A conversation with Tracy Pumilia, Assistant Superintendent of Education
I started my teaching career as a second grade teacher in a South Los Angeles community with primarily Spanish-speaking, working-class families. I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and as a charter corps member of Teach for America, had committed to earning my credential and teaching for two years. Despite my initial inexperience, the families and students there welcomed me, and I grew as an educator for sixteen years at that same school, where I learned Spanish and became a specialist in second-language acquisition.
By reading research and attending conferences, I honed in on dual-language programs as a key instructional program for both English-speaking students and English Learners. At the time, the South Los Angeles area served 66,000 students, but not one school had a dual-language program. So, with the support of the district and community, we started one at that school. That experience led me to start another program in another area of Los Angeles, and that in turn led me to Culver City’s immersion programs, where I served as principal of El Marino Language School for nine years. In my current role as assistant superintendent, I am working with a dedicated team on a multi-dimensional instructional framework that serves all CCUSD students from Pre-K to the Adult School. As I approach 30 years in education, I am proud to be part of a district effort that values every student, every day, and that is supported by an engaged school community that knows the importance of an enriched educational program.
What makes CCUSD unique? Progressive educational ideas – like those seen here in CCUSD – develop and evolve. When national news headlines produce worrisome statistics on the state of public education, I see that the default reaction across more traditional educational communities is to provide more academic experiences, and to take away experiential learning and, even worse, the arts. But that starts you on a line of prescribed curriculum, technology and tests. I believe, however, that those experiential learning opportunities are exactly what our students need in order to succeed in school, for these involve tasks that empower students to learn how to learn.
CCUSD is unique in that our community understands the importance of student engagement and supporting the needs of the Whole Child. Some children need athletics, arts, or student clubs to keep them motivated – and so we have invested significant resources for facilities, equipment and personnel to support everything from our competitive sports and academic teams to the many student-led groups and clubs at our secondary sites. Other students may require the social-emotional support of a caring adult to help them navigate life’s bumpy roads – and so we have invested significant resources in personnel so that every school has access to counseling and mental health for students in need. And others may need assistance in times of financial instability – and so we have invested significant resources to provide food, clothing, transportation, and at times, shelter so that our students can focus more attention on learning.
Through my experience, I found that the excellent teachers of CCUSD and our strong instructional programs play a pivotal role in shaping the success of our most vulnerable students.
What are the key things needed for learning how to learn? I have always relied on four principles that support learning. The first is to understand a student’s prior knowledge of any given subject. Children come to school with a wealth of knowledge, but sometimes it’s not always the knowledge that we would expect. By viewing their students’ life experiences as assets, teachers can tap into what they already know and channel it into the learning they will need for academic success.
Another key principle is the use of guided social interaction, which emphasizes the interactive nature of learning. While a student might learn something in a passive activitiy such as listening or reading, it is in the practice of articulating concepts in a structured social setting that true understanding can be generated. Through this practice, students are given ample opportunities to communicate their thoughts with their peers during class time. By engaging students in a practice that allows them to formulate and verbalize their learning, teachers are afforded the opportunity to see who has clear understanding and who requires further conceptualization.
The third concept – that learning is situational – is that in order for learning to “stick,” we need to provide opportunities for students to transfer the learning that has occurred and apply them in a new situation. Performance task, ranging from classroom projects to instrumental concerts, are examples which highlight transfer of learning. Our goal as educators is to enable these transfers to practical applications in the outside world.
The final principle emphasizes the importance of universal learning strategies that we all use in learning situations. These strategies are fundamental across disciplines and areas, and those who are able to call up these strategies have a deeper level of understanding. Students who can classify and recall have a certain level of understanding; our role as instructors is to encourage higher, fancier thinking and step into the realm of analogies and metaphors. One way to do this is to demystify the learning process and explicitly model and teach these meta-cognitive learning strategies.
What is your vision for CCUSD? As an educational leader, my aim is to encourage teaching and learning that embeds the skills and content in a practical and integrated way, gives time to rethink classroom learning and apply the knowledge to their personal lives.
CCUSD is a place where everyone is given the opportunity and supports needed to develop their curiosity and love of learning. Should they learn to read and add and subtract? Of course. But they have to do more than that to become productive citizens; they must learn to reason critically, analyze complex problems and communicate their ideas both orally and in written form. And for our students to excel in these higher order tasks, we must provide a wealth of varied experiences throughout a school career that will hook students into something to keep them motivated.
Along with providing an excellent academic program, multiple entry points for students to try different learning experiences are important. With opportunities for students to engage in activities/clubs, arts, athletics, civics, languages, STEM, and sustainability at all of our schools, the district encourages experimentation at every age. We want students to have a wealth of broad experiences to inform and develop their interests. At the same time, we also encourage students to become really good at something they love to do, because practice develops confidence. When they leave our schools, we want our students to be able to choose what’s right for them, whether it be college, technical training, or career. It’s all about becoming independent, productive and contributing members of the community.
What are the three most important spaces that we need to make the changes to reach the vision?
The first would be community space for welcoming our parents. The uses of this space would vary from campus to campus, but it should include space where parents can volunteer and support the school, space for parents to benefit from workshops, as well as space to simply connect and support each other.
The second spaces are multiple Flex Labs that can be used for active, project-based learning. They need to be flexibly designed, rather than specifically dedicated to one program, because pedagogy and technology will evolve. These spaces would be designed to accommodate multiple opportunities for students to engage in learning experiences that support STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts (both visual and performing), and mathematics.
The third space we must transform is the interior classroom environments. If we want students to actively engage with the curriculum, we need to remove the physical barriers. The same concept of flexibility found in Flex Labs also must enter the traditional classroom layout. The use of easily moveable furniture, with flexible seating options for students, will allow the teacher to facilitate multiple learning styles simultaneously and then switch to a group learning activity such as a Socratic seminar. These flexible environments would also include using the adjacent outdoor spaces more effectively than we currently do to support student learning. They would be fitted with shade, Wi-Fi, have furniture, a water source and power. Many activities – from simple small-group reading to large-scale messy projects - could then take place outdoors without impacting the learning going on inside.