BUILDING ‘WALDEN’ | Students design own 21st-century version of Thoreau’s cabin
Project-based learning — where American literature meets shop class. Earlier this week, students of Park High School English teacher Natalie Storey displayed models they had made of tidy homesteads based on the famous tome of self-sufficiency, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” “Walden” was published in 1854 and is based on his experience of living simply in a small cabin in the woods next to Walden Pond.
The students set up their models in the PHS Library Tuesday afternoon. Adult judges, including other teachers and community members, roamed the room to quiz the students on their constructions. The judges’ written ratings and remarks would be a factor in the students’ grades, Storey said.
In the latest education trend of offering more hands-on learning, the students didn’t just read “Walden,” but were assigned the project of building their own cabin in the woods and asked to describe how they would live there, as simply and as self-contained — and built by their own labor — as possible. Storey’s assignment encouraged the students to think about, as Thoreau wrote, food, shelter, clothing and fuel, but also place, water and energy.
“Simply saying, ‘We will have solar panels’ isn’t enough,” the assignment states. As for food and water, the students were asked to consider what sort of crops their land might support, how they would preserve food for winter, and if they planned to hunt, how they would store the meat. The students, working in teams or individually, built, on plywood platforms of about three feet on each side, log cabins, chicken coops, and small credit card-sized pieces of wood to indicate the roof to the root cellar. Nearly every cabin had a rain barrel under a roof gutter. A couple of projects had solar panels, south-facing greenhouses and rooftop gardens or other plant material.
PHS junior Teagan Killorn, active in FFA, has taken several Industrial Arts classes, so building a little house came naturally to her. “It’s the first time I’ve built anything this small,” she said Tuesday in the school library. Killorn’s plan included a chicken coop and small enclosure for sheep. The sheep could provide wool and meat, she said. She had built a small storage shed on stilts to protect it from scavenging animals. She planned to raise chickens for eggs and meat, grow a garden, and keep bees. Her plot was built next to a small creek for water. Her tools list include a bow and arrows, a pressure cooker, and canning jars.
The purpose of building something in English class is to “make us think about what we’re reading,” Jayden Shuman, a junior, said.
Livingston School District board member George Bornemann was one of the judges. Bornemann is a surveyor [for CTA Architects Engineers], just as Thoreau sometimes made a living, and is also a frequent rereader of “Walden.” He asked some of the students what they were going to do for money. One young man said he would sell vegetables. “Thoreau had to go out and survey when he needed to make a few dollars,” Bornemann said. “You can’t be totally self-sustainable.”