Educating Middle-Schoolers at Living Wisdom School

A conversation with LWS middle school teacher Gary McSweeney

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Student Reflections on the LWS Theater Magic Productions


The Subject Tonight Is Love: The Life and Poetry of Hafiz

The Sufi mystic comes alive through his poetry, dance, and the story of his life.

Download the student reflections (with student artwork) (PDF)

Watch Theater Magic Videos.


A New Tomorrow: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Second & Third Grade

As we wove the theater experience into the curriculum, the second and third graders wrote their observations in response to an exercise entitled “Skin Deep.” Each child answered the question: “Would you want to be judged only by the way you look? Explain why, or why not?”


I would not like to be judged by the things I like or the color of the eyes. I would not like to be judged by how I look or the color of my skin and the things that I like to eat. I would want people to say that we are all God’s children, and we would always be God’s children. Also, I would want to be judged by the content of my character. Sahana Narayanan, 2nd Grade


No, I would not like that because it is not fair, like at MLK’s time, it would not be fair if people cannot drink from the same fountain or go to the same school or play at the same park or anything. I can only be judged by God. Shubha Chakravarty, 2nd Grade


No, because I have a lot of love. I am a good boy. I am born on earth to do God’s work. I am a person. I’m like anyone else. I’m God’s son. I love all. But I want to be judged by what my character is like. Varun Joshi, 3rd Grade


Fourth & Fifth Grade

The Fourth and Fifth Grade Creators and their teacher wrote this wonderful essay together to celebrate the yearly theater experience while they learned about essay writing.

A great deal of research on teaching writing suggests that teachers should model their own thought processes and facilitate group-writing experiences to uncover the challenge and fun in the writing process.

“To start, we webbed our outline, brainstormed our ideas and began to consider how to organize big ideas and details in a logical order. As we drafted the essay, paragraph by paragraph on the board, taking turns as scribes, all voices chimed in to add to the description. Seasoned fifth-grade editors helped us conform to spelling and grammatical conventions and conceive the tricky transitions between ideas. Carefully choosing our words together, we dabbled in figurative language to try to manifest some theater magic!”

The Living Wisdom School Plays and What We Do in Them

Every happy year, the Living Wisdom School stars put on wonderful plays about a famous person who contributed something great to the world. We learn to act, dance, and sing in the manner of a certain culture. When we do these plays, we learn to work together in harmony. These plays represent multiple cultures. Therefore, we get immersed in their language, history, tradition, art, philosophy, and religion. I really think it will be fun to learn about all these cultures and about the people who believed in them.

Every star gets a wonderful part that involves great effort in acting, dancing, or singing. We learn to be actors and actresses who represent characters from different cultures and religions. Through acting, we have an opportunity to learn to empathize with another. We must concentrate and focus to perform a dance with rhythm and steps inspired by another culture. When we learn to sing songs, it helps us to enunciate and become familiar with languages other than our own. I find that through acting, dancing, and singing, I become confident about performing.

We learn to act, dance and sing in peaceful, harmonious relationship with all the LWS stars. Unless we all work together, the show will fall apart because everyone depends on each other. For example, in our play about Kuan Yin, if Anjali, who played Kuan Yin, weren’t in the finale, the finale would make no sense at all. Of, if the person who operates the lights and speakers failed to come, no one would understand or see, and the whole show would be a disaster. Therefore, we experience the wonderful result of everyone adding to the whole. When everyone works together, the whole is greater than each solo part and better than anyone could ever imagine. The reason we learn to work together is so we can learn to care about one another, and we see how each person matters. Learning that everyone is important helps us to begin to appreciate diversity.

The following excerpts are a sample of reflections on the play experience written individually by Fourth Graders

From this play, I learned that if you’re brave and think of God, you can do anything. For example, when Martin’s house was bombed, all his neighbors wanted to use violence, but MLK stood up and said, “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us.”

…Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” speech both touched me. I like the “I Have a Dream” speech because he encourages all people to pray to God together. And he is determined to, “Let freedom ring,” even in the places with maximum injustice, like Mississippi. I like the “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” speech because he told that he has been to the mountaintop, and he’s seen the promised land, and he KNOWS that everyone will someday go to the promised land, the land with freedom and justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life inspired me to be fair to all people. It taught me that all people are equal… Meera Yellamraju, 4th Grade


During the play, we put some dances together. I really liked all the dances because I love to move my body…The dances that I was in are “The Hand Jive,” “Congo Line,” and the Mama Loma Coma Loma” dance….My costume is a black dress. The black dress represents a black person. In the play, I am a protester, angry woman, and a narrator. My favorite characters…are the protestor and narrator. I like the narrator because I have to stand up on the stage, big and tall and speak the words of MLK. The reason I like being a protestor is because I get to yell, sing, and march…I LOVE to sing. Myla Duane, 4 th Grade


Sixth, Seventh, & Eight Grade

The following selections, some of which are excerpts, are written by Middle School students during a timed Social Studies test. They reflect the integration of our study of the Civil Rights Movement in Social Studies with our Performing Arts Program, character development, and formal paragraph and essay writing.

This year our school did a play on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. I thought that this was one of the best plays I have done at Living Wisdom School. I played two fairly large roles, those of Daddy King and Bull Connor. These roles were interesting for me because they were completely opposite in their views. Daddy King was a very supportive father and believed wholeheartedly in what his son was doing. Bull Connor, on the other hand, was the police commissioner of Birmingham. He hated black people. Playing these roles helped me learn that some white people were persuaded to hate black people by others like Bull Connor. This helped me to understand why most of the whites were against the black movement.

My favorite part of the play process would have to be playing two opposite roles. I feel it taught me a lot. I actually enjoyed the play so much this year I can think of no “bad” part. I feel the play really helped me understand the motives of both sides of the Civil Rights Movement. Kai Neuhold-Huber, 8th Grade


This year’s play was very different for me than past plays. Never before had I played a person full of hate. I saw a video of real events happening and then was able to act them out in our play. I learned a lot about Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and even something about myself.

I think C.T. Smiley (my character) went along with the Southern majority’s racist opinions. In my scene, he goes to Dr. King and says the Mayor regrets bombing Dr. King’s house. I think he would have been happy if Dr. King had been killed; however, the Mayor forces him to go apologize. But when someone challenges him, he immediately falls back into an ignorant opinion. The only reason I think he didn’t have his own opinion is because his opinions are so flawed, he couldn’t have thought them through. It’s wrong that Dr. King’s house was bombed, even if Dr. King was somehow “asking for it.”

This year I was really surprised that I didn’t get nervous. It was really a different experience for me. The worry about forgetting my lines wasn’t there; the worry I’d mess up wasn’t there, and the worry of all those people watching me was absent. It was like the whole load of the play had been lifted off of me, and I was just watching it. I don’t know what changed in me, but not being nervous changed the whole play process. It’s something I think everyone could benefit from. The play is happening, enjoy it.

I came into this play with a pathetic understanding of who Dr. King was. This play was a great learning for me. Before this play, the only in-depth analysis of Dr. King I’d read was an article from The Onion. I’d never learned about how blacks were treated. I never learned why Dr. King did what he did…. Originally I thought the idea (for the play) wasn’t very good, but it turned out to be very good. Since this was the last play at this school for me, I was very happy with my performance. I only wish I could have enjoyed the other plays as much as this one. Drew Schleck, 8th Grade


Over the past nine years, I have been in over nine theater productions with Living Wisdom School, but the 2006 production was a new, unique, exciting experience. Since this year’s play was about Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of racial equality and segregation had to be addressed with the students. Because of this, I learned more from this year’s play than from any other.

When our teacher, Gary, asked the students what part we would like before the faculty cast the play, I suspected I would have a smaller role since I had such a substantial role last year. Thus, I was quite surprised when I got cast

as one of five Martin Luther Kings. I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but as the process evolved, I realized I had a wonderful opportunity to expand my knowledge of civil rights.

