Research Center » The Land School

The Land School


By Vina Kay

I first visited the Land School just over five years ago. It was August, and we followed the directions I had written on a scrap of paper: Baldwin exit off of I-94, drive through Baldwin, turn right at Highway 64, left at County Road Q, left after the sheep farm, go up the hill…

This was like no other school I had been to before. My husband and I had just enrolled our three-year-old son in a Minneapolis Montessori school called Lake Country School, and this 160 acres in rural Western Wisconsin was somehow part of what we had signed up for. We had fallen in love with the beautiful classrooms, the calm teachers and the happily busy children at the school in Minneapolis, and that environment was what we wanted for our son. What we didn't realize was that this other environment was going to reach out to us, pulling us out of our city lives into the life of the land.

It was a breezy late-August day, and as we stepped out of our car, we felt a cool breath of air. It was ten degrees cooler here than in the city. There was a hint of fall in the brilliant blue sky, in the yellows mixed with greens in the rolling landscape. The old red barn, the color of fall apples, stood tall and sturdy-just the picture that comes to a child's mind when we talk of going to a farm. Chickens rushed over to greet us, in their head-nodding, meandering way. My three-month-old baby stared with wide eyes. A burly, brown dog came running up, too. Then, from the farm house came Jen, one of the Land School managers, with a welcoming smile. This would be the only time, being our first meeting, that Jen greeted us with a handshake. From then on, we were old friends, and only a warm embrace would do.

Both schools are the visions of Larry Schaefer, and his wife, Pat Schaefer. They founded Lake Country School in South Minneapolis in 1976. The preschool and elementary programs grew from their spaces at the Basilica of St. Mary to a permanent building at 38th and Pleasant Avenue South. The school now serves three hundred students, from preschool through ninth grade. Over the years, the school was able to create the kind of beautiful and orderly environments that are central to the Montessori way of learning. Pink wooden towers stack neatly in Children's House classrooms, along with chains of beads and trays of cursive letters. The elementary classrooms are filled with shelves of books and objects from around the world. Common spaces include areas for cooking, as well as art and music. The junior high students have access to a woodworking shop, and an English classroom complete with a tattered sofa and cozy lamps and a wall plastered with photos of writers. But missing from all of this, as Larry Schaefer knew, was another environment necessary to adolescent learning and growth: the land.

In 1986, Lake Country School purchased a 160-acre farm near Glenwood City, Wisconsin and started the Land School, giving Lake Country the chance to fulfill the vision of providing adolescents with the larger environment of the land. For younger children at Lake Country, the Land School has become an important learning environment for day trips, and even an occasional camping trip. But for the junior high students, the Land School is an integral part of their learning.

Maria Montessori envisioned adolescents learning from the rural environment, and engaging in work that was not only academic, but physical and economic in nature. In the fall of 2004, that vision was fully realized with the completion of the Homestead, a building that provides dormitory, classroom, and common space for junior high students. In September 2004, eight junior high students boarded the bus to spend the first six-week residency at the Land School.

Greeting the students when they arrive at their six-week home are Jen Bush and Andy Gaertner, Farmstead Managers; Nadine Wetzel-Curtis, Land School Residential Coordinator; and Bryan Curtis, the Kitchen Manager. Also happy to see the students is little Isaiah, Nadine and Bryan's two-year-old son, who is never hungry for attention while the students are present. During their stay on the land, the four adults act as guides and teachers, parents, and friends. The students each choose an occupation that becomes their's for those six weeks. The choices vary with the seasons, but they include gardener, naturalist, shepherd, chicken wrangler, maple syrup harvester, and cook. Not only do those become the students' jobs, but they become the source of some of their learning-their integrated project. They dig deep into their work, interviewing local farmers and other experts, and write paperabout their experiences. "We make every effort to keep the work of the head and the work of the hands connected in a meaningful way," says Wetzel-Curtis.

