Students develop an admiration for nature and self-discovery through the transcendentalism unit


Some of the ceiling tiles students painted for the transcendentalism project.

Three years ago, English teacher Ken George went to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to see the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and when he returned, he had a whole new mindset for teaching.

The transcendentalism unit that is taught in Honors English 10 is one of the most deeply engaging units taught within the walls of FHC for the sole reason that George believes transcendentalism should be experienced rather than learned.

“[The transcendentalism unit] is a couple [of] weeks where students can, on their own time and [using] their own methods, dig deep into their own life and who they are, why they are who they are, and who they want to be,” George said. “[They get] to spend their time truly contemplating their place in this world.”

The transcendentalism unit is taught through a menu George has created over the past three years. The selection consists of a plethora of tasks all equalling a certain amount of points, and the goal is to do the number of tasks it takes students to get one-hundred points. 

Although this might sound troubling, this list is narrowed down to things students will enjoy doing, such as daily vlogs, painting ceiling tiles, and simply writing about the joys of nature.

“I have read a lot of books about how to make things more enjoyable and more immersive for students,” George said, “and step one is a choice. When you give students a choice that makes things better, and this menu is that. Everything they do is part of the project. It’s essentially their decision, and there is real power in that when you get to choose what you’re doing.”

The creative freedom that students are offered makes this unit different from any ordinary school assignment. For sophomore Clare Mathison, this project allowed her to express creativity using her own means.

“[Transcendentalism] was pretty unique from any [other] project I have done before,” Clare said, “because you got to go out into nature and reflect and journal. There [were] a bunch of different assignments you could do, but it was very open-ended.”

While choosing from the menu George provided, Clare was excited to immerse herself in the world of transcendentalism. With the multitude of activities to choose from, the list evolves as students come up with more learning opportunities on their own.

“I did a bunch of different things [for the project],” Clare said, “I did a nature excursion, where you go out into nature for an extended [amount] of time and journal and reflect, [and] I also did a song analysis of a transcendental song.”

Besides the projects and activities included in this unit, the ideas and ways of transcendentalism also engaged Clare. 

Simply reading the works of Thoreau and Emerson may be too complex to understand due to the fact that they can be interpreted in many ways. Making the unit project-based helps students genuinely soak up the material and have it stick with them.

“The whole idea of transcendentalism doesn’t have an exact definition,” Clare said, “so it was your own interpretation of it. It was interesting to learn about the beliefs of Thoreau and Emerson, the main transcendentalists.”

This project has made students think in a literary context about the world around them and the benefits of admiring nature. There is a sense of peace and self-discovery that comes with these assignments and will have a lasting impact on students.

This is true for Senior Everett Phipps; he still has a connection to the project even after parting with the class two years ago.

“[Transcendentalism] was a nice escape to be able to focus on more creative projects.” Everett said, “Most of school is you get a book, you read it, the teacher points out a few key things to you, and you spit that back out, but the transcendentalism project was nice because it allowed you to look at different things, to be inspired by different authors, and then make your own thing from it. I got to write a song in [the project], so it was really nice to have that creative license to think in a literary context on things you don’t normally think about.” 

Throughout the duration of high school, classwork can tend to be repetitive and mind-numbing, but the transcendentalism unit was the opposite. 

This project allows students to use their own means of creativity and express their work through something they’re passionate about. For Everett, it was music. He got to connect his love for music with transcendentalism in the form of a song.

“[The song I wrote] was on the violin,” Everett said. “It was thirty measures long. It was a theme for the backyard I have; [my] backyard has some woods in it and I was just walking around there, so I decided to write a song and then I realized it fit pretty well for the forest. I used it for [the project] and tweaked it a little bit to make it work better.” 

The abundance of opportunities offered through this project allows it to have the potential for greatness and enjoyability for students, and it is executed perfectly.

The abundance of opportunities offered through this project allows it to have the potential for greatness and enjoyability for students, and it is executed perfectly.

It is a unit that is memorable for students even multiple years after exiting the class. It opens up the minds of students and opens minds for the future.

“[The project] does still connect to my everyday [life],” Everett said, “because I take inspiration from nature, [and] I take inspiration from other literary works, particularly J.R. Tolkien [who wrote] Lord Of the Rings. He uses a lot of scripture related to nature, so it’s already ingrained in my head [and] has stuck with me quite a lot.”

The transcendentalism unit as a whole has a lasting impact on students, both current and previous. The ability to pick and choose activities that peak each person’s specific passions allows for a healthy environment for self-discovery and an enticing assignment as a whole while also analyzing literature and learning to have an admiration for nature.

“The number one thing [students should take away from this unit] is the connections they can have with nature,” George said, “and the idea that they should go outside and walk in the woods a little bit. When you leave the unit, that’s the foremost thing in your brain: that there is beauty out there and nature and that [simply] taking a walk can be a really uplifting experience. Beyond that, I want them to feel like they have a choice and that something they did in my class was merged with real life. They had an opportunity to think about their life and who they are at the same time while they were doing some work.”