Sitting in a classroom and reading an often boring history book doesn’t really give a student the right picture of civil rights, but through doing a play about it, you get to experience what black people felt in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It allows for a great understanding of what really happened, and I definitely have a MUCH greater grasp of just how courageous Mr. King was to stand up to the overpowering segregation that was going on. I became more sensitive and aware of racism, even now in the 21 st century.

Because I have been able to experience so many plays from casting to closing night, my favorite part of the play process would have to be the performances. Standing on stage, looking out at the applauding audience, I always feel proud that I’ve been able to take part in telling them a story, especially this year with Martin Luther King, Jr. The play was so moving, partly because of the dramatic scenes such as the Birmingham riot, partly because of the slides that were shown to accompany the action. Because these events happened so recently compared to most of the other Living Wisdom School plays, the audience was more able to really feel what was going on….

When all is said and done, my eighth grade theater experience has been a very special one. The sentimental value of it being my last play makes it a memory I won’t soon forget. Learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement through theater has helped me realize what a magical medium the stage is. Anjali Madison, 8th Grade


….This year I played Coretta Scott King. I didn’t really know much about her until the play. All the websites I went to never really highlighted her life. She was behind the scenes, but she never really disappeared completely. She was a very strong woman. She never went to any of the marches that Martin led, so she would be constantly wondering if he was OK or not. She knew his life was in danger, but she was also the main person who gave him strength when he faltered. When Martin’s death came on the news, she felt like breaking down but believed that she had to put on a strong face for her children. The youngest daughter, Yoki, didn’t realize that Martin wasn’t going to come back. I think that would have been a very poignant scene to put in the play, but I guess it would have been too long.

This year’s play really opened my eyes to police brutality. The white officers would let huge dogs loose on black protestors, turn fire hoses on them, and beat them with billy clubs. It was very horrifying. I don’t see how one human can treat another one like an animal and live with it. But, I guess it’s easy to say that now, because I didn’t live in those times. Maybe it was rooted in the white people that they were better than blacks so much, that they began to find some sort of logic to justify it. Some sort of very flawed logic. Though there are still some bigots, everything is much better.

My favorite part of the play was the March on Washington. It was really hard to choreograph, and even harder to get the little kids to be quiet, but it all worked out in the end…My other favorite part was swing dancing, because it made me feel light and happy. It also helped that I had a good partner. That was loads of fun. The Stroll was hilarious. You don’t get to see Middle Schoolers act like they’re so cool everyday…It was very hard not to laugh.

I think this was probably my favorite play because it was a lot easier (for me) to relate to, as opposed to Hafiz or Kuan Yin. It was SO much fun. We should do it again sometime. Pooja Desai, 8 th Grade


The Play is a road. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, but that doesn’t mean I have a least favorite part… If I had to pick one interesting piece of knowledge, it would probably be learning about MLK Jr.’s children. I really like learning about children, and I feel it helps me to understand a person better when I hear stories about their children and how they act with them.
Genyana Marina Greenfield-August, 8th Grade


…My first character was a black woman named Mother Pollard who was a big part of the bus boycott…she, along with a lot of others, stopped riding the buses to show her determination to change the law. My next character was a white city attorney, who said that the carpool the blacks had organized was operating without a license and was a nuisance. My last character was a white policeman who hated blacks and what they were doing. He beat them and set dogs on them and sprayed them with fire hoses. In the end, when he was ordered to hurt the children, he realized how terrible he was being and didn’t do it.

…My favorite part of the play process, or at least one of my favorite parts, was the jitterbug dance. I love dancing, and it was so much fun to learn a new style. Just before, I had watched the movie Mad Hot Ballroom in which they did swing dancing. I was paired with Pooja, who is a great dancer, so we got to do one of the more confusing turns, the Pretzle. I really enjoyed doing that dance, and I also enjoyed the skirts we did it in. I love twirly skirts, so it was twice as fun. Rewa Bush, 6th Grade