I was once asked the question if it is wise to mix the Sudbury model or unschooling with traditional teaching methods. The answer to this question is a long and complicated one, but let me first say that personally I feel that Sudbury should NOT be mixed with any other teaching philosophy, especially traditional methods. What makes my answer so complicated is that the Living Water School has small traces of traditionalism in it. Let me first say that this is only because we are on a journey of not only establishing a new school in a community that has never heard of this model, but we are also educating everyone while we are on that journey. It is a process to bring this community into a full evolution of accepting the Sudbury Model. Trust in the process has to be built and it is taking time.
I used to be so pressed to see this acceptance happen instantly, but I have come to be at peace with the journey and however long it takes. Each year, we take away one more “symptom” of traditionalism. For example, we used to have semester reviews with a written report for each student. Parents would sign up for days and times at the end of each semester to meet with staff and to receive their child’s written review. At the end of the third year (last year), the parents voted (majority vote) to remove these reviews. They had come to feel that the community based way we all interact, gave them all the information they needed. The parents are very active at the school and often will come in and just talk to all of us casually when they drop off or pick up. Many times the school closes later than our closing time because parents and staff are just sitting around talking. Those conversations often involve us sharing with them what we are learning by just “being” with their child all day. But as you see, it took 3 years to remove the whole tradition of report cards.
Other ways that we are mixing in traditionalism is that we have learning groups for reading, writing and math. We do not teach history or science as a class or learning group, but students do independent projects on these areas each week. Those students who want to take advanced sciences will connect with a teacher. This part is what actually keeps parents enrolling their kids. I am always praying and hoping that one day we can remove this as well, but I do not feel it is wise to at this point. The amount of parents who have fully embraced the Sudbury Model is a minority. These are the parents who never ask if their child went to learning group (students are not forced to attend learning groups however, but have to come when the group is called on their own. If they don’t, then that is on them). These are the parents who never help their child with their independent project for history and science. These are the parents who never ask how their child did on the project. That group would not be able to sustain the school financially. As the founder, I am in that group actually, because I so believe in the power of the Sudbury model. I have seen so much happen with my children by them having the freedom to be and do whoever or whatever they want. They are finding themselves in such a beautiful way. But, just like I had to go on a journey to embracing this philosophy, I want to give parents the right to do the same. So I have become more patient.
Another way we have evolved is with regards to how we implement our faith at the school. In the early years, we had morning devotions, which included a set lesson, and students writing down what they learned from the lesson etc. We also had something called noonday prayer, where we all came together to pray, etc. We no longer teach devotions like a lesson, but the students and staff are reading through the Bible together and discussing questions, comments or observations in a very relaxed way and no one is required to participate in the discussion. here is no written assignment for it as well. Many students do participate and we have found this to be much closer to the “Sudbury way.” Students who want to study the Bible or Christianity more can sign up for Bible studies and classes, etc. on their own. We have also removed the formality of noon time prayer. We feel that the Sudbury model encourages those of a religious background to explore freeing people more within the faith to have their own faith journey as much as possible. We continue to explore how we as Christians can bring the Sudbury Model into how we live out our faith and we realize that we are not quite there yet, but we are growing.
The learning groups have not changed and remain a staple of the school. This is not something I am necessarily proud of, because I so love seeing the students be free. So much happens in their freedom and I feel often that by having a formal class, I am interrupting something important. Even still, we have tried to make the learning groups as free as possible, not taking up much more than 45 min each time and NOT happening every day. I will say that the one slight change that has happened is that parents have accepted us only meeting for learning groups 3 times a week at the most (although I do have a few parents that require their child to do math every day). Unfortunately, the learning groups do become more of a focus for families. They value the classes more than the child’s freedom and this makes me sad. I have often heard parents say, “They can play at home, I need them to do some work.” This statement reveals so much about how adults do not value a young person’s time of play. When parents want to meet with staff, they rarely want to hear about Johnny climbing a tree, discovering a turtle, a new art project created or a new game they made up with their imagination or a basketball game that was won. They mainly want to hear about how they are doing in math and reading and writing or if they did their projects. They do not realize that play is work to the child. So much happens in play, that to explain it all here would be another blog post!
