Although it wasn’t originally on the calendar, we were able to create a second Burlington Experience class in the fourth quarter of the school year, with a new group of 12 students. We meet all day on Mondays and Thursdays at the Old North End Center.
One of the ideas that we’re playing around with in this new class is Transformation Literacy. The idea comes from MIT professor Otto Scharmer, who argues that in response to social and environmental crisis, schools in the 21st century need to teach the skills and mindsets that can transform our systems and our communities for justice and sustainability.
To do so, Scharmer says educators must broaden the focus of learning beyond individual skills and even team skills to incorporate ‘ecosystem awareness.’ Likewise, he suggests that we must deepen learning, shifting from experiences that engage only our minds to those that engage our hands and our hearts.
When schools broaden and deepen their approaches, he suggests, they can begin to operate in the sphere of transformation.
While we can’t hope to achieve total system transformation in nine weeks, the Burlington Experience class has been inspired to experiment in the direction that Scharmer suggests.
On our second day of class, we joined certified Nature Connection Guide Duncan Murdoch for a Forest Bathing experience at Red Rocks Park, in search of a more embodied kind of ecosystem awareness. We got lucky with a mild and sunny afternoon, with last year’s leaves crunching underfoot.
After a short introduction, Duncan guided us through a series of short walks and reflections, drawing on all of our senses. We heard the sound of chickadees calling, gusts of wind in the branches of the tall pines – and a neighbor’s outdoor power equipment. We stopped to appreciate the motion all around us: swaying branches, shivering dry beech leaves in the understory; a passing Mourning Cloak butterfly. We even tried to smell the forest through our masks (mostly unsuccessfully). Then, we each chose a spot to sit and observe closely, quieting ourselves and bringing our attention to a tree and anything else nearby.
It’s amazing how different this experience can be than a quick afternoon walk through the woods, and light years away from a lecture or video. Some students commented on how it shifted their perspective and made them feel like a part of Nature in a way they hadn’t before. Maybe that’s a first step toward ecosystem awareness? It’s certainly good material for our journaling and discussion as we grapple with the idea of transformation.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that Forest Bathing can improve mood and even some measures of physical health. In these difficult COVID times, that also seems more important than ever. Thanks to Duncan, and to those wise folks who set Red Rocks Park aside for the forest to grow.
As the spring progresses, our BE class will be spending more time in the forest. In late April, we will work with partners at Burlington Wildways, the City’s Parks and Rec Department and the Intervale Center to plant silver maple trees and ostrich ferns in the Intervale along the Winooski River. It’s part of a multi-year effort to restore healthy floodplain forests in the area, which will have many benefits: carbon sequestration to slow climate change; stabilization of the river banks; and restoration of wildlife habitat, to name a few.
We hope these experiences will move us even closer to understanding transformation: working with others in our community; engaging our minds and our hands; and helping to regenerate a beautiful wild place that we depend on for air, water, and life.