How Did LWS Weather the Year of COVID?

Filming the annual school Theater Magic production.

A conversation with LWS Board President and middle school teacher Gary McSweeney.

Q: How has Living Wisdom School weathered the COVID pandemic? What has the experience been like for the students and teachers at Living Wisdom School?

Gary: COVID came upon us exactly a year ago. We’d barely finished the first dress rehearsal for our enormous annual school play, when the Palo Alto schools announced they would be closing because of COVID.

Gary McSweeney

So, instead of a huge theater production with five packed performances, we had to shut down after our first dress rehearsal, and it seemed it would be all we would have to show for hundreds of hours of preparation, including designing and sewing costumes, countless hours of rehearsals, classroom discussions, memorizing lines, and much more.

Over spring break our faculty learned about Zoom, and when we came back to school we were a hundred-percent online. And, to be honest, we felt hardly any impact at all, because the transition was remarkably seamless and our families were tremendously supportive, and none of them left.

In early June we had a wonderful End of Year Celebration on Zoom. And then during the summer we decided to apply for a California state waiver so we could reopen in the fall.

The application process was a lot more complicated than we’d expected, with many delays. Meanwhile, parents were asking what would happen in September. Would we reopen? Would we be hybrid? And because of the delays in our application, we could only tell them that we didn’t know.

Just two days before school was scheduled to begin, we still hadn’t heard from the state, so our principal, Helen Purcell, called them and said, “We know you received our application, because you acknowledged it.” And they said, “Oh – we never received it.”

To make a long story short, they put the application on the fast track, and we received permission to open.

The first day of school fell during the very worst of the California wildfires, with an atmospheric inversion that turned the sky an ominous dark orange, and horrendous air quality – it was like a day on an alien planet.

We had permission for student from kindergarten through the first six grades to be on campus, for which we were very grateful. And of course we offered our parents the option of instruction on Zoom. But because of the foul-up with our application, compounded by people’s increasing worries over COVID and the ominous wildfires, we lost several families at the start of the year.

But we rallied, and our faculty did an amazing job. We’re now in Spring 2021, and we’re offering hybrid instruction, with about 90 percent of our students physically present on the campus, and just four of my middle school students staying home.

Fridays are entirely online for the whole school. First thing in the morning, we have our all-school circle on Zoom, in which we do yoga and sing uplifting songs, then the children split into various music, singing, and math classes.

We’ve enjoyed a very good year, despite the challenges. Families have been enrolling for next fall, and a number of the families that left are wanting to bring their children back right now.

To sum up, I would describe the year as miraculous, and I’m confident to report that the school is a very happy place.

Q: At the start of COVID, was there a concern that the school might lose some of its culture, which is such a key part of its success?

Gary: The culture is a huge part of the education we offer the children¸ with our strong emphasis on the quality of their interactions, a safe environment, and the unique learning opportunities offered by the theater program and field trips.

The personal interaction with other children is extremely valuable, even with masks, social distancing, and cohorts.

These new practices did change the dynamic somewhat, but once the kids who’re new to the culture understand it, they absolutely love it, and they want to preserve it, whether they’re physically together or interacting online.

As an example of how the culture is still very much in place, a new boy came into my class this year. He’s been attending in person, and he quickly picked up on the culture of respect and acceptance, and he has adapted beautifully.

It’s been wonderful to have the children in a classroom setting, learning in person, and interacting with each other. For the kids who are at home, I’ll go around every few weeks, and we’ll stay connected that way as well as on Zoom.

Q: In speaking with the principal of the Living Wisdom High School, she observed that in some other schools the kids have been afraid to participate online because they feel they might be put down or mocked, whereas in our high school that hasn’t been a problem at all.

Gary: Because our culture of acceptance and respect is so firmly in place, there really isn’t any of that kind of opportunistic bullying.

We’ve noticed that there are a small percentage of students who actually do better on Zoom – perhaps they’re more comfortable at home, I’m not sure. But despite some technical obstacles, with bandwidth delays and so on, we’ve had a great time this year, and the parents have been amazingly supportive.

More than 90 percent of our students are on campus now, and some of them are online intermittently. For the students who do really well with Zoom, I’ll ask a question and I’ll immediately see a digital thumbs-up indicating that they’re ready with the answer.

Otherwise, I’ve left chat on all year to provide an unbroken connection, because I think the kids at home, especially the middle schoolers, need an outlet where they can communicate with the kids who are here.

They can hear the conversations that are going on in the classroom, and we’ve made some adaptations to the tech, for example by always having a live mic so they can stay in touch with what’s happening.

Q: The all-school Theater Magic play has always been the major event of the year. It involves the children in so many ways, including the academic curriculum, and it gives them priceless guidance for developing confidence and poise. How has COVID affected that process?

