Head & Heart Ch. 14: Educating Middle Schoolers at Living Wisdom School

A conversation with LWS middle school teacher Gary McSweeney

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

image035Gary: It’s very individual. As a general rule, I try not to be “palsy-walsy” with them. I’m definitely an authority figure, because 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. (laughs)

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 growth. The years from 12 to 18 are what he calls the “Willful Years,” when kids are establishing their sense of identity and developing their inner strength of will.

Q: Do you try to teach the middle schoolers about adult life, since it won’t be long before they’ll be getting ready to leave the nest?

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

Photo: Gary teaches middle school math.
Photo: Gary teaches middle school math.

In our school, we introduce them to hero-figures early, primarily through our annual all-school play, where every child has a role. We’ve put on plays about Martin Luther King, Jr., Buddha, Christ, Krishna, the Dalai Lama, Moses, Joan of Arc, and many other great individuals.

When I work directly with the students, I try to give them a positive outlook on 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 currently doing a science unit about energy. They’re researching alternative energy sources, including geothermal and solar, and they’ve heard all the bad news about global warming and climate change. You don’t want to sugar-coat the news and pretend that everything is all right. But I like to give them something to be hopeful about, by pointing out the many ways the future is bright.

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

Q: The school takes the middle schoolers on field trips. How do those trips fit into the school’s philosophy?

Gary: We take them on lots of one-day outings, and three times a year we go away for a week. These experiences are absolutely pivotal. The first long trip is to Point Reyes, where my family has a cabin. We go early in the 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 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 cannot 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 kind of learning, which is an important ingredient of building their enthusiasm for learning in the classroom.

The longer field trips are modeled after the way a spiritual teacher would work with people. He’ll work with each one individually, and encourage them to learn not just from his words but from their own experiences. The field trips are about learning to behave while being themselves, and having fun and being safe, and exploring and learning. We give them lots of freedom, but with very definite and clearly expressed boundaries.

We take them to amazing places and challenge them. We camp outdoors, fix our meals, and clean up. 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. It’s much more difficult to get them to learn if you’re just pushing words at them. You can’t say, “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.

They also learn great lessons when you take them into new situations and let them learn for themselves. During our trips I give them tremendous freedom, but the major theme is harmony. Before anything else, they have to keep harmony. We set firm boundaries, and if there’s friction the teachers will immediately step in. But otherwise it’s very hands-off.

A high point of the middle school field trip is a “day of independence” when they’re on their own. We give them a clear structure with basic rules: “Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t go past Bald Mountain.” But we give them free time to go out and explore in small groups, and they love it at that age.

Again, it’s experiential. They experience a freedom that comes with responsibility. Last year, they spent an entire day in silence. Or we might incorporate short periods of silence and reflection. We might visit Mirror Lake in the Tenaya Creek Valley at Yosemite and write poetry for an afternoon. Or we’ll maintain silence from two to four and then we’ll prepare dinner.

The idea is to build bonds that will carry over into the classroom. It also tells them a lot about the culture they’ll be part of in school. The most 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 become adults in the truest meaning of the word.

They’re at an age when they like to take risks – they like to climb rocks and do all kinds of things that challenge their will power. This year, we visited Malakoff Diggins, 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 natural area to run around in. It was wonderful, and they had a great time.

Educating the whole child is a hundred-percent 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 out in 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 important it is to be aware and responsible. It’s one of the many reasons it’s wonderful to take them out in nature. And it translates directly to the classroom, where they have to be aware of others, and help each other, and be supportive and responsible enough to help others and 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. They can learn a great deal without actually suffering. But it always has to be experiential, because there are some things they’ll never understand if you’re just talking at them or reading books. It’s better when it’s real life and they can try different attitudes and decide, “That didn’t make me happy. I’ll try something else next time.”

In 2005, we took them to Tomales Bay when the weather forecast was predicting 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 ever.

When they got home, it was six or eight months before they decided they’d had a great time. But the trip came up vividly in lots of their year-end speeches, and that’s because it was a real experience – the howling wind, the difficulty of tramping around in the rain, and how we all pitched in and helped each other.

