The connections that we have made over the past few months with people and organizations from the Burlington community have been inspiring. Through a variety of settings and opportunities–from conferences and design workshops to one-on-one conversations–we have arrived at this well-deserved Spring with an even greater commitment to community-based learning in Burlington.
We are also lucky, however, to have secured funding for connections further afield. With support from the Vermont Agency of Education and the National Education Association Foundation, we have been able to travel and meet with partners outside of our region. These experiences have been inspirational–but they also have real utility. After all, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. We know that there are many other successful models, and that even though BCL stands apart, it can also stand on the shoulders of others. In this post, we’ve chosen to highlight a few experiences that have taken our work to the next level.
A Bite Out of the Big Apple
In April, Burlington City & Lake Project Team traveled to CityTerm at the Master’s School to learn about how they use New York City as a classroom. While there are obviously notable differences between CityTerm and BCL, there was a great deal to learn from their program. Similar to BCL, CityTerm has approximately 24 students each semester. They also have a holistic, interdisciplinary “urban core” curriculum–and build their schedule around several traditional academic courses. And similar to BCL, CityTerm is committed to investing deeply in community-building. We were inspired by their structure for Morning Meeting, their “Base Camp” curriculum (which focuses on identity, power, and privilege), and their personalized approach to Advisory, academic feedback, and portfolio-based assessment.
The BCL Project Team spent a full day-and-a-half at CityTerm, shadowing teachers in their administrative meetings, participating in the culmination of a student project on activism and social change, and tagging along on a trip to the city, where students learned how to use the New York Public Library as a resource for their research projects. Students were remarkably articulate about why an immersive, place-based experience was both motivating and empowering. They also talked frankly about the challenges of “doing school” differently–as well as their thoughts about returning to their home schools.
Southern (Vermont) Hospitality
Thanks to road construction delays, it took more that three hours for the BCL Project Team and six students from School Innovation Seminar to arrive at Burr & Burton’s Mountain Campus [MC]–but our journey was nothing compared to the one that our hosts had just completed. After all, MC students had just returned from a week in the Green Mountain National Forest. Evidence of the trip was all around their campus: gear that needed washing was soaking in bins; gear that needed drying was catching the first warm sun of the season, and empty fuel canisters were waiting to be put into storage.
At the end of the previous week, each MC student had completed a two-day solo: one tent, one sleeping bag, one bag of snacks, one journal…and two days, alone, in the woods. The return to campus was understandably emotional, and the feeling of celebration and gratitude was palpable. (Students’ solos were successful, by the way. Everyone we spoke with talked about it as a powerful, meaningful experience.)
The Mountain Campus is a hilltop campus, nestled in the hills of Southern Vermont, surrounded by 100 acres of wilderness. And although the setting couldn’t have been more different from our own, the core questions are all-too familiar:
- How can a program nurture the conditions for the kind of learning that could only be done in that unique place?
- How can a program take full advantage of the individual learners in a group–and the unique journey that group is on?
- What does student-centered learning look like, when practiced with care and fidelity?
- How do communities thrive?
After a dinner with several MC students, we returned to the Mountain Campus cabin for marshmallows around the campfire. As the sparks rose toward a brilliant, starry sky, barred owls began calling from the woods. We sat in silence, until laughter bubbled up and careened around the circle. It was the kind of laughter that can only come from the real world–from an experience that you feel. Later in the evening, one BHS student seemed to capture the essence of our visit: “They care so much about their learning here, and they care so much about their place.” How can we, in our little city, replicate that?
Georgia On My Mind
Also during the month of April, Andy and Signe were able to travel South to LabAtlanta, a new semester program based in midtown Atlanta. The program is designed 10th grade students from public and independent schools. LabAtlanta is in their third semester, and isn’t yet at full-capacity, but we learned a great deal from our brief visit about the power of personal relationships to transform student learning.
We loved the LabAtlanta space – a funky multi-level building in a surprisingly green corner of town. We were immediately struck by the entrepreneurial spirit of the place, with teachers and students truly learning together about their city. The small program size and frequent check-in time with advisors creates space for strong teacher-student relationships. LabAtlanta’s curriculum allows students to pursue math and foreign language at their own level; it includes a course on Global Urban History and Literature with an Atlanta flavor; and it also encourages students to reach far beyond these disciplines to cultivate civic leadership, empathy, and innovative design-thinking skills through independent inquiry projects. We sat in on a design-thinking class and leaned into rich conversations with faculty. LabAtlanta also offered valuable insight into what it takes to start a new program. Hearing their stories reinforced the need to balance advance preparation with a willingness to adjust on-the-fly. All in all, it was inspiring and refreshing to witness this new model of education emerging in this dynamic urban environment.
Even Further South
During the cold month of March, Dov was able to join a team from Vermont on a trip to Puerto Rico. The group was convened by The Greater-Burlington Sustainability Education Network–GBSEN. The United Nations University recently named our city as a Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) for Education for Sustainable Development. This designation, spearheaded by two key BCL partners, UVM and Shelburne Farms, has provided an unprecedented opportunity for our region to collaborate with a global network of 150+ RCEs dedicated to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The trip to Puerto Rico (which was funded independently, and not by the AOE or NEAF), had two goals. First, it allowed Burlington educators and conservationists to work in solidarity with Puerto Ricans who are still recovering from Hurricane Maria. Together with El Centro para la Conservación del Paisaje, a community-based conservation and development group, the GBSEN team engaged in a series of direct service projects, including trail-building and farm restoration at the edge of El Yunque National Forest. The opportunity to work in partnership with local people was a powerful model for reciprocal service-learning, and the needs were real: When the GBSEN team was in Puerto Rico, six months after the storm, there were still 380,000 people without power, and the economy was in freefall. In addition to direct service, the group was able to plant the seed for Northeastern Puerto Rico to consider applying for RCE status themselves. GBSEN will continue to support El Centro as it explores the potential of an RCE designation, and learn from our Puerto Rican friends as they continue their impressive citizen science and community development initiatives.