Vermont’s Uncommon School: An Interview with Matthew Schlein of the Walden Project, by Mark Gallagher

Willowell Foundation, Monkton, Vermont, home of the Walden Project. Photograph courtesy of Chris Mazzarella

At a time when educational reform programs have teachers concerned about their autonomy in the classroom, Henry David Thoreau’s early teaching career may offer some inspiration. It began in 1835, when Thoreau took time off from college to teach in Canton, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard in 1837, he briefly accepted a position at the Concord Center School, but resigned a few weeks later when he disagreed with the school policy mandating corporal punishment.

John and Henry Thoreau

Eventually he and his brother John would start their own school, taking over Concord Academy from 1838 to 1842. It was there that the Thoreaus used innovative, project-based approaches to learning that included nature walks, gardening, and visits to local shops and tradesmen, alongside more traditional methods and courses of study.  

I recently spoke with Schlein about his work as an educator, and how the life and works of Henry Thoreau have influenced his teaching philosophy.The experimental curriculum pioneered by the Thoreau brothers is in many ways a blueprint for the classroom of Matthew Schlein, founder and director of the Willowell Foundation and the Walden Project. The Walden Project is a public school program based at Vergennes Union High School in Vergennes, Vermont. Students study the writings of Thoreau and other Transcendentalists while pursing their own educational goals, deliberately, through self-directed, experience-based learning. In addition to the program’s holistic education, students avoid the fluorescent lights and tile floors of a typical high school building and make the woods, fields, and community their classroom.

 

Matthew Schlein, Willowell Foundation

MG: So why is it called the Walden Project?

MS: Because our program is inspired by Walden and parallels Thoreau’s ideas about education. In Walden, Thoreau says that students ought to “lay the foundation themselves” for their own schools, that “they should not play life, or study it merely…but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”

 

MG: To Thoreau’s credit, he tried “school-keeping” by experimenting with a curriculum built around that same philosophy, with some success, though he eventually gave up on the profession. Why do you think this style of teaching works today?

MS: When we rely too much on the structure of an overly prescriptive traditional curriculum, where does the student fit in? Does that really serve them? We have a heterogeneous mix of students at my school. Some are on their way to elite colleges and universities while others are precipitously close to dropping out. All benefit from this approach. Students going through the motions of their education, I find, are awakened by Thoreau’s playful challenges to orthodoxy. He reminds them to look at what is essential. March to the beat of your own drummer! I think high schools need encouragement and space to do this constructively. 

 

MG: But how do you do that and still follow the curriculum standards established by the high school? Especially within a public education system with all the expectations that come with state and national academic standards mandated by the Common Core?

MS: You are right in thinking that the design of our program is intentionally anti-hierarchical, that it does try to invert the traditional power relationships that can exist in public education. We have to do a tricky dance, making sure we are aligned with the Common Core, and at the same time providing a space where the students get the autonomy to cocreate an educational experience that speaks to their needs, dreams, and aspirations.

Half of what we do is fairly structured and emphasizes writing, the social sciences, and environmental studies. Some classes, like Environmental Studies and Ecology, led by my teaching partner, Becky Dowdy, involve ongoing monitoring of the local ecosystems. We might read a section from the “Walking” essay extolling the virtues of the swamp, and then analyze plants, trees, and tracks in the nearby wetlands. All of these structured experiences are designed to mesh with independent projects that constitute the other, open-ended half of the curriculum.

Walden Project, Vermont

MG: What kinds of projects do the students work on? Can you give us some examples?

MS: The projects vary, of course, based upon student interest. For example, some students engage in wildlife monitoring. Others grow food on a one-acre garden for school lunches, and bring some to the local food shelves. There are other projects, too. One of our current students is creating a giant medieval-style illuminated book of the “Walking” essay, with four-by-eight foot panels to be displayed along a hiking trail. Other students will write books of poetry, create art exhibitions, record original music—the list goes on and on.

One of my favorite student projects involved the building of a traditional dugout canoe using only hand tools. The culmination of the project happened when this student took it out in the local watershed for two weeks, just like Henry and John did on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

 

MG: I take it that the students who apply to the program must love being outdoors.

MS: Definitely, and having the students immersed in the natural world throughout the year also shapes much of what we do. Our classroom is a 230-acre preserve run by the Willowell Foundation in Monkton, Vermont. We begin the year in the late summer, experience the fall, then the long cold winter, and emerge on the other end in spring. This, we hope, mirrors the process of growth in the students themselves.

 

Willowell FoundationMG: What is the Willowell Foundation exactly?

MS: The Willowell Foundation is a non-profit 501c-(3) that was started to help support the Walden Project and other programs in arts, education, and the environment. Supporting independent student work often requires financial assistance and that is where Willowell comes in. It provides resources for curriculum development, a physical home for the Walden Project, and funding for naturalist programs and artist residencies that augment that interdisciplinary nature of the Walden Project.

 

MG: If I can switch gears a little bit, Matt, I want to find out more about you. Where did your career as an educator begin?

