “Zach made sure everyone got a chance to play. I thought it was remarkable.”

Zachary and Lucas Munro with father Eric
Zachary and Lucas Munro with father Eric. (Click to enlarge.)

Although I felt some natural parental pride, it quickly turned to gratitude for our school. I knew that Zachary’s wonderful expansive heart wasn’t solely to my parenting. I knew it came most powerfully from the eight years he spent in the school.

Ever since my sons entered LWS, I’ve been aware that one of the most important influences on our sons was how it developed their sense of inclusiveness. As parents, it made our lives a lot easier, and I’m sure it will help them in high school, college, and adult life.

Starting in Kindergarten, the children at LWS learn to play and work together. They learn that it just feels better to include others and not exclude anyone who wants to play.

The remarkable part is that these “rules” aren’t enforced in the school as rigid principles to be obeyed under threat of punishment. On the contrary, the teachers help the children be aware that they are happiest when they expand their hearts to include others.

Three of the LWS “School Rules” lay it out Practice Kindness. Be a loving friend. Use your will to create good energy.

On the playground, the single most important rule is “You can’t say ‘You can’t play.’”

How do the kids learn to practice these important life principles naturally, without adult reminders?

Affirming the rules in the classroom is the first step. But it makes a much bigger impact that the teachers model the rules constantly.

I’ve recently served as a volunteer during snack and lunch breaks. I was aware at second hand of the inclusiveness and conflict resolution training the children receive, but seeing it in action is amazing.

During snack period one day, two kindergarten girls got into a disagreement. When the teacher saw that one girl was crying, she sent all of the other kids to another teacher’s class and spent ten minutes leading the girls through a conflict resolution.

First, she had them take turns talking about what happened, and how they felt. As they talked, she made sure they looked into each other’s eyes.

Then she said, “What’s a way you can play with this toy that will make you both happy?”

The girls talked and arrived at a plan to share the toy. The teacher said, “Good. Then, next time, let’s do that!”

Later in the day, I visited a public library where several small children were playing outside. Some of the kids were arguing, and one child was crying.

The teacher walked over and said, “Be nice to your friends,” and then she walked away.

I thought, “What a difference!” It struck me that it was bound to affect their future development, their personalities, and the adults they would ultimately become.

No amount of training can turn a person into a saint. But from my experience of having been a child, adult, and parent, I’m struck by how much happier a child will be by receiving this training in awareness of others. I’m struck also by how much more ably they’ll relate to others as adults, thanks to the constant, active guidance of the teachers at LWS.

I’ve had several roles with LWS – I’ve been a parent of two boys in the school. I’ve been a classroom teacher and a math and science volunteer. Being around the school I’ve often heard visitors or new parents remark, “There’s such a strong feeling of camaraderie between the kids in this school!”

You can see it every day on the playground, particularly among the children who’d been at LWS for several years. This tells me that the LWS experience deepens that quality in them. An older child lifts a young one to help him shoot a basket. The older kids giving the younger kids extra turns so they won’t be knocked out of a ballgame. Throughout the school, there’s a pervading awareness of other people’s realities, and of the joy of helping.

Middle school girls play basketball, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
Shubha tries to take the ball away, middle schoolers at recess, Living Wisdom School.

The other day I evesdropped on two fourth-graders, Shubha and Sam, who were organizing a “theater play” at lunchtime. They were talking to their classmates who surrounded them. I overheard Shubha say, “This is how we can include everyone….”

No teacher was present and guiding the conversation. It was just one of countless “wow!” moments I’ve had at LWS.

My first wow happened when my older son was in second grade. His brother was in kindergarten, and my wife helped them make thank-you cards for their teachers. She suggested they tell the teacher something they were thankful for.

Middle schooler Mariah lends a help hand, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
…and Mariah lends a helping hand. Inclusiveness means being aware of other people’s realities.

Zachary thought for a moment and said, “Thank you for helping us work out our problems on the playground.” My younger son dictated the same message.

