Making with the Localvores: Project-Based Learning for Students in Special Education

Handmade cookbooks, created by students in the Localvore special education program at Trumansburg Middle School. Photo by Laura Rowley.

Handmade cookbooks, created by students in the Localvore special education program at Trumansburg Middle School. Photo by Laura Rowley.

By Laura Rowley

            “Are we making cookbooks today?” Jacob exclaimed, walking into our classroom. He noticed the tools and papers spread across the tables and smiled.

            “Yes, we are making more cookbooks today,” Ms. Bryant replied. She’s the head teacher of the Localvore special education classroom, at the Trumansburg, NY middle school.

            “Yay!” Jacob said, high-fiving Mary, a fellow student.

The students at Trumansburg Middle School are special­—not just because they are special education students—but because they have an intense curiosity to learn new skills. Their project-based learning program, the “Localvores,” is engaging for all abilities, offering cooperative activities that work towards a common goal, helping foster such curiosity.

In early 2017, Ms. Bryant—Melissa—asked if I might teach a series of art workshops in the Localvore classroom. This pilot program is designed for students in need of special learning accommodations, so that they can attend the public middle school with support from classroom aides. The curriculum focuses on gardening, cooking, sustainability, carpentry and art. The benefits of such project-based learning include an ability to explore real-world problems and challenges so that students become active, engaged, and inspired to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects they are studying (Holland). In addition, Melissa and her co-teacher, Lisbet Ratenbourg, explained to me that students learn the necessary academic skills of reading, math, and science through doing, not studying a textbook. They want to learn.

Take the “Localvore Lunch” for example. Students who have difficulty reading often use avoidance techniques when they are assigned a text. They are eager, however, to read a recipe when it is a purposeful part of a cooking process—with the reward of eating delicious food. Once a month, the class transforms the library into a café by hosting the lunch. Students cook a meal and serve it to teachers. The group earns $6.25 per meal as a fundraiser, and they practice math through changing money, gain social skills while serving food to teachers, and learn about event planning.

My teaching role was to help the Localvores design and bind a cookbook of their recipes and screenprint t-shirts. We planned for a series of farmers’ markets for both the school and the Village of Trumansburg, to happen at the end of the school year. These handmade items would be sold as a fundraiser for the group to travel to New York City.

We made paper by hand with cotton rags in the first workshop. Many children and teens react similarly when initially dipping their hands into a tub of soupy pulp: “Gross!” However, after I gave a demonstration on forming sheets with a mold and deckle, most students were so excited to try that they forgot about the “icky” texture. Everyone found a task they enjoyed, and the room was buzzing with busy students and aides. One student was prolific in pulling sheets, and they were impressively consistent in thickness. I later learned that in other classes, she is extremely defiant to do classwork. Here, she was highly motivated and fascinated by the project.

Another student, Bryan, mopped up when water and pulp sloshed onto the floor. Bryan has Down syndrome and preferred not to touch the wet pulp; however, he is an incredible helper and cleaner, so this role was ideal for him.

The author helps a Localvore student silkscreen a t-shirt. Photo by Melissa Bryant.

The author helps a Localvore student silkscreen a t-shirt. Photo by Melissa Bryant.

“It’s raining old jeans!” David said, when he made his first sheet of paper. He uses a wheel chair and has difficulty with fine-motor skills. However, with some assistance, he was able to make paper and practice his coordination.

The next week we started the handmade cookbooks of Localvore recipes and photos. I brought bookbinding supplies to the classroom and a sheet of instructions for a single-pamphlet-stitch book. The steps include folding the inside pages and handmade-paper-cover in half, punching 5 holes evenly in the fold, sewing in and out of the holes in a pattern, and tying off. This teaching experience was much different from prior classes because many of these students wanted to give up when sewing got difficult. When pages fell out and holes did not line up, students put down their books in frustration. After the first session, I was unsure if we would be able to successfully finish the cookbooks.

That night, I considered conversations with the Localvore teachers about learning accommodations and finding ways to make learning accessible to all. I realized I had made hundreds of pamphlet-stitch books, and that the process was automatic for me. I needed to approach the project from the students’ perspective, imagining any difficulty to be aggravating. The next day I brought binder clips to hold the pages together while students sewed. All students completed a book by the end of class. They seemed delighted to hold something they had made by hand—something that contained their creative work, their cooking projects.

As we made cookbooks over the next few weeks, students were able to work without assistance. Melissa spoke often about the psychological benefits of learning such an intricate skill. It could help students with coping abilities: even though bookbinding was difficult at first, they persisted and became proficient. The bookbinding workshops were an incredible educational experience for me too. I gained a fresh understanding of how students learn, and why adjustments need to be made for individual needs. I also realized my beliefs regarding a teacher’s role were transforming from a behaviorist theory (in which the teacher holds and dispenses knowledge) to a constructivist theory (where a teacher collaborates in creating knowledge together).

Localvore students set up a table in their school, to sell t-shirts, cookbooks and other handmade items. Photo by Laura Rowley.

Localvore students set up a table in their school, to sell t-shirts, cookbooks and other handmade items. Photo by Laura Rowley.

The final project was screenprinting t-shirts from thrift stores. The students collaborated with teachers to create three designs: “Localvore,” “Beet the system,” and “Ladies love kale,” (a funny quote from Bryan). Many of the students were fascinated by the process of screenprinting because they were able to print any drawing or image onto a t-shirt—and make as many as we wanted! Jacob, the boy who was excited about bookmaking, was even more enthusiastic to screenprint shirts. After he learned the technique, he taught other students and staff in the classroom and showed off the t-shirts to any teacher who walked in the room.

The Localvores felt empowered with their new skills. Many with learning disabilities are not able to read or do complex math. After becoming acquainted with these students, I began to notice their distinct personalities and social skills—empathy, conversation, and creativity. Traditional testing doesn’t adequately provide special education students with opportunities to demonstrate unique skills and knowledge. This series of workshops helped me realize that we must acknowledge diverse learning styles and create opportunities for all students to demonstrate their knowledge. The cookbooks and t-shirts we created are not only physical objects showing students’ learning, but are also tools to use for sharing these skills with the public.



Holland, B. (2015, April 15). “Fitting in PBL (Project Based Learning).” Retrieved July 11, 2017, from