PHOTOS: Upper School Students Recreate Henry David Thoreau’s Famous Desk in Interdisciplinary Unit

“Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” –Henry David Thoreau
 
In his famous 19th-century memoir Walden, Henry David Thoreau promotes a life of self-reliance and urges readers to craft their own functionable objects of simplicity and beauty rather than relying on others. 
 
That philosophy led to a valuable experiential learning opportunity for Upper School students in both English III honors and engineering. 
 
As part of an interdisciplinary unit studying Thoreau and his American Transcendentalist philosophy, English and engineering students came together to build replicas of Thoreau’s 19th-century writing desk using only a set of antique hand tools. 
 
The unit was conceptualized by Upper School English teacher Jamie Bunch and engineering teacher Eric Trumbauer as a way to better experience Thoreau’s philosophy and how he lived it, while also offering students a new perspective on engineering and design as it used to be done.  
 
“Through this unit, we wanted to answer essential questions about our relationship between who we are and what we own, how Thoreau’s critique of 19th century industrial capitalism is relevant today, and why it’s important to make human labor visible,” Mrs. Bunch said.  
 
While studying Thoreau’s writings, students journeyed over to the engineering lab several times over the course of three weeks, using tools such as hand planes, traditional saws and even antique nails to make a replica of the famous desk Thoreau used while living at Walden Pond in the 1840s. 
 
For many students, it was the first time constructing something using such basic tools. As part of the assignment, students wrote three journal entries reflecting on Thoreau and how constructing the desk in a traditional manner helped them understand the famous writer’s philosophy and why his words endure to this day.
 
“I thought the desk was simply going to be a flashback in time and show the resources he had back then,” wrote Upper School junior Gigi Policicchio, “but it actually made me feel closer to the author and truly think about what he had to experience when he lived alone in nature.”
 
The desks were completed last week, as students took turns applying a coat of milk paint to give their creation its famous green color. The completed desks will be on display in the foyer of the Darcy Rice Center for the Arts starting next week. 
 
"The primary thing I hope students took away from this experience is a sense of agency — that a person can work with natural materials around them to create things that are useful, fun, interesting, or express something about themselves in a way a purchased item cannot,” Dr. Trumbauer said. “This flows from the understanding that quality and precision are more of a function of the care, hand, and eye of the creator rather than just having the latest gadget. This is a recurring theme in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, and I’m grateful for the time to let students to not only experience but embody these ideas. Seeing the confidence students had in the work of their own hands as the project progressed was very rewarding."
 
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