Reflections from the Founder

It is late.  I have just fed my dogs. Everyone is asleep and like most nights, I am the last one up and I’m usually thinking about the school.  Tonight, I am thinking on parents who send their kids to the school and still struggle to embrace our philosophy.  There is a lot of questioning. There is a lot of challenging why we do what we do the way that we do. There is a lot of advice about how we need to do this or that. I am reflecting on those times when parents and I have these discussions.  I usually walk away asking myself, “Have they read FREE AT LAST or any of the articles I’ve sent out to the school community?”  Actually more than half of our parents won’t attend our quarterly Assembly meeting where we not only vote on school matters, but we also have discussions on these texts that support the philosophy. A small handful read the literature we share so they can participate in discussion. There is just this refusal to let go of the old way, and yet they see how much their child loves the school. They even see lots of changes happening in the child right before their eyes, but because they may not see as many “academic” changes going on, they begin to worry.

I remember one time being so excited that a student had been able to control his anger in a conflict.  JC (Judicial Committee) somehow gets students to stop fighting, fussing and yelling, and they begin to handle conflict rationally and more calmly.  When he was picked up from school, I ran to the parent overjoyed and said, “He had such a great day today….” and I proceed to tell her how proud I was of him being able to handle conflict in such a healthy way. The parents looks at the child unmoved and asks “What kind of work did you do today.”  My heart sank.  The student’s face that once beamed with pride became grim. I thought to myself, “She totally is missing this!”

The one question that keeps coming to me tonight as I am sitting here in the stillness of my home is this:  “I wonder if parents are realizing that I came to the Sudbury model AFTER over 20 years in traditional education…in public and private schools.  I have been a teacher and an administrator…even worked for the university as a supervisor of student teachers in a local public school system.  I KNOW the system. I know traditional education. It was my very breath for so long and then somehow I wanted to leave it all behind after one visit to Fairhaven School. One very short visit. Why?

Well, I’d been unhappy with traditional education since my first week as a teacher began back in 1995. I remember sitting in my classroom the week before the students would come into my class and thinking “This is horrible. I went to school 4 years for this?” I immediately became aware that there is no way 30 kids can learn with one teacher.  I was acutely aware of children’s differences and wondering how to meet all those differences. I remember looking over my list of incoming students and all the notes, folders, IEPs, etc. about each one and wondered how in the world do I teach 30 students at all different reading levels how to be come good readers in 10 months?  Like HOW?

For the next 20 years I tried to solve that puzzle and the solution never came.  The one conclusion that a fellow veteran teacher told me once as I sat in the teacher’s lounge (which by the way is a gossip pit) frustrated about not being able to reach this one particular student, was this (in her own words): “Oh don’t you know? You are not going to reach all of them. Some are going to fall in the cracks.”  That was supposed to be the solution to the puzzle, to just let them “fall through the cracks.”  For 20 years I wrestled with this type of thinking and so I began to deviate from what the administration wanted a little, just trying to reach students with a heart of compassion and to give them the freedom to be themselves.  Parents loved it, students were happy and soon principals started placing struggling students purposely in my class.  But there was still not enough room and space to really give children freedom to be whoever they were in their educational journey.  10 months is not enough for most kids!

So what brought me here after 20 great years in public and private schools? My son.  I knew that if I kept teaching where I was, one day my son would not have me as his teacher. There was no way for me to follow him through all of his grade levels to make sure he was treated fairly and respectfully as he figured out his educational journey.  One desperate day, I visited Fairhaven and that was it.  After that one moment of revelation, I could not go back to what I had known was wrong for 20 years.  I realized that I wanted “this” for my child and every child that I can reach.

So when a parent refuses to understand my context or when they begin to share with me what some other school has done, although I must be kind and patient it is hard for me not to say, “Listen!  Been there and done that! Not doing that again!”  My hope and prayer is that the few parents who willingly read the books, the articles, research for themselves and go through this process of tearing down all they thought they understood about education, will grow into a unanimous effort of the entire school community to embrace FREEDOM in how their child is educated.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving from our Family to Yours!lwschool2Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.  Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.  For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

Our First Graduate!

