Education News

Schlein leaves a legacy with Walden Project

OAK FONTE, RIGHT, and Kimari Collins, standing next to a portrait of Henry David Thoreau, are among the many local high school students who’ve taken part in the Walden Project over the years. The project will end its 24-year run this spring, when Walden founder and teacher Matt Schlein, left, retires.  Independent photo/Marin Howell

MONKTON — Matt Schlein is one of several local educators who will retire from their respective positions later this spring. 

Though the classroom he’ll vacate when summer break arrives looks a bit different than others. 

Schlein has spent the past 24 years leading the Walden Project, an outdoor, public education program run through Vergennes Union High School. Through the years, the program has served local 10-12th-graders in the woods of Monkton in partnership with the Willowell Foundation, a nonprofit also founded by Schlein. 

“I feel so blessed to have had this been my life’s work, and I wanted to end while my heart felt full and while things felt really complete,” Schlein said during a recent interview. 

The end of this school year will also mark the end of the Walden Project in its current form. The program was one of several items cut from the Addison Northwest School District’s fiscal year 2025 spending plan amid a challenging budget season. 

While the program will no longer be offered through VUHS, Schlein said members of the Walden community hope to keep the program going in some way. 

“There’s a hope that some kind of Walden 2.0 will emerge,” he said. “There are a lot of people who’ve reached out who really, really care, who look back on their time at Walden and look at it as one of their formative educational experiences and want to see it continue.” 

INTO THE WOODS

 Prior to starting the Walden Project in 2000, Schlein spent several years teaching English, drama and psychology at VUHS. He enjoyed his work in the classroom but longed to be spending more time out in the surrounding landscape. 

“I remember one fall day looking out and seeing all of these out-of-state tourists coming by and just enjoying the fall and we were all stuck inside,” he recalled. 

Schlein began bringing his classes outside as much as possible. 

“I found that there was a qualitative difference in the conversations when they took place in a different setting,” he said. “What can often happen in high school classes, in classes anywhere, is that there can be an absence of context for what it is that you’re learning.” 

Being outdoors provided more of that context for students, especially when studying the work of authors like transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

THE WALDEN PROJECT will end its 24-year run this spring, when Walden founder and teacher Matt Schlein retires. Pictured are the green doors to the project’s site in the Monkton woods.
Independent photo/Marin Howell

“I found that being in nature, particularly a lot of the writers and writing that I would teach, it just made sense,” Schlein said. “To talk about Thoreau but to do it while sitting in a classroom with florescent lights overhead, it almost seemed cruel and antithetical to the real teaching we’re trying to do.” 

Seeing gaps in the public school system and the benefits of outdoor learning, Schlein approached then-VUHS Principal Peter Coffey with the idea for Walden.   

“He was amazingly receptive. Part of that was fueled on the fact that there were two kids that the district was spending over $100,000 on out-of-district placement services,” Schlein said. “The idea was we’d pilot it for a year and if I took these two kids on, we’d give it a go and then we could evaluate if this makes sense and if we wanted to continue it.” 

An outdoor education program wasn’t a new concept, and there were similar offerings in and around Vermont at the time, Schlein said. However, those programs could cost students and their families thousands of dollars each semester. 

The Walden Project made such learning opportunities more accessible for students in the public school system. 

“There was this idea of ‘OK, this works,’ but also this notion of equity, how working class Vermonters could be able to have these kinds of experiences,” Schlein said. “I think we all need to feel connected to the earth. I think that’s the existential struggle for our species right now, so I didn’t want it to be a privileged experience.” 

A pilot version of the program kicked off with 17 students. Those students played a key role in shaping the program early on, Schlein said. 

“One of the things we did in those early years was that we really let the kids co-create the curriculum with us,” he said. “We knew we wanted to read a lot of Thoreau, we knew that writing was going to be a core piece of what we did, we knew we wanted to be immersed in nature. But in terms of the day to day, it was an honest conversation with the kids; what’s working, what’s not working, what do you want your education to look like?” 