So here is the danger of mixing traditionalism with the Sudbury Model. Simply put, the Sudbury Model loses its value and it becomes hard for them to see how their child is growing and learning so much within the realm of freedom. Because they are focusing so much on traditionalism, they fail to come to understand the psychology behind the Sudbury Model. This philosophy needs no additives or preservatives. It is pure and natural and organic and wonderful all by itself. It works. I don’t just see it in the students but as a mom I see it in my own children. We are simply enjoying each other and I am loving watching them grow into their own little people. Already all 3 of my kids have figured out what they want to do when they grow up and they have stuck to it for the past 3 years. They are 4, 6 and 8. The 4-year-old wants to have her own restaurant, the 6-year-old wants to be a mechanical engineer and the 8-year-old wants to be an animal scientist that focuses on creationism. These are discoveries they have made by me giving them the freedom to immerse themselves in what interests them. My 6 and 8 year old have already decided to go to college so they can study their interests more and this is not because I have told them they have to go to college, because I haven’t. When they identified what they want to do, they asked me how to become that, and I explained that one way is to go to college. SO they want to go. Another example is that of one of our high school students who came in the other day, having filled out a college application. No one told him to, no one made him, no one told him where he has to go to college. He just completed the application, talked with a school rep and now has been invited to spend some time at the school (in Florida) after the New Year. He was so excited about having charted this path ON HIS OWN.
I see how my kids are being blessed by this model in how I never choose their extra curricular activities. They have chosen them and love them and my time and money is not wasted and they are happy. Currently, they are passionate about track so we are rolling with that. The beauty is that I am not running them around all year-long to this and that, but they are focused on what they want to do and are doing it well.
To close this out, I want to share one more very personal story with you. One day it came to me to tell my son that I love him no matter what he becomes or believes. I came to him, looked him right in the eye and said, “Son, mommy will always love you no matter what. I will never reject you. I will never disown you. I will always love and accept you no matter what you believe or how you live. I mean this so much that I can honestly say, that even if you decided NOT to be a Christian one day, I would still love you. That is a journey between you and God. Mommy loves you.” I still remember the look in his eyes. Since that time, he has grown so much in his faith and I have found him reading the Bible on his own free time. He has come to me to talk about various moral struggles he has, and he knows I won’t “punish” him or put him down as he confesses his struggles to me. He and I talk it through and…wow…I just can’t even find the words to express the beauty of what I see happening with my own children because of the Sudbury Model. I chose to have that discussion with my son based on the life of Christ and how he never rejected or mistreated those who did not choose his faith. I often say, laughing, “Shoot! If Jesus let Judas roll with him, then surely I can embrace those who don’t follow my same faith path!” I wanted to free my son and I feel I have, especially on his faith journey. I have just seen this strong sense of security and peace come over all of my children as they figure their lives out.
So some may ask why we still include the traditional aspects at the school, with feeling so passionate about the Sudbury Model. Simply because I as the founder am so desperate for this philosophy for my children, that I am seeking to implement it as best as I can to my own children and to give as much of it as I can to other people’s children. Along the way, some of us have evolved into totally embracing it and we live it out within the school by continuing the evolution of letting our children go. Those parents who are not there yet or may not ever get there, still are welcome and their children still are able to get a taste of freedom. When these parents enroll we are open and honest about our views and our support of children being free. We ask parents to not be too hands on with the learning groups or projects and we make sure they understand that most of their child’s day is spent in freedom. We have learned not to bend with these basics and to even let families go who find they cannot embrace the philosophy on any level. For me the challenge is making sure I stay focused on what the Sudbury Model IS and not allow the pressure of keeping customers happy to get me unfocused. I see the Sudbury as my Polaris (North Star), and my eyes stay focused on it as I journey along. All day, I am asking myself and the staff is discussing, “Does this activity or process or way of being go along with the Sudbury Model?” or we are asking ourselves at the end of each year, “How can we get closer to it? What can we remove this past year those things that are not like it?” It is truly an evolutionary process, but we work hard to keep our eyes fixed on where we are trying to go. At the same time we realize that it may be a long journey and we have come to be ok with that. If you can have a school or a classroom without this type of pressure, then I strongly suggest that you fully walk in the Sudbury Model or other unschooling/child-directed philosophies. It is truly a very powerful and effective educational philosophy that needs nothing else. If you cannot implement the Sudbury Model fully, then I do think a teacher or parent should be constantly looking for ways to free their children as much as they can. Every child should have this opportunity in whatever way they can.