When Place-Based Learning Goes Online

These days, experiential and place-based education feels a lot like the game “Taboo.” In the game, players try to get their team to guess a word, but their hints can’t include any of the most obvious related words printed on the game cards. 

You want experiential education in the COVID-19 pandemic? Go right ahead. Just don’t gather in groups, don’t go anywhere and don’t have any experiences together.

You want to reconnect students to the community? Fine. Just don’t interact with other people or leave your front porch.

You want to understand the connections between lake health and human health? Lovely. Of course, you can’t go down to the lake.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is where we find ourselves in the Burlington City & Lake Semester. As educators, what do we do? Our curriculum is built around the study of real-world issues through hands-on experiences in the city. For two years, we have hosted a class of BHS juniors and seniors at the Old North End Center in Burlington with a unique, all-day every-other-day schedule. Students explore themes of sustainability, social justice and community as they observe and study City Systems, explore what makes Burlington thrive, learn basic lake ecology and create public art. We get out and about every day. Much of our program is built around interaction with community partners. So, when the COVID-19 stay-at-home order landed, our whole curriculum plan imploded.

But the premise of Taboo is that, even when there are obstacles in the way, if you think on your feet, you can still get your group where it needs to go. 

So, on March 16, when our program shifted to an online experience, the BCL faculty had to make some quick adjustments to keep the essence of our program alive in a changed world. 

After a few early failures, in which we noticed ourselves talking too long, we designed our online classes to be as interactive as possible. We now meet with our 18 students three times a week for one hour, via Google Meet. We start with a check-in question, which is answered by everyone, in turn. It’s a simple way that we greet each other in the digital space, get to know each other better, and invite everyone’s voice into the conversation. (Recent examples: Who’s one of your heroes? What’s a plant or animal that you feel a connection to?) 

Then, we take a few minutes to present a news item and make a connection to one of our course themes. Last week we looked at how Americans’ faith in science is impacting private and public responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most days, we invite everyone on the call to type a response to the news story in a shared Google Document, another on-the-fly innovation that has worked. Everyone takes a few minutes to silently read what others have written on the document and the leader invites spoken responses. It’s a surprisingly effective way to engage students and generate some of the intellectual energy of a discussion without bogging the call down. 

After the news, one of the faculty leads the group in some kind of activity or reflection. These have generally been connected to some aspect of life during a pandemic. We might share a poem, an article or a video. This week, we reflected on how some city systems are adapting to the current situation. This segment is always short, and it often ends with a journal prompt. We take 5 minutes - right on the call - to write together in our journals and then everyone shares a sentence or two from their entry. Again, students have responded well to this structure and they have potent insights to share. We wrap up the calls with announcements and reminders about homework and our upcoming meetings.

A second priority in the online space is to keep building positive relationships with each student. We greet every student by name as they join the call. We still celebrate birthdays with a light-hearted ritual of spinning a number wheel for the chance to win a prize. We take the time to hear from everyone, even when it’s a little bit messy or slow. And sometimes it is — but that was true in the real world, too! These elements are especially important in the digital space because they remind us all that we are real people, friends even, on the call together, not just avatars. Once a week, we also host virtual “crew” meetings that mirror the real-world crews that used to be responsible for setting up lunch, documenting our experiences, and organizing our travel in the city. In these small groups, we check in with each other, touch base on assignments or present student work. 

Third, we haven’t given up on experiential education entirely! Building on our winter nature walks, we have invited everyone to get outside on their own and explore Burlington’s phenology as spring unfolds. Our friend (and BCL Steering Committee member) Dr. Walter Poleman, in UVM’s Rubenstein School of the Environment, has shared photos from his nature walks and encouraged students to document the natural world around them using the iNaturalist platform. It’s just a shadow of the Burlington Phenology Clock project we originally envisioned, but it is keeping our connection to the natural world alive. 

We also adapted our plans for a Public Art project with local artist Mary Lacy. Following our bias towards emergent curriculum, Mary urged us to focus on using art to document our experience of the stay-at-home order. For some students, the invitation to make art is welcome; for others, it’s way outside their comfort zone. But the project is deepening students’ awareness of the strange new world we live in and giving them another kind of individual experience for reflection. We are still making plans with students for some kind of exhibition of student work at semester’s end.

Are our adaptations working? It’s always hard to measure educational outcomes in the short term, but we have been surveying students. Most of them tell us that we’re on the right track. Attendance in our online classes has been very strong and, outside of “class,” students are making art, pursuing Inquiry Projects, and reflecting on the meaning of this time. 

So, even when it feels like we’re stuck inside a game of “Taboo,” we are doing our best to continue the essence of BCL. It may not be the “extraordinary semester experience” that our BCL brochure promised, or that we imagined when we first gathered, in person, on a cold day in January, but it certainly has been extraordinary in its own way!


Andy Barker is Project Director at Burlington City & Lake Semester, a partnership between Burlington High School and Shelburne Farms.

Posted by Andy Barker

May 18, 2020

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