VUHS Walden Project serving as a model

VERGENNES/MONKTON — On a cold November day in the woods of Monkton, students from Vermont and New York sat gathered around the fire, deeply engaged in conversation.
Each of these students was a member of an alternative-learning program from either the Green Mountain State or the Empire State. These programs, according to their organizers, share a unique approach to schooling — getting students outside and connecting them with their education in a way that desks and textbooks do not always allow.  
The students around the campfire were members of a newly founded New York Walden Project and their hosts, the students of the Vergennes Union High School Walden Project.
The founder of the New York project, Andy Webster, brought his students to Vermont to meet the group of individuals that inspired their learning experience, including Matt Schlein, who founded the VUHS Walden Project 20 years ago.
Looking back, Schlein explained how he came to create Walden. At that point he was teaching Psychology, English and Drama at VUHS. While watching his students come of age, Schlein was troubled by the way students seemed to rush through their education.
Schlein said he noticed what he called a significant lack of student ownership of their high school experience.
“It almost seemed like students were using their high school time to get through it as quickly as possible, to get on with the rest of their lives, as opposed to really delighting in the learning process,” said Schlein.
Schlein was inspired to help students enjoy learning by providing them with a different approach to education. The goal was to design a program where each student’s learning could be meaningful and personalized.
He said his personal connection to nature inspired him to take the program into the woods.
“Moving to Vermont with my young family at the time, I was very inspired by the environment and the people,” said Schlein. “It just struck me that nature provides a huge amount of inspiration.”
The program was named after “Walden,” the 1854 essay written by Henry David Thoreau following his two-year retreat to the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.
Similarly to Thoreau, Walden students spend the majority of their days in the woods. VUHS partners with the Willowell Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to connecting local people with natural educational experiences, to provide Walden students with its outdoor home along the Bristol-Monkton Road. Three days a week, VUHS students take a brief bus ride out to the woods of Monkton. Here, rain or shine, they begin each day with a reading from the works of Thoreau.
In warmer weather students also meet at the Kingsland Bay State Park regularly, and group trips are also made to Burlington and Middlebury.
According to VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor, Walden students perform personalized independent projects, and Fridays are typically apprenticeship days during which students focus on their projects and/or meet with community mentors. Those personalized plans, supervised by other teachers, can also fulfill requirements in content areas in which Schlein and the second Walden teacher are not certified.
Walden students typically see value in their time away from the building.
Marlie Hunt, a junior in the VUHS Walden Project, said that being outdoors is one of the biggest benefits of attending Walden.
“It’s been cool to be out in nature and learn because nature is such a teacher itself. Just being out here makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something,” said Hunt.
Walden students said that this connection to the natural world has led them to rethink various parts of their lives, one being their relationship with the food they eat. Each day, lunches are made from crops that come from the Walden Project’s garden. Students become part of the process of growing and cooking their food.
Hannah Philbrook, a senior in the Walden Project, said that the involvement in this process makes eating a much more meaningful experience.
“I think planting, growing, harvesting, and then preparing and cooking the food you consume makes you feel not only more connected to your health but to the land,” said Philbrook. “I think the disconnect people experience with where their food comes from makes the act of eating less meaningful.”
The fruits of the Walden Project at VUHS have caught the eyes of other schools over the years. Last year, Webster created his independent Walden Project in Naples, N.Y. Webster said that he was first inspired by the VUHS Walden Project in 2005, when he was a senior at Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt.
“I attended an education conference and met Matt Schlein,” said Webster. “I was totally impressed by his description of the Walden Project — it was exactly the kind of program I envisioned myself being part of someday.”
Webster said he was a teacher who, like Schlein, felt a significant disconnect to what he called the rigid structure of school systems. Drawn to the freedom that came from an education attained outside of a school building, Webster sought out a school to support his project.
Webster said that a lack of interest from local schools has left the project independent for the time being.
“I had pitched the idea of the program to different schools where I taught, but nobody was interested. I just decided to go for it on my own and hope that it would work,” he said. “Right now we are independent, but I am hoping that a school out here will see how great it is and want to take us under their umbrella.”
The Vermont and New York Walden projects are both centered around Thoreau’s works and the themes his writing teaches. Though the projects differ in terms of classes offered and daily activities, they are both rooted in connecting students to the natural world and to themselves.
This past November, when students from both New York and Vermont gathered at the VUHS Walden Project’s home base to share a day of learning, they circled around a fire and began a day full of conversations with the works of Thoreau.
Schlein said that Walden’s success is at least in part rooted in experiences just like that, which connect students and teachers over conversations.
“I think there’s something within us as a species that when we sit around a fire and talk, there’s something deeply nurturing in that. It’s our oldest way of building community,” he said. “We’re able to apply this to be an educational venue, and I think it really makes a difference being around a community of people that care for you.”
Marin Howell is a VUHS senior working an internship with the Independent.

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