with founder Anna GeyerRekindle 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.”