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Teacher Spotlight: Suzanne Nagata on focusing on mindfulness, encouraging students to lead their own learning, and finding her progressive fit at Citizens of the World Charter School

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 18, 2020



This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Suzanne Nagata teaches kindergarten, first and second grade at Citizens of the World Charter School Mar Vista. (CWC)

Suzanne Nagata was not aware of the kind of a unique educational upbringing she had until after she graduated from UC Berkeley and went to Japan to teach English as a second language for three years.

“That’s when I really realized, ‘Oh wow, my cultural upbringing was not the same as most people know,’’’ she said, referring to the progressive school she attended as a child. So when Nagata discovered Citizens of the World Charter SchoolMar Vista, in West Los Angeles, she quickly decided that she wanted to be part of its similarly progressive education model, where the students’ social-emotional learning and diverse cultural immersion form the foundation of the school’s mission.

“When I found CWC, … they’re doing everything that is just so fully aligned with my educational philosophy, in terms of SEL and academics and the ability to have arts integration,” she said. “And the social justice piece also was really important to me.”

After getting her teaching credential at California State University Northridge, she became a founding teacher at an Aspire charter school in South LA nine years ago. She was also a founding lead teacher at Los Angeles Unified School District’s Spanish Immersion Program at Broadway Elementary, before joining CWC, where she has been teaching kindergarten, first and second grade for the past three years.

Nagata says that the social-emotional learning part is what she really appreciates the most. Before teaching she had training as a massage therapist and she is bringing that “mind-body awareness” to her young students in the classroom.

“Our school does a lot of meditation. I do yoga with my kids and really try to get them aware of what’s happening. Especially in the younger grades, I think it really helps them to get a sense of who they are.”

LA School Report asked Nagata about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?

Well, my second grade teacher told me and my parents, ‘Suzanne’s going to be a teacher.’ But I’ve always had a very rebellious spirit and I was like, ‘No, no.’ So I was kind of always trying to figure out what else I could do. Ever since I was in fourth grade, I started as a TA in summer school classes and I was always teaching something. So, you know I taught puppetry and I did SAT prep. When I was in high school, I was a mentor for little kids and I was a camp counselor. I was always doing teaching, even when I was in college. When I went to Berkeley, I volunteered in elementary school classes and I did SAT prep in low-income schools and in Oakland.

What do you like the most about teaching at Citizens of the World? 

There’s so many reasons. Well first, you know, the educational philosophy here. The fact that it’s progressive, everything’s hands on. I love our inquiry-based approach. So, the way that we do our social studies curriculum is through something called inquiry where it’s really focused on social justice in terms of bringing in current events. We really tie everything to student interest. So we’ll introduce ideas and then based on what they are really interested in, what peaks their interest in that, we do projects. So we’re also project-based here. Instead of just learning content, students are really making it meaningful and real world. So for example, one year we were talking about communities and in first grade … the idea of homelessness became really of interest to them.

And so at a first grade level we were able to build a project around writing a song about homelessness after we learned about it. And that was awesome because we got some recognition from the mayor’s office and so they came out and that was really exciting for the kids to see that their interests and their work could then move out into the world and have an effect to the level of the mayor’s office coming out. At the higher grades, last year, I think it was fourth grade, they realized that we have the crosswalk in front of our school and they felt like that wasn’t safe enough. So they contacted Mike Bonin, who’s our City Council member, and then they worked with him. I don’t know the details, but I do know that now we have a crosswalk light and they redid some of the crosswalks so that it’s accessible. So it was really exciting for those kids to see that the concerns that they had actually had an effect on the world around them.

How does the social-emotional curriculum model work in your classroom?

So the social-emotional part I feel is kind of the foundation of our school. Everything we do, everyone who works here understands that. Those social-emotional skills of being able to find how we interact with people and understanding ourselves and understanding the cultural context of each other. I think that’s something that everyone’s always thinking about in terms of even how we teach math. But we also have very specific things that we do in class. So we have a curriculum that explicitly teaches how to notice somebody who’s having different feelings and how to communicate those feelings. Because in younger grades, they still need to learn how to express themselves. We also use restorative justice and circle ways. So restorative justice is kind of a whole program and something called responsive classroom, but it’s all about how to bring in social-emotional learning and awareness into the classroom through different activities. So for example, we start the day with the kids just talking about things that they’re interested in. And so, the other kids really are able to make connections and they know how to listen to each other. We also do counsel, which is kind of a sacred time where you’re speaking from the heart and you’re talking about issues and sometimes that’s how we solve issues.

