LA Teens Weave Their Own Stories into the American Fabric

I’m the artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit arts organization that combats the high school dropout crisis by re-engaging students in their high school education through long-term sequential arts programming. Formerly called the HeArt Project, artworxLA has spent the last twenty-two years bringing professional artists into continuation and alternative high school classrooms to inspire students to embrace their own creativity, challenge their preconceived notions, and create a space for their creative voices. Our success as an organization rides on the amazing artists that live and work in Los Angeles and the fabulous cultural institutions with which we partner every year.

This school year we partnered with the Skirball Cultural Center. Inspired by objects in the Skirball’s core exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, 550 students were invited to explore their identities as individuals and community members and to draw parallels to the American Jewish experience. Over the course of ten weeks, students from twenty-five schools worked with teaching artists to explore the immigrant experience across cultures, connect the past to the present, and celebrate their unique American identities as a collection of cultures and heritages. For a minimum of two hours each week, students, teaching artists, and workshop coordinators diligently collaborated to find a creative pathway to explore these concepts. The resulting projects included performance pieces, music mash-ups, short films, poems, and visual artworks.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Each of the three series of ten-week workshops culminated with a public presentation at the Skirball, where students presented their artwork to one another and to members of the community. Continue reading

A Teacher Becomes Part of the Family

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Getting to know the animals at Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, including this adolescent mountain gorilla. Photo courtesy of Kristin Welch Zurek, pictured here.

I lived in Los Angeles for fourteen years before I discovered the Skirball Cultural Center. I don’t know what took me so long, but I’m so happy I finally found my way to this gem of a museum.

As an LAUSD kindergarten teacher, I am always searching for ways to integrate more art into my curriculum. Last summer I saw a listing for the teacher professional development program Teaching Through Storytelling at the Skirball and took a gamble. It has paid off in ways I never could’ve predicted.

The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

Storytime at the Skirball. Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

When I arrived at the Skirball last July, I felt like a new student as I waited on the amphitheater steps for the workshop to begin. The day began with a story, told by one of the Skirball educators, that illustrated many of the theatrical, musical, and physical techniques we would learn over the course of the next three days. How could I predict that I would find Noah’s Ark to be so exquisite, or that I would be thoroughly enchanted by the storytellers who work there? Wow. How could I predict how helpful this professional development program would be? In my eighteen years of teaching, this is in the top three learning experiences this student has had.

By lunch, I felt like a very welcome houseguest. I ate quickly so that I could visit the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. I went back to the exhibition three more times during my three-day visit, and each time I read more about Gary’s life and discovered new details in the art and objects on display.

Gary’s dining table in last summer's exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

Gary’s dining table in last summer’s exhibition, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Photo by Kristin Welch Zurek.

By the end of the first day I felt like family. I was immediately welcomed into this community, like a newfound relative you meet and bond with effortlessly. We were given passes to come back to Noah’s Ark with our real family, and I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my kids.

Over the course of the three-day workshop we explored many different modes of storytelling that used music, movement, Continue reading

Architecture Knowhow!

Every year, the Education department at the Skirball partners with teaching artists and a local school on a series of creative and collaborative workshops centered around an exhibition. For the current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, we created a six-week in-school residency with fourth graders from Annandale Elementary School in Highland Park that focused on design and architecture. Our goal was to encourage the students to engage in problem-solving through a “design-based learning” process that linked to Global Citizen and also incorporated elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). The teaching architects, Justin Rice and Kagan Taylor of the fabrication laboratory and design studio Knowhow Shop, knew just how to excite the students about designing, building, and learning.

Our first step was to figure out what the students already knew about architecture. It turns out they knew quite a bit! Chalkboard circle chart

Next, the students took an architecture tour of the Skirball campus and visited Global Citizen to learn about the center’s architect, Moshe Sadfie.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

On another day, they took a walking field trip to the Knowhow Shop, where Justin and Kagan showed them some of the shop’s projects and special tools.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny, also from the KnowHow Shop demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

Continue reading

Intersections between Architecture, Math, and Science

When I look at anything, I see mathematics in it. There is not an object or natural phenomenon that does not seem mathematical in nature to me. According to cosmologist Max Tegmark—as quoted in the July 2008 Discover story Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?—”There is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” Though the way I see the world may be strange to some, I am not the only one who sees it this way!

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Every exterior and interior of every structure at the Skirball Cultural Center has a mathematical aspect, as well as a cultural purpose—from the geometry of the slate tiles in the Taper Courtyard (where music fans gather for Sunset Concerts and other programming) to the “tent of welcome” in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Recently, I’ve been working to create a Math Trail through the Skirball, a walking tour in which students and teachers use the sights and sounds of the campus to complete mathematical challenges. The project is inspired by the Skirball’s current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. One example of math in architecture that we’ll be using on the Skirball Math Trail can be found in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in = 0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in =
0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Problem: Begin at the stage and measure the height and depth of a stair step. Estimate the slope of the stairs. Describe your process. Continue reading

The Power of Memory

“I remember.”