I was stunned. At a daycare camp the previous summer, my older son had gotten into fights on the playground. As punishment, the teachers made him sit on the bench at lunch. There was no instruction, no discussion, no individual guidance. It’s questionable if anything was learned.

I’m well aware how much energy it takes to “work out the kids’ problems.” It’s easy to ignore them and hope they’ll simply go away, or order the kids to “share and be nice.”

In view of what I’ve witnessed at LWS, I think, “What a lost opportunity!”

The LWS teachers are committed not only to changing behaviors but to helping children develop a more expansive outlook. And they’re able to actually do it, day in, day out, because the teacher-student ratio is low.

I’ve heard parents say, “This kind of schooling won’t make my child strong enough for the real world – it’s too ‘nice.’”

They would rather send their child to a school where they’ll become “tough enough” to deal with “real life.”

From my experience as an LWS parent, I believe it’s a tragic misconception of what it means for a child to attain true maturity.

Parents don’t realize that the ability to “play nice” demands character and inner strength. It’s much easier to retreat into selfish behavior than to exert self-control and extend one’s awareness to include the other person’s point of view.

The inclusiveness training here at LWS makes a child strong. It gives them the ability to take positive action in the face of upset and negative emotions, a skill that many adults lack. It gives them, in fact, the maturity to be successful in life.

The most successful people in the workforce are those who can keep working positively despite upsets and setbacks, and who can work well with others and motivate people to work well together. The children at LWS begin learning these lessons very actively at age five! Thus they become an integral part of who they are and how they behave.

Instead of than becoming weak or “soft,” these children acquire strengths that will give them a competitive edge over young people who only receive a traditional, academically focused education that’s conducted precariously in a “tough” environment.

Inclusiveness training is just one of the many techniques that help students develop their inner strengths at LWS. A partial list includes:

  • “Energization exercises,” accompanied by powerful affirmations, e.g., “I am positive! Energetic! Enthusiastic!”
  • “Confidence stances” before their classmates (younger grades).
  • “Rocks in the basket.”
  • Learning the school rules and discussing them in class.
  • Circle time (includes songs and chanting).
  • Ongoing group projects in the classroom.
  • Presenting projects before the class.
  • The annual all-school Theater Magic production – a professional-quality event, performed to standing-room-only audiences, where every student in the school has a role.
  • Camping trips (middle school).
  • Daily playground inclusiveness guidance.
  • Annual end-of-year Quality Speeches.

The year-end speeches deserve special mention. Every student receives an award for a “quality” they’ve worked on during the year. The student speaks to an audience of several hundred parents, siblings, and fellow students, explaining what the quality means to them personally.

The most important character-building element at LWS is the teachers who are deliberately chosen and trained to serve as worthy role models for what it means to be mature, well-adjusted, and happy.

Every one of these “tools and techniques of maturity” has a profound effect on the child, because they are applied consistently, daily, in the classroom, at recess, and during field trips and sports, in a natural way.

When I think of the incredible gifts my kids received at LWS, I confess to feeling not a little jealous. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a happier childhood, found greater fulfillment as an adult, and been better able to understand and meet life’s challenges if I had attended LWS.

I believe that enrolling your child in LWS is the wisest, most valuable gift you can give them, for their school years and beyond.

 

 

Expansion

Two children with arms raised at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CaliforniaWe help the children cultivate an inner life, respecting and supporting their intuitive awakening to a greater reality.

By studying the lives of great people, the children learn about the potential for greatness in themselves.

Parent to Parent:

“The children learn to connect with the spirit within, and to find answers within themselves, instead of looking to the world outside to tell them what to do, or to make them okay. The teachers help the children figure out what is going on inside themselves, instead of ignoring it.”

“You never see a child at the Living Wisdom School trying to be somebody else in order to be loved and accepted.”

