The Stories of Teaching

It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in March and I am standing in a Skirball meeting room with forty K–Grade 12 educators, listening intently as two women introduce an activity. I am leading a teaching workshop about integrating movement into the curriculum as part of Teaching Our World Through the Arts, just one of several teacher professional development programs offered here. We have been invited to tell the story of a teaching moment that we are proud of, and to follow four simple guidelines in the telling:

  1. Speak from your heart.
  2. Listen from your heart.
  3. Be spontaneous.
  4. Be concise.

The talking piece—a tennis ball—is passed around the circle, and one by one the stories emerge: a third-grade teacher who helped a student succeed after he spent his first years falling through the cracks; a fifth-grade teacher who shows up at her students’ homes to help with homework if they are struggling; a middle school teacher who learned to be brave by watching a student come out to his mother. The stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking—eliciting tears, laughter, nods of agreement, and smiles of recognition.

This process, known as “council,” is inspired by talking circles, a ritual found in cultures all over the world. The version we are using in the workshop was adapted by the Ojai Foundation, a nonprofit that has introduced this process to more than 20,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students through its Council in Schools program. Council in Schools provides training and assistance for schools (public, charter, private, and parochial) and educational support agencies to implement council programs.

Grade school teachers “listen from their hearts” as teaching artists from CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater share the council process as well as movement strategies for the classroom. CONTRA-TIEMPO uses council in their community choreographic labs and other educational outreach programs. Photo by Peter Turman.

Grade school teachers “listen from their hearts” as teaching artists from CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater share the council process as well as movement strategies for the classroom. CONTRA-TIEMPO uses council in their community choreographic labs and other educational outreach programs. Photo by Peter Turman.

In my experience with council, its strength comes in part from its simplicity. For teachers, the work is in crafting and developing questions or prompts that engage their students and support the content they wish to share. I spoke about council with Jill Valle, a licensed therapist, council trainer, and school counselor at Wildwood Upper School, who has been leading council as part of her work since 2001. Valle says using council with students “cultivates deep listening skills and concise expression as well as fostering authentic connection between students.”  She has used council as both a processing tool and to support academic content. “Whatever your subject matter, there is way to use council as a tool for deepening understanding, ” Valle adds. “Once you have the basic guidelines, the possibilities are really endless in terms of what you can create and how you can use it.” 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

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