Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sylvia Gentile

Where Are They Now?: Sylvia Gentile: Former First-Grade Teacher, Topanga Elementary

During my first parent-teacher conference in 2000 when my son was in first grade at Topanga Elementary School, Mrs. Sylvia Gentile commented on his “interesting use of language… almost archaic, sort of like the Midwest in the 1950s.” Impressed, I laughed and explained that my father took care of him every day after school and Dad grew up in Indiana. In the 1950s.

That’s the thing about Gentile: she is equally aware of the mind, the learning and the thinking of each of her students.

Gentile confesses that Topanga Elementary was her “soul school.” Given her commitment to teaching the next generation of teachers, it is a huge honor that our own Sylvia Gentile was scooped up by the UCLA Lab School, who nabbed Mrs. Heed as well.
Where Are They Now?: Sylvia Gentile: Former First-Grade Teacher, Topanga Elementary
Former teacher Sylvia Gentile, above with one of her charges, began her career teaching K-1 split classes at Topanga Elementary. She calls Topanga elementary her “soul school.” “I’m so thankful that it was my initial teaching experience,” she says.

“The UCLA Lab school was the only reason I would have left Topanga Elementary,” says Gentile. Formerly the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School, the UCLA Laboratory School is used by the graduate school of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. Professional teachers from across Los Angeles County and beyond come in to watch classes being taught and to learn how to teach better.

Gentile and her freelance architect husband ran a company that made banners for the 1984 Olympics, Xerox, Kaiser and some smaller artsy projects. She worked with the Santa Monica Public Library and the Santa Monica school system. They had two babies in two years and eventually realized that between them, they had not had one week without a deadline.

She decided to join the LAUSD District Internship program and started at Topanga Elementary in a K-1 split. Because her own children went to Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH), which has mixed-age classrooms, Gentile was more comfortable with teaching a split than the other teachers, though the next two years found her teaching first grade.

Remembering Topanga Elementary, Gentile says: “I always loved the garden and the butterfly release. The Friendship Feast was terrific when everybody brought something from their heritage and the hikes we used to take up into the hills — that was fantastic.

“One year we did the eco-play and we all made giant sea animals. We were involved in GALA and they sent this zany theater person who helped us write this play about being in Topanga and tidepools and we performed it in front of parents.” She recalls with gratitude and affection Topanga teacher Marianne Bordier’s powerful influence on her as a mentor/teacher.

In addition, fellow first-grade teacher Marty Langham welcomed her. Gentile describes him as very hands on, super arts oriented. “We did a lot of co-planning and intermingled the classes.”

If you wonder why Gentile’s classes were so special, aside from her arts background, she speaks with varying facility Swedish, Chinese, French, Spanish and Italian. Another part of it may be that her own two children Allegra and Matteo (now at Oberlin and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, respectively) attended the Growing Place, a Santa Monica preschool run by Ellen Khokha.

Khokha’s innovative approach to teaching young children incorporates the famed Reggio Emiliano system (originally designed for children aged 0 - 6). Inspired, Gentile built this approach into her own work and wound up joining half a dozen colleagues in Italy for two weeks to study the method in its birthplace. Gentile said that her fluency in Italian meant she could track the interactions between teachers and students in detail, as well as listen to the tours and lectures in English, getting a deeper sense of how to integrate these practices in Los Angeles.

The Reggio Emiliano approach to creativity involves working with the whole child, creating a child-led curriculum, designing constantly evolving classrooms and ateliers, and handling conflict resolution. These are now the basis of where the UCLA Lab is taking K-6 education.

Topanga Elementary School remains important in Gentile’s teaching today: she has created a Topanga-inspired garden, designed a schoolwide sustainability program and led many nature-oriented field trips. The Topanga School science curriculum has enriched her UCLA classes, including raising Painted Lady butterflies, studying hermit crabs, growing plants, creating a terrarium, looking at what plants need to survive and learning about the water cycle.

Gentile still loves Topanga and holds an annual New Years’ Day hike at Trippet Ranch. Gentile says, “I really do miss Topanga — I am so thankful that that was my initial teaching experience. The culture in Topanga is so nurturing for innovation, so nature oriented, so supportive of new teachers — it was really a great place to start.”