We spoke with Ruth Silver who teaches third grade at Living Wisdom School. All of the photos were taken during a two-hour period on a regular school day about two weeks before the end of the school year. The interviewer was our webmaster and photographer.
Q: Did you always know that you would be a teacher?
Ruth: I think I did. When I was in elementary school I would stay after school and help the teacher erase the blackboard and get the classroom in order. My friends and I would often play teacher, and I loved it.
After college, I worked in France, teaching in a public junior high for a year. Then I worked in Israel for a couple of years, and when I came back I taught for several years at schools in Foster City and Palo Alto.
I loved teaching, but then I got married and left to raise my kids. When my kids grew up, I thought about exploring a new field. I said to a friend, “I wish there were something I loved and that I was really good at.” He said, “There is – it’s teaching.” And I thought, “It’s true, I love teaching.”
I found a job at a school in San Jose where it was wonderful to work with the children, but the school was poorly run. It closed in mid-year, so the kids were left without a school, and the teachers found themselves suddenly without a job.
I had a friend who taught at Living Wisdom School. She said, “Send me your resume and I’ll give it to Helen.” Two weeks later, a position opened in second and third grade, and I was hired. It was a miracle how I landed at this glorious place, after a scary experience losing my job, and it touches me whenever I think about it.
I love this school. It’s a very joyful place. I wish my own children had come here, and that I’d been able to come to a school like this as a child.
I’ll wander into Erica’s second-grade classroom next door, and I’ll look around and think, “Oh my gosh.” And Erica will visit my classroom and say, “Oh my gosh.”
There’s a unique camaraderie and joy with the other teachers. If we have a question – like “How can I set up this lesson so that it will help the students in the best way?” – I can go to any of the teachers, and we’ll work on it with our combined experience and find a solution.
Many amazing things have come out of those conversations. It’s a wonderful aspect of our school culture that the teachers are free to learn from each other and that we can go into the other classrooms and observe.
For the students, there’s an incredible amount of learning that goes on here, with amazing creativity and joy along the way. I love coming to work every day, and I don’t think many people can say that.
Q: One of the things I’ve observed is how you interact with the children. On one occasion, a little girl in your class was afraid to go and get her costume adjusted by the seamstress before the dress rehearsal for the school play. You were counseling her, and you were very attuned to her need and able to help her with compassion and wisdom. I thought it exemplified something I regularly hear the teachers say, that it’s essential to create a relationship with each child, so that you can understand who they are and what their needs are.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things I love, the familiarity that you develop with each child here. It’s a relationship of respect and trust. We know each other, and if something’s going on, I’ll know about it, and I can help them.
I’ll say, “I’m noticing that your energy’s a little off. Tell me what’s happening.” Because we know them well enough to recognize when something’s out of their norm.
We’ll talk about whatever the challenge is, instead of ignoring it and assuming that it will just go away, or that their parents will deal with it, or much worse, that we might try to discipline them for their “off” behavior without understanding what’s really going on.
Yesterday, I was saying to the kids, “Some of you haven’t made art for our class poetry book. Come on, let’s get this done!” And one of these little eight-year-old girls said, “You’re really frantic today!” (laughs)
I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I am, I’m feeling frantic.” And the little girl said, with so much confidence, “Well, don’t worry, we’ll get it done.” I said, “You’re right. I was feeling frenetic.” And it was funny, because they jumped in and said, “We know that word!” They recognized it from our vocabulary lessons.
But she said it so kindly – it wasn’t that she was scolding me, “What’s wrong with you?!” She noticed that I was feeling frantic, and she was free, in this environment, to try to help. It’s a natural part of the school culture to talk about issues that are getting in the way. And this ease of communication has a very positive effect on their development and their learning.
Q: In a traditional school where the children are focused almost entirely on academics, they can sometimes get so much in their heads that they miss the experience of having their hearts educated, which Education for Life says is extremely important at all ages, but especially from six to twelve. Is that something you emphasize? If you’re doing academics, do you find that those attitudes of kindness and cooperation are helping the children in their studies?
Ruth: Without question. I feel that where there’s laughter and joy, there are much greater possibilities for learning. If you walk into any classroom here, you’ll see that the students are working very hard, and the reason there’s so much learning, and the kids are so deeply engaged is because they feel the work is theirs.
