Moving Beyond the Classroom Walls in Los Angeles


Paula Cohen is a veteran teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District. She uses service-learning to create meaningful and relevant experiences for young people and is passionate about connecting our schools and communities. Paula is an alumnus of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning.

Participating in CWI’s Summer WEST Institute was a ground breaking experience for me. For years now, I have felt the isolation of being in a traditional classroom. I have cajoled, often begged fellow teachers to collaborate on projects. I don’t understand why it should be unique for a teacher to enjoy the company of young people and get excited by the process of group learning. I don’t want to be unique; I would rather be the norm in this case! I suppose the inevitability of NCLB is that it has caused many teachers to lose sight of the big picture and the meaning of education. The media has demonized us and our districts demoralize us. Still at some point, we have to rise to the occasion that these young people are here right now, ready to receive an educational experience from us and it is up to us how we are going to construct that. At CWI’s Summer WEST, I met like minded educators who could see beyond the limitations, who thought outside the box, who were willing to ask big questions and delve deep into the answers. It felt like coming home. Continue reading

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Trust Your Students, They Will Shine


Steven teaches science at Middlebury High School in Vermont. He has done remarkable work investing his students with responsibility for their own learning through service-learning and sustainability projects. He has developed a curriculum for alternative education students that integrates science, math, and health units into a sustainable food systems curriculum with an extremely active learning component. Steven is an alumnus and current faculty member of CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning.

Don’t enable your students; trust them and they will shine.

This was the introduction to my presentation at last year’s CWI Summer EAST Institute on Service Learning, in Vermont. I live just down the road was honored that CWI’s director Joe Brooks asked me to come and talk about some of my service-learning projects I have done with my students.

The focus of my talk was on the work I have been doing with having students learn how to grow their own food, as well as food for the school. Integrating science, math, and health units into this sustainable food systems curriculum has been challenging but extremely rewarding. As the national obesity epidemic and associated health risks such as diabetes are on the rise, I feel that all students should know: how to grow their own food; know what it means to eat healthy; and be able to cook a healthy affordable meal that comes from fresh local ingredients.

How does all this connect with service-learning? The better question to ask is how does it not connect to service-learning. Community Works Institute’s Joe Brooks asked me to write a reflection about my experiences with service-learning. As I started to wrap my head around what I was going to write, I kept thinking about all of the service-learning projects that I have done with my classes over the past ten years and wondered was their common theme.  Continue reading

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JUST ANNOUNCED! Summer WEST Institute Affordable Accommodations

We have great news, thanks to our partners at Otis College of Art and Design. CWI Summer WEST participants will have access to extremely affordable room rates. Low cost room rates are as low as $45/night per person. This is a perfect opportunity for school and organizational teams. learn more

CWI’s Summer WEST Institute immerses K-16 educators in CWI’s acclaimed learning lab, using one of the world’s most vibrant and culturally rich urban settings as our classroom. Join us for an exceptional week of transformative professional development, program design and networking. Spend an intensive and deeply rewarding week immersed in service-learning, sustainability, and place-based education, with inspired educators from across the U.S. and around the world. Summer WEST provides a unique opportunity to understand why service-learning works, how it works, and how to use it most effectively with your students. Summer WEST is a transformative professional learning experience that will reshape the way you view the relationship between learning, teachers, and the community.


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Service-Learning as a Valuable and Viable Instructional Model


Emily is Kindergarten/Grade 1 Looping Classroom Teacher in Montpelier Vermont. She attended CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning with a team of colleagues from her district. Emily’s school district has been working hard for a number of years to make service-learning a core part of all students’ K-16 experiences.

As CWI’s Summer Institute approached last summer I felt strongly that I knew what I was looking to gain from the week’s experience. My goal was to learn more about the purpose and strategies of place-based education. I was also seeking a better understanding of education for sustainability in hopes of folding the ideas around a shared vision of bettering our schools, communities, and practice for sustainable living into my practice. As one member of a team of teachers, I also wanted to learn more about how I can do more than just espouse my beliefs in the benefits of service learning experiences. When I reflect on the varied experiences I had at CWI‘s Summer Institute, I consider how the people I met, stories I heard, and varied learning activities will help me carry my service-learning work forward. Conversations about sustainability, equity in education and diversity have also found a place in my thinking about my own pedagogy.

