Teaching as Spiritual Practice

Recently, I had the honor of presenting at the Holistic Teaching and Learning Conference in Ashland, Oregon. It was a very inspiring conference to attend. There were several people there working in schools around Canada and the US who are re-imagining an education that looks at the whole child – not just the intellect.

In Education for Life, we work each day to create lessons that cultivate the intellect, and also the will, the body and the feelings. There is an expanding understanding in our culture of the importance of bringing up well-balanced people. We can all see the destruction that is wrought when someone’s will is strong, but it is not balanced with intellect or feelings. Or, the meaningless and sometimes dangerous ideas created by someone who has a strong intellect, but who is not interested in the body or the feelings. It is exciting for us at Living Wisdom School to be a part of this burgeoning education movement.path photo

One of the recurring messages of the conference is one that we talk about frequently. That is, the greatest tool for a teacher is her sadhana – spiritual practice. As a teacher, when my spiritual practice is strong, I am able to look at what is really happening in the classroom. I can adjust my teaching to meet the energy in the class and to shift it gently if that is needed. I am not looking at my own need to control the students, but I am tuned into their needs in each moment. Teachers can only do this when they are truly grounded and able to notice what is happening in each moment.

In this way, teaching is a spiritual practice. The “problems” of the day become great teachers that expand the consciousness of the teacher beyond himself. It is a wonderful gift to be able to teach.

First Day of School Aspirations

We had a wonderful summer of rejuvenation and are back to school and back to the blog. Megan Barella is a Living Wisdom mom who has been floating around the school and classrooms, picking up inspiration to share on the blog. Here are her observations from the first day of school. 

singing day 1 2014On the first day of school this year, there were 75 students, teachers, and parents at the Opening Circle. It was the largest Opening Circle at LWS, and the energy was high as we gathered to celebrate the first day of the school year journey, and our upcoming School Expansion. As we welcomed new faces, there was collective joy to be together again for a new school year. At Living Wisdom School, learning is held in a gentle and nurturing vessel in which each student, teacher, and parent is supported in becoming the best of who we are. It is this unfolding of the spirit in human form that we celebrate each day at LWS.

And we love to sing! Rose shared a sweet story about one student who asked why we sing at school? Her reply: because it’s good for our brains & hearts and brings joy to others. With all of our hearts happy, our individual voices joined as one to welcome in a year of learning and friendship. We opened our singing with “The Birds of the Air”, written by the great Nature Educator, Joseph Cornell.

The birds of the air are my brothers.

The flowers my sisters, the trees are my friends.

All living creatures, mountains, and streams

I take unto my care.

For this green Earth is our mother.

Hidden in the sky is the Spirit above.

I share one life with all who are here.

To everyone I give my love.

To everyone I give my love.

P1090775It is in this spirit of Oneness, with one another and the world around us, that we began our school year. The new school year offers us the opportunity to open up to the highest aspirations and ideals of each individual student, teacher, and parent. As so often is the case, our children often lead the way. One parent shared a sweet story about her son’s aspirations for this year. A LWS tradition is the Award’s Ceremony that happens on the last day of school. Each child receives an award that honors the individual strengths of each student. Dynamic Willpower, Kindness, & Friendship are a few of the past awards given to LWS students. This first-grade student said he really wanted to receive the goal for Kindness this year, and that this was one of the goals he was going to work towards this school year.

While the excitement and energy of new beginnings are with us all, what are your P1090679aspirations for this school year? May we all do our part, like our sweet first grade student, to aspire to our highest potential as people as we work for the collective good of our school, and the world. Happy School Year!

“’God’ stands for ‘the universal desire of human beings to be inspired.’ Children yearn to be told that there is indeed something worthwhile in which to believe and toward which to aspire. Yes, they yearn for ideals.” ~ Education for Life

 

The Living Wisdom Experience from a Parent

One of the parents of a Living Wisdom School student wrote about her experience looking for a school for her son and her experience here. Please enjoy!girls with tiki

I discovered the Living Wisdom School (LWS) after reading former LWS former Director Susan  Dermond’s book Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook when my son was 3 years old. We were looking for preschools at the time. Excited to learn the author of the book was the Director of a school in the area, we visited Living Wisdom School and instantly knew we had found the perfect school for our son.