She was the very embodiment of what the Sudbury model should look like. She completely designed her own education plan. She decided when she should graduate and set goala for accomplishing that. She designed her entire program even choosing to do a traditional program complete with cap and gown. She chose her own processional song, twirling around as she walked down the aisle. And now she asked to come bacl and teach a sewing class. Proud, is am understatement of how we feel. Here she is!

Learning from Jelly Fish

jelly fishI want to explain my thinking on parenting and education to you since coming to embrace this educational philosophy and I want to do it by telling you about our recent camping trip. We went to Breezy Point Beach and had a campsite literally ON the beach. It was amazing. The water was warm and we were in HEAVEN. As we put our feet in the water and began to get in, we noticed a jelly fish, and another and then another.  Before long we were just sitting in the sand looking at the water.

Well, the next day, we found another beach at the campground that had been netted off so sea creatures couldn’t disturb our time in the water. We were so happy. We set up our umbrella, and all run to the beach. We’re splashing around, and then a JELLY FISH! There was a hole in the net and jelly fish were sneaking in. Well, my son got his bucket and started catching them and studying them. Then he would carry them to the unnetted area of the beach so he could set them free. My 7 year old, went out into the water, CATCHING jelly fish. They sting. They are dangerous. But he was so focused. He spent hours and hours, catching all types of jelly fish. Before long he would have small crowds of people around him as he talked to them about what he was learning about the jelly fish. He caught some that were eating a baby crab. He caught different color ones. He caught big ones, small ones. He caught some that were injured. He named them. He would just sit there and observe how they moved.

Was I nervous? Yes. Did I want him to stop? Yes. But he was following his interest which is his insane passion for animals. He was learning, exploring, experiencing, all without my interruption of his own designed learning process. I would ask him questions about what he was learning, but that was it. I did not interject or try to “protect” him too much. This is the epitome of what the school stands for. He NEVER got stung. My heart was in my chest the whole time and I stayed close in case he needed me, but other than that, he was free. This is the type of learning experience we are creating for every student that comes to the Living Water School. If this is what you want, you have to be brave, patient, full of faith in God’s ability to protect your little one and then be willing to set your babies free.

What We “Teach”

hurt kidI cannot help but feel deep sadness from the passing and suicide of Chester Bennington.  A gifted musician and artist, I found that he was severely bullied in school when he was young.  There are other stories like his.  I also read recently that the latest star of the new Spider Man, Tom Holland was also bullied in school.  I have read countless stories of gifted artists telling stories of being bullied in school. They often say that they were bullied for being so “different.”  There is a pattern here.  A child who is a little different than the mainstream, goes to school, is bullied for being so different.  They eventually get lost in their art, but still hold on to the scars from being bullied and teased.  Even though they grow up and become successful, those memories of being bullied and being made to feel inadequate do not go away.  In the quietness of their minds, the ghosts of those same bullies stand around them telling them how inadequate they are.  How do I know?  Because I cannot seem to forget the times when classmates would call me ugly.  Even though I am 43 years old, I cannot forget that, and as a result I have struggled with my own issues of finding myself beautiful (hopefully you will allow me to be a little transparent here?).

I feel that schools spend so much time on the academics, they never take time to noticehurting child the wounded student whose wounds may one day hinder them from hitting their full potential.  They also spend very little time creating an environment where all students, no matter how “different” they are, can thrive.  Chester Bennington, somehow had a deep pain that he could not escape.  He tried drugs, fame, fortune, marriage, and in the end he could not escape the pain.  I am taking a guess here, because I have actually seen students grow up and not be able to “forget” the pain of being bullied.” His sad time in school may have played a part in how he thought about life…about himself.

There are times where people may question why we spend so much time on character, sad black childself-esteem, vision building,  self-reliance, self-motivation, independence, etc.  The staff literally spend most of their time talking to students, and advocating for them to be themselves. We also spend a lot of time creating a school environment where the whole community graciously accepts ALL members of the community. To many this just does not seem important enough.  No, we do not have a set STEM program (but if any student expresses a sincere interest in STEM, we have the staff available to help them reach that goal), but we feel strongly that when you deal with the inner being of a person first, then they will strive to do well in those courses that help them reach their passion and goal in life.

