The Sudbury model is a philosophy that is COMPLETELY free, meaning even being free of titles that sort of strap people in to one belief system. A Sudbury school is supposed to be a place where any belief can be able to thrive in the environment. When a school promotes itself under a specific title, there is an instant uneasiness on the part of the person who may not be within that title. That being said, on one hand we did not call ourselves Living Water CHRISTIAN School in order to try and adhere to this as much as possible, but our being Christian is implied that we are, just by the environment (all the staff are Christian and the majority of the families are Christian).
Calling the school a Christian school sort of disqualifies it from being a Sudbury school. This is why I don’t say that I am a Sudbury school (as many of the schools will use the name “Sudbury” in their title). However, I do always say that I am inspired by the model. The model has even inspired me in my faith and in how I share my faith with my own children and my students. I used to use a structured devotional book for my family and for the school for Bible study time. Over the summer, I really began to analyze how using a set devotional, where someone is telling the verse to be read and what we should think about the verse comes anywhere close to the Sudbury model. Even if there are some aspects that are not Sudbury (and those that are not, are so mainly for faith reasons), I try to see how I can make the Sudbury model speak into those areas as much as I possibly can.
When I looked at how I was doing devotions with my kids and students I realized that I was not giving them the freedom to think about Christianity and its teachings on their own. So this year, I stopped really using a devotional book. The first thing I had to accept is that the Bible is a collection of 66 books that should be read from beginning to end, as a person would do any other book. The other thing I had to accept is that my own children and the school students have been given the brain to make their own connections and understandings to the text. Finally, I also had to realize that each student and child should be given the freedom and space to allow their hearts to choose Christianity for themselves, without any manipulation, oppression, guilt-tripping or forcing on my part. There are some who would struggle with this stance, but I realized that this is actually how Jesus related to people in the Bible. He allowed people to come on their own, ask questions on their own, and believe on their own.
To create this free way of exploring the Bible and other Christian teachings, St. John’s College has really influenced me. We are simply reading Genesis to Revelations, reading a few verses a day together and then they get to share any thoughts they have or ask any questions they want….in Socratic dialogue. OMG! The discussions we have had! I mean kids of all ages are exploring the Bible for their own understanding. The rules I try to enforce is that no one should make fun of or judge someone for the questions or comments they may have. Another rule we try to live by is that adults should not do too much talking or “preaching” at students during this time. We read together and then we simply say, “Are there any questions, thoughts or comments?” and then I wait. Sometimes the room is silent for a few minutes, but we wait and then soon one child says something, then another and then it sort of becomes contagious. We end up going down all these rabbit trails of questions and thoughts and after the kids get going, then we adults contribute, but trying hard not to dominate the discussion. IT IS NOT EASY THOUGH! And we often have to catch ourselves. I try to remember that I’ve already taken my faith journey and it brought me to Christianity. They should be given the same privilege. This must be their journey. If the discussion leads us into discussing the plan of salvation, a staff member will invite anyone to pray to receive Christ if they want to. Sometimes after these discussions, students will ask if they can receive Christ. This too is done in a unique way. We do not ask students to raise their hands or “come forward” to the “altar.” Instead, staff members will tell students that if at any time they want to pray to receive Christ they can come up to a staff member and ask on their own, and some students have actually done that!
I recall one time a student and I having a texting conversation about whether he should be atheist, agnostic or whatever. Not once did I try to condemn him for not being Christian or exploring other beliefs. He did however come to see that he was more agnostic, because he does believe in “something” out there. Then a few weeks later, he came to me and said, “You know Ms. Anika, I have never had an interest in reading the Bible until I met you.” On another occasion, I received a text from the minister who leads the discipleship group (students voluntarily sign up) that one of the students had asked to receive Christ. He’s been a student for a year, but this was the time that HE decided to accept the Lord. All this is done, by us trying to let go of our pull to force children into being Christian, but instead we invite them to read the Word with us and then we discuss what the Bible is saying. After this, we trust the Spirit to draw the hearts of the students.
Students are also not required to participate in the discussion. We just want them to share as they feel led to. This is also the only time there is a formal time around the Word. There are Bible studies and groups, etc. but they ask to do those (i.e. music meditation with praise and worship music, discipleship class, Bible journaling class, etc.). What has happened, with this (and it took a lot of faith to create this time in the Word), was that students on their own are exploring the Bible, even asking to become a Christian on their own. We even created a Bible journaling group for any interested students and we read the scriptures and do artwork in the Bible, but it is not required.
After reading all of this and seeing the struggle of creating a Christian school that does not follow the traditional approach to Christian education, some may wonder why we are just not a Sudbury school where all faiths can freely exist without staff creating a formal Bible time each day, etc. I, as the founder, have grappled with the question many times and like a lightening bolt, it hit me one day. It is really quite simple. I am commanded within my faith, within the Word, to focus on sharing my faith, and that is what makes us a Christian school. Yes, students have the freedom to explore any belief they choose, but the staff and leadership will only share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yes, we will answer their questions and give them the freedom to question even the validity of the scriptures, BUT we will always bring it back to what we know to be true, which is salvation comes through Christ alone and his Word is the infallible and everlasting Word of God. To share the gospel and to spread God’s Word is a command we have received from God and it impacts every single thing that we do. As a Jew worships on the Sabbath or a Buddhist meditates, Christians must share the gospel. Personally, it is why God called me out of public school education, because I felt strongly that God wanted me to boldly share my faith with children. Matthew 28:19 commands me to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ and that is what the school’s primary focus is. Yes, we want to provide a free and open education, but we also want to freely present the gospel of Jesus Christ to every student or ANYONE that comes into the school, because that is what God has commanded us to do. I have also learned that students can feel loved and accepted by me, even if we disagree in our beliefs. The Sudbury model teaches all of us to have a basic respect of other human beings no matter what and that also helps to forge beautiful relationships between staff and students as each person holds to their personal beliefs.
Again, I know that saying we are a Christian school may not quite connect with the Sudbury model, but I have tried to create that sense of freedom within my faith, where children can sort out what they believe for themselves and it has been amazing to see kids come to accept and walk with Christ by their own free will, but it has also been cool to see kids that are not Christian feel loved and accepted even if they haven’t. We have planted the seed, and I pray God will continue to water it as they go on in life. God’s Word does not return void, so I am believing that even those who do not come to believe, will one day, somehow, somewhere, and sometime. It is my hope that many students will come to know Christ for themselves, but I also hope that all students, Christian or not are inspired in some way to just be a better human and that they feel loved by the school regardless of what path they choose to take.
Dr. A. T. Prather, Founder