A conversation with LWS director Helen Purcell and middle school teacher Gary McSweeney
Gary: A local newspaper, the Palo Alto Weekly, printed an article recently by a girl who had been student body president at Palo Alto High School in her senior year.
It was based on her graduation speech, where she explained how she had played four sports, achieved a 4.0 grade-point average, and received early acceptance at Stanford, and how she had hit a wall at the end of her senior year.
She described how she stayed home for three weeks toward the end of the year because she was crying uncontrollably all the time. She had pushed herself so hard that she simply broke down.
When she dropped out, the other kids teased her, “You got early acceptance, so you stopped coming to school.” But she explained that she’d become thoroughly burned-out and depressed because she had pushed so hard that she collapsed. She advised high school kids to lead a balanced life, and she said she planned to take a year off before entering Stanford.
Balance is crucial for a child’s mental and emotional health. The stresses kids feel to succeed today are not healthy. The young girl who wrote the article learned an important life lesson. But as I read the article, I was thinking that no child at Living Wisdom School would ever have to learn about balance in such a harsh and brutal way.
Four false notions about academic rigor
Helen: Let me address several myths about academic rigor that I suspect contributed to that young girl’s collapse.
- The first myth is that homework is a measure of academic rigor. In fact, it very much depends on the homework. If it’s purely rote memorization, we really have to ask how valuable it will be for the student in the long term.
Does rote memorization develop the child’s learning skills, or their ability to think clearly and creatively? Or is it a mechanical, passionless exercise that’s no more meaningful than sharpening a pencil?
Homework is a fact of life, and our kids learn to handle it. But the amount that’s given to the kindergarteners today in many schools is difficult to fathom. We need to ask why, and whether it’s being given under the false assumption that quantity can ever truly replace quality.
- A second, similar myth is that academic rigor equates with “doing more” – that is, giving the students more subject matter in every lesson, more books to read, and more writing assignments.
But this is demonstrably not true, once again because quantity has very little to do with quality, and with developing the abilities that will enable the child to be successful in high school, college, and life.
- “Rigor isn’t for everyone.”
This is a myth that many people believe. They mistakenly think there are special people who have a special ability to do anything that’s rigorous, demanding, challenging, and deep, and that other people can’t do it. But this is completely false. While there are exceptional individuals in every field, we believe, and we’ve routinely proved, that every single student is capable of receiving a rigorous education.
- “Providing support decreases academic rigor.” This is part of the current myth that forcing children to “tough it out” on their own will develop their ability to “adapt and survive.”
But quite the opposite is true. When Gary, Eric, Leslie, and Richard teach math, all four of them are working with the students in the classroom at the same time. In this way, they offer the students a tremendous amount of support. And when I return the students’ writing assignments in my language arts classes, I do the same – I give them a ton of personal instruction and feedback and encouragement.
A study hall that works
Gary: In middle school, we offer an after-school study hall for two hours, three days a week. The students can roam about and relax, but the agreement is that they’re working on homework. The kids and parents appreciate it, because it means that by 5 o’clock the students are done with their homework, and they can come home and have dinner and spend time with their family without the stress of homework looming in the background.
The after-school homework club has been a very, very successful, eye-opening program. The kids will take a wide spectrum of approaches to finishing their homework. Some will sit for two hours solid and work in silence, and others are naturally more social and gregarious, and they may need some guidance to remember that they’re here for a purpose, and the purpose is homework. (laughs)
But it’s fun, and the kids love it. It’s a great thing for them, because it gives them structure, and all of the necessary resources – computers, textbooks, a teacher to answer their questions, and other students for companionship and help.
Plus, they get tons of support and feedback. “What’s that concept, again?” And someone will explain it. “No – Helen said she wanted the first draft tomorrow.” So it’s gentle support.
One of our parents told us that some of the younger kids will come around to her place after school and do their homework together. She said she was impressed, because even the little boys are very straightforward about it – “We’ve got to do our homework.” She said they’ll say, “Let’s sit together,” even if they aren’t doing the same lesson. They’ll be spelling different words, and they’ll quiz each other. It’s all very self-motivated, and she loves it.
Helen: The idea of “self-motivation” is key. It’s a fundamental principle of Education for Life that you can never force a child to learn, but you can make it so enticing, magnetic and engaging that they want to learn.
We are “invitational.” Gary doesn’t have to stand over the students with a frown on his face and a ruler in his hand during study hall. You develop a curriculum that gets them excited and engaged. (For evidence, you can watch videos of students presenting their science fair exhibits.)
On the topic of children as individuals, there’s a book that has greatly influenced my teaching. It’s called Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of cognition and education.
Gardner has shown that people have unique and different strengths – our common sense tells us it’s so, but he gives hard evidence that our uniqueness is wired into our brains.
He isolated seven “intelligences” that are neurologically independent of each other, and he’s since added others.
The first intelligences he talks about are linguistic and mathematical/logical. They are the intelligences that the SATs and STAR tests are designed to measure. They’re essentially the rational-linguistic intelligences that run our society today.
The other intelligences that Gardner researched include musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence.
When I read Gardner’s book for the first time, I thought, “I’ll try this in the classroom.” It’s one of the beauties of LWS that if something strikes us as valid, and if it’s compatible with our philosophy, we’re free to apply it. If you’re grounded in the philosophy and what makes it exciting for the children, you can choose any methods that will help them.
I talked with the children about multiple intelligences, and they immediately recognized the truth of it. They found it very freeing, because they realized, “I don’t have to be intelligent in every way. I have my own way of being intelligent.”
Nobody has all of the intelligences perfectly integrated and balanced. As Gardner says, we have unique personal strengths for interfacing with the world, and we can piggy-back our less-developed intelligences onto our main strengths.
