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.