In traditional K-8 schools, the children spend most of the school day on academics. At LWS, there are so many other activities – field trips, theater, music, art, etc. How do you find time for “serious” learning?
Gary: Wow, you’ve asked the number-one question we receive from prospective parents! And it deserves a thoughtful answer. So, let’s jump in – but, forewarned, this will undoubtedly be the longest answer of these ten questions.
I’m aware that as parents, you may have little or no personal experience that would prepare you for what I’m about to say. But if you reflect on it, perhaps you’ll see that it simply makes sense. And, certainly, the results have proved that what we’re doing works.
The world is changing, and educators today have begun to realize that many of the old assumptions about schoolwork are no longer working.
For example, the assumption that if you put a child in the classroom for eight hours a day, he/she will be brighter than a child who sits for six hours. As it turns out, this fundamental “truth” simply isn’t supported by research or experience. That’s because education is ninety-five percent working with the child’s energy and nurturing them at their own level.
In our school, we start the day with “Circle Time.” Before we begin the serious business of academics, we go for a walk, do energization exercises, and meditate, and only then do we go straight into math class.
A parent might say “Wow, you could be doing vocabulary or some other academic subject instead of wasting time!”
But Circle Time is in fact the core of our day. On the few occasions when there’s an interruption in our schedule and we’re unable to have Circle Time, it changes the dynamic of the entire day.
Our approach to teaching is based to a very large extent based on managing energy and raising consciousness. There is plenty of hard research to suggest that effective education is not about piling on homework, or about grilling kids, or about making education stressful. It’s about students coming into a school environment where they are inspired to think and contribute, and to integrate the curriculum thoroughly in their minds, instead of merely memorizing facts, then spitting them out for a test and forgetting them.
Our approach is about teaching kids how to think – teaching them to “learn how to learn,” and to enjoy learning.
One of our mottos is “Where learning and joy come together.” And it permeates the curriculum. For more than twenty years here in Palo Alto, and more than forty years at the original Living Wisdom School, we’ve shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that when children are happy and feel cared for, they do extremely well academically. And, again, not only has it been our experience – it’s just common sense.
If you compare us with schools that stress academics, I would put our kids up against them any day on standardized testing, or any other measure of academic achievement. Because education is not just about cramming information into the child’s mind. It’s about training them to be enthusiastic thinkers and problem-solvers. It’s about helping them learn: “How can I think about this problem?” “How can I manage my time?” “How can I find my center, so that I can perform efficiently?” “How can I focus my attention, and keep it focused until I finish what I’m doing?”
Our annual theater performance is very challenging for the students, in terms of managing their time and energy, finding the courage and poise to get up in front of a large audience and deliver their lines, and learning about the culture and histories of the figures the plays are based on.
The truth is that Living Wisdom School is every bit as rigorous as any of the schools that tout their academics. The difference is that there is a tremendous amount of support for the individual student here. Our classrooms are not competitive in the negative sense of students trying to beat each other down. We encourage the students to face their own challenges and overcome them. In doing so, they find an inner strength that they weren’t aware of.
We strive for excellence in all our subjects, but we also strive for excellent behavior and citizenship. For example, we’re deeply concerned with how the students relate to their teachers.
On the way home from a recent field trip, we stopped at a restaurant. As we were paying the bill, the manager came up to Helen and me and said, “You know, a lot of school groups come through here, and I want to compliment you on how well-behaved your kids are. Middle-school kids play with their food, and they leave a mess that we have to clean up, so we’re used to it, and we don’t even mind.” He said, “But your kids are really, really well-behaved.”
At the retreat center where we sometimes stay during our field trips, the staff routinely comment on how well-behaved our kids are. We think it’s basic common courtesy, but we do instill it in the children, and we insist on it.
My experience is that when I’m really stern with them, and I’m asking a lot of them and challenging them, they thrive. Our drama coach does the same with the theater program. He treats the children like professional actors, and Helen does it in Language Arts.
