Reimagining School

By the time students arrive in the Burlington City & Lake Semester program, they will have spent more than 15,000 hours in a classroom. If there’s anything they know well, it’s how education functions and feels. And yet it’s exceedingly rare for students to be invited to reflect on school itself–let alone reimagine it. In BCL8, we’re doing just that.

In recent weeks, students have explored the school system through a variety of different frameworks, concepts, and perspectives, including but not limited to: 

  • Conditions for Learning 
  • Learning Styles
  • Motivation 
  • Brain Science 
  • Learning Environments

and

  • Deeper Learning

Not surprisingly, students don’t need to be convinced that the topic is relevant. After all, this is their lives. What’s novel is the invitation to actually see it. So often, systems are invisible. How do you see the water you’re swimming in? The first step is to acknowledge that what you take for granted has been designed–and that it could be designed differently. 

The BSD’s Associate Director of Teacher & Learning, Jocelyn Fletcher-Scheuch, asked students to illustrate a classroom that embodied “Deeper Learning.” 
Students consider where they have experienced Deeper Learning.
By 10am on 2/14, the white board was full. 
The brainstorm prompt was “What does it take to thrive as a learner?” 

On the morning of February 16th, 22 students met with more than 15 community partners at the BCA Center on Church St., where they collaborated on five simultaneous design challenges. Together, we deliberately leveled the typical power hierarchy between young people and adult partners, and this yielded an expansive reimagining of what school could be. 

Even more radical, it unfolded through play. Each small group worked with markers, pipe cleaners, and legos, designing learning environments that embodied one of three core values. Together, we used a “what if” mindset to invite new possibilities.

  • What if school was designed for wellness?
  • What if school was designed based on learners’ interests? 
  • What if school was designed for belonging and connection?
At our convening, we established a culture of curiosity and collaboration.
As soon as we broke into design groups, ideas flowed…
hands got busy…
conversations deepened…
new insights surfaced…
and new connections were made. 

It was really fun to work with community partners as equals and to be able to all have a say in our design. All of the designs for schools were really interesting and preferable to the school system now. Many groups said that school should be a place that students want to go. Why hasn’t the school system changed? Why does it stay the same even when so much is changing in the world? 

Anders

I had a really good experience working with so many community partners, and sharing ideas with them. It was empowering to be treated as equal, and it made it easier to share thoughts and ideas. Our group focused on how to design school around learners’ interests, and we came up with an approach similar to BTC and BCL where the city and its opportunities are used to give everyone a chance to study what’s alive for them, and challenges them to have experiences outside of the classroom. I wonder how much better mental health would be if students looked forward to school, and it was geared to set them up for a future they can look forward to? 

River

During our design project with my group, there was so much flow and creativity and art, and everyone’s brains were working together. I really enjoyed it, and felt very connected to the community partners we worked with, even though it was such a short period of time. 

Elodie

My group worked on designing an environment that focuses on mental health by creating a welcoming environment. A tight-knit community can be very beneficial for mental wellbeing, which is why we included spaces where people can share and communicate feelings so that everyone feels heard. We also incorporated outdoor spaces and indoor plants. The city partners were very open to our ideas no matter how radical they seemed. We were never told that something would be unachievable. 

Ella

After today, I am feeling more excited for college, where I think I will find a place more centered on the values we explored today. I am excited to exist in a place that is focused on wellness, community, and learning. I’m looking forward to learning for myself. This exercise has helped me know where I want to live. 

Kaj

I like how the community partners joined us as if they were students. This way, we got insights from different groups and people…I also like how when we considered what makes a good school, we brainstormed through experiences and what we have seen. We won’t be experiencing the new BHS as students, but we get to say that we were an important part of building it for the next generations. A lot of us have younger siblings who will attend this new school too, so we need everyone’s voice in the community to make sure that we make a strong, welcoming school for everyone. 

LJ
Each presentation was punctuated by smiles and nods around the room.
Authentic youth-adult partnership requires listening–really listening–to students.

The feeling of empowerment and possibility resonated with our community partners as well. 

It was really fantastic to be able to join in this design process as a co-creator and equal collaborator. It was important that this is a real project (the new high school) and that the ideas that were generated might have some impact – that’s something I’m really curious about. I hope these design ideas can be shared with the administration or design team, and that there is an opportunity for students to participate in the design process… BCL is doing fantastic work with amazing people – youth and adults alike! 

Ben Freeman, Vermont Learning for the Future

The tone and structure set the stage for an effective and meaningful experience.  BCL has done such a good job in eliciting student engagement, I feel like the students filled most of the time… The drive for authentic connections and having a safe place to grow came through loud and clear.  

My takeaway was one of hope for the students and staff who are working together with respect and curiosity. It felt heartening for me personally because it reinforced what we are doing at Rock Point School.  Makes me think that there may be possibilities for BCL, Shelburne Farms, RPS and others to collaborate. 

C.J. Spirito, Head of School, Rock Point School

It was sweet to spend time with the students in a packed design charrette. Hearing how much the students enjoyed it was heartening as well. I heard students wonder how many of these ideas would/could be translated to the new BHS. How can the students be empowered to be in the room with the actual designers as they establish priorities?

Rebecca Schwarz, Community Artist

It was amazing to be part of a group of 4 students and 3 community partners, working together as equals to co-design backwards from essential values. There were some amazing ideas generated, and it was really cool to see alignment between wellness, belonging/connection, and learners’ interests.

Students were clear about what a school that is focused on belonging and wellness should have. They said: 

“The first month of school is spent entirely on connecting with each other.”

“Grades are based on showing up for your peers, not As or Fs.”

“You’re greeted every time you enter the school and a classroom.”

“The physical spaces feel welcoming, positive, and inclusive, with nature and community incorporated into the school.”

“Someone is always there to check-in with you.”

“There are more choices for students throughout the day.”

Students also mentioned a desire for specific rooms to be deliberately built to serve as safe spaces that students can seek out if they want to share how they’re feeling or discuss personal, social, or emotional challenges with other peers (and/or adults).

I’m very grateful to have been invited to participate in the design challenge and hear from our students. The biggest insight that I walked away with is this: We need to find more ways to give students the platform to drive decisions and design choices that impact their well-being.

Nick Woolf, BSD Director of Social Emotional Learning
How many school experiences end with this much love…
this much joy…
this much solidarity…
and this much pride?

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