MS: I began teaching in the juvenile justice system in Michigan. I was frustrated with the punitive model and with how broken it was. Most of the kids that I worked with were coming from circumstances that drove their behavior. What they needed were opportunities—not just teachers telling them that what they were doing was bad, but instead giving them options, possibilities for change, ways to cultivate their individual voice.

 

MG: How did you end up teaching in Vermont?

MS: You could say that the mythology of Vermont drew me in. I grew up in the New York City area. Then I moved to Ann Arbor for college at the University of Michigan, lived there for ten years. I really liked it, had a good life there, but I had always wanted to live in New England. So I moved my family to Vermont and taught drama, psychology, and English in a mainstream classroom. There I really tried to create a dynamic classroom that promoted student growth.

 

MG: How did that work out?

MS: I had some success and a few noble failures. For me, the structure of the school day was the problem. I felt it did not always maximize learning opportunities for students. So I approached the principal with the seed of the idea, and from there we sketched out a year long, forty-hour-per-week program built around the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

 


MG:
Walden obviously has had a profound influence on your teaching. When did you first read it? And what kind of impression did it make on you?

MS: I was introduced to Walden in high school. It wasn’t until I was reintroduced to it in college that it became one of the great reading experiences of my life. I read it almost in one sitting— definitely a touchstone for me. And as I teach it I find that I keep getting more and more out of it. It feels like a bottomless text. His ability to move seamlessly between simple observations and larger questions continues to delight me.

 

Matt Schlein with his studentsMG: And your students, they find Walden inspiring as well?

MS: I think Thoreau’s example inspires them, especially adolescents trying to find their identity, to establish an authentic sense of self in relation to larger questions. Thoreau found his center in a society going through rapid change. He did not heed Horace Greeley’s advice to go west. Instead, he deeply rooted himself in his place of origin. The story he tells at Walden’s conclusion about the “beautiful bug” gnawing its way out of an apple wood table warmed by a lamp, freeing itself from its “well seasoned tomb,” is about the emergence of life from the staid and restrictive—and young people really identify with this.

 

MG: Is that the way you teach Walden, as a kind of self-help manual for teens?

MS: I teach Walden as a work of literature, but I also think of it as a tool that my students can use to think critically about their own lives and to help guide and shape their own experiences. The text allows us to explore questions about freedom, society, consumption, our relationship to the natural world, and the primacy of the individual in a way that is meaningful to students.

 

MG: What other works by Thoreau do you teach?

MS: We try to read as much of Thoreau’s work as we can. We read all of “Civil Disobedience,” “Walking,” “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” and “Slavery in Massachusetts.” We also read excerpts from the journals, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod. They all inspire and challenge the students. Obviously, some of the work proves more accessible and relevant, but we want them to be exposed to the scope of his thinking.

 

MG: You bring up an important point about Thoreau’s relevance. What would you say to your fellow educators who don’t see Thoreau—or nineteenth century American literature in general—as relevant? Why do you think they should teach Thoreau and the Transcendentalists in their classrooms?

MS: I would say that the Transcendentalists are as relevant now as they were in their own time. They stood at the confluence of significant cultural, economic, and ecological change, which in many ways mirrors some of the challenges we see in our globalized society. Educators can use Transcendentalist texts as models of interdisciplinarity. Look at their willingness to explore the wisdom of the Vedas, Confucius, Taoism, or how they embraced ideas from science, Native American culture, and Western philosophy, all while addressing the rapid economic and territorial expansion going on in the United States. We start every day with a reading from one of the Transcendentalists as a way to ground the students in these larger questions. Themes like wild versus cultivated, the individual versus the society, the importance of following one’s voice, authenticity, etc., recur throughout the texts and the students get a chance to appreciate the layers and complexities of these issues as we frame our day’s discussions around them.

 


MG:
The Walden Project is now in its fifteenth year. How do you measure the success of the program?

MS: We can point to the low dropout rate, college acceptances, and inspiring projects, but I think the real arbiter of success is the connection the students feel to their education and their willingness to embrace their lives and engage their community. We have adults who look back at their time here as launching pads for their careers as artists, writers, musicians, educators, environmental activists. Many say that they were going through the motions of learning prior to their time at the Walden Project, but their time in the woods served as an opportunity to discover their own passions and to really own their educational experience.

 

MG: Do you think that the Walden Project could be a “seed,” in a Thoreauvian sense, for other schools?

MS: We are one example of what is possible in education, but part of a larger movement called place-based education. We are amassing both qualitative and quantitative data that we hope will inform other educators and inform and catalyze school change. I am also working on a book about the Walden Project, and reaching out to former students to include their stories in the text.

 

MG: Finally, as an educator, what would you say you have learned from Thoreau?

MS: Understanding the value of experience—the value of looking to each moment to be full of potential, full of possibilities. As Thoreau says in the conclusion to Walden, “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

 

• Mark Gallagher is the editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin.

 

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