willowell foundation

The Walden Project


The Walden Project is an outdoor, alternative public education program serving students in grades 10-12. Vergennes Union High School and The Willowell Foundation partner to support the The Walden Project. This program provides students with a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes writing, philosophy, and environmental studies.

The program is modeled on Henry David Thoreau’s sojourn to Walden Pond where he immersed himself in ecology to deepen his sense of self, and explore his relationship with society, and the natural world. To that end, we support student centered-inquiry and encourage youth to follow and pursue their own areas of interest with support and guidance from the staff. The Walden Project is proud of its association with Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and  public education.



A Few Words from Matt Schlein, Walden Project Director

There is an old Indian story of seven blind men who are asked to describe an elephant. Their responses all vary according to their experiences. The first blind man, who touched the elephant’s trunk, describes the elephant, “like a snake.” The second blind man, who touched the elephant’s leg describes the elephant, “like a tree trunk.” And so on. Each is convinced that they are right, based upon the part of the elephant’s anatomy that they have touched. They remain angry and isolated in their self-righteous indignation until a passerby tells them that they are all right and manages to integrate the pieces of their individual experiences.

This story has struck us as being directly applicable to the world of high school students. Like the blind men in the story, many teachers offer their view of the world through the lens of their academic discipline. The student, like the passerby, is asked to distill this information and create a cohesive picture of the world. While it is undoubtedly true that many students have achieved success with this model, it is also clear that this model does not work for everyone. Creating a sense of one’s place in the world, through education, is a highly individualized affair. To that end, it is important that we offer students a variety of ways to wrestle with the important questions of learning, where there is a natural thematic connection linking the fields of study. There is a historical precedence for this type of interdisciplinary education.

On the following pages, you will read about The Walden Project, which is a model based upon this idea. As you will note, each academic discipline is discussed and its relationship to the Vermont Framework of Standards is detailed. It is important, however, to note that the program itself is designed so these distinctions are blurred. While students will undoubtedly gain the skills in each academic discipline, these skills will be developed as part of a broader mode of inquiry.

The program is inspired by the writings of the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau went into the woods to “live deliberately.”  During his sojourn there, he meditated upon his life and the relationship between himself and his society. While he did not spend his entire life in the woods, this period was important for him in articulating his own writing and philosophy, which has inspired millions of others, including Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King Jr. It also furthered his own attempts to reconcile the notions of self-sufficiency and social responsibility.

We will be asking students to look closely at the present day world and to discover how they can be contributors from a developed sense of social, environmental, and personal awareness. To help the students understand a community perspective, a broad cross-section of scientists, writers, artists, business people, trades people, and other community members will supplement their personal course of study.



This program is offered to any high school student who is interested in an integrated approach to education. This interdisciplinary project will seek to present links across and within the traditional curriculum of Science, English, Math, and History. Students will ask critical questions and engage in problem solving that utilizes verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal and intrapersonal styles of learning. Additionally, students will be asked to actively engage in the community, both with peers and the community-at-large. This involvement is intended to cultivate positive relationships to their selves, their social milieu, and their physical environment.



I. Students will develop a broad range of reasoning and problem solving skills.

  • Students will ask meaningful questions.

  • Students will choose effective means for problem solving.

  • Students will think abstractly and creatively.

  • Students will approach problem solving with an open mind, healthy skepticism, and persistence.

II. Students will engage in personal development.

  • Students will learn how to make healthy choices.

  • Students will make informed decisions.

  • Students will develop satisfying relationships with others.

  • Students will develop the skills necessary to participate in the workplace.

  • Students will develop a sense of unique worth and personal competence.

III. Students will develop effective communication skills.

  • Students will understand how to critically look at a variety of materials.

  • Students will learn to express themselves with power and purpose.

IIII. Students will develop a strong sense of civic and social responsibility.

  • Students will learn by serving others and will participate in the democratic process.

  • Students will understand continuity and change.

  • Students will respect and value human diversity as part of a multi-cultural society and world.



Required Courses:

  • Creative Writing/Field Sociology in Burlington -(Language Arts)

  • Foundations in Social & Systems Theory – (Social Science)

  • Professional Internship / Apprenticeships – (Various)

  • Natural Studies – (Environmental Science)

  • Health & Physical Education – (Health-PE)

Elective Courses:

  • Media Literacy & Popular Cultural Studies – (Social Science/Language Arts)

  • Modern & Contemporary Literature – (Language Arts)

  • Drama – (Language Arts / Fine Arts)

  • World Philosophy, Religions and Psychology – (Social Science)

  • Wildlife Biology – (Ecology)

  • Mathematics – (Math)

  • CCV Class in Burlington – (Various)

  • Advanced Topics in Social Sciences – (Social Science)

  • Advanced Topics in Humanities – (Social Science)

  • Advanced Topics in Literary Studies – (Social Science/Language Arts)

  • Advanced Topics in Ecology – (Environmental Science)

Required Activities:

  • Journals – (Language Arts)

  • Field Trip to Walden Pond – (Social Science)

  • Organic Gardening – (Environmental Science)

  • Attending Plays – (Social Science)

  • Camping Trips – (Health-PE & Environmental Science)

  • Biography Projects – (Social Science/Language Arts)

  • Community Lunch – (Health)

  • Public Speaking – (Language Arts)

  • Guest Speakers – (Various)

Elective Activities:

  • Vermont Playwrights Festival – (Language Arts / Fine Arts)

  • New England Young Writers Conference – (Language Arts / Fine Arts)