The middle schoolers love the sweet taste of freedom, when they’re in nature and facing new situations with their buddies. At that age, their friends are hugely important to them.

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

Gary: It’s very clear how much it helps when we’re preparing our big 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 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 the actual words spoken by these great souls. So, again, it’s a very experiential way of learning.

While we’re preparing for the play, the students 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 standing at their side, nor will our drama coach be there. So it’s very real and experiential, and it’s an intense learning 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 and teachers from other schools.

It’s important to point out that these are not your usual school plays. We consider drama an extremely helpful learning tool, because the students become deeply immersed in studying, writing, and talking about the historical period. But the plays have a very special added benefit, in that these are among the greatest people who ever lived.

They’re people who did not 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 great souls, and the guidelines that they’ve left us for leading a happy and successful life. And because they’re acting out the parts, they aren’t mentally learning this wisdom out of a book. They’re experiencing it with their bodies and hearts and minds, in a way that they will remember for a long time.

In math and their other classroom subjects, we try to get them to dig deep within and do their best. And it takes time to develop a relationship where we can engage them that closely, where they’re eager to do their best and have many success experiences.

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

To give an example: I was teaching math to the middle schoolers one day, and I said, “As a rule of thumb, we should do a half-hour of math homework every night.” I was laying out a broad guideline for all the children, because I thought it would accommodate those who could go faster and those who learned more slowly, if I gave them 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 instead of a half-hour. For some reason, a half-hour isn’t working for him.”

I calculated that if he did ten problems a day throughout the school year, he would be challenged but not overwhelmed. It worked amazingly well, because he would do ten problems come hell or high water. I would say, “You don’t have to do ten problems tonight, because we had play practice today.” “No! No! I’m gonna do ten!”

You have to tune in to each child and figure out what works for them. That’s the great bulk of what teaching here is about – finding what motivates each child for each subject. Then you have to work with their moods, and whatever they’re going through in their lives. We’ve created an intense, wonderful environment where we can nurture and care for our kids.

An important 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, too. And in the normal course of the year in the classroom, we constantly challenge them 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? Because, in the beginning, who knows? For lots of kids, math isn’t their strongest suit, so you try to find ways to support them individually and help them be successful.

Some of our most inspiring success stories are about kids who never saw themselves as particularly good 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 Radio. Our former math and science director, Dharmaraj Iyer, knew Keith and got him to come to our school. And the first thing he said to the kids was that he didn’t like math in high school. It really meant nothing to him at all. But when he entered college and had to study biology, he realized that he needed to shore up his math skills, and that’s when he got excited about it.

Photo: Middle schoolers on a field trip to Tomales Bay.
Photo: Middle schoolers on a field trip to Tomales Bay.

We all know people for whom school wasn’t terribly relevant, but they were bright and achieved a great deal in their lives. Then there are people for whom academics come easily, but they aren’t positive, strongly motivated people. At our school, we emphasize both – being a successful person and a successful student. We help the students cultivate expansive values such as kindness and compassion, and we challenge them to put out energy in academics, whether the results are impressive right away or not.

The most important lessons we try to teach the kids involve putting out lots of energy. You’ll have a child for whom academics are easy, 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 rather work with the one who’s trying.

You’ll have kids who are solid in academics, and who may even be academic superstars, but there’s something going on in the emotional side of the child’s development – they’re having trouble learning how to behave, or how to balance their intellect with the heart, and with compassionate feeling for others.

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

You can work with each child more effectively as you get to know them, and as you build a relationship with them. It can sometimes take a year or longer to develop the right 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, and it’s about giving them lots of success experiences along the way. Once they’ve had many positive experiences in their schoolwork, there’s no question that they’ll be motivated to work hard so they can have more of them, because they are enjoyable and fulfilling.

There’s no simple formula that seems to work for every child. So it’s much more about finding ways to support them individually, and keep it real.

A group of educators undertook a study where they asked first-graders, “How many of you are artists?” And every hand went up. But when they reached sixth grade, very few hands went up.

