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Doing Folk Education - Pedagogy, inspiration, and the art of learning and teaching

This ongoing series by former FEAA leader Chris Spicer is an effort to explore 2 aspects of folk education practice in your school. The first is raised by the question, from what (or who or where) do you draw inspiration? The other explores the “how” of teaching and learning – what does it look like? We feature one folk school in each newsletter, hoping the ongoing exploration will nurture a dialogue within our network as more and more groups are developing their programs. Send inquiries and suggestions to Chris at 1christopherspice@gmail.com

  • 8 Nov 2021 6:56 AM | Anonymous member

    Beyond the Founders: New leadership looks to re-engage with roots in a new time:

    The Folk School at Fairbanks

    With Kerri Hamos (June 2021)

    This article is part of "Doing Folk Education – Pedagogy, inspiration, and the art of learning and teaching." This ongoing series by former FEAA leader Chris Spicer is an effort to explore 2 aspects of folk education practice in the current folk school movement. The first is raised by the question, from what (or whom or where) do you draw inspiration? The other explores the “how” of teaching and learning – what does it look like? We feature one folk school in each newsletter, hoping the ongoing exploration will nurture a dialogue within our network as more and more groups develop their programs. Send inquiries and suggestions to Chris at 1christopherspice@gmail.com

    To zero in on the heart of The Folk School at Fairbanks, one only needs to go to the “About” tab on their website to find a concise articulation of their values under the following categories: Openness, Community, Traditional and Emerging crafts, Environment, Resilience, and Fulfillment. As I was to learn in my inspired conversation with program director Kerri Hamos, these categories effectively integrate the outer programmatic expression with the underlying philosophy in a way that keeps the business and quality working hand in hand (and likely the long-term prospects of the school).
    The Folk School was founded in 2007 by Marianne Stolz and John Manthei, who created a “Week in the Woods” program for local residents. They brought together Marianne’s childhood experience at a German “folk school” (a child-focused cousin of the Danish model), and John’s homesteading skills. The Folk School became more “formalized” in 2010-2011, and in the last 4 years moved from the original out-of-town location “into town,” while transitioning to a newer generation of leaders.
    Three primary strands make up the core of The Folk School’s learning themes: 1) outdoor wilderness skills centered around stewardship of the (Alaskan boreal) forest, 2) intergenerational learning bringing together children, parents, grandparents in a community setting, and 3) students learning from one another through sharing their practical and self-sufficiency skills.
    Kerri, as program director now in her fourth year, is at the forefront of the new leadership. From the get-go, she immersed herself in the ideas of folk school education, enthusiastically “getting her feet wet” both philosophically and practically. She came to her role with a rich experiential educational background: outdoor/environmental education, formal teacher certification, summer camp programs, and her first hand homeschooling experience with her children.
    Our conversation explored her first years - ones of honoring the past and engaging the future. Kerri describes it as a constant “re-tooling” experience: in the beginning, “getting her feet wet,” then focusing on the nuts and bolts of the school - planning and filling courses and workshops (even while navigating the pandemic). And more recently, trying to find a new phase of development - by listening and responding to the deeper “call” of folk school mission and learning. We focused on 3 of these.

    Teachers and teaching
    As suggested above, the challenges of leadership transition and the practical focus on “making courses happen” (and finding many new instructors) meant that maintaining the schools’ understanding of the folk education approach took a back seat.  Kerri has brought that work to the front burner. She customizes her orientation approach to individual instructors, but has identified these principles as central:

    • Student connection. She stresses the importance of creating a welcoming atmosphere at the start of all classes by taking the time for more extended introductions - talking about where they are from, why each person came, related experience, and so on. This of course has been a bigger challenge in Covid times - trying to overcome the distance across computer screens, or even if in person, when sitting in a circle of socially distanced chairs. It becomes even more vital to support student to student interaction with regular pauses and more responsive pacing in the teaching of skills.

    • Limit talking at students, and stress interaction among them. Can they explore their question together, their stories and their experience?

    • Collecting and sharing some illustrative nuggets of folk school history and pedagogy. She’s especially interested in how students, enlivened thru folk school learning can be supported in contributing to their communities in Fairbanks or wherever they live.

    Kerri is gathering different ideas, especially related to the third point, around developing videos and written material to disseminate among the instructors.

    Diversity and Inclusion

    The Folk School’s original location was at least a 30 minute drive from Fairbanks. While that allowed access to the desired experience with nature, it limited access to those who could afford the time and travel to get there. It made it more challenging to raise general awareness of their program.

