• Laguna

Ninth Grade Students Make First Stop in Months-Long Urban Studies Initiative

Last Friday, Laguna ninth graders left the comfortable confines of their idyllic campus and traveled to Downtown Los Angeles for an introduction to their collaborative ethnography and urban studies unit—a joint project in English and Biology. At the helm of this interdisciplinary, place-based learning experience was English Instructor Ashley Tidey who prepared students by examining themes of transience and vulnerability in Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men. Her partner and collaborator in the project, Biology Instructor Amanda Whalen, spent time with the same students studying vulnerable populations and health inequalities, as well as learning ethnography skills and the “ethics of contact” to use in the field.
“We chose to study DTLA because of how its geographical location played into its development and expansion,” says Whalen. DTLA is a place where business, finance, fashion, art, government, tourists, residents of Skid Row, and other “communities” collide every day. “Looking at this from the perspective of public health, infectious and communicable diseases can be easily brought into DTLA and then taken to other parts of the city quickly,” explains Whalen. Before the Walk through LA, the class learned about what makes a good observer and how it’s essential to be unbiased when collecting information about the people and culture one is studying.

Seven members of Laguna's faculty also prepared for this experience by attending a week-long Community Works Institute (CWI) Summer Institute On Place Based Service-Learning. The summer training provided the vision and framing that helped to shape Friday’s field study in DTLA. Working in tandem with CWI and seven Laguna teachers, a group of 60 students—organized in teams of six or seven—walked the streets of LA using their new ethnographic research skills to better understand and interpret the experiences and perspectives of others.
“It's crucial for us to get students out to explore places that relate to what they're learning,” says Geography Instructor and Trip Chaperone Blake Dorfman. “I challenged the kids in my group to overcome the apprehension most of us feel when approaching a stranger, particularly one who might be in a vulnerable circumstance.” One student in particular went into the trip very nervous about approaching people and initiating a conversation with them. According to Dorfman, the once apprehensive student ended up initiating her group's interaction with a homeless man who unpacked his whole life story. “They exchanged gifts of lunch for him and a backpack for her, and she ran back to me beaming,” explains Dorfman. “I think it was a big moment for that man, who got to share his story with a captive audience, and the student who overcame her apprehensions. She's going to carry that experience with her for a long time.”
Another intrepid student group, headed by English Instructor Charles Donelan, happened upon a Laguna friend and photographer who operates an art and book gallery in the city. “He told us about the history of Native Americans in DTLA, a subject which is fascinating, important, and highly unknown,” says Donelan. “He was so articulate and well-informed, and we had no idea when we entered his store that there would be this great LBS connection waiting for us.”
Throughout the day, ninth graders engaged with those in the city, making detailed notes of their observations and experiences, while also paying visits to The Last Bookstore and Grand Central Market. Many students remarked afterward about feeling more comfortable speaking to people because of the experience. Students in Biology also said they didn’t see how they could ever be in a city again without engaging and interacting.
“The collaborative ethnography piece made this unit different from other urban studies units/trips I have done,” says Tidey. “The kids were charting their own territory in the big world of a city—with teacher guides close in the background —it was intense and perspective-altering.” The DTLA experience also served as a unique introduction to the city-immersion experience of the upcoming Urban Studies Chicago research unit. Meanwhile in Biology, ninth graders will continue more of an in depth study of infectious diseases to better understand the significance of their impact on public health.