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Students' lives now part of curriculum

Private Vistamar School in El Segundo wants to prepare them not just for college but the world they face beyond.

January 02, 2008|Carla Rivera | 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.

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."

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.

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."

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