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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.