    About 3 years ago, the School made an agreement with the city and relocated to a “borough” park facility, called “Pioneer Park.” The city was looking to revitalize this area and so offered rent-free space to non-profits with the proviso that they would take responsibility for building upkeep (of “very old and tired buildings,” as Kerri described them).  One of their mutual goals was to expand seasonal programs to year-round activity at the park. And for the Folk School, it opened a strong opportunity to involve a more diverse group of participants.

    Kerri has made it a priority to make connections with the area’s Native people. Fairbanks is home to several of these communities, and sadly, there is an old history of divide between those communities and the Anglo ones. An additional challenge comes from the fact that the “urbanization” of Native people from their original rural homes has happened without any strong central “hub” for gatherings and community support.

    Kerri brings a smart, humble, and sensitive approach to crossing this cultural divide - focusing on being responsive to the desires of those communities (as opposed to getting them to meet the Folk School needs). She recounts a recent experience in running the School’s annual “Woodfest” festival.  Kerri learned of an 80-year-old woman who was a basket-maker and invited her to spend one day at the festival demonstrating her craft. The woman hesitatingly agreed, and they created a quieter space for her to work. Interestingly, as the time passed and people dropped by, she dropped into her story-telling self. Before long, she had attracted a sizable crowd. The woman was quite pleased, she invited 2 of her cousins, and returned with them the next day. (And fortunately, Kerri had some funds to pay them all.) 

    In an effort to keep to the pulse of the cultural and social dynamics, Kerri has involved herself in an effort to change the very Anglo name of “Pioneer Park” to one that honors the longer-term Native history of the region.

    Community connections

    Beyond the indigenous population, the Folk School is reaching out to make connections through the arts and hand-work products that are the outcome of the workshops. The Folk School has its own on-line gift shop, and is involved with the greater networks across the region.

    Kerri has stepped up efforts to involve social justice work through local partnerships with different socio-political groups. She looks for ways to share the schools’ resources including tools, teaching skills and facility. In one project, they supported a connection between a local farm and a soup kitchen through a community garden project.  A folk school instructor led a workshop to build a garden shed, in close proximity to the soup kitchen. They also installed a water tank there for people using the soup kitchen to access (where there was no public water).

    The School has also taken on a novel community connection with the two military bases - the Army’s Fort Waynewright and Isleson Air Force Base. A challenging reality of these communities is their transient nature. But health and wellness staff from the bases reached out to Kerri for help in getting staff outdoors to break the reality of the isolation of barracks life, and the common default to lots of “screen time.” The Folk School now extends to them invitations to their classes.

    Meanwhile, an important part of Kerri’s growth as a folk school leader has come from the networking she has been doing with other folk schools through the Folk School Alliance. In her early days, she visited North House Folk School in Minnesota and attended a class there. She also attended the mid-west conference that FSA held in 2018. She now serves on FEAA’s Board of Directors.

    The 15 year story of the Folk School at Fairbanks is an inspiring demonstration of collaboration: between founders and their successors (while no longer administrators or board members, founders Marianne and John still serve as class instructors), between the original constituency of those quickly drawn to hand-work and outdoor skills - and the more isolated (and often marginalized) communities; and finally, committed to an ongoing dialogue and exploration of what doing folk education can look like in contemporary Alaska. 

  • 5 Jul 2021 12:55 PM | Anonymous member

    with founder Anna Geyer

    Rekindle your creativity

    Reencounter the land
    Discover the joy of learning together
    (Land Alliance Folk School Website)

    A continent or historical distance away from the cultural place that folk schools occupy in Scandinavia, the story of how one emerges in say, North America, is a chance to explore deeper, and perhaps very essentially human impulses behind them. A relatively recent encounter with the folk school idea can be all it takes to start one, as it is with many of the new US schools started in the last 10 years. Such is the case in eastern Iowa, where Anna Geyer has launched the Land Alliance Folk School and Retreat Center. My conversation with Anna revealed an inspiring (North American) “alternative” folk school emergence story - fascinating in how it was more conceived as not-a-folk school, and almost by chance came to be one.

    At middle-age, Anna already has a long string of experiences in organizing, business, and “hands-on” ventures and learning. She and her husband have run a farm for over 20 years, raised kids there, and run various farm projects including Anna’s cutting garden (floral design, U-pick flowers, etc.) and “Pizza farm.” She and her husband are dedicated to preservation of land in general and farming in particular - and sustaining the businesses behind that. There’s always a new angle on farming and land conservation. “I’m wired as an innovator,” says Anna.

    As important to the soil of the Land Alliance Folk School as the farm life has been, are 2 earlier streams. First was the influence of her parents, both of whom were artists and musicians.  Anna herself studied classical music and has engaged in a variety of art and handwork.

