I’ve loved nature from a very young age, and my favorite childhood memories are of exploring woods, creeks and wetlands.
As I grew deeper into nature connection, however, I became increasingly alienated from the modern world. School felt very confining to me, and I was not excited about riding the conveyor belt of school → college → cubicle.
After attending the first youth program offered at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School, at age 17, I started hanging out with one of the instructors I met there - Bill Kaczor, who would go on to start Ancestral Knowledge (AK).
Fast forward a decade - when May Joy got out of the Air Force and we moved back to the DC area, I started leading programs for AK. After 4.5 years I had learned a ton, and really grown as an instructor, but the economics of this nonprofit organization were not really set up to support the breadwinner of a growing family in the DC area for the long-term.
Not knowing exactly what to do next, May Joy and I decided to try something different, and I began transitioning into the unknown. This was terrifying, but we went for it…
For the summer, I arranged to lead Russian language camps for a Russian heritage program in Falls Church, and also offered a handful of summer camps of my own. For the Fall, I had agreed to lead programs for Compass Homeschool Enrichment.
Not long after, I was contacted by 3 different parents interested in homeschool programs, which we soon started in Crownsville, Bowie and Lorton, respectively.
During that first year I operated under my own name, and also consumed many entrepreneurial books and podcasts. And an old contact of mine from Georgetown Outdoor Education helped me with some business coaching that he was now offering.
As I went through that first year of leading programs on my own, or with May Joy, I thought about creating a program that could:
Bridge Nature and Civilization – As I mentioned above, in my youth my closeness to nature also distanced me from civilization, and I’ve observed over the years that many naturalists and survivalists also have this binary attitude, where nature is good, civilization is bad.
I no longer find this attitude helpful or necessary.
Rather, I believe that learning to live in and with nature can and should help us become the kinds of people that can tap the wisdom and beauty of nature to improve the civilized world through leadership and creativity.
That is one reason I restructured the program to a student-led format, so students would develop proficiency at being responsible leaders – to gain life skills they can use to be productive citizens.
Develop a more effective pedagogy – After 4 years or so of teaching at AK, I had grown tremendously in my own skills as a storyteller, survivalist, photographer, navigator, etc. But I had noticed much less growth in my students… I realized that the best way to learn was actually to teach.
So, in our signature homeschool program, I decided to delegate all my teaching roles to the students, and to create a curriculum to support their execution of these roles, so they could learn by teaching.
In my experience, students that embrace this approach grow much more rapidly and noticeably than in the former, teacher-led format. See this blog post, for example.
Provide a solution at the scale of the problem – While I don’t know that NL is right for everyone, I believe there is a vast unmet need for nature and adventure-based education across the country and beyond.
By developing a comprehensive online curriculum to support a student-led program, I am optimistic that we will be able to bring an ever improving program to serve more and more students and families over time.
Expand and Improve Homeschooling – Each Natural Leaders program creates a nucleus of community for its participants. As we expand, I hope for us gradually to add academic components so that families looking for secular homeschooling options see us as a 1-stop shop in that they feel confident they will receive the basics of great education, at an affordable price.
Cultivating the world – At the heart of Natural Leaders is a profound belief in each person as having a sacred ability and duty to serve the world in a powerful way unique to each individual. I believe that the answer to humanity’s problems lies within each of us following our callings, drawing on our creativity and leadership ability.
The student-led format is born:
With the above considerations in mind, I restructured the program to be student-led in Fall 2017. I created roles and the online guidelines and started making videos to support students in leading skills.
Later that season, Trevor Cox reached out to me and soon joined the team. Early in 2018 we moved the website to NaturalLeaders.com.
Today, in Fall 2019, we are working to upgrade our curriculum to a more interactive format with more progression built in. Stay tuned!
If you find yourself inspired by any part of the vision I’ve laid out here, please let me know in the comments or in an email.
Parent volunteering and leadership continues to play a vital role in our progress, and we are always on the lookout for new team members that resonate with our mission.