Jess Liotta knew she felt a strong connection with kids, loved teaching & being outdoors. When she came across a Craigslist ad for a job that combined all three aspects (her DREAM JOB), she turned in an earnest application to get it.
Jess is the Director of Tracker’s Earth Bay Area, an outdoor education camp where kids immerse themselves in nature and learn tracking, fire-making, archery & storytelling in the wild. Here’s how Jess creates unforgettable outdoor experiences for kids & lives the part she was born to play.
Let’s start at the top. How did you discover that you enjoyed teaching kids?
When I was in college, I got a summer job at the Oregon zoo. I was in the Lorikeet Landing area where we fed the birds & showed visitors around. I realized that summer, that I liked being around kids & felt a real connection with them.
I had never considered teaching until then. I took an education class and really enjoyed it! I started volunteering at schools. Along the way, I realized that the style of teaching – all students listening to a teacher – wasn’t what I was personally drawn to. I was more drawn to Montessori education which is very self-directed. A lot of trust is placed in a child’s ability to be an active participant in their own learning.
You introduced practical-life teaching to your classrooms. Can you give us examples of what you did?
For young children, Montessori-style teaching is very sensory-based. It’s about what they can see, hear, feel & touch. We did things that were real. For example, we’d give a child everything they need to make cream cheese and crackers. It would be set up on a tray with a spreader, a cutting board and other things, all ready for them.
When you give them an activity that meets their developmental needs, they have an incredible capacity to focus. Conventional wisdom says a child can focus for the number of minutes proportionate to how old they are – if they’re 6 years old, it’s 6 minutes. But with Montessori-style teaching, I’ve seen 6-year-old children sitting for an hour and a half, working diligently at something they love doing!
Tell me about the moment you came to realize what your dream job should look like.
When I was teaching at the Renaissance International School, I noticed there were kids who just focused and behaved better when they were outside. So I started taking them outside. I would improve the aesthetics of the garden & put things there for them to use.
Then, a colleague & I started to take our kids for three-day camping trips. They were great fun & such a confidence boost for the kids. We hiked, played at the creek, just got these kids outside. It was the first time some of them had slept in a tent. They loved it. And my colleague & I thought to ourselves “how can we make our jobs look more like this all the time”?
How did you land the job at Trackers?
When my son was to be born, I wanted to find the right opportunity that brought all my interests together. I wanted to do more of Montessori-outside.
I saw a job ad on Craigslist that said – this job is a great fit for you if you love teaching kids outdoors & if you love bacon. The job description Tracker’s puts out is very different and very specific. I wrote an effusive application & promised that if they gave me an interview, I would “bring in the bacon” from a pig I’d butchered. I got the interview & I did do that.
The job I applied for was to teach preschoolers once a week, outside. I said, that’s awesome!
In just a few weeks of you joining, they asked you to run the Bay Area chapter. What were you doing that gave them that confidence in such a short time?
I had started teaching in the home school program for six or seven weeks. And then I got a call from the head honcho of Tracker’s in Portland who told me they wanted me to run the program in the Bay Area. I had never run a camp before but they were pretty sure I was going to be alright.
At the home schooling program, I was communicating with parents, planning out my material for the whole term, making a detailed plan for the day. These were things that seemed obvious to me & perhaps demonstrated a thoughtfulness about the program to them. And I think they liked my sense of humor. I call this the part I was born to play.
I went from working half a day a week to running the program. It was a surprise for me but they were sure I was going to be able to do this. And indeed I did.
In 2011, we started with 40 kids and 5 instructors. Today we’re 300 kids with around 50 instructors.
That’s fast growth. What got you your initial customers & what got you scale?
We do a lot of Google Adwords & Facebook. We got the early adopters in through online ads. They’d click on an evocative photo and land on our page. After that, we were and still are hugely word-of-mouth and repeat customers. A kid will come one summer & come back the next summer, with two friends.
What does a child learn in a single day at Tracker’s camp?
Let’s take one of our camps called the Wilderness Survival Camp. This is a week long program where each day has a focus area. One day focuses on Tracking & Stealth, the next day on Knife-work & Fire and the third day, on Archery.
If it’s Tracking & Stealth day, we start the day with what’s called Silent Sit where we have kids sit silently in one spot & listen to their surroundings. The instructor gives a brief talk on moving silently – the actual physical movement of your feet. We play a couple of games to get them into it & then go on a stealthy walk through the forest, listening for birds.
Later in the day, we do some actual tracking exercises. Kids learn how to pay attention to tiny details – like you walk through a field & notice the grass that’s been pulled off because a deer took a bite. Or they practice tracking each other: what happens if you walk through the forest? What looks different now than before?
We try to teach them very specific skills each day.
Along with skills, I found there is also a component where children role-play & use their imagination.
Yes, we have this idea of story camps & skill camps.
At story camp you’re learning a skill but there’s a story around it. You’re playing a character in a story. We’ve created a series of Tracker’s stories: The School of Magic, Realms of Cascadia and The Little House on the Post-Apocalyptic Bay. They make potions or chase a unicorn. But in fact, they’re learning real skills. We have them make things out of real, edible plants. Or we’re showing them how to track an animal under the pretense of chasing unicorns.
At skill camp you’re learning, say fishing. But there’s a story there too. That feeling of a lazy summer where they have freedom. And they’re trusted with real knives & real fish hooks.
Can you walk us through the steps to design a program? Let’s take: designing a story camp for your summer program.
Step one, at the end of each summer we get together in a room & debrief. We talk about what went well & what needs to change. And we start floating new story ideas for next year’s camp.
Step two, one or two people on staff take an idea, chew on it & come up with a teaser for a camp. What’s the story? What are kids going to learn at that camp?
Recently, two people on staff who really love telling stories came up with a story line that goes across all 3 of our camps – School of Magic, The Realms of Cascadia & Pirate Adventure Camp. Each has its own start-to-finish story. But if a child were to take all 10 weeks of camp, they would actually see a coherent narrative across all 3 camps!
Next, we come up with an overall schedule for each camp. Each day of camp is further scheduled into 10-minute intervals. It’s all very structured so that the instructors have a basic game plan. But at the same time, they can be flexible and change, based on what their group of kids needs on that day.
Kids love your camps and keep coming back. But are there any unexpected outcomes you’ve seen from camp? Something that surprised you?
We’ve seen attitude and behavioral changes in some kids. We’re getting a reputation of being a camp that welcomes “difficult” children. Some parents have said to us – “I have seen such a difference in my child since last week.” or “You’re a camp that knows how to handle her.” That’s heartening. For really challenging kids, sometimes just knowing there’s a place that likes them, is tremendous.