Real World: Cabot

Rural life and project-based learning

real world project-based learning

You might find students on the skating rink in front of the school, helping out on a goat farm, dirt bike racing, heading to dance class, or fixing broken snowmobiles. All of these life experiences are important to students — and are valid learning experiences in and of themselves! We know that learning and value development doesn’t happen only in schools, so students dug into what makes them tick through looking at what they DO.

How do you get adolescent students to think about their values and beliefs? To ponder what motivates them? And to boldly share this with their families instead of hiding under a desk?

We know that the middle grades are a time of rapid social and emotional development. Middle grade students often form values and perspectives that can last a lifetime! (No big deal, right?). As part of a project-based learning experience led by fifth and sixth grade teacher Sarah Adelman, students in fifth and sixth grade at The Cabot School pondered how their life experiences informed their values and beliefs, and while doing so, they validated their experiences and lives in rural Vermont.

After reading about heroes and listening to podcasts and NPR’s This I Believe essays, students learned that they can discover and demonstrate their beliefs/values while plowing snow, hunting, racing a dirt bike, or fixing broken snowmobiles. They learned to closely examine their life experiences, and use those experiences to illustrate who they are, and what they believe.

The value of plowing snow

Cabot sixth grader Sean chose to reflect on how plowing snow allows him to live his values of perseverance and confidence:

sean rural life project-based learning


Three-thirty in the morning, plowing snow? Sounds like perseverance to me! Just think: if he never reflected on the value of this experience, or knew his teacher cared about it, would he think of himself in this way?

“If I start something, I finish it.”

Sounds like a valuable lesson to me, one that could inform his learning and life for years, and one that could be easily missed if we only value certain experiences over others! As part of this unit, Sean recorded an audio version of his above reflection.

The value of hunting

Sixth grader Mariah found inspiration in hunting for her first deer with her grandfather. She describes her ability to not give up, and her perseverance as factors that helped her shoot her first deer.

rural life project-based learning

This is not an experience every student has. But this is, in fact, an experience dear to many students in rural settings. And it’s an experience that could be easily missed by educators. We have an opportunity with personalized learning plans and project-based learning to validate students’ life experiences and to celebrate their in and out of school learning and selves. And in doing so, they become more fully human, to educators, families and communities.

The value of driving a snowmobile

One Cabot student reflected on the lessons he learned from driving a snowmobile. Just check out the descriptive details that place us right in the middle of the Vermont winter:

One day I was driving my snowmobile. There was white powdery snow on the ground, steam above the river, and birds chirping in my backyard. I was packing down my trails with my snowmobile. My hands were warm inside blue gloves as my my heated handle bars warmed up.

He finally describes how his snowmobile got stuck in an icy bank, and he had to use his problem solving skills, perseverance and strength to get it out. Sounds like a metaphor for life to me!

How we did it:

We wanted the unit to integrate art, social studies and literacy. And to structure this unit, we sat down with a project-based learning planning template and determined how best to execute each step:

  1. Start with an exciting entry event
  2. Create a driving question
  3. The Research and Creation Phase
  4. Finish with an authentic community sharing opportunity.

The entry event? Listening to NPR’s This I Believe audio pieces.

Next, students collaborated on individual and collective driving questions. They moved from What are my values? Through to the collective What are our shared values?

After that, students used multi-media to express their beliefs and values on this art piece and added those elements. And then they incorporated beliefs and values of their hero into the artwork.
What surfaced was a beautiful visual presentation of their essays, values, and beliefs– in the shape of each student.

And finally, the authentic community sharing opportunity: an exhibition for families — as well as themselves.

The many facets of authentic audience

The students shared their projects with families and the school community in an exhibition night. They shared their recordings, essays, art and the whole process of exploration and creation. 

Think about what it means to a student to make a powerful reflection celebrating the value of their life experiences. Students need these self-created reminders of their worth. Pieces that celebrate them. Pieces that remind them they are loved and valued. Don’t overlook the power of a student being their own authentic audience.

In the many times I have been to Cabot this year, these pieces have been hanging near the library. Folks often stop and ponder them. These students feel seen and known, forging connections of life experiences between students, staff and the community that come into the school for events.

How could you see using PBL to help your students explore the value of their life experiences?

3 thoughts on “Real World: Cabot

  1. Karen Larsen

    The concept of authentic education and proficiency based learning (and demonstrations of learning) are the structural framework of Cabot’s high quality PreK-12 curriculum. We are proud of our teachers, students, administrators and community who recognize that school is not something that you do until “real life” starts, it is real life – part of the very fabric of the community, a way of fostering academic excellence alongside shared inclusive and positive culture, growing democratic leaders (small “d”) and leveraging the significant strengths and resources of a rural education. As a parent and community member, I would love to see graduate students from UVM come to Cabot to learn how to craft high-quality PBL programs that are specific to local contexts and document a curriculum that has robust student and community outcomes.

    1. Audrey Homan Post author

      Well said! Cabot is an amazing school, and we are so proud to partner with you and your students. The work you all have done and are doing, on PBL and student voice, expanded learning opportunities — should inspire the entire state. Kudos to you, Cabot. We are honored to know you, and thankful that you let us share your amazing stories.

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