An Open-Walled Journey: A Conversation with Jenny Finn and Sarah Merfeld

Practice | Q&A   24 July 2018
By Jenny Finn, Springhouse Community School, and Sarah Merfeld, Springhouse Community School


How can I see more clearly who I am so that I can offer whatever gifts I have?

Jenny Finn
Head of School, Co-Founder

Education Reimagined had the chance to connect with the leaders of Springhouse Community School to explore a new opportunity they are launching for their young people: internships. Inspired by the work of other learner-centered models, they want to ensure their learners are experiencing all that the Floyd, VA community has to offer. 

Q: As the Springhouse model evolves, how did you identify an internship program as the next step for your community?

Jenny: Like much of what is happening at Springhouse, this program emerged from what we were learning on the ground. That’s what I think makes Springhouse unique and special—and, I will use the word magical.

We continue creating a structure that allows for the emergent to come through. Many people have done research on emergent theory and how others can integrate it within their respective curriculum. Bringing that down to earth, last year, we really began feeling we were all inside too much. We were learning great things. The elements of the program were strong. But, there was something missing.

When you’re in a community where people get to go out, do something different, and bring that back in, it makes the community richer. We’re all together, all the time, and it begins to feel like we’re overripe—like overripe peaches. We’re all here thinking, “Someone has to do something with this. We have to be useful.”

There has to be as much inner community and personal development as there is working beyond the walls. Even as a staff and for our professional development, we need to go out, learn from other folks, and bring that wisdom and experience back to our community.

Reflecting on this, I did listening sessions with each learner at the end of this last academic year, and I shared a little bit about what I’m sharing with you now. They were all nodding when I brought this up, especially the older ones.

One of my learners said, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could go to school and get paid?” That was so interesting. What I heard him saying is: “I want to be of use. I want to be learning how to sustain myself. I want to be exposed to different ways of working in the world.”

We were doing this in very small, disintegrated ways—for example, visiting and volunteering at a nursing home for an hour. We wanted something more integrated into the curriculum.


A huge pedagogical foundation for us is that every individual has a unique gift to offer….[But,] our fear around speaking our truth or ruffling someone’s feathers is getting in the way of us being bold in what we know we can offer.

Sarah Merfeld
Community Life Coordinator, Faculty

As I did research into various internship programs within high school settings, I ended up visiting LaFayette Big Picture School in New York. My son, Andrew, who participated in Education Reimagined’s SparkHouse, had met some learners from there and wanted to go visit. We happened to be driving through the area, so we made a point to stop there, and I spoke with the principal for three hours.

We really connected and after learning about their internship program, I said, “You know what? We’re just going to do this.” It feels risky because our 9-12th graders are going to be out of the school (all day) twice a week and our 7-8th graders will be out once a week. And, the great thing about Springhouse is we can innovate and truly be a laboratory for reimagining education. This is part of it—really doing something dramatically different.

Sarah: The need for these internships—for real life context—was best expressed from one of our rising seniors. She was telling Jenny and I about an experience she had at the nursing home where we had volunteered as a group.

A woman was having a really hard time that day and our student went in, sat with her, and held her hand. She reflected on this experience and told us how she was able to use the tools—being present, breathing, being in her body—we had been working with.

And, she mentioned how when we tell her about these practices in school, she kind of rolls her eyes and thinks, “I guess this is just kind of their thing.” However, when she was in this situation, she was able to use those skills in a way that was real. She needed those tools in order to sit with this woman—who was screaming—and hold her hand.

Jenny: This goes right back to that overripe feeling. We have all of these knowledge, skills, and dispositions…

Sarah: …and we’re just sitting here talking about our relationships within the Springhouse community…

Jenny: …right! It’s so yucky. Pick the fruit and give it to someone to eat.

Sarah: Our community of learners is so small, and we’re all so close with one another, that our students can begin to slouch, not feeling like they need to rise to an occasion. I love seeing them in other environments and watching them straighten up their posture and be articulate. I’m looking forward to watching them rise to something greater.

Q: When looking to enroll young adults into being active participants within the Springhouse learning community, what does that conversation look like?

