BE1: Getting Started on the Work of a Lifetime

The question at the heart of the Burlington Experience course (BE)  sounds simple enough: What does it take for a community to thrive? But it is a question worthy of a lifetime of exploration, and maybe another lifetime of working to achieve. And we’ve only been at it for four short weeks so far!

There are, of course, many ways to enter into this question. Despite the oncoming winter weather, we have found ways to get outside and make observations about city systems and the natural world and learn more about history’s footprint on this place. We have studied frameworks that help us think critically about thriving, including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Systems Thinking, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We have invited in guests, including Abenaki teacher Melody Brook and BHS Alum Balkisa Omar, formerly of Muslim Girls Making Change, to share stories and perspectives that sometimes challenge mainstream narratives and mindsets. 

In an experiential learning class, students’ reflections on their experiences are an essential part of the learning cycle. In BE, students are invited to do this reflection and analysis in an Expo assignment every other week. Here are some excerpts from students’ Expos, organized by core BE themes, that show just how deeply they are thinking about their experiences in this class and the new perspectives they are gaining about what it means to thrive.


“The way the program has been created and how it is run currently clearly shows that community is valued. We often sit in a circle or some form of a circle during our time at BE. To me, a circle strongly symbolizes community. Everyone is facing each other, leaving no one excluded and no one in the spotlight.”

– Liam
Discussion of affordable housing at Cambrian Rise with housing advocate Corrine Yonce.

Sense of Place

“To create a more diverse community we first need to be more accepting, respectful, and supportive of people of color, as there is a reason there is little diversity in Vermont. After watching the video I wrote in my journal, “Someone’s sense of belonging can be greatly affected by the words and actions of others.” Why would someone want to live or stay here if there are people that make them feel as though they don’t belong? I think one of the best ways to help this issue is to educate children about racism starting from when they are young and continue it through their education. We also need to hold people accountable for their actions, not only in schools, but in the community as well.” 

– Libby 
Taking notes on the history of biking in Burlington. (PHOTO: Fritz Senftleber)
Acting out reflections on SDGs.

Social Justice

“Social Justice is inclusion and it is an act to radicalize communities.” I wrote this in my journal, and I think it speaks to how to make a community thrive. We need to unite, and that means support each other no matter what. The education system needs to change as well. We need to see a more diverse learning community so as to create a space for inclusion in later years. I may have spoken about this last week, but if we do not start with education, then there will be no improvement. Children will take after their parents and never walk in other people’s shoes. We need to empower discriminated groups, and that starts with inclusive education.”

– Elizabeth 
Seeing the transportation system through new eyes with Peggy O’Neill from UVM’s Transportation Research Center.

“In class, we talked about power and privilege. We talked about the history of leaders, we talked about the mayoral candidates, and we even talked about kindergarten classrooms. Each point made it more and more clear. I am very very Privileged. I am a white male whose family is comfortable economically, I am an extroverted leader who was best friends with my kindergarten teacher. In fact, when I was living in Brooklyn I switched my whole 1st-grade class to Red Socks fans, and I had dads asking me what exactly I said to their kid for them to hate their Yankees so much. These class discussions have made me think about my role in this, and how I should navigate my privilege and preference that I was born with. I want to hold power and become president one day, but is that selfish?”

– Seth 
Helping Champlain College improve a new educational game


“When I was writing this, I thought about how humans need to thrive, but also how the environment needs to thrive. But often humans interfere with the natural world, which is the place where we live. How can we hope to save our planet from the things we are doing to it? Is there a way we can coexist peacefully with animals and plants and our wild lands?”

– Cora 
Exploring Burlington’s early development with the help of old maps.
Learning about the history of the waterfront with UVM Anthropology Professor Luis Vivanco. (PHOTO: Fritz Senftleber)
Sorting the United Nations 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) with Jen Cirillo from Shelburne Farms.

Inquiry Projects are an essential part of students’ learning experience in BE, and we have now completed two of our three Inquiry cycles. The process is the same each time: students find an open-ended question they’re curious about. They use interviews, observations or experiences to research the question. Then, they create a short presentation, PechaKucha style, that tells the story of their learning journey, ending with a new, deeper question that emerged along the way. Students present to each other – virtually, on our remote day – and give each other immediate feedback. It’s a powerful way to engage and develop students’ curiosity and help them hone their real-world ‘soft skills’ of writing a professional email, arranging a meeting, tapping the wisdom of the community, and presenting to peers.

Here are a few student reflections on Inquiry Projects, drawn from student self-assessments.

“So much fun, great way to get involved with our community.”

– Nolan
Nolan presenting his Inquiry Project on what makes a good leader in Burlington.

“They are great because you can add your experience and interview people. Get to learn more.”

– Barsha
Barsha consulting with a team at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center on a prototype of a video game that aims to promote environmental sustainability.

“The inquiry projects have made me realize that it’s not hard to reach out to someone in the community to get some questions answered so it has made me feel closer to the community and I’ll be more quick to reach out to someone in the future because of them.”

– Anna 
Anna and Diwas using a systems thinking framework to analyze the education system in Burlington.

“I’m learning so much about what I am passionate about, and I have so many ideas for future inquiry projects.”

– Cora 
Using the sidedoors of Memorial Auditorium to study maps of old Burlington before doing our own walking tour.

“I have learned so much more about Burlington in general. Before taking BE I never really thought about systems and how they affect our city. Now, I feel as though I am much more observant when I am out in the city and I have a much better understanding of the way things work. Also, I have learned about so many different lines of work that I didn’t know existed!” 

– Dahlia
Traveling to explore affordable housing on North Ave
Walking to Battery Park to learn about transportation history. (PHOTO: Fritz Senftleber)

“A community can change if people and government work together on a goal. I am happy that I am living in a community that accepts change and progress.”

– Diwas
Comparing old images of the Burlington waterfront with how it looks today.
Listening to Jen Green, the Director of Sustainability for the City of Burlington, explain the City’s Net Zero Energy goals

“I learned a lot more about Burlington and I appreciate the city much more.” 

– Anna
Anna identifying leverage points for improving Burlington’s transportation system.

Happy New Year – BE1 continues in 2021!

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