| CommonLore—Practitioner Advisory Group
4th Grade Teacher, MacArthur Park-Westlake, LAUSD
—the photos included here were taken by Paul's students.
Paul is a teacher in the MacArthur Park/Westlake district of Los Angeles considered by some to be a rough neighborhood. Paul doesn'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, Paul was bumped across the street to Charles White Elementary School, previously home to Otis Art & Design.
He taught 4th and 5th grade for five years and was handed the most challenging students because of his low seniority. During those years he says, "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."
He continues, "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 him back to MacArthur Park Primary Center, which grew into an elementary school where he was nominated Chapter Chair of the LA teachers union in order to help create a better and more sustainable environment for students. He was assigned third grade, and there "I 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 his goals has been to expose students to their own world, so he takes his students on as many field trips as the principal will allow. He says, "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."
Paul's most recent "field trips" have included a number of neighborhood explorations, wjith support in documenting and sharing this process through CWI's CommonLore program. The fourth graders in Paul Lowe's class at MacArthur Park Elementary have conducted and shared cultural research in their downtown Los Angeles neighborhood of Westlake.
His students' very local neighborhood of Westlake/MacArthur Park has great historic and cultural significance—including having once been covered by a large ancient lake that fed the Los Angeles River. Today Westlake, though posessing heavy economic challenges and as one of the densest lower income populations in the U.S., is also a thriving and vibrant neighborhood for all its challenges. Westlake also lies directly in the path of encroaching gentrification and development.
As a trained member of CWI's Summer WEST Institute, Paul and his students have also been successfully using new Collaborative Ethnography skills gained from their teacher's work at the Institute. It's noteworthy that the adults that these students approach on the street and in store fronts have been uniformly enthusiastic and supportive when they learn the nature and purpose of the students' work.
The only "difficulty" has been that most of the restaurant owners have insisted on feeding the students and adults with samples of their wares, which tends to slow the process down a bit. Parents and volunteers have played an important role, as the students travel their neighborhood on foot, walking unannounced into shops and eateries, interviewing residents, skirting small homeless encampments, and photographing local landmarks. (all of the photos here were taken by Paul's students.)
Many of Westlake's residents are recent immigrants from Central America and Mexico who have brought a cultural vitality and uniqueness to their neighborhood. Paul's MacArthur Park students are interviewing and photographing their neighbors, at work and as they go about their everyday lives, with the goal of sharing a powerful portrait of one of Los Angeles' most important neighborhoods. In the process they are helping to build a sense of place and community, for themselves and for local residents.
Field work by students also includes going to a senior center, interviewing the tenants as a way for students to learn about the history of the region. Another project Paul is planning is a community garden at his school that services local families and beautifies the park with native, drought tolerant plants. Paul's 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 LA River, so Paul wants to extend student learning by growing plants along the river. His students are also beginning to write about their experiences with plants and life structures integrated with creative writing and visual arts.
Paul's students 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. Paul's students' work and documents is being shared by Community Works Institute (CWI) through it's program CommonLore. Paul's his vision is a journey into student self discovery through place based service-learning, a journey that is ongoing and evolving.
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