“There is so much materialism in our society, it is easy to get caught on the surface of things. At Living Wisdom School, they go beneath all that with the children.”

“I think all children have questions about God. Through Living Wisdom School my daughter is having a very direct experience of God through many different avenues and traditions–experiences which make it all very real to her.”

“The Living Wisdom School gives children the one thing they need above all: a spiritual foundation, something deeper for them to rely on, no matter what may happen to them later in life.”

“My children have learned that God is an everyday part of living–not just a Sunday experience. An awareness of God makes everything happen on a higher tone. Even the school rules reinforce an awareness of a higher power, which brings out the best in all of us.”

“I’m not very religious myself, and I find the way they do it in the school to be an ideal way for my children to learn about spirituality. They are absorbing wonderful lessons.”

“My husband is from India, and aspects of that heritage are part of Living Wisdom School. This is a big plus for us that we couldn’t find anywhere else.”

“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 class, 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.”

“Spirituality forms a kind of background to everything. They really appreciate that everyone has to grow into it in their own way. It’s very balanced.”

“Mom, it feels so peaceful.” — First-grade boy describing Living Wisdom School.

“Children develop an inner source of strength that they can draw on always. They get to discover who they really are.”

Excellence

Girl playing violin at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CaliforniaOur integrated curriculum of academic subjects maximizes whole-brain development through the inclusion of art, dance, music, and theater. We emphasize experiential learning, with frequent field trips to science exhibits, wild lands, theaters, concerts, and art galleries.

Academics are taught holistically. After studying a science subject, for example, the class might take a field trip to the ocean, then turn their observations into poetry and illustrate them with a painting, a puppet show, or a creative dance.

Parent to Parent

“The academic material is presented in such a way that they really get the essential concepts rather than just regurgitating facts.”

“She loves the hands-on nature of the experience, the field trips, the way the science classes are done. It’s not just reading out of a book.”

“It is such a rich experience. She is expanding not just her intellect, but her spirit and creative side as well.”

“My son’s education has been so different from my own. He’s so involved, so active. It’s experiential and hands-on, and very meaningful to him. I think he will remember many of these lessons for the rest of his life. This is real education.”

“In so many schools there is such over-stimulation, so much hype, such constant bombardment. I like that Living Wisdom School is calm. I like the choice of music and the more thoughtful kinds of activities.”

“We trust Living Wisdom School, which is saying a lot, because we are very particular about what we allow our son to be involved in. We never have to be afraid about what he might be exposed to at Living Wisdom School.”

“Academics don’t come easy to my son, so he doesn’t always love the learning process. But even when it isn’t fun, he still loves the whole atmosphere.”

“The whole curriculum, the whole program, including the play every year, all flows together. It’s not just bits and pieces all patched together.”

“When you learn experientially, the learning sticks. It becomes part of who you are–different from just memorizing facts, then being tested on them. When my daughter was learning to write poetry, her teacher respected her ability, so much that it was like my daughter learned the essence of what it is to be a poet.”

Addressing the Best in Each Child

By Living Wisdom School director Helen Purcell. Originally published in Clarity Magazine.

Girl and boy during recess at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA
Each child has strengths. Understanding the child as an individual is the first step to help the child express and develop his/her strong points. In this way, the child acquires the confidence to “tackle” any weaknesses. (Click to enlarge.)

Recently, a mother visited our school to see if it was the best choice for her child. After observing for several hours, she told me, “Every private school in the San Francisco Bay Area promises to help children develop in body, mind and spirit. They all promise to create moral, ethical people and to work with the students’ emotional and social challenges. But you’re the only ones who seem to be doing it.”

It may have been a slight exaggeration, because other schools do make a genuine effort to develop well-rounded students. But I believe she understood something unique about Living Wisdom School.

Another parent, a professional who specializes in assessing children with learning challenges, told me, “I visit all the schools in the area to test the kids and talk to the teachers, and I believe your school is providing the best learning environment.”

