Burlington Waterfront, 1895 ©Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VermontAs a previous post illustrates, the Year End Studies term allows teachers to do things a little differently. When I built my own YES course, I knew I wanted it to be threaded with elements of:
- Place-based learning
- Futurist thinking / Critical-thinking
- Authentic civic engagement
- Inquiry-based research
Interestingly, inspiration for the course came from the college level. Years ago, I developed a seminar at Burlington College for first-year students, called “Progress?” (Yes, it had a question-mark!) The course focused on a series of case studies of specific decisions, and technologies. For each topic, the goal was to determine the criteria by which society should decide whether that “advancement” truly represented “progress.” We investigated everything from human cloning and the atomic bomb to ridgeline wind development and cochlear implants. It was a powerful experience, one that I have wanted to re-create, at a high school scale, ever since.
The YES course that I designed is entitled “The Future of Burlington.” There was only one pre-req for students who chose this course: a willingness to meet 3-4 times before the end of May. When our group of eight students first met, we began with a thought experiment: Imagine that you were to disappear, entirely, from Burlington, and then return in twenty-five years. What would you want to see? We brainstormed answers, and students came up with everything from housing equity and better recreation facilities to diverse neighborhoods and more public art. Eventually, we coalesced around one central theme: A vibrant Waterfront.
It was around this focus that the course began to take shape. The research questions were obvious:
- What is the history of the Waterfront?
- What is going on there now?
- What does its future hold? And what should it hold?
Fortuitously, there is currently a remarkable amount of energy being poured into Waterfront planning on the part of local government, non-profit groups, and visionary citizens.
Click here to see the City’s earlier work to develop the guiding principles represented by PlanBTV.
To learn more about the City’s current “Piblic Investment Action Plan” process, click here.
The idea seemed simple enough: If students could connect with the ongoing work being done by Burlington’s government and citizens, they would immediately be involved in an authentic civic process, as opposed to an arbitrary “assignment” invented by me as a teacher. There was also an opportunity for real reciprocity: While our group would benefit from the wisdom of many community partners who are already involved in determining the Waterfront’s future, the City would also benefit from having youth voice infused into the decision-making process.
Inspired by New Zealand-style “Inquiry Learning,” the course is designed as an inductive, unfolding mystery. Unlike a traditional classroom environment, in which the teacher knows more than the students and it is his/her job to help students gain that knowledge, for this project we will be truly be “in it together.” Collectively, we will be using the landscape of the Waterfront as our classroom. Our teachers will thus be myriad community partners; my role will be to convene, to coach, and to facilitate reflection. Along the way, a rubric will guide our reflection and self-assessment. The demonstration of student learning is as authentic as it gets: our group has been invited by the Mayor to write a formal brief to the City’s Public Investment Team. Similar to other advocacy groups (e.g., advocates for accessibility, conservation, recreation, etc.), our group will have a chance to weigh in, in a real way, on the Waterfront’s future.
In order to have enough context and background to successfully write such a brief, our field-based YES course is packed full of presentations, interviews, and tours.
The following is a list of those we are meeting with, face-to-face. Many more have supported from behind the scenes. It truly took a village to put this project together!
Walter Poleman – UVM/Burlington Geographic, etc. (Using geographic tools to assist with mapping/Exploring the UVM archives)
Ryan Morra – UVM/Burlington Geographic, etc. (Using geographic tools to assist with mapping/Exploring the UVM archives)
Prudence Doherty – UVM Archives & Special Collections (Exploration of Waterfront history through archival maps)
Nate Wildfire - PIAP coordinator (Introduction to the PIAP process)
David E. White – Burlington Planning & Zoning Director (Intro to P&Z and PlanBTV)
Nick Warner - CEDO, Special Projects (Tour of post-industrial sites/constraints on the Waterront)
Tim Grover – DPW (Public Works Water Division) – Waste Water Treatment Plant management
Megan Moir – DPW (Public Works Water Division) – storm water (Tour of water facilities)
Nicole Losch – DPW, walking & biking (Discussion of larger-picture of trasport issues on the Waterfront)
Tad Cooke and Erick Crockenberg – UVM, PIAP proposers (Introduction to PIAP process from the perspective of a proposer/civic engagement)
Jesse Bridges - Parks & Rec Director & Harbormaster (Intro to P & R, Harbor, water and recreation issues)
Mark Naud – Interim Manager, Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center (Intro to non-profit role on the Waterfront)
Chapin Spencer – Local Motion (Intro to non-profit role on the Waterfront/bike-transport issues)
Trey Pecor and Russel Fox- Lake Champlain Transportation Co. (Intro to lake transport/industry)
Melinda Moulton – Main St Landing, CEO/Redeveloper (Intro to business/development role on the Waterfront)
Jason Stockwell – Director, Rubenstein Lab (Lake health and applied science)
Phelan Fretz - Director, ECHO Center (Intro to research, educational, and stewardship potential of the Waterfront)
Miro Weinberger – Burlington’s Mayor (Meeting with our group to discuss our findings, and to offer early feedback on our TIF brief)
Each encounter gives students a unique lens through which to understand the opportunities and the constraints for future decision-making. While we certainly won’t be experts at the end of our two-and-a-half weeks, the goal is to learn enough to have something relevant, unique, and valuable to say.
Addendum: June 10th.
At the time of this update, students have invested nearly 650 collective hours into place-based inquiry and research. The results speak for themselves. If the group’s confidence grew over the past two weeks, it certainly culminated as they met for a second time with Nate Wildfire, asking The Assistant Director of CEDO informed and pointed questions about the unfolding PIAP process. By the time they walked into the Mayor’s office the following day, this diverse group of young people could easily have been taken for a professional consulting team.
If anyone remains curious about the depth of their engagement with their city, their place, and their community’s future, one need only look at their final product: a formal Brief, submitted to Mayor Weinberger and to the Public Investment Team, along with all of our community partners.
As I reflect on my own teaching practice, a number of insights resonate…
- My greatest joy in the past two weeks was allowing experience itself be the teacher. While I certainly organized, facilitated, and coached, it was rare that I formally “taught.”
- I feel strongly that young adults learn to be engaged, thoughtful, respectful adults by spending time with engaged, thoughtful, respectful adults. While I have great respect for my fellow teachers, we are a small slice of the greater community. Watching this group interact and collaborate with dozens of adults in the real-world was a powerful reminder of how much more of this they need–and deserve.
- There is nothing more motivating than someone saying “We need you.” When city leadership asks for help on an ongoing project, with an authentic purpose, engagement happens naturally.
- The most authentic learning begins with curiosity and ends with agency.
- The world of professionals, and decision-makers, needs the insight of young adults as much as schools need greater collaboration. What an untapped resource youth voice and insight actually is…
Thanks to all who helped make this project a reality. What a remarkable way to end the school year.