Education for sustainability was a frequent focus, and constant under-current to the many fulfilling conversations I had with colleagues in my study group. To get our head, and service-learning filled hearts around the concept, our group found the underpinnings of sustainability deeply rooted in our shared understanding of reciprocity.

That when we give, we also agree to receive.

That when we offer help, we also agree to be helped.

That when we teach, we also agree to open our minds to learn.

Not only did our thinking move from the idea of giving as the medium of service, it morphed into the mutuality of service as the connection between communities, an avenue for a shared sustainable experience that is a give and receive amongst, between and is truly communal. The sustainable piece is embedded in the value all participants share in building relationships, learning from one another.

I have often struggled with how to share my belief of service-learning as a valuable, and viable instructional strategy with unconvinced or overwhelmed colleagues. This spring I participated in a district-wide “think tank” of other like-minded service learning-focused teachers and our goal was to develop a platform for our district’s administrative team to develop a “guaranteed a service learning experience for all students at every grade level.” What I learned from CWI workshop leaders, read from case studies, and witnessed as I listened to Institute colleagues across the week, is that service-learning experiences cannot be forced, or mandated by school leaders. Rather, school leaders and teachers who do want others to engage their students in service learning, can help faculty best as SL guides and supporters. We all need to work with colleagues who will help us remove barriers in the way of great instruction, and there are many well-known barriers to service learning.

Learning to think about what we teach, why, and the student experience is an important lens from which to view a service-learning approach to teaching. We must believe in the purpose and understand the meaning of what we set forth to accomplish. I discussed this approach with colleagues throughout our week together at CWI. The varied conversations stirred my thinking about collaboration and colleagueship as I experienced it this past school year.

It’s no wonder I felt so satisfied upon leaving daily conversations with a colleague about student needs, strategies for positive discipline, instructional choices for jazzing up a canned literacy program, or a routine choice I made to engage students in a lesson or meeting conversation and why. Unbeknown to us, we created a checks and balance system from which we drew our energy (fueling up intellectually so to speak), pre-tested & assessed our thinking, and took risks knowing we could make mistakes. We took care of one another and encouraged each another to try another approach. Our system helped us think about our independent instruction as shared instruction and our students as beneficiaries. It also became a system, I recently realized, that nourished my thinking about pedagogy, and bettered my practice through collaboration.

What I know about the importance of this practice bloomed from my experience at CWI, but what did come from my learning at the institute was its name: reflection. I know the power of reflection as an instructor. I also know the power of reflection as a student, and for my students (it is a common practice in my instruction, particularly during daily closing meetings with students). I gained new reflective strategies from Institute, and enjoyed opportunities to reflect on my learning during the institute with new colleagues on the diverse topics of sustainability and place-based education.

I hope to further explore the concept of place-based learning in my practice. I learned from CWI the importance of taking my learning “outside of the box.” Through reflective experiences since the Institute, I believe some of my most powerful learning took place with CWI colleagues in the place of learning — on the lawn. This approach to teaching and learning has affirmed my belief in teaching and learning in the place from which we need to learn from for all students.

Continue reading

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Latino Teens Draw National Praise for Community Journalism in LA’s Boyle Heights


This article was originally published by NBC Latino

Boyle Heights Beat reporters Samantha Olmos and Jennifer Lopez speak to a participant at a neighborhood walk informing residents of effects of contamination by Exide Technologies. Ernesto Orozco — photo by Raul Reyes

East Los Angeles, CA — In a neighborhood that is almost entirely Latino, a bilingual community newspaper has drawn national attention for its coverage of local issues such as gentrification, affordable housing, immigration and police brutality. But the reporters being recognized for their work are not experienced journalists, but young Latinos from area high schools.

Boyle Heights Beat, also known in Spanish as Pulso de Boyle Heights, has carved out an important place in an area with one of the highest population densities in the city of Los Angeles.

East L.A., where Boyle Heights is situated, is approximately 97 percent Latino.

A few years ago, two prominent journalists decided to do something about the lack of coverage when it came to issues in this neighborhood. Continue reading

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