She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was about the school that inspired her, but she saw the results – happy children who were growing in every area of their lives – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

During a tour of the school for prospective parents, a young woman asked me a series of unusually penetrating questions that dug into important issues in early childhood education. Later, after the other parents had left, she said, “I have a confession. I’m not a parent, I’m really a spy.” She explained that she was working on her doctoral dissertation in education and child psychology, and that she was visiting the schools in the area as part of her research.

She said, “I knew this place was different from the moment I stepped on the grounds. But I didn’t know exactly why until I had spent several hours watching the kids. Your kids smile a lot. They’re laughing. They’re exuding joy, and it’s something you just don’t find in other schools.”

I believe that what inspired these people was a quality that lies at the foundation of our school. Our premise is that the central purpose of life is to develop the mental, emotional, and spiritual skills that enable us to experience greater happiness, and to avoid suffering. More deeply, it’s based on the idea that, behind our body, mind, and personality, our deepest inner nature is our soul’s joy.

Our job is not to “fix” them

When I talk to parents of prospective students, I tell them, “What we’re doing at Living Wisdom School may appear on the surface to be routine classroom-based education, but in fact it is a radical approach that will challenge your traditional notions about child-raising and education. It’s radical, first and foremost, because we’re addressing the original goodness in children. And when you do that, the entire educational scenario becomes positive and affirmative.”

We accept that the children who come to our school are souls – they are expressions of the Divine who carry within themselves their soul’s perfection. Our job is therefore not merely to tinker with them in a superficial way – to “fix” them, or “prepare them for the new global economy,” or even focus too narrowly on academic success – although all of those things do happen, often spectacularly.

Our job is to give children the tools they need to express their unique gifts, and to succeed in their own way. And to do that, we have to define education in terms of life’s true goal, which is to find happiness in every area, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

We’ve applied this approach for more than forty years, during which it has more than amply proved its worth.

Our children thrive under Education for Life. An example, by no means unique, is a boy who came to us from a private school with a reputation for its high-powered academic focus. The emphasis at the school was entirely on getting the students admitted to a premier university, so that they could get a premier job, make lots of money, and be happy. But experience tells us that this is a false equation, because the accumulation of money, by itself, almost never yields happiness. We see too many successful, highly educated professionals who are desperately unhappy in their personal lives.

The point of life is to find genuine, enduring happiness. With that goal clearly in mind, we are unlikely to impose on children this other, false equation. Instead, we see the children for who they are at a deep level, and we support them in finding success in their own way. It doesn’t mean that we turn away from their areas of weakness. But it means that we don’t define the child in terms of their weaknesses, as some overly academically focused schools can do.

When this boy came to us, he had certain difficulties in academics. But we quickly realized that he was exceptionally gifted, though not in ordinary ways.

At my first conference with his parents, they were focused entirely on his deficiencies. Finally, I interrupted and said, “What do you see as his strengths?” And they began to delineate them. But they were all within the paradigm of what would work for him when he entered college. Yet I knew that this boy’s talents lay outside convention. His artistic sensibility was verbal, and profoundly comic – he had an amazing talent for making people laugh. And so we decided to work with is strengths. We supported him in expressing his unique talents, and we give him a stage, within reason. In the end, he came into his own in the academic fields where he had been challenged previously. The story has an inspiring ending: this boy was accepted at Stanford, where he thrived.

“When I help these people, I’m happy”

One of our students accompanied her classmates on a school service project to a shelter in San Francisco that offers suppers to the homeless. The philosophy of the shelter is to remind the guests of our shared humanity. So the homeless people are honored at a weekly sit-down dinner, with multiple courses, served by volunteers.

This girl tended toward a pessimistic view of life – her glass was always half-empty. One night after serving at the shelter, she remarked to her teacher, “My parents are trying to talk me into therapy, but I tell them all I really need is to come here and help. When I’m helping these people, I don’t even think about myself, and I’m happy.”