When you ask a great deal of people, they respond and grow. It brings out the best in them, and they like it, even when you have to discipline them.
On our field trips, we’re with the kids around the clock, and we have to set clear boundaries. But they love it. They enjoy it, because it brings out their best, and their best feels good.
Our yearly Theater Magic play is always about a great individual from history. This year, the play is about the Dalai Lama. The subjects are people who’ve faced great challenges with courage, clarity, and compassion. We’re always trying to get our kids to be compassionate with one another, to be courageous in whatever they take on, and to have a mental clarity about the things they’re learning. Enacting the lives of these great people is inspiring to them, in a way that has a lasting impact.
Bombarding them with information and cramming their heads with facts in the name of education – there’s no research that backs it up. It may take courage on the part of our parents to begin to understand how our way might work. No doubt it takes imagination, and a bit of thinking outside the box.
I think the schools that boast about their academics are playing on parents’ fears. Parents naturally want their children to be well-prepared, and that’s as it should be, because we all know that life today is competitive, and the parents are working in that environment.
So the parents wonder – are we just a bit too soft and nice? And once the kids hit high school and real life, will they melt? But that hasn’t been our experience at all.
Parents often assume that what their child needs to be a high-achiever in high school and college is to have a box of facts of a certain size, whereas we’re proving that it doesn’t work that way.
A former teacher at LWS pointed out that the body of available information just keeps growing. In every field, there’s a flood of new breakthroughs and findings. And how can anyone keep up? What’s needed is to train kids to navigate information. You don’t need to know it all, but you need to know how to find what you need, and how to understand it and work with it.
One of our graduates was accepted at Stanford but turned them down to enroll at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, because music is her passion. She wrote to us, thanking us for training her. Again, here’s a student thanking her elementary school for training her to navigate the real world. She particularly took time to thank us for training her in common sense. She said, “As a performer, once I have common sense up on stage, I always know what to do.”
She’s singing with the San Francisco Opera, and not just in roles that were set aside for young people. She auditioned and made it into the chorus. Her mom rolled her eyes – “I couldn’t believe her turning down Stanford.” But she had the courage to follow her convictions. It’s inspiring that our kids are finding their way, and achieving success by figuring out what they need to do.
There are many signs in our culture today that the older model of education is no longer working. In Palo Alto, there have been recent tragedies, with four or five teenagers committing suicide on the railroad tracks. Suicide is now the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers, for the first time in recorded history.
So there are signs that the current system isn’t working. And I would challenge the parents who express doubts about what we’re doing, to ask themselves: Is the other system working, truly? Are those kids turning out better than ours?
The Education for Life book begins with a question “What are your hopes for your child’s education?”
Of course, you want them to be able to read and write and be successful. And then the next question is, how can you prepare them in the best way? And the old model is tempting. Most LWS parents have had that model in their own education, and now we’re inviting them to offer their child an opportunity to do something very different. But once you understand what we’re doing, it’s very compelling, and in fact it’s not all that different. It’s simply common sense. It’s academics, but with the addition of teaching them the best way to excel in academics and life.
There’s a term that’s deeply embedded in modern education research: “integrated thematic curriculum.” It’s acknowledging that children learn best when they have more than one hook to grasp each new piece of learning. If they can form new connections in their brain by approaching a subject from different angles, their brains grow more dendrites than if they were doing rote “workbook memorization.”
The theater experience is a tree that bears rich fruits. It’s part of a learning landscape where the children are learning overlapping subjects.
While they prepare for the play, they’re learning about the art, poetry, geography, and history of the time, and they’re simultaneously acting it out on stage, placing it in three-dimensional space. It’s a completely vivid learning experience that makes countless fresh connections for them.
This is the deepest kind of learning, where it’s integrated with traditional academic class work, but it isn’t just rote memorization. It’s based on experience, and as a result the children love it.
It nurtures a wonderful attitude toward writing, starting in the early school years. Children love to write about what’s real to them, and not just mental abstractions. The skill of making knowledge visceral becomes an important plus for them when they enter middle school, high school, and college.
