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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

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Behind the Scenes

The Skirball’s Learning for Life program is always looking for new and fun ways to engage adult learners. When UCLA instructor Marc Milstein approached me about teaching a course explaining the science behind TV crime shows, I was hooked. I have always wondered about the accuracy of the crime-solving science on these shows. Entertaining Science: Simply Explained will explore forensics, DNA evidence, cloning, and much more. Hopefully, this interview with Marc Milstein will whet your appetite.

If I take this course, will I be able to identify the killer on TV crime shows?
Great question! We could do an experiment and see if detective skills improve after taking the course. I’ll get back to you on the results of that one. You will definitely have a greater understanding and appreciation of what your favorite TV characters are talking about when they discuss the latest DNA-based and fingerprinting technology. You will also be able to catch when your favorite TV characters are talking about using a technology that doesn’t quite work in the way they are discussing it!

Can we do anything to improve short-term memory?
Absolutely! In just the last few years there has been a lot of extremely exciting research on how our memories are made and formed. We are going to discuss that, as well as the most effective methods researchers have found to increase one’s memory. One tip is to learn new things and challenge your brain in areas you might not feel completely comfortable with. Whether it be learning a new language or learning about science, that type of brain workout seems to be the most beneficial. We are also going to talk about some fascinating studies of people who have lost their ability to make any new memories. These are people who completely live in the present moment, much like the main character in the film Memento. There is one famous case about a man who couldn’t form any new memories, yet he could still remember how to play the piano. Continue reading

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Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

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Book Recommendations from a Historian in a Happy Place

I am armed and ready with great recommendations for your holiday reading list!

A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.

These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.

Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.

1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading

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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

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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

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