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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.