Learning In the Community With the Community

Systems Thinking

The past few weeks have been packed, as BCL students have explored a variety of city systems. We have met with nearly two dozen community partners, and each has brought a unique spark and perspective. The experience has been so rich that identifying highlights is nearly impossible, but it’s hard not to mention a few…

Jennifer Green, Burlington’s Sustainability Coordinator, explained the connections between the electric grid, the city’s sustainability goals, and the constant question of how to make progress while maintaining equity. Maura Collins, from VHFA, helped us grapple with the real cost-of-living in our lovely, expensive city. Rita Markley, Executive Director of COTS, invited us to imagine what would be like to be homeless in Burlington. And Erik Hoekstra, from Redstone, strolled with us through the Old North End, and challenged us to understand the potential, and inherent trade-offs, of urban development.

Maura Collins helps us understand how larger economic factors influence individuals’ real-world choices.

Erik Hoekstra discusses neighborhoods, development,  and city systems.

Jerry Greenfield made us laugh and lean in, as he regaled us with stories about the transformation of Ben & Jerry’s from a gas station storefront to a global enterprise. Melinda Moulton put the changes on the Waterfront in historical and social context. And when we finally turned our attention to the food system, it was clear that students could see the dynamic interdependence of these systems in 3-D. Food, after all, is where it all comes together! Our conversation with partners from the Intervale Community Farm, City Market, and the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf helped us make immediate connections to transportation, housing, and the local economy – as well as the ever-present through line of equity and fairness.

Jerry tells us that it’s only a few people who are in the “Free Ice Cream For Life Club.”


The only thing better than fresh Intervale watermelon might be the company–and the setting!

Students  have been vocal about how valuable collaborating with community partners have been. Their words speak for themselves…

My favorite part about BCL is that we get to walk to different places to learn about that specific person’s role within Burlington. In other words, the change of setting for each new discussion/lesson allows me to get excited and be more engaged with that specific “assignment.”
           – Wondu

I think my favorite part of the program is the fact that we are always out and about talking to community partners. I really like this because it is genuinely so much better than sitting in a classroom.
           – Denise

One of the most important things I have learned so far that has really helped me understand the Burlington community is how all of the systems we studied are really connected. At first, they seemed like separate things that we were studying, but especially after we looked at the food system, it started to make a lot more sense to me about what makes up a thriving community and how everything fits together.
           – Isabel

Authentic Audience

In a typical high school class, the only one who reads a student’s work, and who responds to a student’s thinking, is the teacher. Students know this. It’s a part of the game of school that everyone learns, at some point. Typically, the result is that the stakes are only ever as high as the teacher’s grading criteria. And this is no “shade” on teachers (as our students might say); it’s just how school works.

With the help of its setting, its approach, and its deep investment in collaborative relationships, Burlington City & Lake Semester is offering students something different. What is that game-changer? It’s having an authentic audience.


City Councillors’ questions opened up space for youth voice. Students’ questions, in turn,  were both informed and incisive.

On September 20th, twenty-four BCL students joined seven Burlington City Councilors in the SparkSpace conference room at the Burlington Electric Department. There, we delved into some of the most pressing issues facing the city. BCL Students had spent weeks developing an inquiry mindset, and each brought 2-3 annotated questions to the meeting

Councillors and students each presented questions and replied, in turn. Thanks to a facilitator (as well as a diligent time-keeper–thank you, Faizo!), a generation of leaders shared a morning of challenging, respectful discourse with the next generation. The issues we unearthed were gray indeed, and the topics ranged from transportation planning and energy policy to racism and implicit bias. In the end, both groups shared deep gratitude for the opportunity to have engaged in this way–and everyone expressed a commitment to continue the conversation.



After the meeting, numerous side conversations between students and Councillors emerged organically.

Again, students’ words speak for themselves…

I think it is important to connect our learning, to have community partners talk to us about what they are passionate about and be interested in us too.
           – Eva

The most important thing I’ve learned so far is that kids need to be informed. Especially as high schoolers, we benefit incredibly by understanding the way our city works, and the issues that come up.
          – Ruby

I’ll be honest. Kids back at the high school don’t seem to care. But now I realize how important it is to care about these issues. After all, they affect us every day.
          – Awa


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