Developing empathy for your community

Meet the Humans of Burke

community-based learning the humans of burkeSo many schools operate in isolation from the very communities they are situated in. Do your students know community members? Does your community see your students as young community members?

One small school in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom interpreted the popular “Humans of New York” project to foster connection between their 8th graders and the town’s community. Meet the Humans of Burke.


But, we’re all human, right?

Hang on, what’s with all this “Humans of” business? Well, the idea came from the brilliant Humans of New York website, book and concept. In it, an artist roams the streets of New York, stopping every so often to capture the photo and brief, personal story of individuals he encounters. The photos and captions in this project tell a human story of the citizens of New York City in a very real, personal way.

The Humans of New York idea has spread to a number of schools looking to replicate the empathy shown in the pairing of image and story.  Some, like Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, led by Christie Nold, used the model to create The Humans of Verve, to build community and identity within their middle school team of students.

Thus the Humans of Burke

Burke Town School wanted to take it in a different direction, and use the concepts as a way for students to get to know their local community members.

In January, Burke’s 8th grade students dove into a semester-long project-based learning experience, rooted in the U.N Global Goals and focused on their local community. But first, they had to KNOW their local community. Many were unfamiliar with the community and the issues they were facing.

In using the “Humans of” model, each 8th grader at Burke Town School would:

  • interview a community member;
  • write a life narrative from the interview;
  • take a photo of the interviewee;
  • and create a block print of the photo.

The resulting stories would be displayed Burke’s centrally located village coffeehouse, Caffe Lotti.

How did they do it?

It took a village. Literally.

Classroom teachers and allied arts teachers put in a lot of planning both before and during this project.

For instance, the literacy teacher took on helping kids learning how to conduct a good interview, how to take good photos and how to write up the interviews in an engaging and informative way.

Then once students had their photos, their art teacher taught them how to create block prints from their photographs.

Finally, the teachers had to find a place to have the art show exhibition. The art teacher suggested the local Cafe Lotti as a possible spot, made the call, and secured the date and time for the event.

Humans at an exhibition

On a cold Wednesday evening in March, students pinned up their block prints and narratives all over the walls of Caffe Lotti’s cozy loft space. They’d invited everyone they knew, and the coffeehouse had set a signboard out front announcing an opening night reception. But would anyone show up?

The townspeople of Burke showed up in droves.

The cafe’s small parking area filled up quickly; 15 minutes after the reception’s start time, new arrivals were forced to park along Burke’s icy one-lane main street, down the road at the post office or in neighbors’ driveways.

The loft quickly became standing-room only. And as everyone read the narratives and admired the artistry of the block prints, joyful conversation and laughter filled the cafe.

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What does it feel like for students to get this kind of reception?


Katy Farber

Farber joined TIIE after 17 years as a classroom teacher in central Vermont. She is passionate about promoting student and teacher voice, engaging early adolescent students, sharing the power of service learning, and creating inclusive communities where joy, courageous conversations and kindness are the norm. She lives in central Vermont with her husband and two daughters and loves being outside with family and friends, listening to music, writing about the world, and jumping into Vermont ponds and lakes.

2 thoughts on “Developing empathy for your community

    April 29, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    This was indeed a useful and detailed article. Human interaction is really necessary and paves way for discussion. With the growing and somewhat dominating nature existing social media applications it is really crucial to focus on citizen participation.

    A good dialogue also reduces the chances of conflicts which at larger level helps in overall development of community and prevent cases of NIMBY

    December 17, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    I like the idea of empathy. Putting yourself in other shoes is the best thing one can do to understand other person heart. Participation and sharing the same on social website while thanking the team is the best thing one can do. Education is also important factor to understand and making relationship with one another.


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