Mapping the Neighborhood: Experiential Learning as a Survival Skill

By PAUL LOWE

I’ve been teaching in the MacArthur Park/Westlake district of Los Angeles for ten years and have worked with a host of immigrant families. Most of them are from Mexico, and some of them have migrated from other cities and states in the U.S. 90% of the population at MacArthur Park Elementary School is Latino and the rest are a mix of White, African American, and Filipino. All of the families who attend the school are living below the poverty line.

MacArthur Park/Westlake district of Los Angeles considered by some to be a rough neighborhood. But I don’t see it that way. I can’t afford to. I began my career in LAUSD ten years ago when the school was MacArthur Park Primary Center. I was desperate for a job after leaving a charter school that was about to lose their charter So I taught English to a class of Spanish speakers whose parents opted for English immersion, not dual language.

The next year with the teacher layoff cycle, I was bumped across the street to Charles White Elementary School, previously home to Otis Art and Design. I taught 4th and 5th grade for five years and was handed the most challenging students because of low seniority. During those years I became the teacher I am today because experiential learning was my survival skill. I couldn’t teach without building on the interests of my students. One boy had a fascination with snakes, so we got a terrarium with two corn snakes. The classroom became a mini-zoo where students would bring their pets to class for a week, and we conducted research and generated investigations based on their inquiry. Charles White is also an arts-based school. One of the most interesting projects we did came out of a LACMA partnership. Marissa Dowling, a visiting photographer from London sent the students around MacArthur Park with cameras to take photos of things they found interesting. The photographs were a blend of artifacts and human interest stories. We had a gala with the Mayor in the LACMA annex museum on our campus.

Eventually, LAUSD sent me back to MacArthur Park Primary Center, which grew into an elementary school where I was nominated Chapter Chair of the LA teachers union in order to help create a better and more sustainable environment for students. I was assigned third grade, and there began the descent into the underworld of computerized testing. Fortunately I had enough reptilian skin. I kept true to a quote from W.B. Yeats that got me into teaching, ‘Education is not filling the pail, but lighting the fire.’ One of my goals has been to expose students to their own world, so I take my students on as many field trips as the principal will allow.

One teacher I know went on 23 field trips in one year, most of them free. That inspired me to try for seven or more a year. Some of the best trips have been right in the neighborhood, gathering stories from folks living and working in the community. Field trips include to a senior center, interviewing the tenants as a way for students to learn about the history of the region.

Another project I am planning through LA RiverLore, sponsored by Community Works Institute (CWI) is a community garden at myschool that services local families and beautifies the park with native, drought tolerant plants. My students are learning about seeds and how to take of plants by adopting existing plants at school. MacArthur Park Lake is a watershed for the L.A. river, so I want to extend student learning by growing plants along the river.

My students are also beginning to write about their experiences with plants and life structures integrated with creative writing and visual arts. They will also be making connections to the history of plants and agriculture of the indegienous Tongva as well as settlers, and how industrialization, gentrification, and technology has affected our relationship to the river. My students’ work and documents is being shared by LA RiverLore, with our collective vision being a journey into student self discovery through service-learning, a journey that is ongoing and evolving.

Every year I set a goal to get to know my students and their families personally. I feel that relationship building is the key to teaching for two reasons: building trust and strengthening community. In order to accomplish my goal, I do home visits and schedule field trips. This year our class took multiple field trips into our own local neighborhood. Home visits also help me get to know the environment in which the students live, and field trips expose them to the resources and benefits in their community.

Field trips also give students opportunities to develop experiential learning where they can make connections to their history and the people, places, and things they encounter. With the support of Community Works Institute (CWI), we went on a series of unique excursion this year. The students worked as burgeoning ethnographers, anthropologists, biographers, and storytellers during their walkabouts of their neighborhood. As students they scoured MacArthur Park for artifacts, architecture, and stories of the people who live there. We will also look at how the history of Westlake has evolved.

During the previous year’s Summer Institute at CWI our LA RiverLore Cohort explored the map of the L.A River (its headwaters and tributaries.) We found out that the lake in MacArthur Park is fed by natural springs and is a watershed for the Los Angeles River. The students were excited to learn this and want to start a park beautification project to support the ecological health of the park and its surroundings.

Currently we are learning about the native plants and animal species and other species that have been introduced. On our walkabout, the students learned more about the habitat and the relationships that people have with their environment. We are also creating a needs assessment survey to find out how the community can make deeper connections to their natural habitat. If we can engage the community to beautify the park, we believe it will improve its health and sustainability.

About LA RiverLore

LA RiverLore is a highly innovative service-learning focused project, sponsored by Community Works Institute (CWI), for K-16 and community based educators. We’re connecting communities, students, and educators along the Los Angeles River. LA RiverLore will provide teachers in local schools the training, inspiration, collaboration, and connections needed to create standards focused service-learning curriculum around the River and its neighborhoods. Most importantly, LA RIverLore is connecting students in the greater Los Angeles area with their own local neighborhoods and communities through deep academically based service projects.
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