When the teacher told me that story, I thought, “There’s no way in the world we could have taught her that lesson – she had to experience it for herself.”

That’s a large part of what Education for Life is about – giving children direct experiences that allow them to experience the thoughts, feelings, and actions that give them greater happiness.

Teaching meditation

Our children are in a school environment where meditation is a central practice. They see it modeled by the teachers, and most students want to experience it for themselves.

We begin by helping the children understand the importance of the breath, and how our breathing reflects our emotions. When the children are overly excited or upset, we help them experience the connection between calming the breath and calming their minds and feelings. For example, we’ll let them practice calming their breath before they take a big test, or play a baseball game, so they can experience for themselves that it works.

An academic track record

Inevitably, there are the parents who tell us, “I know this is a magical school. But the magic stops at 5th grade and then we have to get serious about academics, right? We have to prepare the children for the real world.”

It’s why I’m grateful to be able to point to our solid, forty-year track record of success.

Graduates of Living Wisdom School have made their way through high school, college, and into careers, and the evidence clearly shows that when a child is affirmed at the soul level, everything else naturally follows, including academic excellence and personal success.

Our graduates who take the national entrance exams for private high schools score on average above the 90th percentile, across the board. Our students with greater academic ability are testing in the top first and second percentiles nationally.

Our students who have learning challenges leave us with their self-worth intact, and affirmed as artists, technical whizzes, athletes, and writers. The admissions officers at premier private schools characterize our graduates as independent thinkers who are poised and self-possessed, mature, positive, thoughtful, energetic, and creative.

Living Wisdom School is academically rigorous, though not in the same mold as schools where academics is the sole focus. One parent told me, “I got upset because I thought the kids weren’t getting enough homework. Then I realized that, gosh, my son was doing three hours of homework a night, but he was so happy about it that I hadn’t realized it.”

When a school’s priorities are right, placing all-around development of the child first, revolutionary success becomes possible.


Interview with Dr. Bruce Novak

Bruce Novak PhDEducation authority Bruce Novak, Ph.D. visited Living Wisdom School. In this video interview (6 minutes), he discusses the school and important issues in education today.

Bruce Novak is Director of Educational Projects for the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning. He has taught English in grades 6-12, in diverse settings in Chicago.

 

 

SF Chronicle Article on Living Wisdom School

San Francisco Chronicle

Julie N. Lynem, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000

Education for the Soul

More parents look for schools
to help kids cope with stress

Palo Alto, Friday mornings are a time to energize the spirit. Each week, the entire K-8 school assembles for the “circle,” in which students sing, recite affirmations and stretch their bodies in yoga poses before heading out for a walk in the neighborhood.

Then they hit the books.

With its holistic approach to education, Living Wisdom may seem too unconventional for many Bay Area parents. But turned off by the hypercompetitive dot-com world, where success is often measured in stock options for parents and high test scores for kids, some Bay Area families are opting for schools that nourish the heart and the mind.

“We chose not to go with the production-line version of education around here,” said Robert Freeman , an Internet company senior vice president, whose daughters Rachel, 6, and Robyn, 8, attend Living Wisdom. The school is on the property of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, but is a separate entity with most students unaffiliated with the church.

“My wife and I believe that children should not be groomed to be consumers in society,” Freeman said. “They have a soul, and we want that to be nurtured, too.”

Young boy at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Freedom from stress is not incompatible with academic excellence. The students at LWS find freedom from the fear of failure by learning to enjoy their studies even as they succeed, through constant support, step-by-step learning, and individual adaptation of the curriculum. (Click to enlarge.)

Increasingly, educators in both public and private schools are trying to help students cope with stress inside and outside of the classroom.

At some schools, students relieve anxiety by performing simple mental and physical exercises. Other schools emphasize self-expression and teach students how to resolve conflicts on their own.

