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Great Books at a New School

Fall 2016 | By Anna Perleberg Andersen (SF02) for The College

Anika Prather has started The Living Water School in suburban Washington, D.C.
Anika Prather (AGI09) has started The Living Water School in suburban Washington, D.C.

When Anika Prather’s (AGI09) son, Dillon, started kindergarten, she soon realized the traditional school environment was a poor fit for him.

“He’s a very nice boy,” she says with a mother’s pride—the kind of kid who watches CNN for fun—but he’s also “very inquisitive, very busy.”

These traits got him into trouble in the classroom. His otherwise wonderful teacher responded by giving him time out.

“Okay, you’re being too busy,” she said. “Just sit down over here until you learn to control yourself.”

“The teacher thought that was a positive way to handle it,” says Prather, who doesn’t blame Dillon’s teacher for using this method. But she also doesn’t believe it was helpful, and searched for a different school for his first-grade year, a place “where his curiosity and his need to move could be appreciated. I thought it would be easy.”

No such luck, she discovered: “I could not find a school where (he) could thrive. Nothing, in all of Maryland” within a reasonable distance and price range.

At this point, most parents would go for second best, perhaps homeschooling or supplementing academics with after-school activities. Prather, however, approached the problem not only as a parent, but as an educator. In addition to her St. John’s graduate degree, she has a BA from Howard University in elementary education, a master’s in theater education from New York University, another master’s in music education from Howard, and is finishing her PhD in curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland this fall.

After a fruitless search, she told her husband: “Honey, I literally have to start a school.”

That’s how the Living Water School, now in its second year, was born.

There is no “typical day” for a Living Water School student. Learning is entirely student-directed, with no formal classes, no grade levels, no letter grades, no standardized tests, and no homework. According to the school’s website (thelivingwaterschool.blogspot.com), “Our goal is to completely take away those elements of traditional school that conjure up feelings of competition, fear, anxiety, insecurity, and inadequacy.”

The day begins with an hour of independent work that gives kids a chance to eat a leisurely breakfast or snack and go back to sleep if they need to do so before morning devotions at 10 a.m.

Although Living Water is a Christian school, it does not teach theology formally.

“We will not force our beliefs on a child or treat any student or family member with unkindness or disrespect.”

Students split into small groups with staff to pursue an academic task. All students study reading, writing, and math, with a wide variety of other subjects to pursue as they wish: from history, science, and Latin to sewing, music, and martial arts.

Teenage students have an active hand in designing their future academic and career paths, with the staff “committed to getting kids what they need.” Prather mentions one girl who wants to study business in college and also learn to style hair.

Parents sign a general permission slip, allowing field trips to happen spontaneously. A child interested in art, for example, can spend a morning painting and an afternoon at an art museum. A student pursuing a research project could visit a nearby historic site instead of just reading about it in a textbook.

With all this freedom, it may seem surprising that Living Water is also a great books school. It makes perfect sense, since the Socratic method gently guides learners to reach their own conclusions, rather than memorize facts and figures.

When her teaching career began, Prather was more concerned with how music and drama could be used in the classroom. Her interest in the classics was sparked at the Washington Classical Christian School, where she taught for 10 years. Learning the great books while teaching them, she became passionate about their power.

Initially, she looked into St. John’s to take a workshop or two rather than earn a full degree, having just started her doctorate.

“But I just could not get it out of my mind,” she says. “It wouldn’t let me go.”

She eventually completed her master’s degree at St. John’s over four summers, graduating in 2009.

Living Water’s staff and students are almost entirely African-American, partially the result of its location in Temple Hills, Maryland, which is 85 percent black.

Living Water’s fluid educational approach might be of particular benefit to African-American students, however; studies of American public schools show that black children, especially boys, are more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts, punished for “disruptiveness” that Prather characterizes as a simple need to move.

“It’s a part of African culture; it’s why we dance. It’s just who they are.”

To 21st-century mainstream educators striving to increase diversity, the great books reading list of “dead white men” elicits horror. Prather, however, sees no conflict between her student body’s racial makeup and that of the traditional Western canon:

“I think Americans have been so scarred by history that they get nervous. They don’t realize that the authors of the great books were not from this time. They had a different way of looking at race.”

For her, the great books speak to “the human experience, not the racial experience.”

While she admits that some kids “give (her) a lot of drama” at first, after they begin reading, their outlook changes drastically. They acknowledge that “everything that goes on in these books relates to other human beings.”

Prather brought her love of the classics back to St. John’s in February 2016, when she and five students performed an “impromptu play” called The Table. Described as “a dramatic exploration and representation of the power of dialogue about literary texts,” the performance centered on a Socratic, seminar-style discussion of Voltaire’s essay “Character” and Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.”

While each student had scripted monologues, “presented as if they (were) reading from a private journal,” they created the conversation onstage together, as they engaged in dialogue with the texts and each other. Not until the play was over did the participants reveal that their ages ranged from 13 to 24.

She and her troupe also performed at the University of Maryland in April, earning kudos from professors, students, and teachers.

The response to Living Water has exceeded Prather’s wildest dreams. She expected to be principal and teacher all in one, but 30 families showed up for the school’s first planning meeting, and it has expanded from there.

This fall, a second campus opened in Rockville, Maryland, giving more students the chance to find their own personal educational path—whatever that may be.