Head & Heart Ch. 1: Introduction — A Conversation with LWS Director Helen Purcell

Q: Helen, what does Living Wisdom School offer that other schools generally don’t?

A: Most parents who inquire about our school are concerned about two things. They want a personalized, highly individual education for their children. But they also want rigorous academics. Often, they feel that if you have one, you can’t have the other. At Living Wisdom School, we’ve shown that you can provide both, with excellence.

Q: Do the children receive individualized attention?

Helen Purcell, Director, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
Helen Purcell

A: Our small size allows the children to move through their education fluidly, with attention to their individual needs. Our current teacher-student ratio is approximately 1:9.

If a child is ahead of grade level, that’s not a problem here, and if a child is behind, that’s also accommodated. I have a boy in my eighth-grade class who’s doing high school senior-level math. He has the ability to become a world-class mathematician, and we’re helping him learn at a pace that’s appropriate to his abilities.

We’re small enough that if a child has any kind of an issue, the entire faculty will know about it and can help the child. Nothing is compartmentalized, and nobody falls through the cracks.

We also have a fabulous parent community. The parents are highly interested in their children’s well-being, and it isn’t unusual for a parent to share their special expertise in the classroom.

For example, an LWS mother who is a scientist taught science here for two years. It was a marvelous experience for the children, and for her. Another parent taught a unit on marketing and computers – he showed the children how to create a PowerPoint presentation complete with text, charts, and images.

Q: You emphasize “spiritual” education. Are you a parochial school?

A: We are not a parochial school, even though the main school building is located next to church grounds, and two of our classrooms are in the church office building.

Our belief is that every religion, in its essence, encompasses the universal truths embodied in our school rules. Rule Number One is: “Enjoy yourself!” As we interpret it for the children, it means that if you really want to enjoy yourself, you must be concerned also for the happiness of others, and for the single, deeper Self of which all religions speak.

When we speak of “spirituality,” we aren’t talking about blind belief or intellectual abstractions. We’re talking about some very down-to-earth, practical truths. For example, spirituality is what happens in math and science class when we teach the children about the unity of all living things.

In fact, that’s an excellent illustration of a spiritual principle that has profound implications for learning. Brain researchers have discovered that when children are given opportunities to make strong associations between their separate school subjects, they become better learners, because associative thinking creates new dendritic connections in the brain.

Thus, if a child can understand a math concept by looking at the printed page, that’s certainly well and good. But if you can connect the math concept with science, poetry, and music, which we do all the time, the child will become a better learner.

We are extremely sensitive to the need to create these connections, and it’s one of the reasons there’s a great deal of thematic integration in our curriculum.

Q: Are your teachers well prepared in math and science?

A: Over the years, we’ve developed a math program with a depth and breadth that excites even those children who may not be particularly gifted.

At our year-end ceremony, the younger kids get to stand up and tell what they like about the school. Over and over, they say “I love math!” Our math and science teachers communicate the love that talented mathematicians and scientists feel for their subject. Their classes combine lecture, lab, and projects.

Q: You emphasize the performing arts. Why is that?

A: We place a tremendous emphasis on the arts, though by no means to the detriment of math and science.

Many of our parents are Silicon Valley scientists, engineers, and computer professionals who tend to be initially skeptical about the arts program. But we’re very balanced. In fact, some of our best student scientists and mathematicians are also our best violinists, artists, singers, and dancers.

The point is that we want to educate the head and the heart. We’re very clear about this, and the performing arts program is a glowing example. Each year, we challenge the students to participate in a play that has the sophistication of an unusually advanced high school production. We then support them in stretching their minds, hearts, and wills to rise to the challenge of performing.

The play is an enormous stage for exercising and developing skills that will help them in their academic development. They learn to be completely focused on the subject at hand. They learn to “think on their feet” and express themselves clearly. And they develop a fiery passion for learning.

The play is an excellent expression of our interdisciplinary curriculum, as well as how we educate the children’s hearts and minds.

One year, our theater production was Jesus of Nazareth. As the children prepared, they became little biblical scholars. They were also studying Greek and Roman history and mythology, so as to better understand the historical background of the play.

When we produced a play about Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, we studied Chinese literature, history, and philosophy, and the children learned about Chinese art, music, and dance.

Year after year, as the children produce the plays, they internalize the great stories of the world. Thus, they receive priceless keys for deciphering great literature. And they’re not only studying related academic subjects, they’re learning to be poised and graceful, to concentrate, cooperate, and receive direction and feedback.

Q: Do they enter into the experience willingly, or do you have to push them?

A: They are so excited! And it’s their enthusiasm that motivates them to master the challenges.