In the early years, the youngest children’s writing is highly personal. When they reach middle school, there’s a shift toward a less personal kind of writing. Instead of just talking about their experiences, they’re writing essays and book reports about ideas. They need to learn how to write an intelligent, thoughtful analytical essay. The ability to connect with knowledge and see it in a direct, experiential way gives them a tremendous advantage that was laid in the early grades.
If you’re writing a paper about a Shakespeare play, and analyzing the motivations and personalities of the characters, you’ll bring forward the experiential element that you’ve grown familiar with in the early grades.
We might read the play aloud as reader’s theater, and then we’ll see the play performed. And in these ways we try to get inside the characters, so that when the students start to write it’s coming from a mental and emotional experience. Their essays are vivid, and this is a level of learning that stays with them, because they are connecting it to their feelings.
It gives them a level of familiarity with the technical skills of writing that they might not otherwise get until they are freshmen in college. When they leave us, they’ve learned about thesis statements, topic sentences, and so on. These are things I covered when I taught writing to college students. But we find that the kids in our school are ready for it.
With the large amount of writing they do in middle school, they’re continually referencing their experiences and tastes – that is, what they value. So when they’re asked to write a research paper in high school or college, it won’t be patched together from abstract, mind-born ideas that the teacher has dished out, but it will be based on their own burning questions about how life works.
Several years ago, one of our middle school students wrote a terrible research paper. We tried to help him improve it, but after a point we realized that it was beyond salvaging. (It might have been our fault, for not insisting that he choose a more manageable topic.)
The next year, I encouraged him to write about something he was personally interested in. He was from India, and he wrote a wonderful paper on the caste system. And because he was keenly interested, he caught fire when it came to learning the documentation skills he needed to write a credible paper. It was a great learning experience for him, to discover that he could trust his sense of what was important and interesting.
This is our approach to academics in all our subjects – that if you give children success experiences and set their enthusiasm ablaze, they will make tremendous strides without getting burned out or disengaged, as will happen if you’re just treating their brains as storage bins for quickly forgotten facts.
In your school, do you prepare the children to look beyond the negative aspects of life?
Gary: That’s exactly what we do. When people talk about school, they usually think of math, science, and writing, given the prominence of science in this culture. But in our school we broaden the meaning of education.
We’re not just about the ABC’s. While we do prepare them for high school Algebra 2 and Geometry, we are intensely focused on helping them develop the personal strengths and wisdom to navigate all kinds of situations related to their schoolwork, including working cooperatively.
We also give them a positive context and wisdom for dealing with the negative aspects of life, such as world politics, and the temptations of drugs and alcohol. The Education for Life philosophy includes giving children an in-depth understanding of the positive values that lead to happiness and success.
Living Wisdom School gives children personal skills that will help them be successful in their lives. How important are these skills to their academic success?
Helen: Helping them achieve the highest level of academic success of which they are capable requires bringing the whole child into the learning process – their energy, enthusiasm, commitment, and intensity.
If you’re just engaging their minds, without the slightest effort to work on their enthusiasm, perseverance, and will power, your results are bound to be less than optimal. When you bring them into academics as whole persons, you give them a chance to learn how to fire on all eight cylinders in the classroom.
People are often tempted to categorize us as a “precious” school that might be good for kids up to about fourth grade. But then they often ask us what will happen when the students must deal with the “real world.”
In fact, there’s an intensity of learning here that reflects the energy we bring to everything we do. Casual visitors might not be aware of it, if they just see these happy, enthusiastic children going about their business. They might be tempted to think, as one parent actually put it to us, that maybe these children are “too happy.’
Does learning to express kindness, compassion, and other expansive attitudes contribute to academic success? The results we’ve seen give us the answer – a resounding “Yes!”
Parents visit the school and comment about the “hum” in the classroom — the happy hum, and the intensity of focus in the children. You won’t always walk into a classroom that is totally quiet and subdued, because the children are very engaged and busy.
