Students adopt Thoreau’s ideas of simplicity
April 17, 2017
Filed under Arts
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“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Henry David Thoreau once said.
How much time do you let slip away? How many hours do you spend staring at a screen? Are you conscious of your resources? And, perhaps the most important question of all: what could you accomplish if you spent that time differently?
These questions are explored by an English assignment developed eight years ago by English teacher Rebecca Hayden. The Transcendentalist Project requires students to give up an aspect of their life they take for granted and replace it with a productive exercise of the mind or body, such as meditation, running, art or yoga.
Inspired by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, Hayden said she created the assignment with the goal of motivating students to closely consider their lives and relate them to Thoreau’s ideas of self-improvement.
“When I first did this project it was just around the time when both cell phone and internet use were really starting to explode in both the teen and the adult population,” Hayden said. “I thought it might be interesting to try to take Thoreau at his word and try to simplify our lives in some way so that we could focus on things that are more essential: creativity, thought and reflection.”
Although Hayden no longer teaches American Literature, the project lives on through junior teachers who continue to assign it, such as Rob Primmer and Alisa Dondero.
There has been a wide range of choices over the years for the project. For instance, according to Hayden, past students have given up junk food for baking and driving for walking.
The second part of the project includes being constructive and productive. Hayden said that popular choices include practicing yoga or taking up an artform, such as drawing, painting, sculpting or baking.
Junior Alec Shiman, who participated in the project, committed to limited technology use and made an effort to improve his self reflection.
“I gave up my phone and computer for a week,” Shiman said. “I replaced it with doing reflections of how my day went and what I thought of activities I did that day.”
Junior Kaela Flashman chose to give up Instagram and replaced it with running. At the end of the project, she was surprised at how difficult it had been to change her habits.
“It was so hard for me,” Flashman said. “I thought that it wouldn’t be that hard, because it was just one app, and I don’t need one app in my life, but it showed that I really used it a lot.”
Flashman said that she learned a lot from this project, both about society and herself.
“As a society we need to kind of be more present, in the moment and try to be less dependent on apps and try to talk to people in person,” Flashman said.
According to Dondero, the project aims to give students the chance to actually practice what they learn about in the classroom, which is one of the best ways to teach.
“Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, Whitman, they talk a big game, but I think it makes a lot more sense for students at a really concrete level to actually put into practice what those people are preaching,” Dondero said. “This project requires that they do that.”