Creating Heroes, Creating Community, in the Vermont Woods at Hulbert Outdoor Center

Vermont's Hulbert Outdoor Center high ropes course
Crossroad Academy students feel comfortable taking risks in Hulbert Outdoor Center's School Program.

What difference can three days at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, VT make? For middle school students at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, the answer is Enormous. Jessica Lahey, an English and Latin teacher at the school, sees the students’ experience in the School Program at Hulbert as a hero journey — three days that teach some of the school’s most important lessons. Lahey, other teachers, and the students themselves see those lessons take hold at Hulbert and last the entire school year.

We asked Jessica to share her thoughts from the school’s most recent stay at Hulbert. Her thoughtful essay follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

In the common day of my Crossroads Academy classroom, I encourage my students to wander into their own regions of supernatural wonder. In my English classroom, I teach them about the journey of the hero — Aeneas, Moses, Arthur, Huck Finn — in order to prepare them for their own quests, their own battles, their own victories. The journey of these heroes — and of my students — inevitably leads into the wilderness, where the true exploration of heart and soul often takes place.

How do middle-school students embark on their own heroic journeys? At Crossroads, we take them to the Hulbert Outdoor Center for three days each fall. Under the firm but gentle tutelage of the Hulbert instructors, and with the encouragement of their classmates, Crossroads students challenge themselves and each other to explore hard places, dark places, and wildernesses — metaphorical or very real — and to make big discoveries about themselves.

Crossroads Academy is a small, independent K-8 school with a very large mission. We draw on a core knowledge curriculum and core virtues curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch and outlined by the school’s founder, Mary Beth Klee. Our academic curriculum is interwoven with an education in the core virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. By studying these virtues, our students continually assess who they are and what sort of people they want to become. Throughout the school year, we explore the meaning of character as it’s expressed through history and literature — but there is no better place to explore one’s individual interpretation of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence than at Hulbert Outdoor Center.

Every year, in the second week of the school year, the entire middle school spends three days at Hulbert. I truly believe that our collective experience there allows us to build a strong and trusting community in a matter of days rather than the months it would take in a normal classroom environment.

Vermont's Hulbert Outdoor Center high ropes course
Students and teachers work in teams to ensure everyone's success on the High Ropes Course.

Teachers assign cross-grade teams for the three days. These teams will continue to meet for lunch during the school year. Older students partner with and mentor their younger schoolmates on the ropes course. The sixth graders students, plus new students in the older grades, are encouraged to find their places within the larger community.

Students also spend time with their teachers informally, outside the rigors of the classroom. Teachers take part in the ropes course and teambuilding exercises. It never fails to thrill the students when their French or math teacher comes barreling down the long zip line. Often, students are nervous about being away from home, and the support of their teachers in the cabins at night fosters a trust that just cannot be created solely in the classroom. At Hulbert, I learn about my students’ fears, hopes, and dreams. Their individual journeys become real to me, and this knowledge makes me a better teacher.

We survey the students about their experiences at Hulbert. Some of their comments after our trip this fall:

“One of the most important things I learned at Hulbert, that I can use at school,  is the ability to believe in myself.”

“By the end of these three days, I feel I have learned so much about each and every person in my group. I also feel that I have made bonds with the people in my group, which cannot be broken. Also, I feel that during these three days I have learned how to be the best team member I can be.”

“I learned that I can be a strong leader, but that there are also times when I need to hold back and let other have a chance to lead. This took empathy to understand that others besides myself wanted to lead as well.”

After their successes in the physical and emotional challenges presented to them at Hulbert, my students seem better equipped for the academic challenges ahead. The bond of trust formed in teambuilding exercises at Hulbert extends into the classroom, and holds our school together.

Vermont's Hulbert Outdoor Center high ropes course
With the help of Hulbert's School Program staff, students are able to grow through the successful completion of a physical challenge.

It sounds idealistic to put it this way, but our students arrive at Hulbert as individuals and emerge as part of a larger community. When we return to the common day of our classroom, my students are ready to learn. They trust me, they trust their classmates, and they trust themselves. Cradled in this safety, they’re more willing to risk failure, to step off the edge of the known world into new knowledge and experiences, to take the intellectual leaps I ask of them, and also to “bestow boons” on their community.

Each year, in our budget meetings, the Crossroads Academy staff looks at the expense of Hulbert, the luxury of three days in the woods when the budget is tight. Each year, though, we realize again that the trip pays for itself daily in returns of diligence, fortitude, perseverance, and a spirit of intellectual bravery. Throughout the year, I see students helping and supporting one another. I am a better teacher and my students are better learners because of the foundation laid by Hulbert staff in the first days of our school year. I can’t imagine a better investment.

Jessica Potts Lahey divides her time between teaching, parenting, farming, photography, & writing, though not necessarily in that order. She lives in Lyme Center, NH, with her husband & two sons, & teaches composition, English, and Latin at Crossroads Academy. Jessica blogs at The Mill Yard.

Photos by Jessica Potts Lahey.