I may walk into a class while I’m touring the school with a prospective parent, and we’ll find the children on the floor doing math games in quiet voices. And the parents are always struck by how the children barely notice us as we walk through, because they’re deeply engaged.
When I bring the parents into the middle school classroom, it’s a different kind of hum – you might find a group of children collaborating on a math chapter, or a math tutor working one-on-one with a student, or the kids might be working on their own. But there’s a positive, productive level of energy in the classroom that’s generated by their concentration and focus.
Also, they aren’t intimidated by adults. I’ll sometimes lead the parents on a tour of the school, and the children will come up and greet them. Or if I ask, “What are you working on?” they’ll give the visitors a mini-lesson, without any thought of being intimidated.
I’ve had high school admissions directors make a point of calling me to let me know that one of our graduates “aced” the entrance interview, and that their ability to sit and engage with an adult was very impressive.
One of our graduates entered Gunn High this year. He and his brother were with us since kindergarten, and the parents naturally wondered what would happen when their boys left the safe environment of LWS. In this boy’s case, he went from a school with sixty students to a high school with over 2000.
The first day, a friend of his mother called her and said, “Zachary met a lot of students today.” They eventually unraveled the story. When the boy thought about going into a new environment, he went out and bought lots of gum. At school the first day, he saw a boy he’d been in orchestra with, and he said, “Introduce me to your friends.” So he did, and Zachary gave them a stick of gum. Whenever he would see one of the boys from that group, he would go over and do the same thing. He piggy-backed from one group to another all day and met over a hundred students.
His dad asked him, “Did you just come upon that?” He said, “No, Dad, I gave it some thought. It’s why I had you get the gum for me.” When he was little, he was very shy. But his experiences at our school taught him to relate to others in a natural and unselfish way.
In big schools with thirty or forty students in a classroom, the teachers usually find themselves teaching to the lowest common denominator. They have to spend a lot of time with the students who are slower. How do you deal with students who are less gifted, without holding back the advanced ones?
Helen: First of all, we don’t judge. We aren’t demanding that they jump over a bar that they’re simply unable to. In every classroom, you’re always going to find a broad variation of ability and effort. On the other hand, we are not interested in “dumbing-down” the pace and curriculum. Instead, there’s a school-wide attitude of welcoming the differences. Because you can only help each child be truly successful if you start by recognizing, honestly and squarely, what’s there.
The 1:9 teacher-student ratio here allows our teachers plenty of time to help every student individually. Also, we take a long-range perspective. If a first-grade student is not adding and subtracting as quickly as the rest of the class, our small classroom size allows us to give that child many small success experiences, in an atmosphere of goodwill and relaxed encouragement that enables them to come along in time and achieve at their own best level.
Because we aren’t harboring a desire to make everyone the same, we’re able to help each child grow in the very best way that’s realistic for them, given their gifts, and to encourage and inspire and support them to do their best.
Do you spend too much time developing the whole child, and giving each child a great deal of individual attention. Doesn’t it use time that could more profitably be spent preparing the whole class for high school?
Gary: Parents ask us this regularly. “How well-prepared will my child be for high school when he or she graduates?”
Our graduates have been accepted, and have excelled at the Bay Area’s most rigorous high schools, including Harker, Menlo, St. Francis, Bellarmine, and Woodside Priory. We have a wall of testimonial letters from our graduates, describing their successes and thanking us for preparing them well.
When they return for a visit, we always ask, “How are you doing? Did we prepare you well enough? Were you ready for high school?” And they invariably answer that they’re doing wonderfully, thanks to the education they received at LWS.
Last year, one of our graduating boys was accepted by Woodside Priory, based to a great extent on his interview. The interviewer was extremely impressed by how the boy was able to conduct himself and talk to an adult in an intelligent, mature and natural way. We feel it was his theater training that gave him the poise and awareness to make such a favorable impression and be accepted by an extremely well-respected, academically focused high school.