The Judicial Committee (JC) is a great way for students to talk with members of the community when they feel hurt or that their pursuit of Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness is somehow being jeopardized.  I once had a parent angrily message me because her daughter missed her math session to do JC.  She failed to understand that kids being able to talk through their hurts and offenses, will actually clear their minds to do any subject necessary to reach their ultimate career goals.

As adults, we get so excited when kids excel academically, but I have seen these same students, when I served as a principal in traditional schools, grow up to be miserable adults!  Now I think of Chester.  Somehow the pain became too much and he never lecrying childarned the skills necessary to survive the hurts and pains of life. What if school were more focused on teaching students those skills, instead of only focusing on how to write an essay or to solve a Chemistry formula?  At the end of the day, I firmly believe that by learning the skills necessary to overcome hurt, obstacles, live in community, faith and much more inner character traits, will give them the power to do well in every single other area of life.

Dr. Anika T. Prather (Ms. Anika), Founder

Focusing ONLY on the School

From the Founder:  With a great deal of pain, we have decided to close all services to the homeschool community (The Homeschool Center and The Umbrella).  This in no way was an easy decision.  I recall when I visited a democratic school the summer I opened The Living Water School and told them that I was going to offer the umbrella and the Homeschool Center for working parents.  She strongly suggested that I don’t because this philosophy is  so different and really needs our undivided attention. Many times others will not understand.  Homeschool families many times may not support all of the freedom we want to give our kids.

At the time I did not see the difference so clearly.  I felt that homeschooling families and the community of people forming The Living Water School both wanted a more free way to educate our children, and that we could find some type of common ground.  I felt that the two communities could support each other as we both pursued alternative ways of educating our children. Well, we opened the school and opened the doors to the homeschool community, hoping to be a blessing to them as well.  Although we are so thankful for the homeschool families that supported the school, we found that our mentalities were so different.  We found ourselves straddling between two worlds.  We often found ourselves in conflict as The LW Community stood for almost complete freedom and independence for the student and the homeschool community, although supportive of the nurturing and creative environment, sometimes failed to see the vision behind what we were seeking to do. I remember being warned that the homeschool community would see our school as only a social gathering and not an educational philosophy to also be respected.

We gave it one more try our second year, and still found ourselves struggling to meet the  needs of a rapidly growing school and the needs of the homeschool community. We also found ourselves trying to explain our philosophy too much to those who are not open to the school’s stance in the first place.  I think of the verse that says, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).  I also think of when the Word says, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25).  It is time to focus on just The Living Water School.  The past 2 years have been amazing and the community grew to really love the homeschool students who became a part of our family.  However, we also found that time was lost as we tried to manage both programs.  While meeting with a homeschool parent, we could be outside discovering nature with the Nature Club.  While making sure homeschool students have done their work correctly (assigned by their parents) we could be making music with the music group.  While being distracted by the needs of those who have not embraced the Sudbury Model or other child-directed philosophies, we could instead be having more deep conversations with students who marvel at all of life’s random questions.

We want more time in this free space to connect with and engage with our students.  I think it really hit us, when we looked up and found our first graduate was leaving us.  2 years was too short!  I wonder how much more time I could have spent with the one we call “Chaos” because of all the craziness she brings to the atmosphere. She truly brings LIFE  to the school and she is now moving on to her own goals and dreams.  I am trying to imagine the school without her this year! Our students are on a serious journey to discovering their God-given purpose, and we as a staff take our supportive role in that journey very seriously.  It may seem messy, a bit chaotic, a bit unstructured, but if you look closely you can see things are starting to grow and bloom in each child. So, we turn our full attention to fulfilling the vision of the school.

Well here we are, getting ready to embark on year number 3 at The Living Water School. We have ordered our first set of  FREE AT LAST by Daniel Greenberg of The Sudbury Valley School and we look forward to learning and growing more in this philosophy.  We look forward to trying to comprehend and practice it within the context of being a primarily African American school (although we would SO love other races to join us here, so that we can truly live out the principles of a pluralistic democratic society).  We look forward to placing this philosophy within the context of our Christian faith and how the Bible’s teachings on tolerance can be lived out.  Now that we have taken some things off of our plates, we can focus.  Now, we feel there will be even more time to grow and evolve into a safe haven where  ALL children are respected by their fellow man and free to learn, grow and be whoever and however God created them to be!