At LWS, children get a stellar, top-notch education due to the high caliber of teachers, small class size, and individualized instruction found in every classroom at LWS. Teachers are able to design curriculum around the educational interests of their children. But at LWS, education is not only about subjects and academic mastery. Students also get something more, something I have not seen in ANY other school, and something that is desperately needed in our world. Children at LWS develop their inner world. LWS students know who they are, they believe in themselves, and they feel secure in their place in the world. As a society, recent discoveries in brain science are affirming that self-worth, self-confidence, & self-love are no longer frivolities to human beings in our childhood.  Children who feel safe in themselves and their world is an absolute necessity & requirement to learning and to future success in life, in higher education, in the workplace, and in our home & family lives. At LWS, children love who they are and they know how to find happiness within.

Honoring Nature Poem

Earth

Here is a nature appreciation poem and activity that is especially popular in the Helen’s kindergarten class.

Bow To Mother Nature Poem
I bow to mother nature
I lift to father sky
I open to the sun and the clouds going by
I welcome the rain that flows to the sea
I honor the kindness in you and me!

(Adapted by Becky Bailey)

Use the poem as a circle time activity and let the students create hand movements to go with each line. Or create your own motions and teach them to the children.

Happy Earth Day!

Appreciating Internal Motivation

At our recent building fundraiser, Nitai Deranja, the co-director of Education for Life, gave an inspiring talk about the work we do at Living Wisdom Schools and why we do it.

One of our goals at LWS is to create a schooling experience that is more internally motivated than  scienceexternally motivated. When students feel safe and inspired, a curiosity bubbles up and learning occurs naturally without coercion. This is a very different goal than mainstream schooling, which is nearly all driven by external motivators (i.e grades and test scores).

I recently saw an example of this in my classroom that I’d never seen before in school. I assigned the students a report. They had 3 weeks to work on it at home. We were studying the ocean, so they chose which ocean animal or plant they wanted to study. There were parameters of what they needed to include in their reports.

As we neared the due date, excitement grew in the class. While I had asked for at least 3 sentences, students started arriving with the announcement – “I wrote 6 sentences!” Other students hearing this were motivated to write more, and the reports grew. The parents were getting excited about everything the students were accomplishing with very little stress at home.

The day the reports were due was very special. We blocked out the whole day to share, and students brought in all sorts of models and demonstrations as part of their reports. When I asked them to turn in the written part after they had presented, they seemed confused and they protested. It took much work to convince them to leave their reports with me overnight.

Raina pattern blocksYou see, the reports belonged to them! I had so little to do with it. My job was simply to create the space in which they could share their hard work and inspiration. One student, when I told her I wanted to write a comment on it, seemed horrified that I would write on her report! She asked me nicely if I would write on a sticky note instead.

I decided not to write any comments, since they clearly were so proud of their own work and they didn’t need an external motivator. For these students, the creation of the report and then the sharing of it were the most important things.

Architecture Dreams

We have embarked on an exciting and ambitious project here at Living Wisdom School. Our goal is to build a new school building. In its present form, our school has 5 classrooms in 2 buildings. We have created some lovely classroom spaces out of small rooms in the Ananda temple, but they are spread far apart in the building. The vision for the new building is that it will reflect our cohesive community. The classrooms would have a similar look and energy and more space so that we can grow as a school. With the new space, we could accommodate 30 additional students. Our school director, Rose Neal, here describes the beginning stages of this building process. She will continue to blog about the project as it unfolds.

I met with the architect of our building project when I visited CA several weeks ago. He is adjusting the plans for our new school building because of city codes and zoning. The rules that initially were seen as constraints have become a great blessing. It seems almost miraculous!

Before meeting with him, there were areas of the overall picture of our new and improved campus that I didn’t resonate with fully. These were gray area issues, those that you keep in your heart and say to yourself …“Wouldn’t it be nice if…”

An intelligence greater than myself read these thoughts and must have agreed with how I saw the overall vision.

With the new renditions, we have double the outdoor play space, there’s a softer look on the exterior walls and planters everywhere to catch rain water from the roof. More plants is always a plus! The uplifting, cohesive, grounded, balanced and magnetic nature of our Living Wisdom School is truly evident it the plans for our new space.

It reminds me of Paramhansa Yogananda’s words, “Immortalize your dreams through architecture.” And that is what we hope to do!

Inspirational Testing

In the Primary class, we have started doing a weekly spelling test. We don’t administer many tests at Living Wisdom School, but the ability to stay calm, centered and focused during a test is an important skill. So, we start small in Primary class with a spelling test.

I started giving these tests last year because the students were struggling with their spelling. Or, rather, they weren’t struggling – they didn’t seem to notice or care how things were spelled.  In my teaching, I lean much more toward encouraging free expression and I had taught writing with that as the focus. However, I had failed to emphasize the importance of spelling, and indeed, the rules of spelling are a necessary part of free expression. If no one can read your writing, you’re expressing something, but you’re not communicating anything.

