NAPLES — The three questions above are the guiding principles that Walden Project students consider as they sit outside around a campfire, enveloped by forest sights, sounds and smells.
They are the same questions famed writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau pondered during his two years immersed in nature at Walden Pond, which resulted in his iconic 1854 book “Walden,” which these students use as their guiding text.
Walden Project New York founder Andy Webster first heard of this outdoor educational concept in 2005; the New York program is based on a Vermont program of the same name that has existed for nearly 20 years. A public school teacher who spent time teaching science at East High School in Rochester and at Wayland-Cohocton in Steuben County, the Walden approach resonated with Webster.
The program provides high school and gap year students an interdisciplinary education in an outdoor setting where they are encouraged to develop their own philosophy and approach to learning.
In 2018, Webster took the plunge and started Walden New York across the road from the Cumming Nature Center.
This year’s 11 students come from nearby South Bristol, Naples, Bloomfield and Canandaigua but also places further afield such as Bath, North Rose and even Fairport.
On a recent Wednesday, eight students sat on benches around a campfire while a sole young man hung out under a nearby tarp, using an ax to chop wood chips. The smell of smoke wafted through the air as the group discussed that day’s Thoreau reading under the direction of Webster and fellow instructor Lisa Nichols.
Students follow a typical school schedule, meeting from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays the group hikes up a small incline into the woods off Gulick Road. Students take turns making a fire and cutting up vegetables for a soup that simmers during the morning. On Thursdays they meet at the Cumming Nature Center across the street, where they have a community meeting then break into research groups. Fridays are reserved for service learning — when students visit different community organizations to learn about their missions and help. Later in the year students craft their own internships for Fridays based on their interests.
“We ask what’s a problem you feel motivated to solve and we try to find an organization to match that,” Webster said.
The “classroom” is unorthodox to say the least; the only thing that hints at school is a small blackboard affixed to a tree.
Portraits of Thoreau are nailed to several tree trunks, while a hammock is slung between two other trees. An old ski lift chair hangs from a branch, should a student tire of sitting on a bench. A clothesline serves as a home of sorts for cups that hang at the ready for tea or soup. The school mascot — a small, friendly dog named Stuart — scampers about looking for yet another person to pet him.
This day’s discussion centered on Walden text about material possessions and the question of who owns whom. Webster initiated the conversation by sharing how he’s often thought about the many things he owns that he’s heating all winter, or how many things are plugged in at home awaiting his return.
One student chimed in how he had recently cleaned his room and realized how much stuff he really didn’t need. The conversation drifted to minimalism, Marie Kondo (the guru of organizing and decluttering), the tiny house movement and the environmental impact of possessions. Webster shared that his father was a hoarder and student Oli Abraham, 16, of Naples, mentioned how some people attach too much emotion to things and thus have a hard time limiting their acquisition of them.
Like the breeze filtering through the trees, the conversation started and stopped. Students were invited to offer thoughts one by one but were not required to. Tegan Premo, 17, of North Rose, periodically tended the fire. Webster and Nichols took turns writing journal prompts on the blackboard and ended the session by encouraging the students “to take the messiness of the conversation and journal about it.”
The group broke for lunch, some ladling themselves cups of soup while others pulled out lunch boxes from home. Afterwards, guest speaker Deborah Denome of South Bristol led the group in an exercise called forest bathing — based on a Japanese practice of immersing oneself in the forest and using every sense to experience the sounds, smells and sights it offers. She joked that bathing suits were not necessary and the practice originated in Japan as an antidote to workplace stress and rising suicide rates.
A COVID-friendly way to learn
Being outdoors in the woods, with a small group of people, is certainly a safe way to hold school during a pandemic. For some students, that consideration played a role in their decision to attend this year.
Willow Caruso, 15, of Naples, said she’s always been interested in the outdoors and hiking. She also was eager for an alternative to public school, where she said the students would always be talking about each other.
“It’s going really good,” she said, adding “with COVID it’s a better option because you’re always outside.”
Abraham agreed. He attended an open house for the program and found it “pretty dope,” but became more interested after enduring online school last spring. Although he liked remote learning better than being in school all day, Abraham said he sometimes found it difficult to self-motivate to do schoolwork at home.
“There’s a lot more freedom when I’m here,” he said.
Donald Totten, 16, of Naples, is in his second year with the Walden Project and enjoys its structure and pace.
“I just really like it here,” he said. “It’s nice, it’s outdoors. I don’t think I could go back to a regular school after being here.”
All agreed that braving the elements can be the most difficult part of the school day. Webster finds it worse when it rains. And the cabin they could retreat to is being used sparingly this year because of COVID concerns about gathering indoors in a small space.