    The second stream was Anna’s upbringing as a Mennonite, which she describes with such tenets as steady, committed, simple lifestyle, oriented toward peace and justice, a sense of contentment, community, and service. She tells me, “All these values are ways of responding to, and making beautiful, the human longing that we all carry within ourselves.”  

    She continues: “Another word that historically was central to our communities was yieldedness, a sense of trust in God’s provision and openness to God’s guidance. I have found this to be an incredibly beautiful way to carry oneself, and probably the most core to who I was, and hope to be again.  At this point, for me, the line between the concept of God and my own inner self has gotten fuzzy.  That fuzziness has helped me understand a more secular perspective on these same values. They can be appreciated and practiced beyond the Mennonite community and applicable to any context - as in a folk school. Still, the underpinnings of faith in historical folk schools is not lost on me.”

    Returning to the present, let me provide a glimpse of Anna, the folk school teacher. Recently, she taught a “zoom course” for 6 women: “Entrepreneurship in a new era - the economy of enough,” an exploration of starting a business in a non-traditional way - where money is not the primary goal, but rather a tool in support of one’s current life goals - getting your kids through college, getting your house fixed up, keeping the farm sustainable, and so on.

    As I’ve already mentioned, Anna knew a lot about business, but not as much about teaching it.  Of course, she had already chosen the “folk school way.” Ever the philosopher, she asked, “How do you cast a vision for this different kind of learning?” Overall, Anna says, “I wander in in an intuitive way. I follow my nose.” From there, she knew to start with her students. “What I pay attention to is wanting to foster relationships & build connections. I listen to what others are thinking, take in who they are, how each one comes uniquely. Then it’s my job to serve as a mentor to each one’s own vision and personal expression of that. I fell in love with my students. I was amazed at the learning they found, the joy they took away, and ways to carry it forward - continuing to support each other after the course.”

    Anna was clearly demonstrating folk school teaching at its core - in her own home-grown way -  and allowing the subject - in this case, entrepreneurship - to serve the needs of the students, and likely, as she observes, of humanity at large.

    As we talked, I was reminded that folk education does not have to be seen only as a Danish (or Scandinavian) construction, but rather a quite old homegrown process in many cultures - one that in some ways is perhaps a very “natural” response to age old universal human needs - without all the structures and standards that formal schooling has invented in more recent centuries. In other words, some very basic human needs are met in an educational context with an approach that serves, rather than imposes on those needs.

    But a bit more about Anna’s path to folk school - which she had known about for a long time, but just never gave much focus. Through her farming work, she became interested in Tiller’s International - an international organization that centers its work on “supporting the development of traditional skills, knowledge, and productivity around the world … with an emphasis on how historic tools and methods connect everything we do” (quoted from their website). Another kind of folk education?

    More recently, she met Jean Graham, the granddaughter of Chester Graham. She read up on Graham in his autobiography, “The Eighty Year Experience of a Grass Roots Citizen.” In the 1930s, Graham and his wife Margaret ran the Ashland Folk School in Michigan (one of the 6 immigrant-founded folk schools of the nineteenth century) in its 6th, and last, decade - a final revitalization effort that focused on transforming it from its originally Danish identity to an “American version.” (After its formal closing in the late 1930s, supporters kept its spirit alive as Circle Pines Center, which still operates today.) Inspired by the story, Anna looked around for a nearby folk school, found The Clearing, in Door County Wisconsin, and made her first visit to a folk school.

    A convergence of Anna’s personal story, her farming and associated experiences, and her new discovery of folk schools began to take shape. Two essentials of the Folk School idea resonated with her:

    • In a fundamental way, it seemed to be about helping people flourish in the world - the work of human health, longing and potential.
    • She resonated with the Danish component of linking community growth with economic development.

    What has emerged in the first 3 years of the Land Alliance Folk School is characterized by the following elements (more articulated in hindsight, since, Anna emphasizes, “we made it up as we went”):

    • Land preservation and farming - an ecological perspective on food production and community health.
    • Human health (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual well-being), which is tied to land & environmental health, ie. their inter-relationship with each other.
    • Tactile (hands-on) skills, including music, art, crafts, is an integral part of this concept of wholistic health.
    • A place to consider our spiritual hungers (“our untended internal human hunger drives the degradation of our land & exploitation of resources”)
    • Role of economic development - business as a tool toward living our values, creating community in the world.
    • An ongoing discovery and creation of the form and tools of folk school learning.