We’re constantly adjusting the curriculum to meet each child’s individual needs, so that the learning is always on their level. And because it’s so individually focused, we’re able to raise the bar in a way that each child gets to experience the satisfaction of rising to it. As they discover that they can face a challenge and overcome it, their enthusiasm for learning grows exponentially, and it’s a huge step for their all-around development.
Soon after I came here, a little boy got up at the year-end ceremony and said, “At first it was hard, but now I know that I can always ask for help. And if I need to know how to spell ‘ampersand,’ I can ask.”
They aren’t afraid to ask, because the culture isn’t about who’s best or who’s ahead. “What page are you on? I’m ten pages farther.” That never gets talked about here, because they know that it simply doesn’t matter.
In math, the children are free to ask each other for help, even before they ask me. They’re constantly teaching each other, and they’re learning to solve problems by finding the resources they need.
A child will say, “Can somebody help me?” And you’ll always hear, “I will! I will!” They’re competing to go and help each other, and they discover that teaching is a wonderful way to review what they’ve learned. Imagine how great a child must feel when they can help another child with a math problem.
We’re doing Menu Math, which is very challenging. One of the problems is, “How much is the restaurant bill with an 18 percent tip?” It’s quite advanced for third grade math. We were getting close to the end of math class the other day, and I hadn’t covered the problem, so I said, “Let’s come back to it tomorrow – we don’t have to cover it today.” But one of the girls said, “I know how to do it – my mom showed me.” And she got up and taught the whole class how to calculate an 18-percent tip. It was marvelous, because the kids were going, “Oh, yeah! I get it.”
Then they said, “Ruth, can we go to the board and try to figure it out by ourselves?” And I just had to laugh. I said, “Well – yeah!!” Because I was delighted.
The learning is natural and joyful, because we always monitor their comfort level. I tell them, “Let me know if it’s too easy, because it’ll be boring, or if it’s too hard, because it’ll be frustrating.” And the kids will say, “Ruth, this is a really good comfort level for me. It’s really challenging, but I can do it.”
I had a child in my class who used to say, “This is hard!” And now he’s saying, “This is challenging.” Because he’s learned to work through the challenges and master them. I’ll say, “Is it a good comfort level for you?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s pretty challenging.”
Or they’ll say, “Ruth, this is too easy.” And I’ll go over and find out if they’ve truly mastered the lesson, and then I’ll move them along, because there’s no point in staying on something they’ve already mastered.
It’s very important that they’re comfortable saying, “This is too hard.” Because it means that they aren’t intimidated by the teacher, and they can ask for help when they’re stuck. In this culture, they don’t have to feel afraid that they’ll be teased if they admit that they’re having trouble.
How much are you going to learn if you’re stuck, and you’re afraid to say to the teacher, “I can’t do it”? It’s the natural thing to say. Why should you pretend to be farther along, when you haven’t built a solid foundation? And these kids completely understand that.
So they monitor their comfort level, and they’re happy to challenge themselves because they know they can get help when they need it. Not because they have to prove that they’re better, but because they’ve learned, over and over, how wonderful it feels to master a challenge.
In every classroom here, the teachers are helping the children understand that the greatest joys come from their own learning, and not from measuring themselves against an artificial standard. It’s why they love the challenge of learning new things, because they enjoy that inner feeling of accomplishment.
We do some very sophisticated language arts learning in our third-grade classroom, and the kids love it. They love the challenge of learning big words. They’ll say, “Ruth, I was reading a book, and it said the guy was ‘cantankerous.’” And I’ll say, “And you knew what it meant!” And they’ll say, “And I knew how to spell it!” (laughs)
There’s such pride in their learning. When I compare the years I taught in several very good, academically oriented schools, I think we have a very rigorous academic program here. Very, very rigorous. But it’s done with love, and with confidence. Because it’s done with very high goals, and realistic expectations.
Q: It sounds different from a typical public school classroom where the teacher has to hustle the students through a state-mandated curriculum on a rigid schedule.
Ruth: My son was bored in public school. He’s quite smart, and his high school teachers were telling me, “If you want to motivate your son, put him in Advanced Placement classes, because they’ll challenge him.”