We have dozens of similar stories of our graduates. We’ve also compiled statistics on our graduates’ high-school grade point averages. They’re accepted in honors programs, they take AP courses, and they graduate from college. One of our girls who graduated five years ago is majoring in physics at UC Berkeley. Another is at Berkeley working on a double major in art and political science. Yet another is working for his PhD in Space Technology and Microgravity at the University of Bremen in Germany.
Another recent graduate is at Stanford, where he’s thriving academically and playing on the baseball team. When he was accepted by Stanford, he made a point of calling to thank us for preparing him so well. LWS had such a deep impact on him that he called Helen four years later to thank her for her help. Our graduates often return and rave about how well Helen prepared them in language arts. They thank her for teaching them to write well, which gave them a major advantage in high school and college.
One of our recent graduates is exceptional – though he isn’t too far outside the norm for our school. He was the first student in the history of Woodside Priory to be allowed to take calculus as a freshman, because he had finished Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and Trigonometry as an eighth-grader. The math teacher at Woodside Priory recognized that this boy needed to take advanced calculus as a freshman. And even then he surprised them, because a little over halfway through the school year, in February, he had finished the year’s math curriculum, and the school is wrestling with what they can do for him next.
Another graduate is at Gunn High in Palo Alto, where he’s taking the most advanced math course they offer to freshmen, Algebra 2 and Trigonometry. He was allowed to take the class based on his SAT scores and his score on the entrance exam.
Aside from academics, I believe our school prepares the children in other extremely important ways, through our field trips, the theater program, and the overall school culture of kindness and cooperation.
We’re constantly working with the students’ energy, and we’re deeply committed to making sure they learn to exercise their will power and perseverance in overcoming obstacles. There are many ways we hold them accountable, so that when they get to high school they’re ready to work hard, engage with others, find their place, and be successful.
Some students struggle at first when they come here, because it takes them a while to adjust to the way we teach. But when they get to high school, they do superbly – they earn 4.0 grades at charter schools.
With some of our students, it isn’t obvious right away that they’re talented. They may not be spectacularly gifted students, but they do stellar things when they graduate, because of their personal qualities of perseverance, creativity, curiosity, enthusiasm, and their social skills. Our students’ successes are real – they aren’t the rare exception.
Helen: We understand the need for testing, but we’ve chosen to face it in a different way. We equip our children with a different model for learning, where they aren’t just cramming to get a grade or a test score, but they’re understanding the subject matter on a deep level.
We find that this approach works extremely well for them when they enter the “real world” of the Bay Area’s most academically challenging high schools, because the best way to prepare for testing is to achieve a high level of competence in the subject, based on wanting to know the subject deeply, and having a genuine personal enthusiasm for it.
This touches on our school’s culture. Our children transition from taking spelling, math, and reading tests in the early grades, to taking nationwide and international tests in middle school. In math, our middle schoolers participate in the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) and the Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools. In Language Arts, they take the WordMasters Challenge.
While we can talk about how well the children do when they leave us, it’s important to know that they do very well while they’re here. For a small school, it’s remarkable how many of our kids, every year, are operating in the 96th to 99th percentile on these very challenging competitive math tests.
The WordMasters Challenge requires children to solve verbal analogies. It’s extremely difficult, and taking the tests is helpful to them when they leave us, because very similar analogies crop up in the entrance exams of most private high schools, and on the SATs. The test items are amazingly sophisticated – they would easily stump many adults. We teach the children strategies for solving the analogies, by not only understanding vocabulary but word roots, usage, and context.
When children graduate from LWS, with fewer than 100 children, how do they fare when they enter a high school that might have 1000 or 2000 students?
How well do LWS grads adjust to life in a mega-sized high school? Do the life skills the children learn here enable them to thrive in any school environment, large or small?
Helen: One of our graduates who’s now in high school wrote us an unsolicited email expressing how astounded he was by what he termed the lack of awareness among his friends, and their impact on other people.
He said, “They banter back and forth, and I can tell when somebody’s feelings are hurt, but when I bring it up to them, they haven’t even noticed.”
