News From Prep
Posted October 24, 2012
L.A. Initiative: Up Close with David Ulin and a Glimpse at Other L.A.-Themed Curriculum
The goal, ultimately, of an education at Flintridge Prep is to make all Flintridge graduates comfortable navigating in an ever-changing world. The Engaging Los Angeles initiative has encouraged faculty to consider the unique aspects and resources in L.A. and incorporate them into the curriculum. It literally pushes at the gates of Prep in countless ways and changes from day to day. Informally, of course, we’ve been going beyond the gates for several years. History teacher Peter Chesney ’04 emphasizes L.A. history in his geography class, while English teachers Patrick Ferry and Tyke O’Brien consistently pepper their City in Literature course with readings, music, art, from the region, inviting local guests to campus to provide additional perspective. Environmental science teacher Heather Clark would have taken her students to explore the natural wetlands at Hahamongna Watershed Park regardless of the initiative. Many faculty make field trips to museums a priority.
With the new initiative, it is expected that some L.A.-themed ideas may be integrated into curriculum only once, while others will become staples. And that’s just the way Patrick Ferry, the curator of Los Angeles-related curricular and extra-curricular projects for faculty, likes it. For the initiative to be successful, he realizes, the connections faculty and students make must be authentic.
One of Patrick’s tasks has been to encourage faculty to invite special guests to campus. In a recent after-school event for faculty, David Ulin, the book critic for The Los Angeles Times and the author of many books and anthologies about the Los Angeles experience, answered questions and discussed the collected works of the writer Joan Didion, who has frequently used L.A. as a topic and backdrop for her work.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Ulin had spoken to eighth-grade English classes about the power of reading and writing (Mr. Ulin was invited to speak by dean of faculty Sarah Cooper). Ulin told the eighth graders that he reads two to three books a week. He focuses by getting comfortable, often with his dog by his side, and eliminating distractions. "Reading is the place where we slow down and clear out all this noise and focus on what one person, the writer, is doing," he observed. "I don't know of any other art that has that transference. There's a way in which it creates empathy that no other art form does."
On the first day of school the eighth graders read his L.A. Times essay "The Lost Art of Reading" (from a book of the same title) and they also have read Joan Didion's "Fire Season," anthologized in Ulin's Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. In giving advice to students about how to write a compelling book review before they wrote sample first sentences themselves, he said, "Writing makes you figure out what you think...You have to start with passion." This thought seemed to fit remarkably well with the thesis of his later discussion with faculty.
In the faculty discussion, Mr. Ulin, who is not a native of L.A., noted that distance and alienation define the literature of this place. He noted that because Ms. Didion herself is not a native of L.A., she also takes an outsider’s perspective. As faculty asked questions and discussed L.A. identity, Mr. Ulin used Ms. Didion’s essays as a touchstone. For Ulin, and for Didion, personality and place are linked together, and extreme subjectivity is an effect of living in L.A.
“L.A. is about finding order in the disorder,” he noted. Didion’s notebook is a device, but it is, he says, “a fundamentally L.A. device.” Sometimes, Didion adopts a third-person objective perspective, but L.A. for Didion is always deeply, personally Didion’s L.A. Can we conclude, then, a teacher wondered, that extreme subjectivity is a defining element of the L.A. experience? This may be a question that may take a year, or more, for the faculty at Prep to answer.
As the year continues, more exciting visitors, fieldtrips, and curricular ideas are being unveiled. Stay tuned for more Engaging L.A. updates.