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Taking Thoreau into the woods — deliberately

  • Same book … different pond
    Same book … different pond  On the Crim Dell bridge, Madeline Benjamin reads her well-thumbed copy of Thoreau’s masterwork that she used to guide a Summer Camp experience. It was her Monroe Scholars project.  Photo by Justine Whelan '14
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Madeline Benjamin went into the woods to live deliberately.

As a summer counselor at Camp Takodah in the woods of New Hampshire, Benjamin led a group of teenage girls in a non-traditional learning experience that she based off of the theory and thought of perhaps the ultimate camp counselor—Henry David Thoreau.  

Benjamin belongs to the Monroe Scholars community at William & Mary, the top 7 percent of the student body. Sponsored by the Roy R. Charles Center, each year these scholars delve into their academic passions to learn for learning’s sake. Along with other Monroe Scholars, Benjamin presented her project, “Cass: An Application of Thoreau’s Walden to a Summer at Camp,” in the annual Summer Research Symposium sponsored by the Charles Center.

“When I was kind of brainstorming ideas for what I wanted to do my Monroe project on, I wanted to find a way to put to paper the value that I saw in summer camp,” says Benjamin. Camp Takodah, where she spent her childhood as a camper and went on to become a seasoned counselor, seemed like the perfect venue.

Thoreau’s works, specifically Walden; or, Life in the Woods, sets forth the Transcendentalist notion of self-reliance as the path to personal betterment and self-directed education.

“The project was designed to be an application of a different sort of learning ideology that I saw reflected in readings I’d done by Thoreau,” said Benjamin, a member of the class of 2014.

Benjamin immersed herself in readings by Thoreau and literary critics to build what she calls a toolbag of knowledge that she took with her and implemented at camp. From the work of critic J.P. Miller, Benjamin identified seven major tenets of Thoreauvian thought on education and applied them to her instructional role as a camp counselor. Two that she focused primarily upon were “Learning by Doing” and “Un-learning.”

“I employed that in terms of working with my girls in that I would organize an activity and then step back; to introduce a task and then let them problem solve their ways around it,” says Benjamin.

She recalls struggling to remain passive and silent as she watched her campers struggle to learn how to build a fire in the rain.

Her natural tendency was to step in and instruct, to take over and show them how it’s done she says, but she knew she had to let them get frustrated and argue while having to deal with sodden wood and sticks from a previous rainstorm. For a while, she says, it didn’t look like they were going to be able to pull it off.

But she gave them lots of time and no advice, and at the end of the night they had a hot fire and warm dinner.

“It was so hard because they were girls that aren’t used to messing up or not knowing what to do next. When they got it, they actually felt like they had accomplished something,” says Benjamin.

Benjamin believes summer camps and other similar learning spaces fill a void that exists in traditional school systems.  

“No one feels that feeling of accomplishment because they completed the five-paragraph essay,” says Benjamin. “You don’t come to complete that through your own learning experience, it’s just something that you have to do.”

Robert Scholnick, professor of English and American studies, advised Benjamin throughout her project. She says she initially sought out Scholnick because of his specialization in Thoreau and the greater American Renaissance. Benjamin later came to learn however that  that Scholnick himself had lived in Thoreau’s hometown, and later met his wife while working at a New England summer camp.

“It was a lovely and fitting surprise to discover our shared love and excitement for both the region and the learning experience that is camp,” says Benjamin of the partnership.

Like all of the Monroe Scholars, she documented her experiences in a blog, noting the application of Thoreauvian lessons to the most mundane of camp maintenance chore.

Benjamin’s Monroe Project took Walden, the original self-improvement book, and brought its lessons to her campers, her university, and most importantly, at least according to its illustrious author, herself.