    While I’ve already described a concrete demonstration of how these come together in a “classroom,” it’s worth lingering here a bit more. Anna knows firsthand that interpersonal connections with a teacher (and peer teachers) can have a lasting impact.  As important, is the shared learning among a group of learners in a class, each bringing their own knowledge and experience as the basis of building community.  Anna calls this “relational learning.” (It's important to disclose that this phrase emerged in our conversation. Anna avoids technical jargon. She keeps things simple.) And from relational learning, comes community.

    Is there a litmus test for success in such a classroom? Anna asks: Is the experience of the participant based on interaction with the learning community? And has that contributed to their deepened self-knowledge, deepened connection to others, and “becoming more human?” The expression of meaning and growth is in the journey.

    One could say then the teacher’s primary job is to support connections - with each student, among students, and within each student. The outcome emerges as mutually supported collaborative creations, and not much about performance (and the judgments that comes with that).

    In the first year or so of the Land Alliance Folk School, Anna did much of the teaching herself. Gradually, she went looking for instructors who could provide subject knowledge she wanted to offer. Then, she watched their teaching-in-action - how they shared feedback, how they care for each student. The shift into online courses forced by the pandemic provided a convenient and unobtrusive way to do this observing.

    Only occasionally would she provide feedback. In one case, for a somewhat self-deprecating teacher, it was encouragement to “stand up and claim the authority you bring. See yourself and claim your gift.” Following this confidence theme, and from her business mind, she focused on supporting teachers in packaging their course, knowing the value of their offering, what they put into it, and reflecting that in the fee they charged.

    The Land Alliance program now includes courses in art, handskills, food, garden, nature and conservation.

    As with many educators, the pandemic forced a whole new way of teaching that in fact opened surprising new possibilities. Since Anna has been doing her best to create a sustainable business model (not liking the traditional non-profit one that forces more reliance on fund-raising), she’s paid attention to the possibilities opened by virtual offerings.  Never losing sight of the overall goal of creating community (within and outside of the school), she’s examining how technology can be used toward that end: 

    • The role of social media
    • Making instructional - but still interpersonal - workshop recordings
    • Exploring how the classroom “way” can be used in service to how the greater school is guided and organized.

    From what she has seen, the on-line experience hasn’t seemed to diminish the interpersonal connection. One student in her entrepreneur course wrote: “my business took a direction much different from what I expected because of the way you taught this - a spin that’s really needed in the world.” Even so, she’s been challenged by the demands of on-line technology, and surprised at how such a “mechanical” forum can still be a place for connection.

    As I hope I’ve made clear, the way Anna “follows her nose” is hardly random, or even all intuitive. The 3 years of figuring it out, “on the go,” have sparked several challenging and very practical questions that are steering the year(s) ahead:

    • How can the school stay economically sustainable?
    • How will we build the organizational structures for growth, especially given my dislike of anything resembling a managerial role?
    • How will we keep it simple - keeping an eye to the tempting impulse to say/do/be more than maybe what is needed?

    What the future holds for the Land Alliance Folk School, as Anna is the first to admit, is a bit unknown, especially given her penchant as a start-up innovator (see bullet 2 above!). Early on into the new venture, she told her family: “This is the last thing I’m starting!”  But this “thing” is no ordinary thing. As an ever evolving “human thing,” perhaps a folk school is big enough to support its - and Anna’s - possibilities for ongoing innovation.

    Innovation aside, the remarkable thing about a folk school - at least the one that is unfolding in Oxford, Iowa - is that, as Anna puts it, “it’s not so remarkable, or surprising.” If we just keep an eye to what we all want, that is, the everyday human longing for community (and maybe the conscious or unconscious unfolding of deeper human meaning), and not add on unnecessary layers of complexity, then a folk school can do a superb job at providing the place for that to happen.

    Indeed, to date, The Land Alliance Folk School is blossoming in its simple, but heart-felt approach to “discovering the joys of learning together.”

  • 29 Jan 2021 1:47 PM | Anonymous member
    • Not unlike many folk school founding stories, there are many roots to the birth of the Michigan Folk School. But the one that is as good as any to mention first is a baby rattle. In 2002 Jason and Julia Gold, after several years of traveling the world, were settling down back in their Michigan home near Ann Arbor to have their first child. So Jason set to work to make his first rattle! Long story short, one rattle (and lest I rush too fast, a joyful newborn baby!) became tens and hundreds, the toy store business Camden Rose was born, which supported the new growing family and self-made home, which was followed by a period exploring the idea of homesteading, which included learning how to process chickens” (to eat), which led to officially opening the Folk School in January of 2012. As Jason tells me, his grandfather s voice guided him throughout: Never close your eyes to opportunity!”

