By Stacey Vigallon and Cindy Hardin, Los Angeles Audubon Environmental Educators

Los Angeles Audubon’s Teacher Training Fellowship: Working Together and Learning from Each Other

No doubt about it, Los Angeles is a city of global significance. In fact, it’s ranked 6th in the world in terms of the economic, political, and cultural influence it has on the rest of the globe 1. Los Angeles has over 200 museums, 240 public libraries (with over 50 million book loans per year!), and 28,000 restaurants, greater than 2,000 musical performances a year, and more than 50 film festivals2. Culturally, there’s a lot going on! But, according to the Trust for Public Land, of the 60 largest cities in the US, Los Angeles ranks just 45th in terms of how well it’s meeting the need for parks3.

Thinking like the environmental educators we are, this leads us to contemplate the role that one of the biggest landholders in the city, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), plays in the issue of public green space and land use decisions in our city. Los Angeles Audubon has a long history of working with local public schools in various capacities. Thousands of children take LAAS sponsored tours at the Ballona Wetlands and Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area every year. Our Greenhouse Program works with the students of Dorsey High School, and sees an increase of participants every year. The Native Habitat Garden at Leo Politi Elementary School continues to thrive, nurtured and maintained through a long-term partnership with LAAS as well.

Here are some quick facts about LAUSD land4:

  • LAUSD’s boundaries cover 720 square miles, including Los Angeles, over 30 smaller cities, and some unincorporated areas.
  • LAUSD manages over 900 K-12 school sites and 187 public charter schools.
  • Within the state of California, LAUSD is one of the largest users of water and energy5.

Here are some quick facts about LAUSD humans6:

  • There are 651,322 students enrolled in K-12.
  • Roughly 80% of these students come from economically disadvantaged families.
  • Over 150,000 students are English language learners, and over 90 languages other than English are spoken in LAUSD schools.
  • Over 250,000 adults are also served by LAUSD through adult education programs.
  • There are approximately 4.8 million people living within LAUSD’s boundaries.

The bottom line? As the second-largest school district in the country4, that’s a lot of land and a lot of humans, and more than 85% of LAUSD’s operating budget comes from the state6. So, even if you or your children never matriculated through the LAUSD system, the district still has a potentially huge impact on everyone living in Los Angeles. Facilities-related decisions about how schools use land, water, and energy not only affect the city as a whole in real-time, but also set the context for how students learn, directly and indirectly, about their role in environmental awareness and stewardship. One way to achieve this awareness in students is to make these urban campuses more “green”. There are many ways to do this. It can be something as simple as planting container gardens that attract butterflies and contain fodder for their larvae, or as grand in scale as the above mentioned 5,000 square foot native habitat area at Politi ES. Though LAUSD passed a resolution in 2007 with the goal of becoming the most sustainable urban school district in the county5, systemic change takes time. In 2014 a task force appointed by Los Angeles Board of Education Vice President Steve Zimmer presented to the board recommendations for creating and sustaining nature-based schoolyards on a district-wide basis. This is certainly a promising direction, but district-wide greening will be decades in the making. In the meantime, it’s heartening to know that exciting things are happening now at the classroom level and the school level, thanks to individual educators.

Already on the front lines of social justice issues in our city, LAUSD teachers (over 26,000 of them6) are also on the frontlines of environmental justice in urban settings. Teachers are often the first link to nature that city kids may have. Through Los Angeles Audubon’s education programs, we've had the privilege of meeting many dedicated teachers who make nature-based learning and environmental stewardship priorities for their students. In an effort to reach more teachers, and thanks to a grant from Boeing, this fall we kicked off the inaugural year of Los Angeles Audubon’s Teacher Training Fellowship. Our premise is that even on the most asphalt-laden campuses, motivated teachers can find ways to use nature to inspire and inform classroom learning. Through the Teacher Training Fellowship, we aim to (1) work with teachers to help them develop strategies for using outdoor campus areas as instructional space that can enhance and promote cross-curricular, standards-based learning among students; and (2) provide an out-of-school context where mentoring, collaboration, and idea-sharing among participating teachers is encouraged and fostered.

TeacherFellowship BHSO

We kicked off our Teacher Train Fellowship at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Parks. For several teachers, the workshop was the first time they had visited this site.

The teachers that were selected for the Fellowship are all extremely motivated and enthusiastic about using the outdoors as a teaching tool, and they've been making things happen on their respective campuses for years. Every one of them has taken their classes on one of our field trips to Kenneth Hahn, Ballona, or Dockweiler Beach. Some of them have green spaces and projects on their own campus, while others have little to no such resources at their work site. Through the training we are demonstrating how even the most paved campuses can be used as a teaching tool.