He said, “This is something you taught me.” And what he meant by “you” is the culture of the school, because we are seamless in our commitment to nurturing this kind of expanded awareness.
One of our students told us about her freshman orientation at Menlo. She said the teachers spent a great deal of time trying to reassure the freshmen that they didn’t have to be afraid of their teachers. And she said that she was thinking, “Why would a student be afraid of a teacher?” Because we’ve created a culture of tremendous respect and affection for one another. We have a very healthy environment.
Our students thrive in high schools large and small. They make the honor role, they succeed in sports, and they have friendships with like-minded people. The character development and life skills we teach are important tools that work anywhere.
How much individual attention are you realistically able to give to each child in the classroom?
Gary: Several years ago, a girl from our school transferred to a public school. With two weeks left in the school year, she transferred back to LWS. Later, she said she learned more in two weeks here than in her entire year of public school.
The teachers at LWS are very aware of the children’s individual differences. They know how to nurture each child’s strengths.
The curriculum at the public school was workbook learning. It might give a parent a good feeling that “things are okay, because they have lots of homework.” But I would suggest that parents ask some basic questions.
What, exactly, are the kids learning? Are they enthusiastic about learning? Are they being challenged to apply their learning in creative ways? Or is it just grinding through the workbook?
This girl went to the teacher at the public school and said, “You know, I really understand this stuff, and I can prove it to you. Do I really have to do all these exercises?” Because it seemed so rote to her. And the best the teacher could do was to cut back a certain amount of rote work, even though she agreed that the student already knew it. That’s one of the big problems with a state-mandated curriculum – it gives the teacher almost no freedom to tailor the curriculum to the individual child.
In middle school math here, each child is working at his or her own pace. We correct their tests and go over what they don’t understand, and if they show real competence, they’re encouraged to go on. This is how we can accommodate kids who are at very different levels of math in the same classroom, all learning at the same time, and each one being supported at their own level.
We’re blessed to have an amazing student-teacher ratio. In middle school math class on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we have three teachers for 15 students, or a 5:1 student-teacher ratio. And on Thursday we have two teachers, for a 7.5:1 ratio.
It’s a phenomenal program, and it works for all of the kids. It works for those who are struggling, it works for the kids who are doing well, and it works for the kids who can go really fast.
When my son was here, I intuitively knew that everything was fine. I knew it especially by watching Bryan’s energy. When he came home, and when school would begin after a vacation break, I always noticed that his energy would be high.
So, really, I think parents need to use their intuition. They know their children, and they need to ask, “Is my child happy?” and “Is my child learning?”
There will always be challenges, no matter where they go to school. A play date won’t work out, or they’ll argue with a friend. Those things happen at LWS, as they do anywhere. But if a parent takes a moment to reflect – “Is my child happy?” – I think that’s what counts.
When my son was here, I never had a doubt about his time at school, and the years have proven my judgment correct. Bryan did very well at St. Francis High School and in college, and his mother and I know it was the formative years at LWS that made a big difference.
I encourage parents to come see our play, and come to a concert, and talk to the kids at LWS about their field trips.
The teachers here accept the child who’s sitting in front of them. Not every child will be taking calculus their freshman year of high school, I can assure you. But we believe there’s not a child on the face of the earth who doesn’t have a gift. And if they’re allowed to be who they are, they can find themselves according to their gifts, whether it’s in academics, art, music, dance, theater, or the gift of making friends.
The education system in this country is wound a little tight now, and I encourage parents to remember: “These are children – they need time in nature, they need time on field trips, and they need time to do math. But they also need time to sort through things.”
I think if parents keep asking that question – “Am I doing the best for my child?” – I believe they’ll find that their child would be very happy here at Living Wisdom.
Teachers in most schools, public or private, have to try to teach to the middle of the class. And in our math department, for example, we don’t have to teach to the middle. Teaching to the middle leaves out the super-talented, and it doesn’t serve the ones who need more support. In our school, the classes are small, and because of our very low student-teacher ratio the teachers can shoot high and still bring all the children along.
