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Imagining the Possible, Then Making it Happen


Paula Cohen is a 6th grade Social Studies and Language Arts teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District. She uses service-learning to create meaningful and relevant experiences for young people and is passionate about connecting our schools and communities. Paula has been involved in community organizing for a number of years and has experienced the power of people coming together to problem solve on local issues. Her goal as an educator is to break down the four walls of the classroom and open up our fenced in schools and see what magic can come from collective work. Paula is both an alumnus and current faculty member of Community Works Institute (CWI). Her current projects include working on a school garden project that combines a thirty-eight plot community garden with a student garden through shared spaces.  

Most of my teaching career, I have defied the book. I’ve strived to put learning in context, connect students to issues in the community and make learning as relevant a process as I can. Meanwhile I work hard at helping students reach mastery and upholding the great standards. I signed a contract after all. It is always a great juggling act and way more work than following the “book” or program. The accomplishments do feel great, but there is always this sense that there wasn’t enough time or fluidity in the project. It could have been so much more if it didn’t have to have such a premature ending. Ever experienced that gnawing sensation?

 Then I discovered that I can do a whole lot more on my own time outside of the classroom. It is the perfect storm for affecting change without all the restraints the classroom poses. Being a teacher offers access to youth, plenty of unmet needs, and an instant community to plug into. The only thing the contract greatly lacks is time. So limited and restrictive is the little time we have with our students. That’s when I discovered the benefit to offering my own surplus. 

A lot of us already give our time above and beyond in so many ways, but what I am talking about is a little more strategic. I am not talking about setting an expectation that you are willing to exceed your negotiated contract. What I am talking about is passion projects. What is it that you have always wanted to do with youth?   What project did the constraints of your pacing plan not allow, for? What is that amazing, incredible idea, but it never fit neatly into any content standard that you were mandated to cover? I am talking about a whole new playing field.  Not you as teacher, but you as co-collaborator as you bypass the bureaucracy and create a whole new game.  

My story is a little unique in that I decided to go half-time for a year and explore a possible business venture with my son. As our process hit snags, I looked for other projects to occupy my time and what I discovered is that there is no limit to what you can do if you offer yourself up as a volunteer. Finding your true passion is the ultimate goal and I have honed a set of skills around greening school campuses. So when fate found me in South LA on a campus with mostly hardscape, I began to imagine. It happened instantly. I think it took the principal by surprise as I kept nudging my way into doing a greening project. Months went by as I waited for permission, then I realized as long as I found the resources, funding and organized kids on my own time….then some real magic could happen.  

My first task was aligning myself with an organization that offered expertise and credibility. Timing had it that Tree People, a local nonprofit that promotes sustainability in LA, was having a workshop to jumpstart schools into starting Eco Clubs and offering templates for projects for campuses. While in the past I mostly focused on edible gardens as a matter of personal priority, I saw big red flags on my campus including asphalt removal and soil mediation that would require a lot funding and time to accomplish. I was here today, but I couldn’t guarantee where I would be next year. Usually when I start a project I tend to stick with it for the long term, but we all know that it is different working from within a campus and working from the outside. I wanted a project that would make a big enough splash and would shift people’s thinking about greening campuses. Tree People was offering a native plant garden project that they would support through consultation and resources, so I thought, this is how we will start. 

My concept on the surface may look simple, but it had complex underpinnings. One day I heard the principal lamenting about the front lawn that was constantly being trampled and that was my “ah ha” moment. There were other issues that sat in the back of my mind: how the school was trying to rebrand itself in the era of charter school competition. I noticed that there was an active parent center, but it seemed to mostly represent the Latino students. There is also a lack of public green spaces nearby. There were safety issues, local crime and illegal activities taking nest in the outskirts of school property. With all this in mind, I started to formulate a plan to make this little parcel of land solve as many problems as it possibly could. Oh, the many possibilities…


I formulated a rough idea that had a lot of room to play with.We will create an Interactive Native Demonstration Garden.  Something that allowed for pathways, since it was already a stomping ground, that would allow for learning and touching with student generated signage that was engaging and interactive (little doors that open, wheels that turn and as opposed to pulling the plants). Getting rid of part of the lawn and replacing it with drought resistant natives would demonstrate a solution for the whole community. Water will soon become too precious and unaffordable a commodity to waste on lawns as we move into another year of drought. Putting the project out front and center and accessible to the public would be an invitation for the community to feel like a part of our school.

Then there was the work involved in organizing the project. It will be an opportunity to interact with our community as we share our vision and ideas, asking for support in funding and skills to complete the project.  The actual “Build” event will connect the community and hopefully bridge the Black and Latino families giving them a chance to create something lasting and meaningful together. New energy and activity could deter some of the illegal activity that we were trying to eliminate. And best of all, all the great learning, discovering, making, connecting, designing, and fun that happens with the students that are recruited for the project.

And so the journey begins.  Ms. Monica, who runs the afterschool program graciously organized a group of students for me to meet with each Thursday. Their excitement is palpable. We did a partial site assessment and already came up with smaller subprojects to green other areas of the campus. They are primed to be solutionaries. They only needed a canvas and permission.  We are documenting our process on a website which is only in infancy, but check us out as we progress: and jump in anytime. 

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