Students learn from surroundings
MONKTON — After tromping in shin-deep snow through some of the 11 eco-zones on the Willowell Foundation’s property off Stoney Meadow Lane in Monkton, we come to a clearing. I am sure I have stumbled upon some kind of Narnia, the fantasy land created by children’s author C.S. Lewis.
A large shelter insulated in old sails looms like a giant’s cave. The shelter’s frame is built of cedar beams the students harvested from the woods — without a single nail. The imposing structure will be replaced with a cabin this spring.
“The original design problem was based on Thoreau having just 28 dollars and 12.5 cents to build his cabin,” Walden Project founder and head teacher Matt Schlein explains. “We could adjust for inflation.”
Students in the Walden Project — a program serving students in grades 10 to 12, mostly from the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union — drag old chairs and van seats into a circle as others gather kindling for the fire. When everyone has settled down, Schlein begins the school day with a reading from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life without Principle.”
“I noticed one of my neighbors walking beside his team, which was slowly drawing a heavy hewn stone swung under the axle, surrounded by an atmosphere of industry — his day’s work begun — his brow commenced to sweat — a reproach to all sluggards and idlers,” Schlein reads. “And I thought, such is the labor which the American Congress exists to protect — honest, manly toil — honest as the day is long.”
As he reads, a young man wanders off to the woodpile to engage in some “manly toil” himself — chopping more wood to stoke the fire.
Founded in 2000by Vergennes Union High School teacher Schlein, the Walden Project is a public school program working in conjunction with VUHS with support from the Willowell Foundation. Modeled after Thoreau’s deliberate living project at Walden Pond, students come to these 260 acres to engage in discussions that, according to Schlein, “deepen their relationship to themselves, to others, and to the environment.”
Following Schlein’s commanding reading, students offer their impressions freely. One young woman finds this reading a bit self-righteous.
“He’s just getting down on everyone in the system, when it isn’t that easy for everyone to drop out of society,” she observes.
When Schlein asks if Thoreau’s idea translates, 150 years later, fifteen heads nod in agreement around the circle.
I watch a young man cook a hunk of family-hunted venison in a cast-iron pan over the fire. It is no wonder to me that Thoreau’s lessons in self-sufficiency and “honest toil” resonate here in this beautiful frozen classroom.
Students share original poems and listen carefully and respectfully to each other. Discussion topics segue naturally from one to another, as Schlein is adept at revealing the interconnectedness of every subject. From local tragic events to national obesity to China’s economy and Chinese Premiere Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S., no topic is untouchable in this morning’s conversation. While a free discussion ensues, Schlein certainly guides the dialogue with his own wisdom.
“Beware of making broad generalizations of cultures. You’re always missing something,” he says.
As my toes begin to numb, I am all the more awed by the circle of eager, engaged faces around the fire.
When prompted about their favorite aspect of the Walden Project, it seems as if Thoreau himself is speaking through these Carhartt-clad youth:
Choice. Flexibility. Community.
The opportunity to spend time outdoors.
Gathering around a fire with a bunch of awesome people.
Freedom and responsibility.
Like the famous 19th century disgruntled hermit, the students of the Walden Project have dared to explore alternate methods of learning; they do so here with a blend of curiosity, earnestness, and a sense of humor. One line from Schlein’s reading of “Life without Principle” declares this dedication to educational independence:
“I prefer to finish my education at a different school.”
One student has come all the way from New Jersey to enroll in the Walden Project.
Making my way back to the road through the snowy cedars I have to smile at the Christmas lights hanging in the trees, the satellite dish balanced atop the giant tent — Thoreau’s deliberate living with some witty panache.
The circle of engaged voices and the crackling fire fades into the woods behind me. As a discussion of Buddhist philosophy blends with the rhythmic fall of an axe through wood, I know I have witnessed something special.
Ellie Moore is an intern at the Independentthis month.