THE ACADEMIC PROGRAM
"It would be better… for the students to lay the foundation themselves." (Henry David Thoreau)
The Walden Project is an educational program for high school and gap-year students where the curriculum is based on the three questions that guided Henry David Thoreau during his year-long sojourn to Walden Pond: What is my relationship to myself? What is my relationship to my culture? and What is my relationship to nature? All of the students’ experiences are connected back to these three essential questions.
Conventional education systems tend to teach students a variety of disconnected topics simultaneously. On any given day, a student goes from History to Math to Art to Science, and there is rarely any attempt to integrate these topics.
The Walden Project operates on the principle of consilience -- an integrated approach to learning in which one topic is approached from a variety of perspectives, resulting in a deeper understanding that develops at the intersections of these viewpoints. Like a pebble that is tossed into still water and causes ripples, students are encouraged to chase after that which inspires them to want to learn more -- one experience that may ripple out into a much larger understanding of the world. Throughout the year, The Walden Project develops a culture of self-directed learners, where each student’s work strengthens the rest as it develops an intricate network of new ideas bridging a wide range of perspectives.
Throughout the year, students are encouraged to reflect on how all of their experiences shape their understanding of the world, and then communicate what they have learned clearly and thoroughly. The lines between experience, reflection, and communication are permeable and blurred, but the following diagram provides context for how all of the parts of the program are related.
What do we really need? Students explore this essential question by experiencing what it takes to meet their basic needs. Activities in this realm include building fires to stay warm, growing food in the garden, and making things from raw materials.
Students are encouraged to spend time each day alone developing their own personal relationships with nature. During this time, students might visit a “sit spot” where they make observations in a journal, create artwork, or otherwise just be in the woods.
Hiking & Exploring
Thoreau wrote, “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Cumming Nature Center is made up of over 900 acres of forested land with dozens of miles of trails. Throughout the year, students explore the landscape by hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, and paddling across it.
Each day begins with a passage from Thoreau and a discussion around the campfire about how it relates to literature, philosophy, current events, history, or science. Through these dialogues, students construct a deeper understanding of themselves and their beliefs.
Every mind is unique -- the way it develops, processes information, solves problems, and communicates with others. Students examine theories on education and motivation, especially as they relate to the concept of self-directed learning. Students reflect on how they personally learn best and what challenges inhibit them from reaching their goals.
The purpose of Community Meeting is to take a pulse on what is happening at The Walden Project each week. Information is exchanged, issues are raised, and achievements are acknowledged. Students explore group dynamics, especially regarding consensus-based decision making and healthy forms of communication.
Learning is a process. Students are invited to document their Walden journey in their journals. Students develop the daily practice of recording their thoughts and observations in both words and drawings.
Everything is part of a larger system, and all systems can be modeled. Using only a few symbols, students learn how to diagram the complexities of real-world situations to identify patterns and leverage points.
Independent Research Projects
During each six-week unit, students complete one independent research project on a topic they choose.
Service Learning Projects
During each six-week unit, students complete one service learning project, where they do meaningful work in their community.
Each person in the group (including adult staff members) are invited to tell their personal life story to the group. Each week a different person in the group tells their story, starting with the oldest person and working to the youngest person. This experience is designed to help students reflect on the formative experiences in their own life and to develop empathy for their classmates.
Writing & Speaking
Students learn how to communicate effectively in both creative and descriptive writing. Students receive feedback from both teachers and peers on the clarity of their communication.
At the end of the year, students will organize all of the work from the year into a portfolio. There is some flexibility in how it is organized, but it should basically answer the three central questions of The Walden Project: What is my relationship to myself? What is my relationship to my culture? and What is my relationship to the natural world? A typical portfolio would include all of the work the student has done for the year, reorganized with a narrative explaining its significance in the context of the year.
Credits and Transcripts
Because The Walden Project uses an integrated approach to learning and problem-solving, there is no formal division between academic disciplines; students are encouraged to approach a topic through a variety of different contexts (historical, scientific, logical, creative, etc.). Nevertheless, when a student completes a year at Walden, his or her transcript will verify that the student has completed 7 high school credits: English Language Arts, Math (Systems Thinking), Social Studies, Environmental Science, Health, Physical Education, and Applied Arts.
*The Walden Project - New York is in the process of becoming a regionally accredited program. Nevertheless, many schools in our area (both public and private) have agreed to accept our credits. If you want to attend Walden, we will gladly talk to your current school and discuss how your Walden Project experience will fit in to your pathway to graduation.
For more information, download The Walden Project-New York Handbook.