by Julia Shannon-Grillo, editor
“Picture yourself… assisting local scientists as they study our impact on Lake Champlain, and making policy recommendations to the Mayor and City Council.”
These hands-on, place-based experiences are the heart of Burlington City and Lake Semester (BCL) — Burlington High School’s (BHS) new semester-long program that provides an authentic environment for students to learn through civic engagement.
BCL is rooted in the value of appreciating one’s own community. Burlington is the classroom. And students learn by “exploring the people, places, problems and possibilities of our community.”
Every other day, students settle into the couches of their colorful, corner room in the Old North End Community Center. Local educators and program leaders Peter McConville, Dov Stucker, Signe Daly, and Andy Barker, help students prepare to meet their community partners for the day. This fall these meetings connected to four units: Exploring Burlington (City Systems), People and the Lake, Community Exploration (Who Are We?), and Arts & Community.
“[The teachers] explained how the approach to learning was different than the traditional style used in schools,” junior Soren Dearing-Nyhus said. “I was expecting it to be more engaging in terms of us getting out of the classroom and going out into the community to do our learning, and that’s what we did.”
Junior Isabel Vivanco said she came to BCL looking for something different, but she was not too sure what to expect. What she found was lots of walking, and a level of collaboration that took her learning beyond the curriculum.
“We could choose to go deeper with what we did. After we met with people, [they would] give us their contacts and there were definitely some kids in our group who followed up,” Vivanco said.
BCL started the year building community with team activities and then moved quickly to projects on topics such as identity, public art, and environmental impacts on Lake Champlain. Senior Awa Drame said she most fondly remembers a day spent at Shelburne Farms.
“We did this seminar with a bunch of different [Vermont schools], so we just got to hear [from] a lot of smart people that we had never [met],” Drame said.
Many students said they also enjoyed meeting with Burlington’s City Councilors as part of their City Systems unit. Junior Julius Dodson said he had always considered himself to be “somewhat engaged in local politics,” but meeting with the councilors gave him an outlet to create a discussion on topics such as diversity, civic engagement, and the future.
“It was the first time in my learning career that people cared for what I had to say,” Dodson said.
Dearing-Nyhus said that meeting created a meaningful connection and a desire to help.
“What also made it such a good experience, meeting with the councilors, was getting out and interacting with the people in Burlington and the city itself. When you do that, you have a stronger need to solve the problems that you’re learning about,” Dearing-Nyhus said.
According to Council President Kurt Wright, the group of councilors was instructed to ask about anything. Wright began a discussion around free speech, and he was slightly troubled by the response from some students who said they had a problem with speech that could be deemed offensive. Another student countered this by bringing up the March, 2017 incident at Middlebury College, where a group of students violently protested a conservative speaker.
“I don’t think it happens enough,” Wright said on opportunities to interact with Burlington’s youth. “I think it was a good exchange of ideas, concerns, and questions.”
The final project:
For their culminating project, BCL students created a work of art inspired by a word that they believe makes a community thrive. Students worked with artist Mary Lacy. Lacy said she tagged along on various activities throughout the semester to get to know the students prior to teaching the final unit of the program.
“I was introduced as the ‘Cousin Mary’ at the beginning. [The other teachers said] ‘Expect her to follow along!’” Lacy said.
Lacy is the artist responsible for the hummingbird mural, located on Saint Paul St, across from the Vermont Pub and Brewery. She said she wanted to show the BCL students the capabilities of art.
“In high school I just thought art was a pretty picture on the wall, so I wanted to set up that art can be a means to something else. It’s a tool to challenge, to question, to heal, to feel and so I set up this whole unit as art is a verb,” Lacy said.
For Vivanco, who chose ‘joy’ as her verb, this unit was the highlight of the semester.
“It was inspiring, because [Lacy] does this stuff for a living,” Vivanco said. “She really guided us through the whole process. As someone [who doesn’t] consider myself an artist, it was really fun to work with her.”
Other students chose words such as ‘diversity’, ‘representation’, and ‘empathy’.
BCL celebrated the end of their semester with a presentation of the students’ artwork to community members at the ONE center on December 12th. A slideshow of the art was projected onto a face of the exterior of the building and onto the ceiling of the center’s auditorium. Approximately 200 community members attended to support the artists and peppered the students with questions. The majority of the public asked questions following the theme of differences between BCL and traditional schooling at BHS. Students responded by describing the inclusivity and connected community of the program.
“You are not anonymous in this program,” BCL co-founder Dov Stucker said. Should they be accepted, applicants are fully expected to be present and participate.
BCL strives to “honor the inherent dignity and worth of all people.” It does this by incorporating diverse perspectives into the projects and experiences of students.
“The biggest thing is: Don’t think it’s centered around one type of learner,” Dodson said.
According to Stucker, this was a conscious decision, despite pressure to create a program that narrowly targeted specific learning styles.
“I think the deliberate design to make sure this program can allow anyone to thrive is really what makes it its strongest,” Stucker said.
“The teachers work really hard to make it a good experience for everyone,” junior Faduma Haji said. “So if you’re in the class and you’re finding that it’s not what you need it to be, you can just have a conversation with the teachers and they’ll help you out with it because that’s the kind of community it is.”
For information on BCL activities and how to apply visit btvcityandlake.org. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis until students’ schedules are finalized. All incoming juniors and seniors are eligible for the fall of 2019. The application requires a recommendation from a familiar adult and commitment to being an active member of the BCL learning community.