    • I leave you to glean from this fast sketch the manifestation of some classic folk school elements including home grown, hands on, practical, experiential, and community. Or read the mission statement which tells us that the Michigan Folk School is committed to creating a community engaged in authentic, hands-on experiences through the teaching and sharing of traditional folk arts, crafts, music, and skills in an inspiring natural setting and to promote the preservation of forest and farmland.”

      There is much more of course, to Julia and Jason s personal stories that provided the rich ground of experience from which they drew to create their folk school: South African Waldorf school kids, multiple visits to a school across the mountain from Jason s mother s western NC home - the John C. Campbell Folk School, learning from the eventual founders of the Fairbanks (AK) Folk School, experiences in artisan worlds of Maine and Vermont, Indiana Amish communities, and the new Driftless Folk School in neighboring Viroqua WI. Over the miles, they experienced and wove together exciting ideas about real learning.

      After the tables were cleared from processing chickens, one of the learning group, from the Viroqua Folk School group, said to Jason: I think you ve just started a folk school.” Indeed! - several short weeks later, on a frosty November weekend, Jason, Julia and a colleague and friend named Ann Stevenson retreated to a cozy cabin to consider ideas that they collectively brought to this possibility. Ann talked enthusiastically about Kierkegaard (not, interestingly, his contemporary N.F.S. Grundtvig!). For Jason, Rudolf Steiner was a central thread for experiences that I translated thru his eyes and anthroposophy - what I most resonated with as a Waldorf teacher.”

      They discussed the concept of flow,” as popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (from his book published in 1990). The flow concept seemed to provide a central conceptual flower for their ideas. Indeed, you’ll find on the Folk School s website inspiring essays about flow within each teaching craft. For example:

      “In the world of the artisan, the goal is to find one's flow.  In this state of being, the flow enables a focused path that encompasses the optimism of creation, assembly, and ah-ha” moments.  Negative thoughts disappear – there is simply no room for them during creative activity. The gentle and repetitive motion involved in a beautifully manual task like sawing, drilling or sewing can help regulate breathing, heart rate, manage strong emotions and calm a nervous system.

      Or … In a state of Flow, as one s attention heightens … the positive energy flow captured in our mind, fostered through focus, begins to release endorphins that enables our mind and body to release deep pleasurable sensations akin to a cathartic experience.”

      Jason uses the term cathartic response” in describing the outcome of finding flow. The trio took Mihaly s inquiry about getting lost in a project” (Jason s distinct memory was of total absorption with Legos as a kid) and asked, Can you get lost in a project (or learning) with other people?”

      Since that November weekend, learning and teaching at MFS quickly took off, and has come to be supported by 3 pillars.” Jason enthusiastically described then to me:

      1. Review - New - Due

      • Review: Teaching begins with finding out what the students bring to the class. What do people know? What is their experience? Where do we meet them to determine the next steps? This leads to …
      • New, which involves the process of challenging, adapting, and/or changing old patterns and encouraging a new way based in the instructor’s experience. Far from a process of dictating however, change is found through group inquiry and dialogue.
      • Due - In the end, we teach ourselves as we learn together and teach each other. MFS strives to create a democratic learning atmosphere.
    • 2. The approach to teaching/learning is based on these principles and values, which instructors bring from their experience:

      • Wisdom over intelligence
      • Compassion for each learner
      • Welcoming and integrating the full person - especially their cultural background and identity
      • The value of our collective equality in this learning endeavor

    3.  Learning together is the success - there is no failing.

    These pillars become a center point of the hiring, assessing, and creating the folk school teaching collaboration - for all teachers and students. Teachers are chosen because they already embody the principles and values. Assessment is carried out in a supportive dialogue with directors and students. And good practice is demonstrated and celebrated.

    Again, drawing from the MFS s website s flow tab,” we find these fun quotes” that bring to life the practice of these ideas at work:

    There is something deeply satisfying in shaping leather with your hands. Proper artificing is like a song made solid. It is an act of creation.”  (Patrick Rothfuss)

    The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” (Charles Dickens)

    I was a shy kid with a broom handle that I pretended was a microphone.” (Patti LaBelle)

    When you have a hammer, everything is a nail. When you have a blacksmith, everything is anything you want it to be.” (Maslow, Kaplan or Twain)

    I asked Jason that essential question, whether there s more to what builds the learning community besides a set of inspiring ideas and a gifted community? (which of course are fine foundations by themselves!) More directly, what about the conviction among many Danish folk educators that the residential component is so vital?  Jason subscribes to this notion, even while stating the obvious: it s a monumental, often prohibiting financial challenge. So, he asks, how can we otherwise create the “living together” element? MFS has a fortunate and exciting adaptation of the idea.