TeacherFellowship visitorcenter

Teachers worked in teams at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook visitor center to develop curriculum that met California State Science Standards and Common Core Standards.

This first year’s cohort of ten teacher-fellows is a powerfully talented and professionally accomplished bunch. They hail from public elementary and middle school sites throughout Los Angeles, and we are extremely fortunate to be working with and learning from them during our series of workshops. Here are some highlights from their resumes…

  • Rodette Doreza has a master’s degree in marine biology and taught at the University of the Philippines for 17 years before moving to the US in 1999. An LAUSD teacher for 14 years, she also has a master’s degree in educational administration. And, she is a certified scuba diver!
  • Rosa Lopez has been teaching for 15 years, and humor and the arts are important aspects of her teaching style. She led her 7th grade choir to perform at the Southern California Vocal Association, and has also led challenging students to academic success through a behavior intervention class. She comes from a musical family and performs with her family band.
  • Marne Treves carries on the birding tradition in her family and loves to get her students involved in environmental science. She has a long history with Mar Vista Elementary School – she attended the school as a child, her sons attended as well, and she’s been teaching there since 2005.
  • Sharon Nakata is a Special Education teacher with over 25 years of experience. She now regularly writes grants to ensure that students at her school get access to nature-based field trip opportunities.
  • Maxime Salzburg embraces the challenge of teaching middle school students, as she was inspired by the great teachers she had when she was in middle school. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz and UCLA, Maxime strives to create hands-on, inquiry-based learning experiences for her students.
  • Evelia Medina was told by her high school counselor that she’d never get in to UCLA. She rapidly proved that counselor wrong by becoming a UCLA grad in 1999. After graduation she jumped right into teaching in the community in which she grew up, inspiring her elementary and middle school students to dream, plan, and work toward college.
  • Cynthia Archer had a master’s degree in painting and years of experience teaching art and design at the college level before she became an elementary school teacher 17 years ago. She fosters inquiry and critical thinking skills in her students by exploring environmental stewardship issues.
  • Brandyn Scully has been teaching in LAUSD for almost 30 years. She developed a love of insects through her time spent working in her school’s garden, a place where she’s been able to link multiple disciplines to nature for her students.
  • Jane De Haven started her career in financial world before being called to the teaching profession. In her 15 years at LAUSD she has mainly taught 5th grade and enjoys teaching all subjects. She also serves as a volunteer dog-walker at a local shelter for German Shepherds.
  • Linda Dowell has been a long-time collaborator with Los Angeles Audubon through programs at Politi Elementary School. Not only is she the Gifted and Talented Education Coordinator at Politi ES, but she also mentors and tutors at-risk students. She is an avid hiker and organic gardener.

We have completed two of the five workshops we have planned for the 2014-2015 school year. We kicked off our workshop series in October with a gorgeous day at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park, sharing goals and challenges associated with using the outdoor spaces at each teacher’s school site, hiking the park, and practicing the hands-on watershed curricula. This first session included a hands-on lesson about mapping storm drains and gutters at each participant’s campus. Students and teachers then compared the modern systems with the courses of historical rivers and streams that once flowed around the site, fostering discussion of watersheds and how development impacts spaces that were formerly natural.

TeacherFellowship LACMA

Our second workshop was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

TeacherFellowship LevitatedMass

Teachers explore the Levitated Mass sculpture on the LAMCA ground, a work with many ties to themes within environmental stewardship and earth science.

Our December workshop was a day spent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in order to explore ways that art can serve as a bridge between disciplines and a springboard for talking about civic responsibility and environmental stewardship. It included ways to take advantage of the online catalogue of art found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with a special focus on Thomas Moran’s Hot Springs of Yellowstone and Taneyuki Dan Harada’s Barracks-Tule Lake. Both works were chosen to exemplify the artist as an activist for environmental and social justice, and the role that art can play in highlighting and creating awareness of the natural environment.

TeacherFellowship smartphone

Taking advantage of smart phone technology, teachers were able to “collect” artwork while touring the galleries at LACMA that they could then share and discuss with the group when we reconvened.

Next stop for January — the Natural History Museum. We hope to do an insect survey in the gardens of the museum, weather permitting. This is another activity that can be practiced back at school. These small invertebrates are an often overlooked link in the food chain, and can be found just about everywhere, even in the most urbanized of spaces. We are thrilled to be working with this outstanding group of public education professionals, and can’t wait for our next workshop.

Online Resources Used

1Global Cities, Present and Future: 2014 Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook

2 World Cities Culture Forum – Los Angeles

3 Trust for Public Land ParkScore Index – Los Angeles

4 Los Angeles Unified School District, District Information

5Green LAUSD Resolution. LAUSD School Board. Adopted October 23, 2007

6 Los Angeles Unified School District, Fingertip Facts

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 3 January/February 2015