I said, “But he won’t really learn anything. It will just be more homework, and what he wants is depth.”
He wanted to be able to explore his school subjects in depth, and it wasn’t happening in his school, because it was all about getting through the material on schedule and studying to the test.
I don’t blame the teachers, because they aren’t being given the freedom to truly teach a subject. “We have to get through the chapter. There’s no time for questions. Let’s keep moving. Let’s not go too deep, because you have to be ready for the test.”
It’s very liberating for the teachers and students when you don’t have to teach that way. In social studies the other day, we were talking about the Central Valley of California. The children were looking at a map, and someone said, “What’s the San Andreas Fault?” And all of a sudden the lesson changed to earthquakes and plate tectonics, and we watched some YouTube videos about the science of plate tectonics and earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault.
Then we talked about how we’re living just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, and we went outside and looked for cracks in the sidewalk and tried to decide if they were created by trees or the earthquakes in this area.
So the lesson shifted from social studies to the geology of the California mountain ranges, and the fact that there are volcanoes in the mountains. And the idea that there are volcanoes in California got them very excited, and it shot off and became a lesson in the science of vulcanology.
As a teacher, having the freedom to take a lesson wherever the children’s natural enthusiasm leads them is marvelous. It makes the learning very real for the children, where it’s not just about looking at the pages of a book – “Oh, there are some mountains in California, and here’s a map and some dry facts.”
If you start with the strange and shocking and exciting fact that there are volcanoes in California, it unfolds naturally into the science of how mountain ranges are formed, and how the earth’s crust is shifting, and what it looks like in California, quite near to where we’re standing.
I feel very blessed to teach in a school where I have the freedom and autonomy to teach in a way that engages the children and gives them a genuine learning experience.
Q: A friend of mine teaches honors chemistry at a high school in Illinois. He’s also the freshman football coach, and his teams have won 39 games in a row. He’s completely at odds with the idea of a state-mandated curriculum. He wrote an article called 10 Ways to Improve Schools Using Coaching Principles, the point of which was that teachers must be free to help the individual child, in the same way that any competent sports coach would do.
Ruth: It’s the only way to bring out the very best in each child. And you need to know the child well enough to know what their best is.
In math class we have a Multiplication Sundae game. As the children gradually master the multiplication table, they earn part of an ice cream sundae. But the key point is that the whole class has to master the table. It’s fine if you know your sixes and sevens, but if the whole class hasn’t got them, they’ll have to help each other.
Q: Do they tutor each other? I read a quote the other day from David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: “The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called ‘self-regulatory behavior.’ It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”
Ruth: Very definitely. They work together. There’s a tremendous amount of partner learning and peer teaching in the classroom. This year’s class learned their multiplication tables perfectly, so at the Multiplication Sundae party they’ll have ice cream with all the trimmings including sprinkles and chocolate chips. But it’s really about the learning experience, and the joy of learning together, and not setting yourself apart from others and competing with them in a shallow way.
Which is not to say that we don’t encourage the ones who can learn really fast. But it’s never a bragging thing, where they’re trying to make the others feel inferior. Never.
It’s taking pride in what you’ve done. It’s being able to say, “I’ve studied hard, and I know this.” Because why should they hide it, even if the others are still working on it?
When we do our multiplication drills, there are three students who can rattle them off without a hitch. They can just shoot them off, and we all know who they are, but there’s no comparing. There’s a feeling that it’s wonderful for them, and we’re proud of them.
Q: The kindergarten teacher, Mahita, talked about how it’s important to praise the children in the right way.
Ruth: Acknowledging them for who they are, and for their accomplishments and their mastery, and not just because they’ve jumped over a stick that you’re holding at some arbitrary height.
There’s a popular idea in education today that you shouldn’t take pride in something you’re good at, because someone else’s feelings might get hurt. But I don’t believe in that idea for a moment. I don’t believe in lowering yourself so that other people won’t feel inferior. I feel that everyone should be proud of their accomplishments, and proud of each other, and very proud of their friends.