As an example of the challenges involved, the vocabulary of the play is always far above the third-grade level, so the third-grade teacher makes it part of the children’s vocabulary lessons. They learn to use the dictionary, and they master the big words until they’re able to listen during play rehearsals and understand the meaning of the lines.

The children pick up vast stretches of each other’s parts, so it isn’t as if they’re just learning their own part in isolation. They become verbally very sophisticated, because as they learn to speak the words with understanding, those words become a permanent and meaningful part of their verbal repertoire.

Q: You seem to be saying that the arts stimulate of all kinds of learning.

A: Yes, and the children not only learn a great deal about intellectual subjects and social and character development, they’re receiving non-denominational spiritual instruction by acting out the lives of great teachers from many spiritual traditions.

By performing these epic stories, they learn about the play of light against darkness in the history of the world, and in the lives of genuine heroes. In the context of the life of a great soul such as Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Moses, St. Francis, or Joan of Arc, they are offered the possibility that they can confront evil and win. Year after year, they’re acquiring a repertoire of heroes against whom they can measure their own efforts to lead a good life. And they learn what it means to love God and “love your neighbor” through participating in the lives of these great examples.

Q: Do the lessons rub off in the classroom?

A: Yes, emphatically, and they rub off on the playground as well, where you find out how well you’re doing as a person, or not doing. These are normal children, and they sometimes get into conflicts. We don’t pretend that they won’t. But when they do, we have a conflict resolution program in place from kindergarten through eighth grade. And the lessons they learn from putting together these plays transfer to the playground as models for how good behavior yields the greatest happiness.

The father of a little girl in our school reported that his daughter has become the neighborhood referee, so that when the other children have a conflict, she faces them off and says, “Okay, you stand here, and you stand here. Look in each others’ eyes. You listen; you talk. Then you listen, and you talk.” She is teaching the children to come to their own resolution.

With the younger ones, the teachers will naturally have to provide the language. But with the older ones, the teachers can simply monitor the students’ energy, because the children are familiar with the process. They might say, “I didn’t like it when you did this to me.” And the other child knows that he must acknowledge what the first child has said. In this way, through respectful dialogue, the children learn to reach harmony. In many schools, these issues of conflict and feelings are ignored or buried and seldom addressed. Yet they are critically important for creating a harmonious learning environment where the students can feel supported and safe.

Q: How do the teachers earn the students’ respect?

A: Certainly by being real with them. We don’t look away from anything. We face things head on, and we will draw the parents in as needed.

One child suffered from separation anxiety from her mother. She would get all the way to the door of the school, but she couldn’t come in. I was in contact with the mother, and we worked to help the child. Meanwhile, I shared with the other children that this little girl was having trouble coming to school. I said, “First of all, we’ll pray for her.” So we offered healing prayers, which the children love to do – they pray for everything – pet rats, hamsters, parents, siblings, all in the same breath.

Several days later, they were out on their morning run, and they came around the corner as the little girl was getting back in the car. They went over and literally “loved her” out of the car – they tugged at her and said, “We want you to come!” And she came back into the classroom.

Shortly after, she had to decide if she would go on a major field trip across the country with her classmates. We bought her a ticket, and on the day of the trip she came to the airport, but she was holding her mother’s hand with an iron grip. I thought, “I don’t know if she’ll be able to do it.” But at the last minute she got on the plane, and she sailed happily through the trip.

If you bring children into the reality of what’s going on, you have no trouble. But if you impose an unnatural authority, they immediately know that it’s fake, and they don’t respect it. That’s true in any school, but we have a student-teacher ratio that allows for a level of personal attention that enables the children to develop a respect for the teachers, the school environment, and each other.

Q: Many people believe that time spent addressing feelings is just time that’s lost for learning.

A: Some parents say, “I’m going to let my child attend this magical school, and after three years I’ll take him out and put him in a real school.” But I say, “The children who’ve gone all the way through Living Wisdom School have done exceptionally well not only in public high schools but in highly rated, academically focused college prep schools. They thrive not only academically but personally.

Q: Does the children’s enthusiasm for their academic subjects affect how they feel about the teachers?

A: When you have a vibrant curriculum that draws out the children’s enthusiasm, it truly does help cement the relationship between the child and the teacher.

The children aren’t afraid of us. They feel perfectly fine about coming up and asking how we are. They treat us with the greatest respect, but there aren’t the usual barriers, because the children feel the teachers’ authenticity. They feel that what we’re doing here is real, and it helps us be much more effective as teachers and counselors.

One little boy missed his dad who was away a lot,  traveling on business. His teacher trained the child to take a running start and leap into his arms and give him a big hug in the morning. It’s in these small things that you can see the relationship between the teachers and students, and the quality of attention the children are receiving.