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Students’ lives now part of curriculum

Times Staff Writer

How does a 19th Century Maori war chant figure into the college aspirations of a bunch of student athletes in El Segundo? At their South Bay school, it is all part of a cross cultural morale-boosting exercise, combining lessons in global awareness and the psychological underpinnings of victory -- with the added benefit of terrifying the opponent.

Just another means of preparing students -- not just for college, but for life, suggests Dan Golden, who was recently hired for the new position of director of life planning and experiential learning at the private Vistamar School.

Experiential education as envisioned by Vistamar attempts to create more well-rounded students by translating “nonacademic skills, habits and perspectives into academic achievement” -- in other words, learning from everyday experience.

In the past at most private and some public schools, this was mostly accomplished through community service for which students receive credit. But it has expanded at Vistamar to include just about any extracurricular activity. Similar programs are gaining popularity as schools adapt to a more academics-oriented curriculum and students face an increasingly competitive and frenzied college admissions process.

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Vistamar, where annual tuition is $24,300, joined the cutting edge of the movement in Los Angeles last fall by adding what is being styled as a life counselor/life guru to its staff.

Golden, a former professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., offers counseling to students on jobs, internships, community service, after-school activities and clubs as well as international travel. Golden wants students to use everyday experiences outside the classroom to promote self-awareness and making appropriate choices.

The immediate goal is to encourage students to find a college that is a natural fit rather than succumb to pressure to get into the “best” school, and, ultimately, to cultivate a habit of reflection that will last a lifetime.

“Picking a college is like picking jeans,” Golden said. “It’s all about the fit.”

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With a slight build and eyes that crinkle when he smiles, Golden, 62, has an elfin quality. But he is a fast-talking New Yorker with a gift for the witty quip. Although officially a member of the school’s counseling team, he likes to call himself a coach.

He moved to Santa Monica last summer from Boston, where he was the founding director of the Filene Center for Work and Learning at Wheaton, developing many of the ideas he brought to Vistamar. He has a doctorate in English from Indiana University and was a professor of American studies, film and popular culture at the State University of New York in Buffalo and Northeastern University.

His office is tucked into a corner of the student lounge where he can easily meet students and get a sense of their lives. Junior Alina Lieber, 16, said she was amazed when Golden, whom she had never formally met, called her by her first name and seemed to know everything about her.

“When he first came and talked about what he wanted to do, I wasn’t that interested because college didn’t seem that close,” she said. “Then I realized I have to start applying next year, and the ideas he had started making sense. We had a meeting but didn’t talk about specific colleges but about my interest in graphic design and business. That’s how he operates.”

Golden is still defining his job, but seems to have a hand in just about every corner of the campus, including coaching students on such things as nutrition, wearing seat belts, avoiding binge drinking, getting proper rest and financial planning. He wants to expand Vistamar’s overseas summer exchange and service program to ensure that all students have a chance to participate, which would include establishing scholarships for global study.

Fourteen seniors are creating what he calls e-portfolios, which will include collections of their best academic and creative work as well as short commentaries on what they’ve learned from their experiences, whether it be slinging burgers at McDonald’s or as captain of the volleyball team.

Students will be expected to document their experiences during the winter break. And he would like all seniors next year to write essays on what they learned from their college search. He expects to continue advising them after graduation and wants to set up research to track and evaluate their success.

Golden also regularly debriefs about 43 students who are earning community service credit by participating in a literacy program at nearby Cabrillo Elementary School. During one recent lunchtime session, the Vistamar volunteers teamed up with youngsters in Cabrillo’s multipurpose room to read books the children chose.

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Scott Tarlow, 17, launched into a passage of “The Shark Who Was Afraid of Everything” as Jesse Reyes, 7, listened intently.

“What I found is that most teachers don’t make it cool to read,” said Tarlow. “But these kids look up to us, so they think reading is cool.”

Afterward, Golden asked them what the group of ethnically diverse and mostly low-income Cabrillo students said about Los Angeles.

“All races and ethnicities were sitting at the table and to be able to see a mix like that was impressive,” said Dixie Tauber, 15. “The elementary school I went to wasn’t like that at all -- everyone looked the same and had the same income. So it was nice to be at that school and see those groups.”

Vistamar’s Head of School Jim Buckheit said he was delighted that the new focus is provoking such insights. Since its founding in 2005, the school has sought to strike a balance between the mental health of its students and academic achievement, he said. Golden learned about the school through a relative and contacted Buckheit.

“Finding Dan was serendipitous,” said Buckheit. “We wanted a school where students were really focusing on their own motivations and goals as drivers rather than being pressured about what name college they should be thinking of and how to pad the resume to get there. We were already looking for alternatives to that. What Dan brought in was a unique form of pedagogy.”

Experiential education, as Vistamar approaches it, is far easier to replicate on private and independent campuses with greater resources, leeway in curriculum and less rigid structure, than in public schools, said Natalie Kurylko, director of publications for the Assn. for Experiential Education, a Boulder, Colo.-based group that has about 1,500 members. Many are counselors and social workers, as well as educators with roots in outdoor education where experiential learning was pioneered. There are also colleges that now offer degrees in experiential learning.

“The primary goal is to create a more just and compassionate world by transforming education,” said Kurylko. “Not everyone tests well or learns just by reading or listening. This is a hands-on approach that can create more active and engaged students across social, cultural and economic boundaries.”

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And it applies to even the youngest students, said Charley Martin, director of Experiential Programs at the Curtis School, a private K-6 campus in West Los Angeles. The school takes fifth-graders on a trip to Boston each year and offers service activities for kindergartners, who make sandwiches for My Friend’s Place, a Hollywood charity that provides shelter and services for homeless and troubled teens.

At Vistamar, students like Andrew Balsz, a 16-year-old sophomore, said he was already learning lessons from his participation on several sports teams.

“Teamwork is one of the most essential things, whether it’s sports or any other activity,” said Balsz “I’ve had a lot of different coaches, and people are different. If you want to talk to them in a way they can understand, you need different approaches.”

Balsz said he and members of the soccer and basketball teams are considering Golden’s suggestion of using the Maori Haka chant to boost team spirit. The method is used by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team to great effect. But it’s a demanding and physical exercise, said Balsz , “so maybe we’ll work up to that next year.”

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carla.rivera@latimes.com


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