When one of the children was assigned her lines for the school play, she received fewer lines than she’d hoped. Her mom told me that her daughter came home and said, “I’m a little disappointed, but my friend got lots of lines, and I’m so proud of her.”
Can you imagine? There was no envy or resentment. She thought, “This is what I have, and it’s really good, but my best friend got this, and I’m so happy for her.”
Q: It’s a principle of the world’s spiritual teachings that our happiness grows as we expand our awareness to include other people’s realities. I would imagine that it’s a hugely important lesson for young children, for their happiness now and in the future.
Ruth: Yes, and it happens a lot in our class, where the kids will go, “Yay! Good for you!”
Q: In the high school where my friend teaches, there’s a requirement that every student has to take chemistry and physics. And of course the result is that those classes get watered-down for the less-qualified students who don’t want to be there in the first place.
Ruth: Nobody expects that in life. If something’s wrong with my car, I’ll take it to a mechanic, instead of thinking I should know how to fix it myself. But in public high schools everyone’s expected to take Advanced Placement courses, and they might not be allowed to excel at what they’re really good at, if it happens to be music, painting, or auto repair, because those things are no longer honored in public school.
Here, it’s about everybody being where they need to be. We’re very careful to observe the children and keep the curriculum individualized and fluid, so that each child can go ahead at their own pace. It’s very clearly understood that the kids need to move at a pace where they’ll be challenged and able to grow and thrive. They might need to move forward or back, and it’s adjusted all the time. I have a second-grader who comes into my math class because he’s able to do third-grade math, and last year there were three second-graders who would come in and join us for math.
Q: I saw a little girl who’s in fourth grade sitting outside at a picnic table reading a book during recess. I asked if I could take her picture, and without turning her head she said very impatiently, “Yes!” It was clear that she did not want to be distracted. I was curious to know what she was reading that was so interesting to her, so I peeked at the book, and it was math.
Ruth: That’s very funny, but it’s not at all uncommon. On Fridays we have math games, and some of the kids will say, “Can we work on Menu Math?” which is a lot harder, just because they love the challenge.
I love it here. And it’s partly because we embrace every aspect of the individual child, including the spiritual.
I’ll occasionally bring in my Jewish culture. In our tradition we have something called a mezuzah. It’s a parchment scroll that’s inscribed with the most important prayer in Judaism, and it can be ornate and fancy, or very simple.
The prayer says, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.” Jewish homes will have a mezuzah on their door, and the reason is so that when you go in and out you’re reminded of how to live your life as a good person. As you go out, it reminds you that this is how you live as a righteous person. And when you come in, you remember to do the right thing – to have integrity, and to think about what you’re doing, and always try to be in alignment with right action.
I explained that to the children, and they made mezuzahs and wrote poems about how they want to live their lives. And when I send them home they’ll roll them up and put them outside their bedroom door.
We also made something called a Chamsa. A Chamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol that’s shared by the Jewish and Islamic cultures. It’s the hand of God that’s offering blessing and protection. We made Chamsas out of heavy copper foil that the children tooled and decorated, and then they wrote poetry about the times when they feel the hand of God.
Q: Is it something you have to nag them to do?
Ruth: Not at all. We talk about what God is, and they write about it in their poetry. What is God to other people? What is God to me? When do they feel that energy? When do they feel that protection? When do they feel that love? Do they feel it when they’re in nature? Do they feel it when they’re with their family? When they’re playing? When they’re laughing? They understand that feeling, and they always know what I’m talking about, because it’s a universal experience, and children live more in their hearts and souls than most adults do.
Q: Do you have children in your class who are new to this school?
Ruth: Yes, we had three new kids who came into our classroom in the middle of the year.
Q: How long did it take them to settle into the culture?
Ruth: One of them has taken a bit longer. He talks about it in his Qualities speech. “I came in, and I had my methods, and I had to learn Ruth’s methods.” (laughs) We had a new boy and two girls this year.
I told the kids, “Remember the girls who came to visit?” And they were all excited, “Are they going to join our class?” I said, “And remember the boy who came? He’s going to be in our class, too.” “Yay!” So there was complete acceptance.
It’s been a really great year. This time of year is always bittersweet, because your connection with the children is so deep, and then they have to leave. I love every class that I’ve had, and every one is very special.