On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a tiny cabin in the woods next to Walden Pond to begin a two-year experiment in self-discovery in which he hoped to explore the elements of a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I think everyone should have a Walden -- a time to pause and reconsider, to reconnect with nature, and to rekindle curiosity and creativity.
The story of my Walden began in central Massachusetts, about a half hour from the real Walden Pond. As a high school student, my grades were always fine, but I didn’t really like school. The problem for me wasn't the information we were being taught, nor was it the teachers. The problem for me was the bells. Sitting there watching the clock, wishing the class would be over, wishing the day would be over, wishing the year would be over... Pretty soon it started to feel like I was spending all of my time wishing this part of my life would be over, and I wasn’t even sure if adulthood was going to be any better.
I graduated high school and decided I was going to take my first big leap of faith. I bought a backpack and a tent and started hiking the Appalachian Trail. I knew nothing about camping or hiking but deep down I had a feeling that I was going to be okay -- this was my right path and I just had to see where it would take me. The experience was transformative and it gave me the confidence to attempt even more adventures. Over the next few years, I traveled, I worked on farms, I volunteered, I read, I wrote songs, I met interesting people that inspired me to want to learn even more, and eventually it led to college.
When I entered college, I was different because of these experiences. I was no longer sitting in classes watching the clock and wishing the time away; I was on fire, passionate to learn and grow as a person. My future was coming into focus and I was excited to see it unfold. It was becoming clear that I wanted to be a teacher so I could help young people find their own path, just as I did.
I met Matt Schlein in the fall of 2005 in my senior year at Sterling College in Vermont. We were both attending an education conference and that’s when I first heard about his new program, The Walden Project. I was intrigued, to say the least. He had created something that was perfectly aligned with what I hoped to do as a teacher someday.
Fast forwarding now through graduation, wedding, kids, grad school, a mortgage... Years had passed and I was becoming a seasoned public high school science teacher. I loved teaching and I was good at it, and yet, I always felt like I was swimming against the current of the education system, constrained by the confines of a standardization. Once again, the problem was the bells...
To me, the bells represent an approach to education that assumes everyone learns best in an environment of factory-like efficiency, where teachers are expected to present "The Knowledge" to their classes, and students are expected to passively and unquestioningly absorb "The Knowlege." When the bells ring, time is up -- if you didn't learn "The Knowledge" before the bell rang, you are not keeping up... Faster! Faster! Ignore everything but "The Knowledge!" This approach to education was just as frustrating to me now as a teacher as it had been when I was a student. It was clear I needed to take some time to pause, regroup, and rethink where I was going. It was time for me to have another Walden.
In the spring of 2017, twelve years after I had first met Matt Schlein, I took a road trip to Vermont and visited The Walden Project. Being there and seeing the program in action, it became so clear to me that this was it -- this is what I wanted to be doing. It was an education that was personalized, not standardized; it was a community of people learning together with a shared sense of purpose; it was a place where the students' life experiences was the curriculum: I decided on the drive home that, after all these years, I was going to find a way to bring The Walden Project to my home in Naples, New York.
I started making phone calls, writing plans, making connections, asking for help and advice … The author, Paulo Coelho, once wrote, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This was certainly my experience as I began this process of making The Walden Project in New York a reality.
After months of research, networking, and design, with the help of Matt Schlein and so many others, I am thrilled to finally be be able to announce: we are ready to accept our first batch of students for the fall of 2018! If you or someone you know would be a good fit this program, please let us know! We are excited to begin this adventure together!
Andy Webster, Teacher and Director
Andy Webster (New York Program, right) with Matt Schlein (Vermont Program, left)
Andy Webster, Teacher & Director
Andy is a New York State Certified Earth Science Teacher with a decade of experience as a public school science teacher. He also has a B. A. in Conservation Ecology from Sterling College in Vermont and a M. Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction from The Union Institute & University in Vermont. Andy has led nature-based outdoor education programs for his entire adult life, most recently teaching at the Cumming Nature Center's Forest School program. Outside of teaching, Andy and his partner, Maggie, have four children and a small organic farm.
photo credit: Sophy Parshall
Janean Shedd, Teacher & Service Learning Coordinator
Janean is a Pennsylvania certified teacher who has spent most of her life thus far teaching outdoor education in New England, living as a volunteer doing construction work in Kentucky, and dabbling in being a cook at a summer camp. Her (mostly) seasonal lifestyle has also included working as a paraprofessional at an elementary school, substitute teaching work at various levels, masonry work in Brazil, and backpacking. She loves to get to know people and to learn from them and alongside of them. Some music making and woods exploration are also high on the list of things to do in a good day!