  • At Odyssey School in San Mateo, a private middle school for gifted and talented children, students ring a gong and meditate each morning. Students also can talk about and resolve their problems in a class called “self-science.”
  • Open Alternative School, a K-2 public school in Sebastopol, incorporates exercise and deep breathing into the school day. Students also begin and end the day with a class meeting, where they share their experiences while sitting on soft furniture.
  • Roquel Shields-Colbert, a counselor at Lowell Middle School, a public school in West Oakland, counsels separate groups of boys and girls. She teaches students to deal with peer pressure and manage their anger.
  • Students at Ohlone Elementary School, an alternative public school in Palo Alto, learn how to practice kindness when interacting with fellow classmates. They can work in the school’s garden or participate in a counseling program.
  • Teachers there recently attended a workshop sponsored by Six Seconds, a nonprofit San Mateo group that promotes emotional intelligence — the ability to recognize one’s own emotions, develop strategies to manage them and have empathy for others.
  • In Joanie Alper’s kindergarten class at Fiesta Gardens Elementary School, a public school in San Mateo, students listen to the soothing sounds of Mozart and move into a yoga pose when they’re overwhelmed.

Faced with mounds of homework, high expectations from parents and peer pressure, students are in need of more than an occasional timeout, educators and psychologists say.

Peter Mangione, a developmental and educational psychologist, said parents today often push their children into activities before they’re ready. With both parents working longer hours, children are squeezed into adult schedules, he said.

“Children become a part of this hurry syndrome,” said Mangione, whose own children attend a private elementary school in Menlo Park that he said emphasizes play, art and music.

Children who learn basic coping strategies at an early age lead healthier adult lives, said Suzanne Flint, a child-life specialist.

Flint, who is trained to guide children through painful medical procedures, has received a grant from the Imagination Foundation in Marin to offer an eight-week workshop — “Surfing through Stress” — for 7- to 10-year-olds at Stanford Hospital’s Complementary Medicine Clinic.

Through guided imagery, meditation, yoga and play, Flint hopes to provide stress relief for children who may be anxious about school or problems at home. Eventually, she wants to bring these ideas into Bay Area classrooms.

“I think sometimes, we’re so focused on a child’s academic achievements that we don’t look at personal development,” she said. “There’s so much more to learning than reading, writing and arithmetic.”

School s should offer opportunities for students to vent, said Thomas Tutko, a retired San Jose State University professor of clinical psychology.

“They have their own body of anxiety that emerges, plus their parents’ model, but they don’t have an opportunity to talk about it,” he said. “Students are subject to observing all of this stress, but how do we expect them to maintain normalcy?”

But while educators and psychologists generally agree that students should put stress in its proper perspective, some say parents should not simply look to schools for strategies to handle difficult situations in their children’s lives.

“I think if parents want to make their children’s lives less stressful, they need to do it themselves,” said Janine Bempechat, an associate professor of education at Harvard University ‘s Graduate School of Education. “I think parents need to tally up what they do in a given day and week and sort out what is a necessary activity and what is a discretionary activity. ”

“It’s really overstressed parents looking to the schools for help when they should be looking inward.”

All students handle stress differently, said Thomas Spencer, a developmental psychology professor at San Francisco State University . But the extremes of having too much stress or not enough are not good for children.

“The standards have been reduced, in many cases, so much that stress results when you have too much structure,” Spencer said. “You also get stress when you have unclear expectations. Children function best when they’re in a situation where they know what’s going on.”

Menlo Park parent Leslie Levy said Living Wisdom is the right choice for her 8-year-old son, Niko. Levy considered public schools, but she found them to be too rigid. Living Wisdom, she said, offers a strong academic program without the intense competitive attitudes.

“The best way to learn is to feel confident and supported and secure — that’s what opens the doors of children’s minds,” she said. “If they’re constantly worried that they’re not going to get it right, then it shuts kids down. Maybe it will be an adjustment when he leaves Living Wisdom, but I’m willing to take that risk.”

© 2001 San Francisco Chronicle