It’s a wonderful insight for teachers and parents who want to understand the child’s unique strengths, and how to help them build upon them.
LWS encourages children to “lead with their strengths”
At LWS, we ask, “What are this child’s strengths? How can we help them use those strengths to develop in other areas?”
Gary and Eric do this constantly in their math and science classes. For example, if a child’s strengths are in language, they’ll choose a textbook that’s more linguistically oriented.
Gary: You get to know the children so well that you end up individualizing every child’s curriculum in math, based on the child’s special strengths, and then you help them use their strengths to start developing their weaker areas.
For example, you might change the problems for a time, to allow them to exercise their strengths and build confidence. Once they’re comfortable with that approach, you can bring it into the regular curriculum and challenge them with the problems that would formerly stump them.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of building a relationship with the student. When they’re open to what you’re saying to them, you can help them learn much more effectively. With kids who’ve recently entered our school, I’ll sometimes notice that they are holding their shoulders high and tight in math class. After a few months, you see their shoulders relax, because the teachers aren’t taking a pass-fail approach but they’re coming over and saying, “Can I help you?
Helen: Some of our kindergarteners already know how to read when they enter our school, but others can’t. Now, do you force them all into the same curriculum? No, you give them what they need, and by the time they reach third grade they’re reading beautifully, except in very rare cases.
You’re calibrating the lessons continually, and you’re making time for every student, arranging the curriculum so they feel good about what they’re doing, because they’re having success experiences and understanding what they’re doing and not simply memorizing everything and spitting it back. And that’s when they become happily engaged and enjoy working at their own farthest edges academically.
Another book that’s central to our approach is Authentic Assessment. The Authentic Assessment process gives students, parents, and teachers a much more accurate gauge of each student’s academic progress than testing.
Do the children take tests at LWS?
So, yes, certainly we give tests, and we give them often, because we need to be sure that when they leave eighth grade, they’ll know how to take multiple-choice tests, matching tests, short ID tests, and long essay tests. We give them those experiences to ensure that when they enter high school they won’t be at a loss when they’re confronted with midterms and finals.
The students take tests all the way through Living Wisdom School – spelling tests, history tests, math tests, language arts tests, and science tests.
Testing is a way to measure learning, but it’s the way we test that makes a major difference.
I remember taking tests in high school where we were asked to spit out information that we were expected to memorize word for word. Once I passed the test, I quickly forgot what I’d memorized. There was nothing I could take from the test that would make me a better student, person, or learner.
When we create an objective test, we are very careful to construct questions that are meaningful, relevant, and fun. (Humor is an amazing tool for learning.) Then we assess the results with a focus on helping the student grow and achieve their best.
Testing or assessment — which produces the best gains?
To truly assess a student’s progress, you need to observe the student as a person, and not just as a mathematician, writer, scientist, or artist.
During the school year, we have three conferences with each child’s parents. The conferences are a wonderful way to create a very important partnership.
There’s a rich dialogue with the parents. The teacher might ask, “What are you saying to the child at home?” Or a parent will tell us something about the child that we couldn’t see at school.
“He was really upset about this.” “He was so stressed-out about that.” And as soon as we know it, we take action to address what’s happening with the child.
The core feature of the parent-teacher conference is the portfolio. Throughout the school year, we collect samples of the child’s work in an accordion folder. In language arts, I’ll ask the students to keep every draft of everything they write, because I want them to see the stages of their writing, and I want to sit down with the parents and show them the trajectory of the child’s improvement.
Portfolio assessment avoids the fuzziness of letter grades. What does it really mean to get an A, B, or C? Did the child actually learn something? Did they improve their ability to learn? Did they become enthusiastic and self-motivated to continue to learn? Or did they simply study to the test and forget most of the facts they’ve crammed?
Years ago, researchers asked a group of teachers to grade the same packet of essays. The grades ranged from 99% to 2%. Several months later, they asked the same teachers to grade the same essays, and some of the teachers who had given A’s now gave F’s, completely reversing their grades!
The study verified the meaninglessness of traditional grading, when the grades are assigned subjectively.
We want our students to develop abilities that extend beyond anything we can measure with a letter grade.
We want them to look at their own work and see how far they’ve come. At the end of the year, I’ll insist that they put several pieces in their portfolio that I’ve judged as their best – the work that shows they can write an essay, exercise higher-level thinking, be creative, and engage the reader. When they leave eighth grade, they’ll have two or three fat portfolios of their best work.
You can review many of the students’ language arts portfolio selections in our LWS literary magazine. If you read it from start to finish, I think you’ll see that the arc of development is mind-boggling.
If you give children wonderful curriculum opportunities, where the teachers are in continual communication, developing and sharing ideas, you get a level of learning that is deep, engaging, creative, and enduring.
It gives the students experiences that they will never forget, because it goes far beyond the shallow results of “studying to the test.” It prepares the children for the challenges of high school, and the greater challenges of a university education.
I meet with the teachers on Friday to discuss how we can bring our philosophy into our teaching practices. We read and discuss graduate-level books on education that have inspired us, and that are compatible with Education for Life. We are careful to choose books that will help us help the children in the classroom.
Our first-grade teacher leads another weekly meeting for the primary teachers to address issues specific to grades K‑5.
We call the all-teachers meeting a practicum, because it’s focused on specific issues that come up at ground level in our daily classroom teaching.
We may talk about classroom management, or issues that have come up with specific students. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the interns and new teachers to learn from the teachers who have a great deal more experience.
Our teachers receive training and continuing education that is exceptional for its range and frequency. It demands a very high level of dedication and energy from us all, because we feel that teaching is much more than a “job” – it’s a calling and a mission.
We are creating a new template for education, which we hope will spread beyond our school to benefit children everywhere.