No one knew what would become of the program after that first year, Schlein said. 

“There were these magical, wonderful moments and then there were some moments where it was like, ‘This is not what I envisioned when I started this thing,’” Schlein said. “But, by the end of the year I was sold on the magic of this approach to education.” 

Over the decades, Walden, its founder and the many young people it touched have grown and evolved.

Connecting with students and other members of the Walden community are among the many things Schlein will miss about the program. 

“These guys give me hope every day,” Schlein said. “People like to say all sorts of stuff about young people, but there’s a lot of them that are so awesome that are out there. I feel like the experience of being the Walden teacher has furthered my sense of hope for humanity.” 

A LASTING LEGACY

Schlein plans to remain active in the Willowell Foundation, which since its founding has grown to include several projects and outdoor education programs for preK-12 students. (Read more about Walden here.) The foundation’s offerings include the Pond Brook School, the Wren’s Nest Preschool and the New Roots Project, a multi-aged, interdisciplinary program offered entirely outdoors. 

“Although Walden was a program out of VUHS that ran in collaboration with Willowell, the Willowell Foundation is still running stronger than ever and has no plans of closing or changing,” said Tasha Ball, Willowell’s administrative director. “With Matt’s retirement, we hope to have the executive director even more present as we expand our educational offerings such as Pond Brook Project, Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool, and summer camps in the coming years.” 

Schlein said he and others hope the program will continue in some iteration. He noted Peter Houskeeper, a Walden alum, and Camie Thompson, an AmeriCorps service member at Willowell, make up a new generation of educators poised to take over the Walden Project upon Schlein’s retirement. 

Now Schlein and others are working to figure out what the program’s future could entail. 

MATT SCHLEIN HAS spent the past 24 years running the Walden Project, an outdoor, public education program offered through Vergennes Union High School. Schlein plans to retire at the end of this school year, which will also mark the end of the Walden Project in its current form. 
Independent photo/Marin Howell

“This chapter with Vergennes is sadly over for now, which I have bittersweet feelings about. I think overall it’s been a really positive relationship, and I’ve been very supported by the Addison Northwest community,” Schlein said. “Whatever we do, this idea of connection to nature, of equity, of authentic community are still relevant. That still matters.” 

There’s certainly more day to dawn, as Thoreau once wrote, and Walden students are optimistic about what that day might bring. 

“It’s kind of a beautiful thing to know that whatever comes next gets to get rid of all of our rules and all of our things that we do and forge something entirely new, which is a really beautiful thought that has been keeping me sane about this whole thing ending,” said Oak Fonte, a current student at Walden. 

Whatever is in store for the program, there’s no question that Schlein has had a lasting impact on the community through the Walden Project.  

“Matt has fundamentally changed the landscape of education in Addison County, Vt., and internationally,” Ball said. 

“Through 24 years of Walden, Schlein showed us what is possible in public education. For many, Walden saved their lives and gave them a place to be their authentic selves. Walden brought together a diverse group of students — there was never anything homogeneous about the community around the fire in the woods.

 “Some students were on honor rolls and needed something different; some were on the verge of dropping out; some were queer; some straight; some went on to college and graduate school; some joined the military; others were simply surviving school, and found the great outdoors was a place where they could thrive and find their voices amongst the chaos of adolescence,” Ball continued. 

Ball added many took to Facebook to share their appreciation for the program following the announcement of it ending. 

“Parents, colleagues, and alumni wrote long notes of love and appreciation about how Walden changed the lives of young folks throughout Addison County,” she said. “Each one with the same tone of: ‘Thank you, Matt. You leave a lasting legacy. Learning together around a fire was a beacon in our lives.’” 

Community members are invited to celebrate Schlein and the Walden Project with an evening of poetry, art and music at the Willowell property on July 13.  

Those interested in attending the celebration can RSVP at [email protected]. 

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