What about the spiritual aspects of Living Wisdom School? Is the instruction truly nonsectarian?
Helen: Our parents generally accept that we’re nonsectarian, but occasionally they’ll wonder what it really means. How do we infuse the school culture with spiritual principles, without taking sides with one path?
The answer is that we’re sharing principles and direct experiences. If spiritual principles are real, then they must work scientifically, repeatably, and practically. So we aren’t teaching spiritual rules, or the kinds of blanket judgments that come with religious dogma – “If you do this, you’ll go to hell.” We’re focused on what works.
In our school, it’s all about “Look how far I’ve come. Look at the successes I’ve had. Look at the direction I’m taking.”
The most spiritual direction is that which takes you toward increasing happiness and away from suffering.
This is a deeply spiritual approach to understanding life that most parents would agree that their children should learn. Because they want the child to learn how to “choose happiness” by following the eternal nonsectarian spiritual principles that are built into the very fabric of our lives.
Happiness is always directional – the fundamental truth of all spiritual paths is that we become happier as we cultivate thoughts¸ actions, feelings, and attitudes that expand our awareness – attitudes of kindness, compassion, friendship, generosity and support, and so on.
If an adult tries to “practice kindness” and “choose happiness,” they quickly discover that it can be quite a challenge. But we all know that these principles work. So these are the basic rules of our school, and really, they aren’t rigid rules to be memorized and followed blindly, so much as they are principles that the children can test for themselves. Our first two School Rules are: “Practice Kindness” and “Choose Happiness.” And these are simply qualities of successful people everywhere.
We also teach the students non-sectarian scientific breathing and concentration techniques for calming their bodies and minds and focusing attention. And these are skills that will help them overcome their challenges in school and life.
Is the student body skewed toward children from wealthy, highly educated families?
Helen: LWS welcomes students from a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our goal is to help every child succeed.
Gary: I had a conversation with someone about how our students thrive academically at LWS. He objected, “Well, it’s a private school – you guys are all rich.”
I said, “I work on the budget, and I see people’s finances, because we do financial aid, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
One of our parents is a single mom who works two jobs to keep her son in LWS. We have parents who are CEOs and everything in between.
Our social and cultural diversity is a selling point for the school. At LWS, we aren’t about status and adjusting our philosophy to cater to the children of the well-to-do. We’re about helping children find happiness and be successful regardless of their background.
Parents are understandably anxious for their children to gain a good foundation in math and science. You’ve talked about the broad, enriched curriculum at LWS. But doesn’t math strike more directly toward the intellect, and require more traditional teaching methods?
Helen: I would have to say that the short answer is “no.” Because our focus on understanding and helping the individual child works equally well in every subject. At least, that’s been our experience, and as we’ve said, the results prove the method.
It’s a core strength of our school that we can individualize instruction, thanks to our small class size. It would be a lot harder in a classroom with 25-35 students.
The question, as I understand it, is whether math isn’t more strictly mastered by using the rational, intellectual mind, than perhaps other subjects might be. But even if we assume that it is so, the child is never simply a rational, intellectual being. And the enthusiasm, focus, and perseverance that we spend a great deal of time helping the children develop give them a tremendous advantage in math as well.
In math, also, there is a tremendous natural variation of talent. And whether a child is very advanced or challenged, they will never be helped anywhere nearly as effectively by the “traditional’ approach of rote memorization, “studying to the test,” and trying to march them through a fixed curriculum in lockstep, as they will be helped by a curriculum that takes account of the child’s special skills and needs.
If a child has a special talent, they can go as far and as fast as they’re able, as long as they show mastery. But we can still keep them with their age group, because our teaching philosophy allows us to advance all of the children in the same classroom at their own pace.
The same goes for students who might have particular challenges in academics. We’re able, thanks again to our small class size, to give the child one-hundred percent of the help they need to achieve at the upper end of their potential.