    2021 will see the construction of a 7000 sq. ft. lodge-type building that will serve as classroom, workshop, and in answer to this question, a community gathering space that will serve as the heart of the school” - a welcoming informal space for hanging out and connecting, a place to deepen relationship building.  Classroom and community meeting spaces, fine tea, coffee, and food of course. It s the good fortune brought about by their growing relationship with the local Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, and its Staebler Farm County Park, that includes the 100-year-old farmstead where some current MFS courses take place. In December 2017, MFS received a matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Council (MEDC) and successfully raised funds to carry out the project, which will be owned by the County.

    Indeed, in 10 fast years, Doing Folk Education at MFS seems to be flowing” - Experience, opportunity, fortune, community, and most importantly heart-centered seem to be its fuel and life. Learn more at https://www.mifolkschool.com

  • 24 Sep 2020 1:46 PM | Anonymous member
    • Life.School.House in Nova Scotia demonstrates how we “make the road by walking.”

      Four years ago, Jennifer DeCoste, was feeling unconnected in her community of Fall River, Nova Scotia and in need of a “village.”  She was co-parenting 2 young children, interacting with a wonderful group of friends/parents, but still feeling a gap between her personal world and a more “connected” network of service agencies, libraries, small businesses, and other community organizations.

      Jenn describes Nova Scotia as a region with a century-old “mindset of scarcity,” the “have-not” province of Canada, and yet with remarkable, long-standing demonstrations of resourcefulness, connection, and a subtle “spirit of knowing.” As an experienced organizer, Jenn sat with this frustration long enough and decided to gather some friends for informal conversation. It didn’t take long from their sharing and brain-storming to decide to take action.

      With an extended family in Antigonish, which has a remarkable piece of people’s education history, Jenn was vaguely familiar with the Antigonish movement of the 1920s and 30s - her grandfather was a prominent leader in it, though she never met him (he died when her mother was young). So she had heard about folk schools. Despite knowing little about what they were, the group decided to start one.

      They had the instinct to “keep it simple,” and so, invited folks to attend an evening 101 workshop on fermentation and making kefir. Three people showed up.  They were elated - and most importantly, felt validated. 60 more workshops followed that year. They happened in people’s homes, organized and led by volunteers, and using mostly donated materials.

      Interestingly, Jenn had no interest in being a teacher. But she kept on gathering acquaintances into conversations, staying focused on their original intent - to make connections. They wanted to hear each other, to tell their stories, to discover their common identity, language and experience. Making kefir was secondary. This central premise provided the foundation for their unique form of folk school. At the center then, they put a “connector,” and called her the Host.

      They found “teachers” too in the traditional sense - all local people who brought a variety of practical skills, which attracted people probably not thinking consciously about “connecting.”

      The role of the Host grew quickly. Jenn was partly inspired by her previous experience with the Art of Hosting, an international community which uses elements of “circle practice,” also found in the non-hierarchal practices of “World Café.”

      Her team developed these components for the Host role:

      • Outreach: She knocks on doors, seeks out local organizational partnerships (libraries, for example), and finds creative ways to encourage “word of mouth.”
      • Greeting people as they arrive, helping them settle in, orienting to the space, and offering refreshments.
      • Facilitating introductions and conversations to help participants connect and orienting everyone on the nature of this different kind of workshop.
      • Supporting the learning environment by encouraging questions, and sharing experience with the topic. This includes working with the Teacher toward those ends - so they understand the need to go lightly on “being the expert,” performing or entertaining.
      • Follow up with evaluation of the experience and gathering information about interest in other topics or more in-depth of what was just learned.

    As Jenn and her team gained experience, they continually reflected and deepened the ideas behind their approach. A fundamental starting point for Life.School.House connecting is to learn about personal and community need.  She particularly talks about grassroots-based elements of “change-making,” also kin to Circle Practices. “We want to support the development of different patterns of thinking that lead to more creative living … to free ourselves from commercial and corporate systems we are addicted to … To find our own power and create our own opportunities, through a quiet, peaceful movement. Community conversations are the work of what we’re doing. At the same time, we are on the constant lookout for not getting to “institutionalized” or locked into a particular way or structure.”

    Throughout their work, there are 2 principles: practicality, that is learning topics and ways of organizing are keys to putting people in charge to better take care of their needs. And of course, connection. Together, they create the flexibility and creativity that gives participants “permission to dance.”

    And what about N.F.S. Grundtvig? “I never heard of him,” says Jenn. “I barely knew about what a folk school was. I suppose there was this “epigenetic connection” we had here in Antigonish (that we’re learning more and more about).” She read (through FEAA’s journal Option) about Alex Sims’ folk school work in Ontario in the mid-twentieth Century and resonated with the people struggles his networks were striving to provide learning for. She also drew inspiration from the Trade School International.

