Emerging from the Woods

Imagine winter in Vermont. The ground is covered in several inches of snow, temperatures are below freezing, and the halls of a local high school are packed with students on their way to their last class of the day. It’s an average school hallway, with one exception: among the students are several wearing heavy winter jackets, boots caked with mud, and Carhartt jeans with worn knees. And, though they smell distinctly like a campfire as they settle in among their peers in the library for independent study, no one around them bats an eye.

Because at Vergennes Union High School, this scene is not at all unusual. In fact, for almost two decades, it’s been a near-daily occurrence, thanks to teacher Matt Schlein, who pioneered a place-based program that asks students to leave behind rows of desks and whitewashed walls to engage with the world around them. Inspired by the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, this distinctive program is called The Walden Project, or, among community members, simply (and lovingly) “Walden.”

Armed with 230 Acres of Land, and a Pencil

When Schlein began, he says, “The original idea was that Walden is about being in the woods and removing oneself from the din of technology.”

And in that sense, it hasn’t changed much: two or three days a week, 20 students arrive on the Walden Land by school bus, armed with a pencil and paper, where they sit around a fire to read, write, and share with each other. They are further tasked with engaging with the land around them for lessons in biology and agriculture, becoming active community members for civics lessons, and apprenticing at local companies for real world experiences. By June, they are able to deliver a portfolio of what they learned, an individualized representation of the learning journey they began way back in September.

But there’s no denying that the evolution of technology has required the philosophy of Walden evolve, too. While student portfolios were once limited by what could be printed, bound, and brought into a classroom, the opportunities for individual expression through digital projects are nearly endless (creating an online portfolio of photography, for example, builds several distinctive skill sets outside of taking and editing photos).

As Schlein explains, even though the ideal learning environment is one that eschews distraction, “We’ve learned that technology can be used in a way that’s in harmony with our purposes. It’s not about a philosophically pure, idealistic program, it’s about empowering students. We’re constantly asking: how can we support students in expressing their sense of self?”

Since its inception, more than 300 students have connected to their learning in ways that are unique to them and who they are in the world. Alumni have gone on to become teachers, electricians, carpenters, award-winning poets and writers, farmers, doctoral candidates, and environmental scientists, among many other things.

Engaged in Learning, Engaged in the World

Walden wasn’t originally met with wide applause in Vergennes. Through the years, more than a few taxpayers wondered aloud, “Why do I pay for a camping trip every day?”

But as Schlein explains, the underlying philosophy of place-based learning is that the world is a great conduit for learning, rather than a distraction from it. “Many of the students in Walden previously felt alienated by their education, and alienated within themselves as a result. But when they’re engaged with the world, they can engage with their learning and have a stronger sense of themselves to be efficacious in the world.”

But does it actually work? When asked, Walden alumni overwhelmingly and passionately respond, “Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt. I am who I am because of Walden.”

And, anecdotally, Schlein says, in the last few years, every Walden senior who’s applied to college has been accepted, which speaks to the value of the learning they engage in.

Furthermore, Schlein and his co-teachers have seen first hand the number of Walden students who were ready to drop out of school, but became ardent defenders of their education after Walden. Within the program’s first few years, the dropout rate at VUHS decreased significantly, and the current retention rate at the school is very high.

Which also speaks to the fact that the program’s impacts aren’t limited to Walden alumni alone. While only 20 students a year are able to participate, the other 600 students at VUHS see their peers engaged with education in new, different and challenging ways, and are inspired to do the same (the high school itself provides a number of opportunities for students to do this, with active school-to-work programs and individual study opportunities).

Over time, the community has warmed to Walden, reflecting a shift in education as a whole. “Vergennes has changed, but so has Vermont, and so have national laws as well. Personalized learning used to be aspirational, but legislation has changed to reflect the importance of individual learning,” Schlein says.

High School in the Woods, Learning for a Lifetime

From the very beginning, in Schlein’s own words, Walden has focused on “Engaging in the process of understanding yourself, your strengths, and how you engage with others and look at issues around you critically to allow for creative thinking and problem solving. That’s really what education should provide. The jobs that will shape the world in 20 or 30 years don’t exist yet, so we create lifelong learners who can be prepared for that. Lifelong learners don’t come to their graduation thinking that’s the end, because they know it’s just the beginning.”

Furthermore, there’s a larger ecosystem of education that students are able to engage in: Walden students are also VUHS athletes, active members of the Chorus and Band, and often take Advanced Placement biology, math, and world languages.

The value of these interactions cannot be underestimated. When the school faced budgetary cuts a few years ago, more than 100 former Walden students showed up to support keeping the program, and then further supported the other programs on the chopping block. In that moment, they espoused the values Walden had instilled in them: Their education didn’t exist within a silo, and their success relied on Walden as much as it did their interactions with the music, art, science, math, and language programs that enabled a truly individualized experience for each student.

Ultimately, every program ended up surviving the budget cuts, but it spoke to the nearly immeasurable value of a program like Walden in a community like Vergennes (one of Vermont’s smallest cities), in which the experience of learning impacts students and alumni for a lifetime.