Volume: 5, Issue: 3


The Walden Project: A Lesson in Autonomy
Фриборн, Дэн [about]

KEY WORDS: motivation, autonomy, project learning, self-determination, teaching literature, life-long learning, Thoreau.
ABSTRACT: The ability to attend school full-time is a remarkable opportunity, coveted by those prevented from doing so. Yet for many students, school is a boring obligation whose relevance to their deeper interests is often vague at best. In my own literature courses, I work above all to convince my students that reading is intrinsically worth their time, that it is a key to a well-lived life, that education is not merely for the sake of a high-paying job but can change the quality of their lives. I want them to see for themselves that learning is its own reward, and that the quality of their lives is in their own hands. One work that I teach expresses this idea explicitly. In his work Walden, Henry David Thoreau claims that living deliberately is the essence of the good life. My attempt to convey the essence of this powerful work gave rise to a class project that turns students’ gaze inward and calls them to an account of their own lives. In this paper, I will describe the Walden project itself and share some accounts of specific student projects.

As a high school literature teacher, I feel compelled to do more than tell my students what books mean.  When my students read a great book, I want it to move them the way it moves me. I want it to change their lives. This paper is an attempt to share a project I have developed over the last ten years with 15-year-olds in an international setting at the American School of Madrid, a project that I think has worked well more than once for me, but also a project that could have numerous iterations, variations, and applications. It is intended to be a re-creation of a famous experiment in living conducted and recorded by one of the greatest and most independent American thinkers of the last 275 years, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was born in 1817 and died in 1862. When he was 38, he moved for two years to a small cabin that he built himself on the shores of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts.  His purpose was to experiment with his own life by cutting out everything that he thought was an unnecessary distraction or burden. He wanted to stop complaining about life until he was really sure that life itself, not his decisions, was the cause of his complaining.

Of course, complaining about life is common not only among high school students – it is common to the human race. Most of us tend to think and speak of our lives as happening to us. We hope that this day will be a good day, as though we had no control over what kind of day we have, as though God were dealing out poker cards every morning, and all we can do is sit back and see what we get. This is the kind of passive life Thoreau challenged head on by living out his experiment.

The Walden Project grew out of my own emotional response to reading Thoreau’s Walden. I remembered having read selections from the work as a high school student myself, but my memory of the experience was that the work was mostly dull, antiquated, irrelevant, and merely required reading. When I read it again on my own twelve years later, I found it life-changing. But I knew that tenth-graders would get lost in the difficult language, the long sentences, the references to ancient authors of the West and East. So I asked myself what the essence of Thoreau’s vision really is. This required, of course, another reading or two. During these re-readings, I noticed something strange, the title of the first chapter: “Economy.” In this chapter, Thoreau describes in detail what it cost him, literally in dollars, to perform his experiment with life in order to find out whether life is worth living, and on what terms. It struck me that this was an unusual choice for a first chapter, and I began to think about why he might have chosen “Economy” as his entry into the more philosophical reflections in the book.

Like many teachers, I initially considered focusing on Thoreau’s connection with nature, the solitude he experienced at Walden Pond, and his reading habits during those two years. However, I somehow could not conceive of an assignment along those lines that would not ultimately ring false, with students faking in some contrived journal entries their long walks in the park, or their sudden transcendental enlightenment at the view of a sunset, or whatever else they thought I wanted them to realize so they could be just what the teacher wanted them to be. Asking the students to do anything in particular, in fact, seemed counter to the spirit of Walden itself. This is a book about a man who wanted to make his life his own and discover for himself, without regard to tradition, what life is and how he wanted to live it. With this in mind, then, I tried to imagine a project that the students could own completely, that was, in the spirit of Walden, an experiment with their own particular lives and had nothing to do with a teacher telling them what they should think or believe or do. In pursuing such a project, they would in fact be embodying the very heart of Walden.

It occurred to me then that Walden is not about living in nature but about living deliberately, for Thoreau himself only lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, and in the first page of his book he describes himself as a “sojourner in civilized life again” (p. 1). The book, in other words, is not about living in the woods, but about living, and the key to living, as opposed to merely enduring, is living deliberately. I suddenly saw a connection to the initial chapter, “Economy.” Economy is about choices in the context of limited resources. If there is one thing that we can be deliberate about in life, it is the use of whatever resources we have; and if there is one resource that seems somehow more universal than others, it is time. Deliberate living is the crux of the book, and it is present directly in the opening chapter.

The Walden project makes the use and spending of time its major focus, since all students have time. The starting question is, “How deliberately do you spend your time?” To answer this question, students are asked to keep track of their use of time for one week, from hour to hour, twenty-four hours a day. At the end of that week, they are asked to tally the number of hours that they consider wasted time, based on their own definition of “wasted time,” and then they are asked to consider whether that time has been “wasted” deliberately or thoughtlessly. The time that students count as wasted is typically time spent on social networking sites, video games, television and movies, or unproductive multi-tasking, such as distracted homework time. Students universally feel that this time has not been spent deliberately.