    In its second year, Life.School.House trained and supported a wider team of Hosts, with over 500 people participating. Now in their third year, Jenn is working with start-up teams in British Columbia, Alberta, and 2 sites in Ontario.

    This past summer, Jenn was awarded a prestigious “Ashoka Changemakers Fellowship” that will support her in her work and share its unique approach around the world. In its own original way, LifeSchoolHouse reflects a path familiar to the best of folk and people’s schools for almost 2 centuries. It is rooted in a local community - and in this case perhaps watered by the “spirit” of the Antigonish Movement - and springing from a new time, providing fresh innovation to meet the needs of age old challenges.

  • 20 Jun 2020 8:27 AM | Anonymous member

    Thoreau College is working to pioneer a new model of higher education that integrates rather than dissects, awakens rather than explains. Our programs blend the scientific with the qualitative, the contemplative with the practical, the needs of the self with the needs of the community.  Thoreau College’s flagship Semester Program brings 8 to 12 students together each fall in rural southwestern Wisconsin to explore the existential questions of our time through a curriculum that melds intellectual pursuits, practical labor, immersive wilderness expeditions, community self-governance, inner development, and artistic practice.

    When discussing one of the primary founding inspirations of Thoreau College (TC), Jacob Hundt sums up one of LL.Nunn’s basic philosophies: Our purpose is not to teach people to become ranchers (even while they might learn that along the way). Our purpose is to develop leaders of society by “shoveling manure.”  I hear echoes of N.F.S. Grundtvig, who was a continent and several generations away. This is learning from the ground.

    Nunn started Deep Springs College in the remote hills of Northern California in 1917. Jacob attended almost one hundred years later as a young adult and has brought Nunn’s primary educational concepts to the founding of TC. There are 3. First is a work component, rooted in the farming/ranching environment of the California hills. Second is an interdisciplinary and dialogue approach to academic learning that we know from modern day “great books” programs. Third, is a prominent commitment to community self-governance whereby all stakeholders are involved in developing the learning program as well as overseeing the rules, guidelines and management of community life. All told, Thoreau College is based in the “practical pedagogy,” well time-tested at Deep Springs among many other 20th century alternative, progressive schools.

    A second and closely aligned foundational inspiration of Thoreau College is the teachings and philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, whose Waldorf School movement is more commonly known to today’s educational world. Steiner’s philosophy was rooted in a holistic framework, which supported development of the whole human – the thinking, feeling, willing, spiritual and acting learner. At the heart of his philosophy was a focus on life education, through science and the natural world, toward a spiritual renewal.And of course the college is named after Henry David Thoreau himself – honoring not only his more well known reverence of the natural world, but as well, his less celebrated ideas about education. From his expertise and reverence for the outdoor life, Thoreau advocated action in the world, for example making links between farming and the betterment of community life and it’s respectful place in the natural world. Jacob particularly is inspired by his concept of “self culture,” demonstrated by those committed to their own self-development. This important component of the 19th century transcendental movement, planted what might be interpreted as a “selfish” endeavor into the communitarian-minded concept of service and progressive ideas. In other words, “personal growth” requires working one’s connection to society and the collective growth.

    Here’s how these foundations thread together in TC’s mission statement:

    “The mission of Thoreau College is not to enshrine the ideas, approaches, or work of any individual, living or dead. Our mission is to create an open space where our students, and the qualities of heart and mind and inspiration living in them, can show up, can be seen, challenged and nurtured, can take root and grow. Thus, you could say, it is ultimately our students, current and future, and their unique gifts which are the highest source of inspiration for Thoreau College.”

    How did Jacob’s vision get connected to the folk school movement? As it happened, across town in this rural southwest corner of Wisconsin, in the early 2000s, there was a concurrent movement afoot more directly inspired by N.F.S. Grundtvig. In 2006, Driftless Folk School was founded and Jacob quickly found resonance between his educational ideas and the folk school concepts that Driftless was bringing to life in the name of folk school. He lists these basics:

    • education for life, particularly as fed by the interactiveness of living language.
    • the holistic nature of learning with head, heart, and hands.
    • a cultural/communitarian context for learners coming to deepen a sense of identity and value in their own life.

    The name “folk school,” for Jacob, created problems: “The name ‘folk school’ does not work well in this North America culture. On the other hand, there really is no perfect name in our English language.”

