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.
Helen: The idea of “self-motivation” is key. It’s a fundamental principle of Education for Life that you can never force someone 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. 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 young people 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 spatial intelligence, 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 students, you can choose any methods that will help them.
I talked with the students 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 a student’s unique strengths, and how to help them build upon them.
LWS encourages young people to “lead with their strengths”
At LWS, we ask, “What is this person’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 someone’s strengths are in language, they’ll choose a textbook that’s more linguistically oriented.
Gary: You get to know the students so well that you end up individualizing each one’s curriculum in math, based on their 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.
Photo: LWS hires teachers who love to share their enthusiasm with young students. Science teacher Doug Andrews has done graduate research in chemistry.
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 students 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 student’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 your son our daughter at home?” Or a parent will tell us something about them 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 them.
The core feature of the parent-teacher conference is the portfolio. Throughout the school year, we collect samples of the student’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 their improvement.
Portfolio assessment avoids the fuzziness of letter grades. What does it really mean to get an A, B, or C? Did the student 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 young people 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 them for the challenges of high school, and the greater challenges of a university education.
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 young people everywhere.
This article is from Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School and Life, an inspiring new book for parents and educators about the Education for Life approach of the Living Wisdom Schools. You may purchase a copy, download a free copy (PDF), or read online.