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INSTITUTE REFLECTION Vesting Learners, Facilitating Voice
By IYAUNNA TOWERY-AJIDUAH, M.Ed.
Iyaunna Towery has been an educator for over twelve years, teaching elementary to high school students in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She is the founder and director of Empowering Services Through Partnerships (ESP), a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit whose mission is to improve the quality of education of all students in Los Angeles County. Iyaunna has also worked well beyond the classroom; coordinating nutritional workshops, facilitating parent literacy and math workshops, and providing after-school tutoring. She has served as a professional development facilitator, sharing demonstration lessons, offering workshops on various teaching strategies, mentoring and coaching both veteran and student teachers. Iyaunna has also contributed to the decision making process with LAUSD schools by serving as the Chairperson of the School Site Council, Lead Teacher on the Leadership Team, and President of the PTO. Focusing on using service-learning as teaching strategy, Iyaunna continues to strive to increase academic achievement and improve student behavior while engaging students in both curriculum content and service within their community. Her current work with Empowering Services Through Partnerships (ESP) focuses on engaging additional Los Angeles County students in service-learning based curriculum and projects. ESP is currently working as a partner with LAUSD schools and is in the process of identifying others that are serious about increasing achievement by empowering youth through education and service.
Prior to attending Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning, our nonprofit Empowering Services Through Partnerships (ESP) was merely a vision. I say a vision because it was an organization I created where I could see the end result but could not grasp just how I would get to that goal. ESP was like a dream destination, a place where I would love to go with students, but getting there was not always clear.
In short, our vision has been that ESP would serve as a local resource for teachers to help increase academic achievement and improve student behavior. Long term, ESP seeks to engage many more of our Los Angeles County students in both curriculum content and service within their community, through service-learning based curriculum and projects.
Well, Community Works Institute provided the vehicle that would help to transport me to this destination; this vision became a milestone closer to becoming a reality.
I remember the night before the first day of the Institute I could not sleep. I had gotten this anxious feeling, the feeling that one might get when they knew “something” was about to happen. I really did not know exactly what to expect. Honestly, what could really happen in just a week’s time? Well, I can now say that a lot can happen: inspiration; intensity; purpose; and transformation.
As I entered the room where the Institute was being held, I quickly noted the ambiance; a few circular tables here and there, a couple of rectangular tables and a mid-size semi-circle of chairs towards the front of the room. This semi-circle would be where we would share our service learning experiences, concerns, and reflections. A place where we would showcase our group-work, provide our interpretation of the readings and acquire feedback. We would also review key service learning elements, including best practices and listen to various experienced service-learning practitioners. The semi-circle would also be where we would open and close each day. This semi-circle seemed so big but yet so intimate.
Each day of the Institute proved to be well worth the time and effort, providing ample opportunities of engagement along with “dialogue(s) with experienced practitioners between participants”. Through these activities and dialogues, I would gain a thorough understanding of service-learning and the importance of education for sustainability.
Initially, I had a lot to say. Like all participants, I shared my background, information about my organization, and what I hoped to get out of this experience. I shared how service-learning had impacted my own teaching and how I had witnessed the effects of service-learning with my former students. But as time progressed, I found myself becoming a bit more docile. At first, I thought it was because the week was so intense that by Wednesday, I must have been just plain tired. In retrospect, I now realize I was far from tired. I was simply in the stage where I was just taking it all in. I had a lot to learn and therefore, I was on a mission of receiving that “good stuff”; important information. I found myself taking notes on everything and keying how everything could be directly related to my organization’s mission. Examples were ESP and Higher Education/K-12 Partnerships, ESP and Youth Participatory Evaluations, ESP and a Gardening Project, ESP and intergenerational communities, and ESP and making Sustainabille Communities the Goal.
Unlike many of the other participants, I was local and therefore I would leave each session to tend to my family at home. As I was doing so, I found myself sharing my enthusiasm with even my three year old (who, I might add, was a very good listener.) I would share how CWI’s Summer West Institute was heaven sent and that I was on a mission to implement all that I had learned into the work of ESP. Late afternoons and evenings I would email and text ESP board members to call promptly so that I can share out my feelings of excitement and drive that CWI had fostered, even though a pre-set meeting was already scheduled for a week out. I just couldn’t wait. It was so much that we had to do. This rush of adrenaline still captivates me to this day.
One of the most important aspects of CWI’s Summer WEST Institute was the Best Practice Study Group work. We were placed in groups of four or five participants and were each given time to share out our service learning goals. During this time, the remaining participants would provide feedback towards our next steps and, in my case, offered resources and ideas that would support our mission. The process in itself was very useful, listening to others with the purpose of trouble-shooting and providing areas of support was insightful within itself.
I was the last participant to share within my best practice group, which I felt was the best decision I could have ever made. By listening to others and providing input, it allowed me to really hone in on my areas of need and identify my next steps in obtaining the proper support for my organization. I couldn’t believe how listening to other’s organizational concerns directly impacted my level of comfort and focus within my own organization. At one point, I actually felt embarrassed by the lack of resources I had in place for ESP. This uncomfortable feeling quickly subsided as I would go home and reach out to various local organizations, along with people who, I felt, would be able to assist me with filling that void. I also found myself staying up to wee hours of the night pounding away on the computer trying to master a game plan that covered all aspects of the existing organizations using the CWI’s Best Practices as my guide.
A fellow participant once referred to our group as the “fortunate eleven.” I would have to concur. First, the participants were dynamite and the fact the group was so intimate made it all the more special. I am quite sure we were all able to make a connection with a couple of people because of the group being so small. The group also shared a wealth of knowledge, and consisted of all aspects of the educational profession; from elementary through higher education, teachers, coordinators, and directors. Although, I have not yet had the time to contact many of the participants, there was one person in particular, Paula Cohen (a teacher at LAUSD’s Orville Wright School) that I have collaborated extensively with since the Institute. We immediately realized we had a lot in common. We both believe that all children can be successful and that service learning is a useful strategy to engage even the most difficult student. We also believe that it is so important to get the student vested in the learning from the beginning and to facilitate a voice for the learner. The fact that we live fairly close to each other made it all the more reason for us to connect.
Since CWI’s Summer West Institute, Paula Cohen and I have been on fire. We have met a number of times, planning and collaborating for the upcoming school year. We have now acquired the support of her principal in the partnering of the two entities, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and Empowering Services Through Partnerships (ESP). We’ve even managed to submit a couple of mini grants. Our next steps are to sit down and align the school’s initiatives with ESP’s goal of serving as a resource for teachers as they apply the service-learning teaching strategy within the curriculum. I get chills just thinking about the possibilities.
In conclusion, CWI’s Summer West Institute on Service Learning could not have come at a better time. This Institute has conjoined a community of “like thinkers”. It has also provided exposure to a wealth of resources. CWI’s Summer West Institute has systematically taught me a great deal about service-learning and educating for sustainability. This arena provided more than enough examples via through readings, along with field trips around the community. Most importantly it has inspired me to look at each community just a little bit differently. Thanks to CWI’s Summer West Institute I see endless possibilities. Thank you CWI and I shall see you soon.
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