Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts: A Case for Teaching the Whole Child

At the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, heavy-duty shipping containers have been vibrantly painted, reshaped and stacked ceiling-high to form a collaborative K-6 learning space. Comfy couches and oversized pillows are scattered throughout the converted classroom pods, giving them a warm and inviting home-school feel. An industrial shell encloses the entire 47,000 square-foot arena. This open-concept learning environment is known as the third teacher.

It’s Wednesday morning at LFCSA, and it’s writing time for a group of 2nd graders. Small clusters of children are gathered in a corner pod, nose-deep in their portfolio boxes. A boy is writing in an adjacent three-sided pod while listening to an iPod, and two girls are collaborating on their book series in an open area where the pods -- one orange and one blue -- converge.

But, ironically, on this particular day, it’s not the children who are eye-catching, or even the unique environment in which they’re learning. It’s the teachers who are most conspicuous as they silently circulate around the pods with a clipboard and pen in hand, deeply observing the children’s learning patterns.

The teachers are engaging in what principal Staci Block calls a learning walk, which is also known as a Japanese lesson study, a form of professional development that surveys student engagement levels and how the environment in which they interact with is supporting their learning. Today, the faculty is working together in planning a nonfiction critical reading and writing lesson. Being able to critically respond to a nonfiction text is a vital lifelong learning skill according to Block. Over the course of the next week, teachers will discuss their findings with one another, talk through their discoveries, and think about the next steps of professional development and training.

“In this case, teachers are doing the action research themselves. They write the lesson plan together, teach it, watch others teach it, and then revise the lesson and teach it again. While doing this they pick up new strategies, which keep them on that path of lifelong learning,” said Block.

This path is key in cultivating a deep sense of shared purpose between students, teachers, and parents. Block describes the staff at LFCSA as sponges, soaking up their surroundings with a rare eagerness to learn and explore. Third grade teacher Darcy Mellinger defines the spirit as not just thinking outside the box, but going a step further and asking, what can we turn that box into?

“What drives me as a teacher is my ability to teach the whole child. I am so passionate about helping them navigate the social and emotional aspect of collaborating because that’s really a part of the workforce to come,” said Mellinger.

When it came time to write a school charter, curriculum designer Carolyn Gee and Executive Director Karin Newlin looked to best practices for guidance. Inspired by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which holds that people can be intelligent in many different ways -- not just intellectually, but visually, interpersonally, or musically -- they developed a curriculum that integrates visual and performing arts within project-based, hands-on learning. The curriculum has taken shape over the last eight years and includes FOSS, a K-6 integrated project-based science curriculum developed at UC Berkeley, as well as the Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop, from Lucy Calkins’ Teachers College Reading and Writing Units of Study. The FOSS curriculum was constructed on the notion that the best way for children to learn scientific concepts is to develop ideas through their own inquiries, investigations and analyses.

“In the 21st century, most of the jobs that our students are going to have opportunities to do will require creative and artistic expression, whether it is in media, technology, or a service job,” said Block. “Students ask questions, and the goal isn’t to learn everything at the end of the unit. They often have more questions at the end than in the beginning.”

Since migrating to its new location in 2010, LFCSA has seen an increase in enrollment and now serves more than 500 students. Recognizing a growing need to integrate multimedia instruction and technology into the academic curriculum, principal Block is looking to kickstart LFCSA’s digital media agenda by expanding science and technology programs in 2012. She has secured iPads for her faculty through recent fundraising efforts and hopes to do the same for her students. Digital media tools offer opportunities to support student-centered, self-directed, and critical learning for students with differing abilities and needs, and Block is drawn to the idea that students can learn at their own pace, which lowers anxiety levels in the classroom. For instance, a student can pull up a book on an iPad, and no other student in the school knows what book level he/she is reading at. At the same time, Mellinger is aware of the complications that arise when schools are quick to implement tech programs into an academic curriculum.

“In the last 18 years, a lot of tools and software have passed by me, but the most important thing an educator can do is make sure the tool is the right tool,” said Mellinger. “Just as when a parent says, Darcy I have this talent, and I have to see where it might be relevant to the curriculum, the same thing goes for technology. What’s your intention in using it? How do you teach the children skills to use those tools well? How do we use these tools to enhance the curriculum and motivate the students?”

At LFCSA, everything from lesson planning to field trips to parent involvement is intentional. When teaching the sun, the moon, and the stars, Mellinger reached out to parents to come up with ideas to enrich the standard curriculum. While doing so, she met David Delgado, a LFCSA parent and outreach coordinator for NASA's Mars Public Engagement Team, who helped her integrate Nasa’s Imagine Mars Project into her syallbus’ project-based work. Mellinger had Delgado talk to the school’s staff and she also emailed parents, notifying them of the upcoming Mars lift-off and encouraging their children to watch at home. When it came time to start the lesson in the classroom, she knew her students would already be engaged in the material. The field trip to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California at the end of the lesson was a “big exclamation point” for both students and staff.

“You have parents who are passionate about their careers and want to come in and share, and sometimes it takes some searching out. Everything relates back to our academic curriculum,” said Mellinger.

LFCSA parent Erin Reilly has taken this cross-generational platform a step further by teaming up with the school as part of her latest transmedia research efforts at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. As a researcher in the education field, Reilly struggled to find the right school for her son. Wanting to support the public school system, but never one to settle, she looked to her own research practices when deciding on a school for Ocean.

“This school provides relevance to kids. This is a key thing we have been studying in our play research. It creates a space where they can see how their school activities relate to their lives outside the classroom. It is all tied to real-world experiences.”

Throughout the 2011-2012 school year, Reilly, who serves as the Innovation Lab’s Managing Director, her research team, and the Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Company have been working with Heather Newlin’s 2nd grade class in taking a participatory design approach to the development of Flotsam: a transmedia play experience. The goal with the research group is to help define new logics of transmedia as play and learning through Flotsam, a picture book by award-winning author David Wiesner. The wordless book encourages multimodal learning by allowing children to tell their own stories through inspiration from the pictures.

“It’s important for all ages to tap into transmedia play,” said Reilly. “At this young age, they have such a vivid imagination. As we get them to think critically about their surroundings, they are able to situate the Flotsam story into their own context and personalize it.”

With help from the students, Reilly’s research team is in the process of developing three prototypes:

The Dynamic Book – an interactive book that allows for joint media engagement with parents and children;

Explorer Kits – hyper-local boxes that enable children to physically connect with science objects they spot in the book through the use of a camera and lens toy;

The Big Picture (recursive app) – a larger social network that creates cross-cultural engagement by connecting everyone participating in the Flotsam experience.

“I am a firm believer that visual and oral literacy is becoming so important in today’s society. The more children can make sense of the world using things other than traditional text, the more they will be able to develop a sense of deeper understanding,” said Reilly.

LFCSA and Reilly have arranged for her son’s class to visit her USC Innovation Lab once the Flotsam project is completed in June. For many students, the field trip will mark their first time stepping foot on a college campus.

“I can’t think of closing this project without them. It will be such a great reward for them to directly see what it is they have contributed,” Reilly said. “This school has built a community where parents and the knowledge we can share are fully included. Parents are often the child’s first teacher. LFCSA hasn’t forgotten that.”

To learn more about the school:
• Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts website
• Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts: The New Campus [Video]
Flotsam: A Transmedia Play Experience

Personal Story compiled by Whitney Burke
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