They had acquired too many limiting self-definitions — “I’m not good at math. I’m not good at art. I’m good in history.” But we encourage the kids to put those definitions aside, because at age twelve, 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 preach it at them verbally a thousand times, but until the knowing comes from inside, and they get some real success in math or art, it won’t work. It has to be more than just words. What counts for them is having their own success experiences.

Photo: LWS middle schoolers on a canoe outing, Tomales Bay.
Photo: LWS middle schoolers on a canoe outing, Tomales Bay.

So it takes building a relationship with them, where you can guide them into many success experiences. But the key is that you have to get their energy involved, so the learning becomes a direct, positive 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 to feel enthusiastic about the subject. It’s all depends on 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 a ton of energy, and then they can have a 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, history, or literature. 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 put out energy.

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

When history becomes alive in that moment of their lives, it’s a turning point for the children. 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. So the children get a touch of that person’s consciousness. “Wow, this was real to the person when they said it – this isn’t just talk. They were speaking from their own experience.” So they can experience that particular spark of divinity, a spark of the real purpose of life, and those very real answers to the question “What are we doing here in this life?”

Much of education today is about getting into a good high school so you can get into a good college and get a good job and then you’ll be happy. It’s all about financial security, and it’s all posited on some future happiness.

Donald Walters starts Education for Life with a very basic question: “How do we define success?” Because when you talk about education, that’s really what you’re asking. 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 start off with 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 all around them. I often think how crazy it is to grow up today. It was crazy enough when I grew up, witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War, and riots in the streets. It was very unsettling for us as children. 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 twelve?

Another concern I have is the influence of technology. A boy in my class was a very good student, but then he starting doing terrible work, turning in sloppy assignments, to a point where I thought he might actually be on drugs.

Later in the year, he pulled out of it. I said, “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 for the first time.

I said, “What’s the story?” And he said, “Oh, I was addicted to a video game.” He was playing the game during all his waking hours. It was a very real addiction, every bit as harmful as a drug, 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. The 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 out very well 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 “human tools” he’ll need to be truly successful in whatever field he chooses.

 “Clever” is held up as the highest goal in our culture today. 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, to have more clever people. It’s to have people who have tremendous energy and will power and a deep commitment to doing good.

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

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

When these people come to our school and the kids see what they’re like, whether they’re artists, business executives, or engineers from Silicon Valley, the kids invariably see a model of being very bright, heart-oriented, forward-thinking, positive, cheerful, and expansive people. Success is inseparably tied to high energy and positive, optimistic attitudes, and being able to martial energy and keep your energy straight.

There’s a magic in our school, but without the spiritual dimension, 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 do their jobs. 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 to them? Where are they now?

Quiet moment during middle school field trip to Tomales Bay.
Quiet moment during 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 cannot answer these questions. “Oh, well, that’s religion – that’s way far over there.” But, really, it’s everyone’s most fundamental question. And the answer is 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 very openly about these 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 all I say is, “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 a priceless gift that will be of tremendous practical value to them.

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

Gary: We have a 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. So 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 how they’ll behave. Then I realize, “They aren’t used to Living Wisdom School; they’re acting the way they’re accustomed to.” They’ll tease the other kids, or they’ll be mean on the playground, and when I call them on it, I see the response in their eyes: “This is what we all do…” But I say, “I don’t know about other schools, but we don’t do it here.”

Photo: Gary helps a middle school student with a math assignment.
Photo: Gary helps a middle school student with a math assignment.

The older kids also help the newer kids by their personal example. Usually, there are one or two kids in the class that I can reliably count on. Hadley, right now, is dynamite. She can be very quiet and still 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 standpoint – they weren’t being held back, but it served them beautifully. One of them, Sinead, is now at UC Berkeley, and Rose is at The Bay School of San Francisco. But they intuitively knew that another year at our school would serve them.

Several years ago, we had a boy who just took to everything we offered – the academics, the spiritual side, everything, and he loved it all. We had him for a year until the family moved to Texas. His mom wrote us 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 wonderful, very engaged and bright and high-energy. Public school works for some kids, so it isn’t an issue of black or white, but for a lot of kids, 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, and it’s so much more inclusive and broadening.

That’s what we’re trying to create, a place of inclusiveness, with 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.