RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Some teachers offer to take their class outside when the weather's nice. A high school program in northern Vermont holds classes outside all year. Even this time of year. The Walden Project focuses on environmental studies and on the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, who did some of his best thinking at Walden Pond. And that project is the latest subject of our series of innovative high schools. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.
LARRY ABRAMSON: So, imagine you're a teenager in your usual early morning stupor. Three or four days a week you ride a bus eight miles from Vergennes Union High School south of Burlington. You walk nearly a mile through the woods to a circle of broken chairs and benches.
Mr. MATT SCHLEIN (Teacher, founder of Walden Project): Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest, not yet subdued to man.
ABRAMSON: Rain, snow, or shine, you begin your day sitting under the cedar trees listening to teacher Matt Schlein read from the works of Henry David Thoreau.
MATT SCHLEIN: Well, I mean, he frames the argument, right? That that which is sort of subdued by man has much less potency, and that's sort of which sort of resists the pressures of society, you know, that there's a certain vibrancy and strength with that.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Schlein is dressed in Wellington boots, pretty much the only sensible footwear after several feet of snow have melted in a sudden blast of spring weather. This native of New York is 50 percent of the teaching staff at Walden. After years as a teacher, Matt Schlein decided to leave the regular high school. He started a local foundation and raised enough money to buy the 260 acres that kids use as their classroom.
Mr. SCHLEIN: Well, let's shift it over to the happenings of the world.
MALE SPEAKER (student): Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primaries.
ABRAMSON: There's no need to change classes. Without getting up, kids shift into foundations in social and systems theory. Whether they are studying math, religion or English, students are driven by three questions that served as guideposts for Thoreau.
Mr. SCHLEIN: You know, what are - my relationship with self? What's my relationship with culture? What's my relationship with the natural world?
ABRAMSON: Out here, the natural world has its hands on you all the time. A downpour drives everyone into the only shelter around, a hand-hewn tent frame covered with sail material. This and a wood-burning stove are the only protections against the sub-zero temperatures that are the norm here in winter. On the wall of the tent is a picture of Thoreau, the omnipresence of this cranky 19th century philosopher and naturalist makes you kind of wonder.
MALE SPEAKER: Do we ever get tired of him?
ABRAMSON: Beth Kirschner is a graduate of the Walden Project. She is on break from the University of Vermont and came back just to visit.
Ms. BETH KIRSCHNER (Walden Project graduate): We make jokes about him and make fun of him, but then in the more serious times we kind of come back to him and his basic message. So, it's a love-hate relationship with HD, we call him.
Ms. BECKY EBOLT (Teacher): We're gonna take a quick break.We are going to have ecology. We'll have lunch and then psych, philosophy, and world religion.
ABRAMSON: Once the rain lets up, Becky Ebolt(ph), the other teacher, moves class back outside.
Mr. SCHLEIN: Wait, one last call for vegetables. Does anyone have any veggies to roast up while you're gone?
ABRAMSON: Matt Schlein stays behind and puts together a stew. It comes mostly from the Walden Project garden, but he welcomes contributions from home. Everyone heads out to take a closer look at a nearby stand of Hemlock trees. On the walk down to the woods, some of the students horse around a lot. In fact, it's a little hard to imagine how some of these kids could ever sit still in class for a full day. Many come here because they can't handle the confines of the classroom. Others are clearly very bright, but are looking for something besides graduation. Hillary Devoss is in her third year at Walden.
Ms. HILLARY DEVOSS: Um, just wasn't really happy in the high school. I wasn't very engaged in my education. I kind of was failing all my classes. I'm really, I care a lot about my education now, which is something I didn't before.
ABRAMSON: We walk through fields flooded with snowmelt and arrive at the Hemlocks. They're blocking the sunlight, forcing out other plants. As a student project, Jamison Banister has a scheme to foster a greater diversity of species here.
Mr. JAMISON BANISTER (Student): So, I was planning to cut down like three or four in a clump in a couple different areas to allow more sunlight to come in to ease up some of the competition.
ABRAMSON: The Walden Project wants to teach kids about this place rather than giving them the same lessons they could get anywhere in the country. Of course, that means students who choose to apply to this program have to give up something. There's no calculus, no lab science. Jenny Johnson, a senior, walking with her friend Joe, says something else is missing: the social games that make high school such a pressure cooker.
Ms. JENNY JOHNSON (Student): It's like, Joe and I would never have talked last year and now we are like really good friends.
ABRAMSON: Why would you not have talked?
Ms. JOHNSON: I don't know, he was like the cool kid, I guess, and I wasn't and now we are like, we talk all the time.
ABRAMSON: On days when students are not here, they pursue internships nearby in Burlington or attend writing workshops. Walden kids are more likely to go to college than are students at the high school they come from, but it's not for everyone. You have to like being with the same 20 students all year long. You have to like the cold. And you'd better like Matt Schlein's winter specially, garden fresh, pan-fried kale.
Mr. SCHLEIN: I'm sorry to say this is the end of the kale.
ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.
You can read about innovative trends at other high schools across the country by going to NPR.org.