You mentioned also diversity as one of the foundations in your school, how is that an important part of students’ learning?

Yeah, I love that our school is diverse by design because I think it just really opens up their mind when they understand. I mean empathy and inclusion is the direction for society to really reach understanding, about all the issues that are happening in the world. Empathy and inclusion are really kind of the big overarching of ideas that we need our kids to have, so that when they move out into the world, they see things through those lenses. If they’re not exposed to differences, they don’t understand other cultures. A big part of the social- emotional piece is that we’re a part of society and we want to be changemakers. We want to be effective members. It affects the citizens or members (of that society). And a big part of that is having respect for others, being able to communicate in a way that other people will understand you and understanding each other culturally, I think is kind of the base of all that.

What are you currently doing in the classroom that you think is kind of unique or innovative?

It’s the school model. I think it isn’t unique to me because I went to a progressive school, so sometimes I forget that it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, they don’t do this in other classrooms.’ But I think I have to kind of jump into the mind of a person who had traditional schooling. So I guess there’s a few things I would say. Maybe I will tell you what I thought was something that I haven’t heard of. When you talk about the mindfulness of that student being aware of themselves, I think that’s something unique that I haven’t heard from other educators.

So we practice that through just learning how to check in with yourself, which is like we practice breathing, we introduce all different kinds of mindfulness practices. We have a whole curriculum that we use, but on top of that it’s called mind app and that just introduces students to the idea that there are different ways to pay attention to things. So it helps them learn how to quiet their body and quiet their mind so that you just notice what’s happening because sometimes we are just reacting to things and we’re not even really aware of what’s happening. So just taking breaths, which is kind of what we say is like when you take a breath, that’s something that is always happening inside your body and it’s something that is you. It’s not something else, right? It’s your breath. It’s different than other people’s. So the breathing practices are really important.

Like for example, this morning the students came in and they were really wild and which is fine. That’s how it is. You know, there was just a lot of energy. I said, ‘Oh, let’s start with the mindful moment’ and my students know as soon as I say that, it’s OK, I don’t have to pay attention to anything else but my breath and they can close their eyes, which is also something I think is not happening a lot in school. It’s amazing when the students can see just from two minutes of just checking in with yourself and being with your breath, for them it’s profound. They get to have their own experience of how they can affect the whole classroom just by being responsible for themselves. It is beautiful. Students love it.

What do you think are some of the issues that need to be addressed in the public education system in California?

Mental health… because our school was so focused on SEL, the social-emotional learning, and a big part of that is understanding your own feelings. I just think that’s still related to mental health. That a lot of the mental health issues are happening because we’re not aware of what’s really happening. You know, I think it’s as easy as doing a little more mindfulness in class. I think something that is so great for our kids also is using something called the peace path, which comes from restorative justice.

I think a lot of mental health is, ‘I don’t understand myself. I don’t understand what’s happening in the world,’ and that disconnect between who you authentically are and what’s happening around you and the lack of control. I think that’s what mental health is all about.

How do you think parents and the community in general can better support teachers?

I feel like on an individual level communication is really the most important thing. I wish I had some kind of big political thing to say. I think no one knows their child better than a parent and I think just being willing to communicate with the teachers about what’s happening and what you know about your child can really make the biggest difference because we spend half of their life with them in the classroom. You know, it’s like you get them half time, we get them half time or maybe we even spend more time with your child, but (they) spend their whole life with them. So for me, I just feel really knowing that teachers want that communication.

What’s your main goal for this school year? 

I have some big goals. One of my main goals is to increase, do more arts integration in the classroom because it’s just through the arts that I think children feel confident, can explore creativity and I think it brings out a whole different side of kids and I think it’s such a great way to access the curriculum. It’s a great way to access information and learning.

Personally, I just want to do more arts integration because I’ve seen how it can engage kids who aren’t engaged, like if it’s just straight academics, which you don’t really do in a progressive model in general. I just think it brings in so many great things, for example, such as problem solving, in a meaningful and real way, that I think is kind of the basis of what we want to be teaching kids is problem-solving skills. I also always want to be supporting more teachers. I’m really big on communication, teachers working with other teachers, because I think teachers have so much knowledge and they do such amazing things in their classrooms, that if teachers can have the time to share those things that they’re doing, I think it helps the kid so much.

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