Gary: We knew we wouldn’t be able to produce a play where the children would be rehearsing together onstage, so we came up with the idea of creating a film instead. We had last year’s script and costumes, so we decided that we would make a movie, and that it would be filmed entirely outdoors.

Filming continues, rain or shine.

Our Theater Magic director, Rose Atwell, was very knowledgeable in helping us understand how we needed to proceed with making a film. And, also thanks to Rose, the process quickly became clear – we would make the film entirely on campus, where the children could get into costume in small groups, with separation, and come over and perform their scenes, then go back to class, and it would be a hundred-percent safe.

There’s a lot of downtime when you’re making a movie, and because we’re filming within a few steps of the classrooms, the kids can go in for a while, which helps make it a safe environment. There’s a lot of data on how it’s safe to have children in school if you’re carefully following the protocols, and we’ve done a very good job with our safety procedures.

Rose chose a number of locations on the campus where we could film without having modern buildings in the background, or FedEx trucks passing by. Of course, audio was a constant issue, with traffic noise and horns.

There’s been a wonderfully lighthearted feeling throughout, and today was a good example. One of the children had a part in all of the scenes, and she couldn’t come to school today. Another student immediately said, “I can play her part.” So we filmed her in the prologue, and when the other girl arrived, Rose was able to adjust. And through it all the kids were very flexible, very adaptable and good-humored and willing.

And, that’s life, you know, where you show up at work and you find that things aren’t ready, or they’ve changed. I think it’s been a valuable opportunity for the students to learn some important life skills.

“We’re ready for you. Oh, no, we’re not quite ready. Now we’re ready, let’s go.”

“Oh, did you hear the truck drive by in the middle of the scene? Let’s shoot it again.”

Meanwhile, the kids are being themselves, sitting patiently, and when Rose is ready, she’ll say, “Action!” and the kids will pull it together and deliver their lines. Then Rose will say, “Cut!” and they’ll relax and go back to being seven or eight or nine.

In some ways I’m enjoying it more than the normal process of putting on the play. It’s very different, for sure, because the children won’t see the finished product right away, as they would if they were acting on stage. But in the end it will be a polished movie with special effects and an excellent soundtrack.

They love the experience of putting on the play, especially before a live audience. Of course, you can’t touch that experience, but COVID isn’t asking what we want. It’s all about understanding what’s needed, and they’ve adapted beautifully.

I’m sure that if they had their choice they would prefer to do a live performance, because of the way the excitement builds. Today would have been our first full dress rehearsal, and then we’d be exhausted, and on Friday we’d have the second full dress rehearsal with hair and makeup.

There are lots of wonderful traditions and markers along the way, and tomorrow would have been a day to relax before the first morning matinee for school groups, where there would be 100 to 150 people in the audience, mostly children.

Thursday would be another day to relax, and Friday night would be the first big evening performance for a packed house of adults, followed by the huge performance on Saturday night where we would be filming. At the end of it all, there would be a big celebration in the courtyard with parents and relatives and kids enjoying conversation and snacks.

There are lots of wonderful traditions that we’ve developed over the last twenty-eight years. But this year it needed to be a movie, so we can’t enjoy the big build-up as we’re getting near to the end. With a movie, you say, “That’s a wrap!” and then it goes into post-production. And, of course, they’re all asking how long it will take. But it will be a big project to edit the film and make something truly worthwhile.

Gary films while costume designer and LWS board member Asha looks on.

Because of our tradition of very high production values, and because of the wonderful settings and costumes, we felt the footage deserved the utmost care, and, as always, we had lots of adults with very exacting standards working on the production, including Tandava who’s done a marvelous job rehearsing the music with the children on Zoom, and Asha, who’s extremely gifted at designing and sewing the costumes.

So it’s been every bit as much work as a live production, just with different problems. But film is a large part of what the kids will grow up needing to understand, for remote work and YouTube instruction and presentations, and so on.

One of my students is surprisingly good at editing film, and he’s doing a blooper reel, because we’re often laughing so hard on the set – when something strange happens or the kids mess up. And with film you can just shoot it again and do a re-take.

It’s been a valuable experience for the kids. They’re learning how work gets done in adult professional settings, where mistakes are an expected part of the process. They’ve learned to accept that the first take will usually be a throwaway, and the second will be a little better, and seventy percent of the third takes will be keepers. The spirit has been very high, and the students have been all-in with adapting to the changes – I think they’ll will look back on this year as a formative experience.

Naturally, they’ve complained about masks and being isolated from their friends. It wasn’t what any of us wanted, but the kids have grown as they’ve been challenged.

Psychologists say that it’s hugely important for middle schoolers to be able to reach out to their peer group, and we’ve been fortunate to provide them an environment where they can be with their friends and share memorable experiences like making the film.

