Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.
Several years ago I hired a carpenter friend of mine to help me build a deck. He designed and engineered it, ordered the materials, supervised the construction, and performed any and all tasks that required actual carpentry skills. I held things, lugged lumber, poured the concrete footers, laid the decking, and did everything else that my friend felt comfortable being done by someone who didn’t really know what he was doing. Occasionally, while working together, my carpenter friend would stop, take a few measurements, and jot down an equation or two on a piece of scrap lumber before shouting some measurements my way. I would then dutifully cut this or that piece of wood down to size. The equations he was using weren’t all that sophisticated, and at one point, in a long ago high school math class, I’m sure that I learned them, used them, and forgot them, only to relearn them a decade later for the GREs and forget them once again.
Too often in school, I’ve come to realize, we ignore the deck. We ask students to learn new information and new skills without the necessary schema to bring that learning to life. And we wonder why some students lack motivation and fail to retain information we go over again and again in class. Adults see the world through a unique combination of future thinking and hindsight. With a literal lifetime of experience and a fully developed prefrontal cortex to see the forest for the trees, most adults are able to understand the consequences of bad decisions and see the potential benefits of well-informed ones. Adolescents on the other hand are fully immersed in a state of becoming. Hyperfocused on the now, it is a rare teenage who sees the value of calculus for their future engineering career, at least partly because most teenagers don’t even know what an engineer really is or does. They don’t know that at some point they might want to build a deck.
In this way traditional schooling is somewhat backwards. The primary question we should be wrestling with in approaching any topic isn’t “how best to teach this?” but “why should I learn this?” We should be building the deck so that students see what tools they need in real time. Hands on, real world learning facilitates the acquisition of both skills and knowledge in a way that going through the motions, operating on the blind faith that someday this will all become relevant will not for many of our students. This is not to say that what we teach is irrelevant. Far from it. I believe fully in a liberal arts education that spans a breadth of subjects, is inclusive of many disciplines, and prepares students for whatever challenges they choose to take on after graduation. Schools should feed curiosity, and a healthy curiosity should have the benefit of as much exposure to as many ideas and fields as possible. Otherwise, how can we make informed choices, and what choice is more important than figuring out what we want to do with our lives?
But we can’t and shouldn’t expect our students to know what they want to do with their lives by 18. Some students, however, leave high school with a much better understanding than others of their potential and possibilities. Why is that? The most successful high school students are often those whose support networks have contextualized their education in one way or another. Most commonly this looks like “high school is a means to an end and if you do well here you’ll go on to college where your real education will begin.” For a few lucky students this might take the form of an early, authentic pursuit of a particular field coupled with an understanding adult’s guidance and support, however this scenario is much more rare than I think those of us in education like to think – especially in this day and age when the traditional white collar – and privileged – career paths of doctor, banker, and lawyer are no longer the safe bets they once were.
Enter the Burlington City and Lake Semester. Next year, Burlington High School is launching an interdisciplinary, immersive semester program for BHS students where the city of Burlington will serve as both classroom and curriculum. Focusing on five key themes – sense of place, community and identity, civic engagement, social justice, and sustainability – and working with a number of community partners, BCL aims to both inform and empower students, engaging them through real-world learning as we work towards a healthier community. In bringing students out of the classroom and into the city, we will work on issues facing the city, in real time, collaborating with local professionals on authentic solutions.
While our curriculum will be emergent and responsive to the needs and opportunities presented by the city at any given time, some projects we envision include creating a short, ethnographic documentary about Burlington’s ever changing demographics and cultural wealth; studying the health of Lake Champlain with local scientists, making policy recommendations to our local and state governments; and collaborating with a local artist to explore the role of public art in our community, culminating in a show of original artwork. We aim to not be bound by discipline, but to be inspired by the needs of our community.
When students return to Burlington High School after their City and Lake Semester experience, we believe that they will return with a renewed sense of purpose and a greater understanding of how the courses at the high school can help them achieve their newly aspirational and expansive goals. They’ll come back ready to build their deck, contextualize their learning, and find purpose in their work.
Peter McConville is a 2011 Rowland Fellow, teaching at Burlington High School