For Rosie McCarty, an eighth-grader spending her first residency at the Land School, the experience is unique. As shepherd, she is not just cleaning out the sheep pens, but learning to take care of the sheep with the right diet and by setting up veterinary care. All of this requires research and asking experts for advice. "I wouldn't be doing work like this anywhere else," said Rosie, as she sat knitting while selling pumpkins at a recent Harvest Festival.

Fellow resident and eighth-grader Kimi Goldstein, who was also knitting and working the pumpkin stand, agreed with Rosie's assessment. "Our main theme during this residency is sustainability, and we are focusing on the sustainable kitchen. So that means we are learning all about preserving seasonal produce so that we can enjoy that produce later in the year. We wouldn't learn that kind of thing back in the city." As the resident engineer/handyperson, Kimi must also figure out how to fix the roof on the granary, and make plans for a tree house the students want to build.

The experience at the Land School does not take students away from academic work. Each day includes two three-hour work periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Time is dedicated within those work periods to their integrated projects, math, French, research, occupations, community work, and self-expression. Students set aside a half hour of "practice" time each day, to spend playing a musical instrument, dancing, or pursuing another interest, or simply taking a walk or reading. Mealtimes are organized by the kitchen manager, but all take turns in preparing the food and cleaning up.

For Lake Country families like us, with young children, the Land School provides another layer to our urban education experience. Each year, some fifty shares are sold in a community supported agriculture program at the Land School. CSA members go there to work at least a couple times during the season, to plant, weed, and harvest, but also clean out llama pens or attack the ragweed forest on the side of the barn. The reward is an abundance of fresh-picked vegetables with a real connection to their beginnings. My son calls the potatoes "our potatoes" after our morning out in the potato field hand-picking potato beetles off the leaves. When I bemoaned the lack of greens one year, I was rewarded the next year with an abundance of kale and chard. When the frost was looming near, we requested a huge harvest of basil for a weekend marathon of pesto production.

Families go for camping weekends, pitching tents close to the long barn with its rustic kitchen, or out on the distant hill for a more remote adventure. On a Saturday morning, visitors work in the garden, directed by Farmstead managers Jen and Andy in how to divide the chard plants or identifying which weed is the troublesome quack grass with its needle-like roots. After a few hours of hard work, everyone typically shares in a bountiful potluck lunch, then a hike through the wooded trails, which are often groomed by the junior high students. If we are lucky, we will stumble across brambles full of wild blackberries or raspberries.

Harvest days, usually the Fridays when CSA members pick up their vegetables in the school parking lot in Minneapolis, are different. Then we don't rest until the work is done- harvesting the melons, making bundles of herbs, sorting out the zucchini by size, and packing beautifully arranged boxes of fresh produce. Only after the van drives off for the city, packed full of boxes of produce and buckets of flowers, do we sit down for a late lunch, and, if we have the energy, a hike. Andy calls out our reward as he drives off, "Go ahead and take a carton of eggs from the refrigerator." They are the fresh ones, just gathered in the last few days from the chicken coop.

The growing season culminates in a grand October Harvest Festival, complete with hay rides, apple cider pressing, chicken poop bingo, an abundant potluck spread, and a big barn dance. Pumpkins and squash, whose seedlings were started by lower elementary students, and that were just harvested by the upper elementary students, are spread out under the big oak tree, and the junior high residents staff the sale.

Things are quieter in the winter, but junior high students are still hard at work, and some families will come out for cross-country skiing and an overnight in the small, but toasty bunkhouse. In the winter, a hike to the bird blind is especially rewarding. When the feeders are full of seed, birds come in uninhibited droves, a feast of movement and color for our winter-weary eyes hiding behind the wooden slats of the blind.

The Land School is not a neat or manicured classroom environment. We come back with our rubber boots caked with mud, and straw clinging to our clothes. The children, their faces smudged with dirt, their fingers stained purple from picking and eating blackberries, fall asleep during the ninety-minute drive back to the Twin Cities. We stumble back into city life, full of a kind of learning that both exhausts us and fills us up.

Reprinted from Edible Twin Cities, Winter 2005 edition