Living Wisdom School Theater Magic 2019: St. Martin de Porres

About St. Martin de Porres

Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish gentlemen and a freed slave from Panama of African or possibly Native American descent.

Martin’s father left the family to scrape by in extreme poverty. After two years of primary school, Martin was placed with a barber/surgeon to apprentice in cutting hair and practicing the medical arts.

Martin was subjected to a great deal of ridicule for being of mixed race. By Peruvian law, the descendants of Africans or Indians were not allowed to become full members of religious orders. Martin, who spent long hours in prayer, asked the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to accept him as a volunteer.

Martin performed the most menial tasks in the monastery. In return, he was allowed to wear the habit and live within the religious community.

When Martin was 15, he asked for admission to the Dominican Convent of the Rosary in Lima, where he was received as a servant boy, and eventually a church officer in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor.

Meanwhile, Martin practiced his old trades of barbering and healing in the monastery and worked in the kitchen and did laundry and cleaned. After eight years Martin was allowed to take vows as a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic by a prior who decided to disregard the laws restricting Martin based on race.

However, not all of the monastics were as open-minded as their prior; they called Martin horrible names and mocked him for being illegitimate and descended from slaves.

Martin became a Dominican lay brother in 1603 at age 24. Ten years later, Martin was assigned to the infirmary, where he would remain until his death.

Martin became known for his compassionate care of the sick, even the most difficult cases. He was respected for his unconditional care of all people regardless of race or wealth. He cared for everyone, from the Spanish nobility to African slaves. Martin didn’t care if a patient was diseased or dirty; he welcomed them all as God’s children.

It is said that Martin had extraordinary gifts, including aerial flights, bilocation, instant cures, miraculous knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and an highly intuitive relationship with animals. He founded an orphanage for abandoned children and slaves and was known to raise dowries for impoverished young girls in record time.

During an epidemic in Lima, many of the friars became very ill. Locked away in a distant section of the convent, they were kept separate from the other monks; however, Martin passed through the locked doors to care for the sick and was disciplined for not following the rules of the Convent. He replied, “Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” Whereupon his superiors granted him liberty to follow his merciful heart.

Martin was great friends with St. Juan Macías, a fellow Dominican lay brother, and St. Rose of Lima, a lay Dominican. Martin passed away on November 3, 1639.

By the time he died, he was widely known and loved. The stories of his miracles, in medicine and in caring for the sick, spread widely. Twenty-five years after his death, his body was exhumed and found to be intact, exhaling a wonderful fragrance. St. Martin de Porres was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI on October 29, 1837 and canonized by Pope John XXIII on May 6, 1962.

Martin de Porres has become the patron saint of people of mixed race as well as innkeepers, barbers, public health workers, and more. His feast day is November 3.

Happiness & Success at School

Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto is overjoyed to announce the publication of a new book: Happiness & Success at School.

Our director, Helen Purcell, says, “It’s a wonderful book and fun to read. I hope that all parents who are seeking an education for their children that includes a balance of academic excellence and the development of indispensable personal qualities that will help to ensure their success in school and for all their lives will read this book.”

How to Read Happiness & Success. You can read the chapters online (see table of contents below), download the book as a PDF (62mb), or purchase a copy on Amazon.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Happiness & Success at LWS: Grades Tell the Story
3. Happiness and Success at Stanford and MIT
4. Happiness and Success in the History of Education
5. Happiness and Success at Harvard
6. Happiness and Success at Google
7. Ancient Secrets of Happiness And Success
8. Happiness and Success in Math Class
9. Happiness, Success, and the Science of Positive Feelings
10. Happiness, Success, and Feelings: a Brief Photo Essay
11. Happiness, Success, and the “Social Brain”
12. How Raw Emotions Interfere with Learning
13. It’s Time We Started Raising Organic Children
14. The Super-Efficient Classroom
15. Two Kinds of Feelings
16. A Conversation with LWS Second Grade Teacher Kshama Kellogg
17. A Conversation with LWS Kindergarten Teacher Lilavati Aguilar
18. How to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles
19. Bill Aris’s Truth: Happiness and Success in Sports & the Military
20. Success and Happiness: the Love Plant Approach
21. Final Thoughts: On Choosing Your Child’s School
Appendix 1. Education for Life Resources
Appendix 2. Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools
Appendix 3. Research that Supports Education for Life

About the Author. George Beinhorn serves as our school’s web content manager. A graduate of Stanford University (BA ‘63, MA ‘66) he has been associated with the Living Wisdom Schools since 1976. George has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a writer and editor with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. (Among his more interesting projects, he edited the “Best doctoral dissertation in computer science in 2008 at Stanford University.”) He is the author of The Joyful Athlete: The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training.

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. 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.