    Long-story short, his team decided they would commit to reclaiming the word “college.” For starters, they envisioned their learning environment as a place for “colleague-ship.” It’s a collaborative learning venture. Jacob talks eloquently about their mission to cultivate teaching as an “art form” – striving to nurture a “mood of reverence” toward waking up to our human gifts and how they can contribute to the well-being of our natural environment and society.At TC, this teaching art demonstrates some inspiring complexity that goes beyond the basic folk school idea of teacher-student equity. A leader has a critical task to structure such learning and act as a critical guide. Such a teaching creates a slower, reflective environment, asking, in the midst of hands-on experiences, such probing questions as: “Do you notice any connection between what we’re exploring today and a similar probe yesterday?”; “How do you feel about what you’re noticing right now?”; “What are you surprised about?”  It is being more focused to the “learning moment,” and present to any underlying awareness and interpretation.

    More broadly, such teaching is about being responsive to contemporary needs and form of young adult learning, connected to this moment in history, revealing the new perspectives and voices that need to be part of cutting edge conversations. The theme of the fall 2020 Semester Program is Coming Alive to Nature, which will strive to thread together intimate phenomenological studies of plants, landscapes, visual experiences, and thinking itself, as well as through the art of storytelling.

    In the largest sense, learning at Thoreau College seeks to reclaim our role in community and the natural world, quests that are not so vibrant in today’s more materialistic and polarized society. Perhaps this quest is summarized in two central questions that Jacob kept returning to in our conversation: How Shall I Live? and What is education for a free people? They are vibrant questions for any learning community and TC is yet a new pioneer in creating the vital learning environment that still today seems to best survive on the fringes of our educational structures.

  • 1 Oct 2019 7:14 PM | Anonymous member
    At the heart of Marine Mills Folk School’s work, in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, is community and creation: “Our mission is to support our community and strengthen connections by inviting all people to discover the joy of creating together through traditional arts and crafts.”

    The website home page for Marine Mills Folk School begins with these words: “The folk school tradition traces its origins to Scandinavian countries, with NFS Grundtvig of Denmark coining the term ‘schools for life’ as part of his philosophy of education, and of his vision for strengthening and empowering communities.”

    I talked to a group of Marine Mills’ founders – Robin Brooksbank, Emily Anderson and Nanc MacLeslie – who bubble with the enthusiasm that has contributed to the fast growth of their school. Their description easily matches essential elements of Grundtvigian folk education:

    • A school for life, for “living a life of passion, confidence, and joy,”
    • Nurturing a space for strengthening community through everyone learning together. “We create “transactional collaborative experiences,” 
    • Experiencing the art of being “creators” through hands on – and reflective - skill building. We “put our brain in our hands” to become more aware of how we learn.
    • Immersing ourselves in a learning environment of natural rural beauty in a nationally protected river valley that includes Native American settlements.

    It’s clear that this inspired group brought much experience and knowledge before learning about Grundtvig. They speak about “going from the gut” in steering the birth of their school in response to whatever comes up. There is a commitment to listening to everyone in the community: participants, teachers, staff, and board members.
    Whether from this “gut,” or from Grundtvig, or from the collective experience of creating, they put at the heart of their work “becoming more aware of how we learn” – and going deeper, “how do we open to our own inner creator?” Such learning is a clear contrast to the typical more competitive community education programs.
    Their vision statement gives us an entry into this “creator” concept: “People will honor and appreciate fellow artists and craftspeople of similar and differing cultural heritage as well as those from other times, experience the joy of creating and the restorative power of our natural environment.”
    A phrase that came up in our conversations - “art as life” – for me puts their ideas “on the ground.” It includes nurturing qualities like self-sufficiency, competence, and confidence. But it recognizes the crucial link to others through a sense of care-taking and stewardship for the greater community, both natural and human. It demonstrates the deep pedagogical concept of how individual and collective development and growth are an essential symbiotic relationship.
    A key challenge, in fact a central purpose to their school, is responding to the run-away, technological overdrive of fast-paced life that increasingly falls short of meeting human life and health. Marine Mills is a school for developing a life of passion, confidence, and joy – and a key way to do that is to “unplug” from the busy and tech-driven world that is our 21st century way of life. In fact, that learning goal is a direct response to how they phrase the challenge of today’s society: “We don’t know how to take care of ourselves and our world anymore.”
    Doing folk education at Marine Mills connects inner development, through community engagement, to practical change on the outside. I’ve discussed the inner creator. The school also focuses attention on supporting both teachers and students to creating a livelihood from their “products.” This broad intention also supports greater economic development in the local community.
    And the circle extends beyond to life more globally.  Even though this idea was offered humbly, as a “secret agenda,” it seemed a natural extension of a school for life: “through fostering connections, we aim to create world peace!”  



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