Sarah: A huge pedagogical foundation for us is that every individual has a unique gift to offer. Often, we’re not able to be in touch with that unique gift because we are missing certain strategies or skills that would allow us to express it—we are limiting ourselves. Our fear around speaking our truth or ruffling someone’s feathers is getting in the way of us being bold in what we know we can offer.

That’s where all of our adult programming starts—how can I see more clearly who I am so that I can offer whatever gifts I have?

For me, that’s the question we have to start with. No matter who you are or what you’re background is, there’s something you can offer in some form.

Jenny: When I taught Semester at Sea—a college program where students travel on a ship for four months—I went and offered dance as a spiritual practice. I thought maybe ten people would show up. By the end of it, there were over 200 people in the class. It wasn’t a technical class. It was about exploring one’s inner landscape through movement.

What I repeatedly heard from all of these students was: “We feel really lost. We haven’t gotten the social, emotional, spiritual support that we need” to provide the gift that Sarah is talking about.

There’s a myth around what college will do for you, and when they graduate they think, “Ok, I have this major, but I don’t know who I am. I’ve spent four years avoiding myself (partying, chasing relationships, etc.), and now I’m supposed to go out and live in the world without an inner foundation to live from.”


The Community Internship Program is an opportunity not only for the teens to develop but also for whoever the adult is who is working with them.

Jenny Finn
Head of School, Co-Founder

For us, there’s a little bit of magic in terms of who comes to work with us. This year, we’re going to go around the community at universities, yoga centers, counseling centers, etc., and tell young people, “If you feel unprepared from the inside out and are wondering what your gift is, we have a program that can help you get to know yourself more deeply.”

Those who are developmentally there and can say “that’s what I’m looking to discover”—they are the ones who end up coming to work with Springhouse.

Q: How does this conversation get translated to working with the broader community?

Jenny: We always connect things back to our mission—“reimagining the purpose and practice of education by fostering the holistic development of youth, young adults, and adults.” The Community Internship Program is an opportunity not only for the teens to develop but also for whoever the adult is who is working with them. They can now ask, “How can I be of service to these teens?”

Spending time with teens can be challenging. They’re really creative and at the same time, they are really turbulent inside. As an adult, if you don’t have the skills to navigate that turbulence (both with the teen and yourself), it’s probably not going to go that well.

Sarah: It’s been really fun to meet with people and explore what these internships could be. Since every internship will have a project integrated within it, it’s really exciting to know each student will be able to offer something back to the organization they’re working with.

For example, I just had a meeting at our local coffee roastery, and they have been wanting an intern for a while now but have only been considering college students. And, they didn’t have the bandwidth to structure an internship program. So, they were super excited when we came to them. We immediately began brainstorming about creative projects.

To note, this conversation was to simply explore what might be possible for our students here. We don’t plan on assigning a project to a student without their interests being acknowledged. During our conversation, we had an idea of a student creating a tea blend and having the entire Springhouse community promote the new Springhouse tea blend—they could do logo design, marketing, etc.

Another idea had to do with the designs they create for a new flavor of coffee they’re marketing. They create beautiful designs that reflect the region of the world the coffee bean comes from, so there’s background research involved in how that design is created. This could be another access point for one of our students.

Q: How do you see the internship program building new bridges in your community?

Sarah: We have a really unique community here in Floyd, VA. We’re in rural Appalachia with a unique combination of families who have moved from other places and those who are multi-generational, born-and-raised in Floyd County.

The internship program offers these different factions of the community the opportunity to get to know each other and learn from one another.

Jenny: Springhouse is new. We’re going into our fifth year, and we’re clearly doing things differently. It can kind of feel in opposition to the traditional way of being, whether it’s education or farming or whatever the thing is. For us to also be expansive and welcoming in who we are, as Sarah said, is a way to naturally build those bridges.

Sarah: A lot of the families have so much to offer, having been here for generations. They are a great resource.

Q: What questions do you hope your learners will bring back to Springhouse from their internship experiences?