So, I needed to activate the wills of the students. I needed to inspire them to find value in correctly spelled words, and thus find internal motivation to notice and fix their spelling. I decided to do spelling tests, but wanted to do tests in a different way than how I was taught.

I don’t give grades, but I do mark how many words are spelled correctly. The goal is not necessarily to spell each word correctly (though for some students, that is the goal), but rather to improve with each week. If a student spelled 6 words correctly one week, we aim for 7 words the next week. It is an activity that is shared with the whole class, but with room for individual goals.

In order to support practice at home, I sent a list of activities that students could use. The list included activities that activate the will (i.e., playing a Memory game with the spelling words), the body (i.e., making each letter in a word with their body), the intellect (i.e., using Scrabble letters to find out the “value” of each word), and the feelings (i.e., drawing a picture for each word). One mom discovered that her child loved the Will activities most.

So far, the spelling tests have inspired passionate engagement without stress. I’m watching carefully to ensure that students are working from a place of internal motivation, rather than fear of failure or a desire to please.

Any area of learning can use the four tools of maturity (physical/body, feeling, will, intellect) to engage interest and make material more relevant. Can you think of activities in these areas that would support learning in your child or student? The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

 

School Performance

As I was driving the other day, I noticed a billboard advertising a school. The largest word on the ad was the word performance. It struck me how much our culture takes for granted that the highest goal of school is performance. For whom are our students performing? Who judges a good or bad performance?

It can be true that even the youngest children in our country spend the majority of their days “performing”. Sometimes they know what they are supposed to perform; most times it’s an amorphous pressure that they spend their days guessing about. Many children simply give up and internalize the story that they aren’t “good” performers and carry that through their lives.

What would school look like if performance were not the focus? We certainly have “performances” at Living Wisdom School – dance and music and drama. However, the focus of our school is relationship based – “education centered in the heart”. In the book I Love You Rituals, Becky Bailey speaks of the power of giving our children unconditional attention. They can get the message that they don’t have to perform (or fail) in order to get our attention, but that simply being who they are is worthy of attention.

When we create a classroom space where students feel accepted just as they are, they feel safe to be their true selves. Curiosity, followed by learning, naturally arises in these circumstances. The motivation to ask questions and learn flows naturally from the inside of children (and from us all!).

In this space of unconditional attention, the teacher’s goal can be to create a safe container in which students could express their true selves, rather than just asking them to perform. The teacher’s goal can be to see and acknowledge students, encourage them to ask questions and to support them as they move to their next step of growth and learning.

Holiday Generosity

In the Primary class, we’ve been reading lots of books about Christmas this last week before we go on our break (we studied Hanukkah and Solstice earlier in the month). The theme of many of the books is the old adage, “it’s better to give than to receive”, and the students have been really compelled by this saying.

During show and tell this past Friday, one of the students brought in some ornaments she had made. At the end of her sharing time, she told us that she had made them for us and each person got to pick one to take home. The students were delighted, and one student suggested that maybe she had gotten the idea from earlier, when another student brought us all some homemade candy-shaped toys at Halloween. The ornament-making student said, “yes, that’s where I got the idea!” The student who had made the Halloween “treats” beamed with delight.

I stopped the conversation for a moment to point out to the class how interesting it was that one act of generosity inspired another act of generosity, and how we might think that we will have less when we are generous, but we actually end up with more. One of the students added, “Yes! We might end up with less things, but we end up with more good feelings and love.” Exactly!

The students have been very eager to make things in class that they can give as gifts. They demonstrate a deep understanding that it’s better to give than to receive. It’s a blessing to spend my days with such fearlessly open and generous people.

 

The Polite Game

Our kindergarten teacher, Helen, teaches the students a game called the “Tea Party Polite Game” at the beginning of the year. The students sit down to tea and they brainstorm ways to be polite (hands on the table, wait your turn, etc.). When the food is sent around, they are not allowed to serve themselves, but they serve the person next to them, asking nicely, “would you like some?”

The children love this game because it feels so wonderful. Who wouldn’t love a game where you are treated with utmost respect and are served all your food?

Once they have learned to love the polite game, they can use it at other times in the classroom. For instance, when they were coming in from recess, pushing to get to their hook, Helen suggested they play the polite game. That means offering to someone else that they can go first and waiting your turn. Now that they’ve mastered the polite game during transitions, Helen is introducing it throughout the school day. With this intention of being kind and polite to each others, the students learn to love being at school because they feel safe and cared for.