These words begin many of the most powerful stories we hear. The first-person telling of an experience is one of a kind; it includes details that can only be recounted by the individual who lived it. Passing stories on from generation to generation and from community to community is central to our mission here at the Skirball. Simply put, it’s a place where people’s histories—and a people’s history—matter.shoah gallery

As of this fall, visitors to our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, now have the opportunity to view testimonials of Holocaust survivors provided by USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Since I oversee the development of programs for school groups, it fell to me and my staff to create a Visions and Values gallery tour for high school students that not only includes the video testimonials, but that gives teenagers an understanding of the socio-economic and political context that led to national socialism in Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

It has been a daunting task.
Continue reading

Bring on the Buses!

How do we mark the passage of seasons here at the Skirball? Well, as this is Los Angeles, there are few, if any, golden autumn leaves to be found on our campus. But the color gold abounds every fall nonetheless—in the form of public school buses that line our main entrance each and every weekday morning.

These buses carry some of the Skirball’s most precious visitors: students in pre-K through twelfth grade and their teachers, from more than thirty districts across Los Angeles. They come to participate in any one of the number of school tours and performance programs we offer throughout the school year. While we’re proud to be providing content-rich programs that are fun and engaging, I am also struck by how much the students give back to us. Their enthusiasm and curiosity bring the Skirball to life and remind me why I love what we do here.

Recently, I cleared my calendar of meetings and snuck down to our galleries to observe a morning of school programs in action. Here are some snapshots from that day.

We welcomed four classes of students on this particular day. That’s pretty typical for us, and our team has it down to a science (really, an art). Here comes a class of kindergarteners from Yorkdale Elementary in northeast Los Angeles. Darn, they’re cute!

We welcomed four classes of students on this particular day. That’s pretty typical for us, and our team has it down to a science (really, an art). Here comes a class of kindergarteners from Yorkdale Elementary. Darn, they’re cute!

These five- and six-year-olds from Yorkdale Elementary have come to experience Noah’s Ark, our award-winning, hands-on destination inspired by the ancient flood tale. The two young Noahs-in-training pictured here are helpfully conveying a pair of monkeys onto a giant floor-to-ceiling wooden ark made of Douglas fir.

These five- and six-year-olds from Yorkdale Elementary have come to experience Noah’s Ark, our award-winning, hands-on destination inspired by the ancient flood tale. The two young Noahs-in-training pictured here are helpfully conveying a pair of monkeys onto a giant floor-to-ceiling wooden ark made of Douglas fir.

Meanwhile, back in our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, a class of third-graders from Estrella Elementary sits around a table set for the Jewish holidays. For this program, “At Home in Los Angeles,” the students learn about Shabbat, the weekly day of rest in Jewish tradition when families refrain from work and spend time together. Our Skirball educator is inviting the students to discuss the holidays and customs they observe with their own families. One of the girls mentions eating homemade tamales every Christmas Eve with her family, who comes from Mexico.

Meanwhile, in our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, a class of third-graders from Estrella Elementary sits around a table set for the Jewish holidays. For this program, “At Home in Los Angeles,” the students learn about Shabbat, the weekly day of rest in Jewish tradition when families refrain from work and spend time together. Our Skirball educator is inviting the students to discuss the holidays and customs they observe with their own families. One of the girls mentions eating homemade tamales every Christmas Eve with her family, who comes from Mexico.

At the Skirball, students learn through doing and experiencing things together. Here’s a jubilant young guy and his fellow classmates learning a traditional Jewish song.

At the Skirball, students learn through doing and experiencing things together. Here’s a jubilant young guy and his fellow classmates learning a traditional Jewish song.

Continue reading

Students “Re-Create” the United States

Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.

Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading

What’s a Shofar? Ask Marcus Jonas.

Shofar and Case, Maker: Marcus Jonas. Oakland, California, ca. 1870s. Wood and ram’s horn. From the collection of the Skirball Cultural Center. Photograph by John Reed Forsman.

What’s a shofar? It’s a ram’s horn that is hollowed out (through a pretty messy process) and polished. In Jewish tradition, it is blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some interpret the shofar’s blast as a call to reflect, a call to repent, a call to listen to the voice of one’s own conscience, a call to do good deeds, or a call to express prayer with breath.

When I take high school students through the Holidays gallery of our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, we make sure to stop at the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur case. Inside is this shofar and case (pictured above), which like many objects throughout the gallery tell a fascinating story. Continue reading

Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading

Connecting (and Coloring) the Dots

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the sixty million girls and women who are “missing”  from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the tragic fact that sixty million girls and women are “missing” from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

Inside the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, one wall of the gallery is covered with dots—20,000 of them, give or take a few. Each one measures about an inch in diameter, a thin blue line rounding an empty center. Over time visitors have filled in the white circles, transforming the mostly blank space into a field of tenderly hand-colored dots.

The 20,000 are meant to represent, if only in part, the sixty million girls and women estimated to be “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, or gender-specific abuse or neglect—or what an article in The Economist calls “gendercide” (the article also increases the estimate to 100 million). It’s a startling, sobering figure. While standing before this giant display of thousands upon thousands of dots, visitors are invited to take a moment and color in a circle in honor of a life lost.

A young middle-schooler, B.J. Dare, who toured the exhibition as part of a recent school field trip, colored in more than a dot or two, then chose to share the experience with online reading and writing community Figment. We stumbled upon it late last week, and we were moved. Here’s an excerpt of B.J.’s composition “A Trip to the Skirball”:

I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot, I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. Continue reading