Quakerism began in England around 1650. Seeking a more direct and authentic spiritual experience without the intermediary of a hierarchical clergy, George Fox and other founding Quakers were drawn to worship in silence. Embracing the belief that there is that of God in each person, these early Quakers held that through patient listening the Spirit of Truth and Light could illuminate and transform them. This belief in spiritual equality led the Society of Friends to embrace each man and woman's message spoken from the silence and to respect differences.
Given the reliance on each and every person's role as a minister, Friends soon recognized the importance of establishing schools. The founders of early Friends Schools sought to minister to the needs of body, mind, and spirit and to the divine light within each student. Today, over 325 years later, this same seeking for a balanced education that honors body, mind, and spirit serves as the core philosophy of more than 80 Friends schools in the United States and many more across the world. The Friends Council of Education nurtures the spiritual life of these schools by strengthening the connections among them and fostering Quaker practices. Meeting for Worship lies at the heart of Quakerism and at the heart of Friends' Schools. The silent meeting operates without a minister and without program or prearrangement. Waiting in the silence in weekly Meetings for Worship, students and teachers alike listen for spiritual awakenings and inspiration from within or from others. Although this is an activity for which discipline is required, spontaneity and freedom are also vital. Anyone, child or adult, can express a concern, share an insight or make an observation. This simple corporate searching in silence can provide both mental refreshment and spiritual democracy. Young children in Friends' schools learn to swim in this pool of silence and reflection, strengthening their skills over time.
Children and parents also become increasingly aware of the testimonies that guide the Society of Friends. The idea that there is that of God in everyone is a guiding belief of Quakerism and serves as the foundation of the testimonies of equality, simplicity, peaceful resolution of conflict, social justice, and stewardship of the environment. Quaker schools trust and believe in the essential goodness of each member of the community and strive to nurture a respect for self and others to enable the development of responsible, independent, empathetic individuals. Children will learn to manage their own behavior appropriately and do so for the good of the community. Quaker schools encourage children to believe they can make a difference in the world and solve conflicts peacefully.
At Quaker Schools the values and beliefs of the Society of Friends are integrated into every part of the community and provide the foundation for the spiritual growth of students. They are not a separate curriculum relegated to a particular day or period. At Quaker elementary schools there are, however, many special projects that nurture the growth of spirituality as part of a sound education. For example, at Sidwell Friends School, third and fourth graders study conflict resolution and are trained to be playground mediators. They explain to 6- and 7-year-olds how to resolve differences by listening carefully to what other people are saying, restating the problem in their own words, and quietly agreeing to solve the problem together. They have class discussions, preceded by silence, when problems arise and book clubs where spiritual values in literature are studied.
At Sidwell Friends School, as at most other Friends schools, students are involved in creating guidelines for behavior that promote respect. These "Respectful Reminders" are posted throughout the classrooms. A common occurrence at many Friends schools is for classes to take turns carefully formulating a query, a thought-provoking question used by Friends to seek the Truth and deepen understanding. Each month the entire school would consider and reflect upon the query created by a class. Often these queries relate to spiritual and ethical issues: "When we have different opinions and beliefs from others, how can we stay true to ourselves without bruising the feelings of others?" "Do I stand up for someone who has been called a hurtful name, or do I stand by? Do I speak or remain silent?" "In this New Year, how can we make peace in our world, resist peer pressure, and not hurt others?" "When we feel frustrated or angry, what can we do so that we don't take out our frustration and anger on others?" "How can we learn to appreciate and use the quiet time we spend in Quaker Meeting?"
One of the key Quaker tenets is to "Let your life speak." Quaker schools struggle daily to impart spiritual values to children that will help them to become persons of integrity, intelligence, and compassion. By helping children see the world in its complexity and to respond sincerely and generously as caring members of a greater community, they are helped to develop and refine the most human of sensibilities. Service learning gives Quaker schools an ideal opportunity to help children connect in a productive and positive way to the larger community in which we all live. Schools must continue to ask at what age and in what ways young children are ready to learn the painful truths about the gap between the haves and have nots, the gap between our ideals and realities. And as part of this, educators must ask how elementary school can make service learning an important part of the spiritual life of young children-long before they reach adolescence, when most service programs begin. For the past 25 years at Sidwell Friends, every Wednesday during the school year the Lower School classes have worked together to make a 50-gallon pot of soup for Martha's Table, a soup kitchen and family center in the heart of Washington, D.C. Every Lower School child trudges off to school on those mornings with a vegetable in his backpack-and some degree of awareness that his carrot or potato will wind up as part of a weekly offering to those in need. The growing empathy of the spirit that the Martha's Table program has provided is an important part of the Quaker education of the children.
The most important aspect of the Martha's Table program is the involvement of the parents. On scheduled Saturdays, 20 or 30 members of school families- fathers, mothers, children, and grandparents-meet at Martha's Table to prepare food. Approximately 3,000 sandwiches are made. In this association with the school, families and teachers foster an ethical attitude and a spiritual grounding that appreciates service as a lifelong obligation. These activities at Lower School also teach young children the values of helpfulness and responsibility in the context of a community of people. They push youngsters to ask the question, "What do we want our society to be like?" At Quaker Middle and Upper Schools service is also integrated into the culture of the school and the larger community. Service learning projects can vary from supporting a local Special Olympics program to establishing an irrigation system in Costa Rica.
The service projects, discussions, queries, Quaker testimonies, meeting for worship, and a focus on cherishing each individual are important parts of the spiritual puzzle. But to integrate these and other programs into the daily life of school requires consistent action and deed from adults, from how to respond to one child's excluding another on the playground to issues as broad as service and diversity. In Quaker schools, spiritual life is more sea than island. For a spiritually sound climate to prevail, adults make space for quiet and the opportunity for reflection. Adults also address how they treat each other, how they react to other's behavior, how they make decisions, how they deal with disagreements and tensions, how they hold themselves accountable, how they treat others above and below them on the economic ladder, and how they treat people who are different from them. When all is said and done, children aren't going to grow up having a sound spiritual foundation if they don't see adults modeling clear, consistent, and good values. As someone quipped, "Children may close their ears to advice, but they open their eyes to example."