“You have to be completely prepared or you’ll freeze,” Totten said.
Webster said the Cumming Nature Center is always available for use should weather conditions be dangerous, but the goal is to remain outside. During last week’s rainy spell the students used tarps to create an enormous tent over the campfire.
“We get creative when the weather gets challenging,” he said.
Although Webster started the Walden Project on his own (he jokingly references the “Field of Dreams” movie, i.e. if you build it they will come), this past year it was absorbed by the Rochester Museum and Science Center, which runs the Cumming Nature Center. That has given the program more stability and freed Webster up to focus on teaching.
Nathan Hayes, director of the nature center, said the move means Webster no longer has to be a “superhero” balancing education delivery with administrative tasks. Hayes said the Science Center offers institutional support such as providing insurance, managing scholarships and marketing the program.
He noted the center provides a continuum of environmental education and incorporating Walden under its umbrella as a “capstone” only made sense. For many years the center has run Forest School programs for children 12 and younger.
Hayes says the evolution of environmental education starts with youngsters learning to appreciate the joys of the outdoors (i.e. “flipping over rocks”), progressing to some skills such as water sample testing then culminating in harder science.
“As they get older we up the ante a little bit,” he said.
The Walden Project adds humanities into the mix.
Its website notes that it follows the principle of consilience — “an integrated approach to learning in which one topic is approached from a variety of perspectives, resulting in a deeper understanding that develops at the intersections of these viewpoints. Like a pebble that is tossed into still water and causes ripples, students are encouraged to chase after that which inspires them to want to learn more — one experience that may ripple out into a much larger understanding of the world.”
Guiding curriculum themes include:
- Self reliance
- Solo time
- Hiking and exploring
- Campfire discussions
- Learning theory
- Community meaning
- Systems thinking
- Independent research projects
- Service learning projects
- Sharing life stories
- Writing and speaking
- Year-end portfolio
After completing a year at Walden, a student will earn seven non-Regents high school credits in English Language Arts, math (systems thinking), social studies, environmental science, health, physical education and applied arts.
“No one has been a year behind after coming out of Walden,” Webster said.
He added the school is in the process of becoming accredited through the Middle States Association on Secondary Schools, which accredits non-public secondary schools in the Northeast. He said some students have taken Regents courses over the summer to keep them on track for graduation requirements and that schools have accepted Walden credits.
“At all levels of our [Cumming Nature Center] programs we want to improve the human condition — make good leaders and make good followers,” said Hayes, noting students are exploring myriad concepts through the lens of the book “Walden.”
The annual cost to attend is $6,900 although some scholarship funds are available. Students can join mid-year, said Hayes. Although the program is still in its infancy, he thinks it would be capped at 18-20 students to maintain its integrity.
Webster hopes some day the program might be offered through BOCES and become an option for public school students. He’s thrilled with the Cumming Nature Center partnership because it’s a step in the right direction of making Walden more accessible to young people.
Brittany Bruning’s daughter, Ryleigh, spent her junior year at the Walden Project last year, traveling from her home in Ovid. Bruning said her daughter — who has been home-schooled most of her life — was itching for a public school experience her junior year. She had already met with a South Seneca guidance counselor to choose a schedule that would enable her to graduate on time, but then the family heard about the Walden Project.
Bruning said her daughter has always liked the outdoors and is self-directed, so they figured they’d check it out. Webster showed them the cabin and campfire area and explained the program’s mission.
“She was sold,” Bruning said of her daughter’s reaction. “She said ‘This is totally me.’”
The program obviously matched Ryleigh’s love for the outdoors, but Bruning said it was also a good fit because it offered her daughter the community she wanted yet the independence to choose her own projects — and still get help when she needed it.
Like other schools, Ryleigh’s year was cut short by COVID-19 in mid-March, but Bruning said Webster went “above and beyond for all his students” all the time and that continued when the program had to be delivered remotely.
“I really appreciated how they looked at her as an individual,” Bruning said, adding staff communicated well with her. They also identified and nurtured Ryleigh’s strengths, helping her realize them and building her confidence.
“It really gave her a lot of freedom to learn the way she learns best and be herself out there,” said Bruning.
Webster said one Walden alumnus who spoke at a program open house shared how in regular school he could disappear at the back of the room, but being anonymous is not possible in the intimate setting of Walden.
“That changed the way he looked at education,” Webster said. “You can’t be passive. You have to be an active leader.”
Hayes said parents and students alike have embraced Walden’s immersive approach.
“There’s really no one doing anything like this around,” said Hayes. “Andy is changing kids’ lives. He’s having such a profound impact on them.”