Field’s 11th Grade “Transcendentalism Project”

Malikah Goss is Field’s Assistant College Counselor and has also been one of our 11th grade English teachers since 2008. She spends much of the second semester guiding her students through our Transcendentalism Project, a different way of encountering important literature, writing about it, and discovering new ways to think about yourself in relation to the world. Here is Mal’s reflection on a recent addition to an already unique way of learning at Field.

The Transcendentalism Project is a staple of the junior year English curriculum. For over ten years the students have taken eight weeks—the entire third quarter—to read the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.  Students write short papers in response to quotes that stand out to them before ultimately creating a project that speaks to their own view of Transcendentalism.

Each year the eleventh grade English teachers try to find new ways to enhance the experience. This has resulted in the incorporation of “Chat n’ Chews “ (optional lunchtime meetings where students from different classes can share their ideas about what they are reading) and the Transcendentalism evening (when students are free to share their projects with their peers, family and the Field faculty). This year we decided to incorporate a field trip early in the project, during which students could commune with nature.

And so, on Tuesday, February 10th, the junior class embarked on a Transcendental trip. The day began with reading a series of quotes from Thoreau, followed by listening to music, to get the students in the right frame of mind. Lastly, we asked the students to give up their cell phones and all other personal technology to be fully present in the day’s activities and not distracted by the outside world. The requirement was, of course, met with a resounding groan, but almost no one pushed back, as though they knew the experience they were about to have would be one to write home about—or at least write a paper about. Once the cell phones were safely tucked away in a secure hiding place, we boarded three Field School buses and set out to Riverbend Park.

The students were split up into six small groups, each rotating through the same three activities: a nature-walk, with complementary writing prompts; building art out of nature; and a solitary meditation time. Each activity was reinforced by a quote from one of the authors the students were reading.

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”  — Emerson

I had volunteered to head up the silent meditation activity, with help from Jarrett Arnold. After the expected shock from teenagers being asked to not only hang out in the woods all day, but to also sit—alone—for forty minutes in silence, the activity began. While many struggled at the beginning, most settled into a groove of journal writing, nature observation or just getting lost in their own thoughts. In response to the time alone, one student said, “I felt incredibly alone. Perhaps alone isn’t the right word because that usually is accompanied by the connotation of loneliness. But I didn’t feel lonely. If anything, I felt more at peace with myself than I have in a long time.”

“I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.”  — Thoreau

Nate Edmunds and Laura Gill headed up the nature-walk, asking students to stop along the way to view and write about their natural surroundings in a new way. Students wrote about trees, leaves, water, and even moss. By the end of the walk, they had taken in the beauty of the park and connected their ideas about nature to Whitman, Thoreau and Dickinson. One student even found that the idea of being in nature pressed up against his want for immediate technological response: “[B]ecause modern technology provides such speedy and extensive dictionary support, our vocabularies are weakened, complacent. We have little incentive to mentally store a word when it is so easy to find a definition online.”

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,     
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,    
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,                                                      
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”

—    Whitman  

Finally, Dave Nelson, with assistance from Kate Samuel, led the students through an activity where they utilized their surroundings to create art. This project was inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who creates art from nature. I heard of houses made of sticks and linked chains made of leaves.  The impermanence of the activity freed some students to push themselves outside their comfort zone; with one good rainfall their artistic experiment would become the sticks and leaves of nature again.

By the time you read this, we English teachers will have read the essays the students wrote about this experience, conferred with them, and moved on to the next part of the project. But what sticks with me, after reading drafts and getting feedback from my classes, is the lack of cynicism and the introspection that enveloped the junior class. Sure, there are some students for whom walking through nature will never be fun, but the overwhelming response to the field trip was positive.

Given the opportunity to sit and consider themselves, the students thought deeply and with purpose about where this project could take them and about their place in this world.

—Malikah Goss

About Will Layman

Will Layman is a teacher, writer, and musician in the Washington, DC area.
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