The students are then asked to take their number of hours of wasted time per week and multiply it by three months, or twelve weeks, and to consider that if they continue to live thoughtlessly, they will most certainly have “wasted,” according to their own definition, that number of hours, and they can never get them back. Variations can be played on this theme. For example, students can be asked to calculate retroactively the number of hours they have wasted during the last year. They are then guided to reflect on several insights central to Thoreau’s musings in Walden. For example, they are invited to consider that, just as last year has inevitably passed, so will the next twelve months. Given their own calculations, how much time will they have wasted by the end of that period? Can that wasted time be considered deliberate living? What could they have done, or what could they still do, with that same amount of time? What have they always wanted to do, or learn, or improve in their own lives that they thought they did not have the time for?

Students are then asked to choose how much of that wasted time they want to spend on something they consider valuable. There are no parameters for this choice: students have absolute freedom. Hopefully, what they are learning from this exercise is not what they should spend their time on, but simply that they have not even been spending their time on what they wish they had, that they have not been living deliberately. The goal is for students to understand experientially what Thoreau is getting at when he says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (p. 3). The hope is that students will understand Walden in a personal way that more traditional checks for knowledge and understanding might fail to encourage. The key to the assignment is that the student is in control of every aspect and cannot escape the relevance of Thoreau’s idea to his or her own life. Students have already begun the project by desiring change for their own reasons, not the teacher’s. This setting of one’s own goals rather than of externally imposed ones is part of the essence of Walden. The project is entirely about the student, and to deny Thoreau’s point about the economy of our choices is to deny an interest in one’s own life. Students cannot beat the system by refusing to engage in the assignment without at once admitting that they are the only losers in the game. Similarly, students cannot engage in the assignment without inevitably internalizing Thoreau’s insight into deliberate living.

From this point, the project takes the form of a contract with oneself to spend otherwise wasted hours on an endeavor of the student’s own choosing. Projects have ranged from learning a new language or musical instrument to learning how to cook or make one’s own clothes. Some students have chosen to write fiction with their new-found time, and others have chosen to read books they always wanted to read but thought they had no time for. Many students have chosen to study a martial art. One student used the project to become certified in first aid. There are occasional progress checks to see if the students are running into trouble fulfilling their contracts, but the focus is always on the fact that their contracts are with themselves, not with the teacher. Students can still learn something, or rather quite a lot, about what it means to live deliberately even when they do not live up to their own plans.

At the end of the project, students present to the class what they have gotten in return for the time they spent, whether it is food that they have learned to prepare, or an instrument that they have learned to play to some extent, or a language they have made some progress in. The project lasts approximately five months. This gives the students enough time to see some fruits of their time investment. Along with performances and physical products, as in the case of cooking, art, dance, music, or martial arts, the students also present a reflection paper and discuss their experience of the entire process, what they deem their successes as well as their failures. The presentations are not graded: they are simply enjoyed. On two occasions, other teachers have participated in the Walden project, and they have attended the presentations and have given one themselves. I myself also propose a project and present.


The Presentation

For this particular project, I am very careful about what is assessed, when, and how. Too much assessment at the wrong times will indicate to the students that their autonomy is only apparent, a ruse. Instead, occasional one-on-one discussions with the students about their progress provide a kind of formative assessment, which is not recorded as a grade.

The Reflection Paper

The only summative assessment is the reflection paper at the end of the project. Students are encouraged to treat it as a kind of confession in which honesty is rewarded. As it is a writing assignment, a small emphasis is placed on formal writing elements, such as grammar and mechanics. The majority of the score, however, comes from the content. If students felt that they fell short of their own goals, they are encouraged to write about that rather than to embellish the truth. Their score rests upon how reflectively they critique what happened, how the project went off the rails, and what, if anything, they have learned from the experience. They are also required to return to the text of Walden and reflect upon selected passages and incorporate them into their final paper’s discussion. The papers are, therefore, almost always a combination of thoughts concerning Thoreau and their own experience of putting his ideas into practice.


This project has proved one of the more successful attempts to help students break through and into a classic text and let them own it for themselves, to let them feel it speaking directly to them. It is the same goal I pursue with every book I teach, and obviously, the Walden project doesn’t transfer to Anna Karenina. Every book is a unique challenge for the teacher. What I keep in mind when I teach a work, however, is the same endpoint for the students: I want the book to speak to them personally. Great books are not historical artifacts, but living voices. When even one book has been allowed to speak to students in a real way like this, I believe their chances of making books their friends in the future are raised dramatically.


  • Thoreau, H. D. (1992). Walden and resistance to civil government. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. (Original work published 1854).

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