By Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education, and Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education

TeacherFellowship Group web

Our 2014-2015 Teacher Fellows, with program facilitators Cindy Hardin and Stacey Vigallon. | Photo by Nicole Lannoy Lawson

During the 2014-2015 school year a new opportunity was presented to the Education Division of Los Angeles Audubon. Thanks to the diligent work of our Development Director, Carol Babeli, the chapter was awarded a grant from the Boeing Company that was earmarked to create a Teacher Training Fellowship. Up until now most of our programs have been focused on the students themselves; with this grant came a chance to reach their teachers. Professional development workshops are a part of most every instructor’s ongoing personal education, but often under the auspices of the school district itself. Our aim with this Fellowship was to provide participating teachers with a chance to experience a less “one size fits all” series of workshops, allowing them to give input on areas in which they would like to expand their knowledge.

The first step was the selection of teachers to invite to the program. This was easy, as through our Environmental Education Programs we come across many gifted and fabulous teachers every year. Ten individuals were chosen; all are employees of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and teach in grade levels ranging from third to seventh grade.

The next step was to choose a unifying theme for this endeavor. Incorporating more outdoor education in order to answer requirements and challenges of standardized curriculum was our focus. Field trip money for buses is often in short supply for these teachers, so we decided it was important to develop ideas and lesson plans that could be used in existing outdoor space on each teacher’s campus. This proved to be an effective approach. One teacher commented “Focusing on making an outdoor classroom of our campus has also helped me develop some new art, math and science interconnections as well. My sixth grade class studied all of our school’s trees on campus, counting and identifying them. They ended with creating some woodcuts of their tree drawings”.

Field trips for the teachers that were part of the fellowship exposed them to teaching tools available through some of Los Angeles’ fabulous public institutions. Each meeting took place at a different location, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The sessions took place on five Saturdays, spaced throughout the school year. The first meeting convened at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. Introductions were made, and each teacher presented photos of their own school campuses, and discussed dream topics they would like to teach if there were no restrictions on curriculum. This was the favorite location of the series for one of our group. She said “I really enjoyed the Baldwin Hills Overlook on the first day. It showed me the huge impact of development on our city”.

The second session saw us all meeting on a beautiful sunny December day at LACMA. We broke up into small groups and toured the museum, with an eye on using specific pieces to complement lessons on science and history. “Inspiring” was a word that kept cropping up during this visit. As one of our art fans put it so succinctly: “Having the time and space to examine various artworks was a treat. Doing so in the context of how various artists/cultures/times perceive the value of the natural world gave me some great ideas!” The teachers were encouraged to explore and utilize the extensive online images of items in the museum’s collection.

Our next meeting found us at the Natural History Museum. This was another crowd pleaser, and we chose to focus on the “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibit. This recent addition to NHM’s permanent offerings is rich with material about the history of Los Angeles. Time spent outside in the museum’s spectacular garden and working with do-it-yourself field guides also provided lots of ideas to be taken back to the classroom. Summed up by one of our fellows: “I loved the NHM-it covers so many of my interests in my teaching and LA history, native plants, birds, butterflies, etc. (Back at school) I began data collection, graphing and the making of field guides. I’ll continue more deeply next school year.” There is an added bonus for teachers at this august and valuable institution: they can return for free at any time with proper educator identification!

TeacherFellowship BecomingLA web

Teachers spent time gathering inspiration and information at the Natural History Museum’s Becoming Los Angeles exhibit. | Photo by Stacey Vigallon

TeacherFellowship NatureLab web

Teachers spent time gathering inspiration and information at the Natural History Museum’s Becoming Los Angeles exhibit. | Photo by Stacey Vigallon

TeacherFellowship Sketching web

The Teacher Fellowship placed an emphasis on spending time outside, looking closely at the nature you find, and incorporating activities like data collection and field sketching into existing curriculum. In this photo, a teacher sketches in the pollinator garden of the Natural History Museum.| Photo by Stacey Vigallon

By the fourth meeting our group had really started connecting concepts covered to their classroom programs, and developing solid professional relationships with each other. On that day we started at Leo Politi Elementary School to observe and study the Native Plant and Habitat Garden, installed and nurtured by LAAS, that is located at this school. Awareness of native plants, their functions in an ecosystem, and the possibility of creating habitat on school campuses and the positive changes that result was the theme for the day. Leo Politi is the home school for Linda Dowell, one of the teachers in the training, and she was gracious enough to present a PowerPoint on the garden and discuss the doors to learning it has opened. Test scores at Politi have improved greatly, and there is a heightened interest in science at all grade levels. After Linda’s presentation, Audubon President and designer/driving force of the habitat, Margot Griswold, guided us through the site. The Habitat Garden has become well established, and seeing it in all of its spring glory had significant impact on our group. In fact, one teacher said “The most useful part of the Fellowship was the awareness of nature around us [and] the amount of Native Plants that most people think are ‘just weeds’. Thank you for making me aware of California Native Plants. I will incorporate this into my teaching”.

The second half of the day took us to Esperanza Elementary School, just a few miles away from Politi. Los Angeles Audubon’s own Brad Rumble, former principal of Leo Politi, is currently at the helm at Esperanza. He has similar ambitions for his new job site that he did at Politi; i.e. to create more native habitat on campus. This was especially applicable to the mission of our workshops, as the majority of our participants teach at schools where most open spaces on campus are covered in concrete and asphalt. Brad generously took the time to come in on a Saturday and talk to the group about his vision, and the nuts and bolts of such an undertaking. It was encouraging to see that in spite of the fact that Esperanza is still in a “state of hardscape”, small plantings of native plants have been done, and lo and behold, pollinating bees and butterflies were flitting about. 

TeacherFellowship Esperanza web

Esperanza Elementary principal, Brad Rumble, and Teacher Fellows discuss the challenges and benefits to bringing nature to LAUSD’s heavily paved campuses. | Photo by Stacey Vigallon

For our final meeting and farewell to the group, we returned to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. Each of our participants made a presentation of what they were doing on their campus as a direct result of being a part of the Fellowship. It was fascinating to see how the teachers had taken our lesson ideas and things that they had learned during their Saturdays with Audubon and implemented them in such a way that they correlated with State Standards for Science, Writing and History. The positive effects of trading ideas, working with other educators and the resulting camaraderie turned out to be a huge part of the endeavor. Many of our participants stated that they often felt isolated in their efforts to bring nature education to their students. This Fellowship provided them with the chance to trade ideas and to support each other in bringing their students to more awareness of nature and the outdoors. In their final essays and evaluation surveys, from which many of the above quotes were taken, we saw over and over again that all truly enjoyed the idea of working together with like-minded individuals. One essay said in part “The direct sensory experience with the subject and materials has led us into a deeper understanding of the curriculum and allowed us to make meaningful connections with science and art. I am glad to have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with other educators and create child centered, meaningful art and science experiences. The spark of imagination begins the moment we experience the wonder of nature”.

Needless to say, we were extremely pleased with the outcome of the Fellowship. It was a learning experience for all, including those of us who developed and facilitated the program. The conclusion was bittersweet, as we came to look forward to the Saturday sessions and will miss getting together with this group. A summer field trip to Audubon’s Starr Ranch is in the works, and it is hoped that will be a chance to reunite the ten teachers involved in this pilot program. Each has also enthusiastically agreed to be a guest mentor if we are able to secure grant money for a Fellowship in 2015-2016. Watch your Tanager issues for an update! Also, a sincere thank you is in order to the Boeing Company and to LAAS for their support of this successful project.


Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 6 July August 2015 (PDF)