Jenny: I’m curious for them to learn more about themselves and how they navigate the world. I want them to have questions like: “My internship supervisor is not as open-minded as I am. I don’t know how to deal with that. Do I tell them what I think?”

My hope is that these self-reflective questions are continuously popping up and that it helps guide their learning. I hope they can discover something like: “I’m really not good at collaborating. I always look for ways to do things by myself. How do I get better at collaborating given how often I need it in my internship?”

Then, the question becomes how do we use that in a learning plan to strengthen the competencies around that individual area of growth. That feels exciting to me.


This is such a great avenue for [the older generation] to find their value again and give back to the youth. It’s hard to do that when the invitation or avenue doesn’t exist.

Jenny Finn
Head of School, Co-Founder

Sarah: Another thing that’s exciting to me is the collaboration among students around their internships. We will be having an internship class of sorts that will be a place of support to work on their projects and receive feedback. I’m hoping by getting feedback from their peers, they will discover ways to innovate and solve the problems they’re presented with.

Jenny: Through these internships, students can also discover new areas where they are missing in knowledge or skills. They might say, “Oh, now I really know that I need to be a better writer. I’m not just in the four walls of school anymore. I’m supposed to write something for Red Rooster Cafe that’s going to go out to all kinds of people.”

It ups the ante and illuminates to a student, “I don’t know how to write well. Can you help me?” It lets them see they really do need to know how to write, rather than relating to it as something they turn into me as an assignment.

Q: What’s the plan of action for a student who comes to you with an interest but you aren’t sure there is someone in your community who could provide an experience based on that interest?

Sarah: I started the summer by asking students, off the top of their heads, what they might be interested in pursuing as an internship. One of the topics was archery. And, we do have archers in the community, but no archery centers.

I’m actually about to go visit a construction company that has always been a huge supporter of what we’re doing at Springhouse. It just so happens that one of the owners, Matt, is a bow hunter. So, we may be able to figure out a viable path forward from there. Maybe, twice a semester, Matt takes this student out back and teaches him how to use a bow. I’m trying to think about ways to be creative and fit the needs of our students.

Jenny: I’m thinking too, Floyd County has a Facebook page with thousands of people on there. We can simply say, for example, “Hey, is there anyone out there who paints with watercolor?”

Another example that comes to mind is that we have a student who wants to volunteer at a news station. We don’t have a TV news station here, but there is one in Roanoke. This particular student has been delaying getting her driver’s license, and I told her, “If you want to do this internship, you need to get your license. Your mom isn’t going to drive you every week.” So, this interest provides her with incentive to grow her skillset and capacity in many ways.

We have Roanoke and Blacksburg (Virginia Tech) all within 45 minutes. I’m willing for us to go out that far as long as we figure out how it’s going to work out logistically.

Sarah: I’m also thinking about how to make the most of our retired community in Floyd—how can they be of service to our students. For example, my partner is a woodworker and craftsmen, and he’s always buying things off of Craigslist. When he goes to pick up his item, he’ll end up having two-hour conversations with the seller because they’re so excited that a young person is wanting to continue the woodworking craft. There is clearly a desire for more engagement with the next generation.

I can see this fitting so well with our internship program—someone is 70 years old and they look at the world wondering, “Who’s going to be interested in archery in this day and age?” We can be the environment to show them that interest is still there in young adults and kids.

Jenny: From my perspective, culturally, we don’t do a great job in valuing what older folks can offer. There are two things I’ve experienced at Springhouse that show how powerful building these relationships can be.

I had the wife of a guy who helped two students build a catapult come up to me in tears saying, “Having my husband invited into that project helped him realize he still has gifts to offer.”

I also had an older woman partner with a student at hospice, and she remarked “I didn’t really know I still had something to offer to this community.”

This is such a great avenue for these folks to find their value again and give back to the youth. It’s hard to do that when the invitation or avenue doesn’t exist.

Sarah: Ultimately, I believe in the creative potential of our students. Even if what’s written on paper isn’t exactly what they’re looking for, I believe in our ability to invite that creativity forward and in their ability to take it wherever they need to go with it.

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