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Moving Beyond the Walls in Los Angeles


paula cohenPaula Cohen is a 6th grade Social Studies and Language Arts teacher at Orville Wright School 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 a recent alumnus of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning. 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.  

Participating in CWI’s Summer WEST Institute was a ground breaking experience for me. For years now, I have felt the isolation of being in a traditional classroom. I have cajoled, often begged fellow teachers to collaborate on projects. I don’t understand why it should be unique for a teacher to enjoy the company of young people and get excited by the process of group learning. I don’t want to be unique; I would rather be the norm in this case! I suppose the inevitability of NCLB is that it has caused many teachers to lose sight of the big picture and the meaning of education. The media has demonized us and our districts demoralize us. Still at some point, we have to rise to the occasion that these young people are here right now, ready to receive an educational experience from us and it is up to us how we are going to construct that. At CWI's Summer WEST, I met like minded educators who could see beyond the limitations, who thought outside the box, who were willing to ask big questions and delve deep into the answers. It felt like coming home.

orville wright middle schoolI work in a middle school in Los Angeles that represents all the challenges and all the benefits of this great city. Our student population is very diverse and our teaching staff is also. Our school has been going through many of the tumultuous transitions that all public schools are going through. We share a campus with a charter school because of low enrollment. We have students bussed who are primarily students of color while the immediate surrounding neighborhood is predominately white. Our staff lacks cohesion after years of transition of administrative staff and initiatives that have come and gone. We lack a collective sense of purpose (with the exception of raising test scores in fear of the punitive measures our district threatens schools with). But I think we are right around the corner from some powerful changes. We have a new principal who has a strong vision for the school. We have great parents who care about the school even after their children graduate. Finally, we are opening up the doors to our community and ending that lock down mentality that has limited us. [photo above–Paula's students at Orville Wright Middle School]

Personally, I have been longing for the power of community that schools inherently have. I think that service learning can lead us to that renewed sense of community. When we talk about resiliency in young people, feeling like a part of something important and valuable is a crucial piece. CWI's Summer West Institute gave me the context to look at my school through the lens of service-learning and sustainability. The sustainability part is seeing and valuing and investing in the fact that we are interconnected. That should be educations greatest charge of this century, but it gets submerged under the layer of politics and profit. [photo below–Paula with her study group at CWI Summer WEST]

paula cohenMeeting Rob Schumer (a CWI Guest Faculty member) was a significant moment at the Institute. I believe in a constructivist view of education and the concept of how he constructed each young person’s educational experience at his community school in the 70’s really fired my imagination. This one size fits all approach doesn’t meet the needs of young people and I’m sure only increases the dropout rate as youth feel disengaged in the process of being educated. It has little relevance to who they are, but rather something that they have to endure to get to the next phase. I know this from experience as a parent and having my ear to the ground and listening to my own students experience as they navigate the system. Many times we talk about how important relationships are with our students and look for a way to connect with by superficial conversations thrown into our daily mix. This is just connecting with them as an end to get them plugged into our agenda. Rob’s approach was taking it to another level, creating an emergent curriculum that stems from who the student is. I think this is a bit hard to do in the NCLB era, but we as educators can keep our finger on the pulse of our youth and move the curriculum in that direction. He really gave me a chance to think about student voice and participation and reflecting on how I can infuse more of it in my own curriculum.


paula cohenAlso, an important aspect of our common dialogue was defining service as something that is mutually beneficial to those who engage in the service and those who receive it. This is often absent from the conversation and it has led me to view how I develop a service-learning project differently. There has to be an internal rubric where I ask myself those questions:Have I engaged both the students and participants in all the processes of the project? Do both have voice in the design and outcome of the project? This should be a barometer of how well the project is going.

Finally, I have to express immense gratitude to the Best Practice Study Group process we used during the Institute. The whole Institute promoted collaborative dialogue in such productive ways, but the focused way that these groups allowed you to hone into your own project was really phenomenal for me. When we focused on my peer’s projects, I felt like my input was valued and I felt productive. I felt like it was a mutually beneficial service learning experience. In return, I received excellent feedback from my peers. I tend to be an idea person and it is hard for me to reign them all in but this gave me a wonderful opportunity to prioritize and put together a tangible and focused plan.

I can’t thank CWI enough for such an amazing experience and opportunity to grow as an educator.

Paula Cohen writes a blog "Becoming Superwoman" where she shares her thoughts and reflections as a teacher along with examples of what's happening in her classroom.

For more information on CWI's orofessional development opportunities, including our Summer Institutes, visit

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