Teacher spotlight: Dodson Middle School’s Joshua Sensabaugh on why the arts can stimulate learning and how the community can be involved
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | July 24, 2019
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.
Joshua Sensabaugh grew up in a family of educators but he never planned to become one. Then after college, while he was teaching English in Japan, he realized some of his students didn’t even know how to read. When he saw he could help them, he realized he wanted to be able to do the same back home in Los Angeles — a moment, he said, “that will forever stay with me.”
“One of the students who had given me and my co-teacher a problem all year long said, ‘I want to be able to read, what do I have to do?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I should probably learn how to do this so I can go back home and give something back. Maybe there’s a kid back home who needs this kind of support.’”
Now, as a seventh-grade English teacher at Dodson Middle School, where he first began teaching in 2016, Sensabaugh continues to seek out new ways to help his students improve their reading comprehension. Integrating the arts into his classroom has brought his most recent successes.
A recent classroom project that combined the arts with English instruction got 100 percent participation, drawing in students who don’t usually work on art projects. And he’s seen his students understand more about ancient Greece and American values through the integration of visual arts in his English-History combination class. “That was something I wouldn’t have discovered if we had never gone through this art avenue route.”
“For many of the students who didn’t want to do the essay writing, this was an opportunity for them to still display their understanding of the content and their knowledge through graphics and visualization,” Sensabaugh said. “I think really attacking content through a different discipline or different medium such as art is quite innovative.”
Funding arts programs in schools is crucial, he said, because they stimulate learning, particularly among low-income students, such as those at Dodson, where 76 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The school is located in the Harbor area of L.A. Unified, where Sensabaugh grew up and attended district schools. He believes the state should support school districts with funding to provide more on-site professional development so teachers can integrate arts in their instruction.
“I think if there’s a push for using visual and performing arts, then definitely funding for that needs to come down the pipeline,” said Sensabaugh, who graduated from Nathaniel Narbonne High School and Cal State Long Beach and obtained his master’s degree from the USC Rossier School of Education.
Arts programs at L.A. Unified have been reduced significantly due to budget cuts over the years. Since 2008, they’ve lost about 50 percent of their funding. The district has been restoring some of these programs in the last couple of years, although the district’s budget for the coming school year shows no funding increase for arts programs.
Sensabaugh also thinks that the community has to understand its role in educating children.
“People forget this old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. A lot of times people who don’t have children view LAUSD as this kind of ineffective giant monolith. But a lot of the work that I do involves people from the community,” he said. “It’s not just your kid or my kid. No, these are our kids.”
He attended a one-week professional development program at Esteban Torres High School both this summer and last summer, where about 200 K-12 LAUSD teachers from all subject areas learned how to integrate dance, music, theater and visual arts into basic subjects like math, science and language arts.
“If I’m going to teach art, then I have to not necessarily be well versed in art, but I have to be exposed to in order to teach it. This integration training is one of the best things that I’ve come across.”
LA School Report asked Sensabaugh 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 his goals for next school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Would you say that integrating arts is the most innovative approach you’ve been using in the classroom?
I think this would probably be the most innovative in that sense. Going from a lecture style to mini-lessons — I think that’s something that has been around for a while in different formats, but I think really attacking content through a different discipline or different medium such as art is quite innovative.
Some of my students entered a video contest and had two culminating tasks that were in the visual arts, and they blew me away when they entered this. Each student had a role, they had to come on with scripts, storyboards, and they really went all out. And that’s something that I couldn’t have gotten from them on paper. It was amazing.
How can parents help you do your job, particularly when you’re trying innovative classroom approaches?
Parents need to know what their son or daughter is learning. What I’ve found when I have parent conferences is that they have not looked at the assignment sent home. Because for every assignment, I have, “This is what we’re going to do, this is what I’m going to ask them to do, sign off on it,” to let me know that you’re aware of it.
And then I’ll meet a parent who signed off and they say, “I don’t know what they’re doing. How can I help them?” Well first, read the description. Second, every community has something in the way of art that they can expose their children to. Something that parents need to be aware of is their community resources because it’s everywhere. L.A. has one of the most rich, culturally diverse communities ever. Definitely knowing what’s available and then talking with their kids about what they’re thinking as they’re going through this process. I made sure that this assignment was done on campus, so that I could see that that was their true work. But there are oftentimes when the students had to take it home and that was a good opportunity to talk and say, “Hey, you know, what are you working on?”
Having those simple conversations gives the student a chance to elaborate, to kind of specify, “Hey, this is what I’m trying to do and this is why I think about it.” And then the conversation can grow from that point. And so I think, just that awareness and to some degree involvement. I know parents are busy, but that’s an important thing to be involved in.
What could the community, school district or state do better or differently to support educators in their jobs?
I think if there’s a push for using visual and performing arts, then definitely funding for that needs to come down the pipeline because this is offered two, three times a year if I’m not mistaken. For example, for teachers who have kids, it’s not the most opportune time to have four days, five days of professional development during the summer because they have to watch their kids.
It costs money for daycare. Definitely, on a state level to support district-wide arts education.
And then definitely if there’s a way to offer more chances for professional development at the district level where we can now start looking at STEAM instead of just STEM, or we can look at cross-curricular integration with the arts. That’s when you start seeing results — when everyone has an opportunity to receive this type of training.
There are a lot of community centers or larger privately owned centers that offer training, but those are at central locations that not everyone can get access to. But if you have what the arts integration group is doing now, where you’re having individuals come out and train people on-site, then you now have the opportunity to take what you’ve learned without having to drive miles and begin using that in your classroom. And then you have more than one person trained on it and now you can start really making collaboration in that effort happen. I think that’s a major thing that needs to take place.
What do you think is something that needs attention in the education system?
I think, and this is just coming from conversations that I’ve had, that people forget this old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. A lot of times people who don’t have children view LAUSD as this kind of ineffective giant monolith. But a lot of the work that I do involves people from the community because I’m learning from them what is available to me to use in my classroom. The students are learning from them what’s available in their community, and without the supports, without these partnerships, education is never truly going to be as good as it can be because we’re expecting individuals or groups of individuals to do work that can actually be collectively done and done more effectively as a group.
I think that’s something really important. You’ve got to have the community. It’s not just your kid or my kid. No, these are our kids. Because at the end of the day, when we’re older, when we’re gray, they’re the ones who are going to be stepping in to run the country, to support the industries. And if we don’t support every kid to get out there and do what they’re able to do, the world’s not going to get better.
What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about the teaching profession?
I’m choosing one. I would say, and this is just from this year — that it really stood out to me more than anything — is that our work stops at 3 o’clock every day and that our weekends are free and clear, when the kids go home, we’re done. And I believe for most working professionals, that’s never the case. Even when I was doing sales, it never finished when that clock stopped.
How did you start on your path to becoming a teacher? Was it an easy or difficult process?
I did a lot of research on where I could go to school because the thing was, I knew that going back for a four-year degree, that was not going to happen. So my only way was to go through a master’s program. But depending on the program, I got to do two years of this, two years of that, and down the pipeline, that’s going to take too long. I figured out the quickest way to become an educator. I’m going through an intensive, really short program. And then after that, I started looking at what skills I needed. Coming from a literature perspective, I can talk about literary theory all day, but talking about literary theory and understanding literary theory is not the same as teaching.
I wanted to find a program that would give me kind of a good way into that. And fortunately, I had a really excellent master teacher who showed me the ropes for how to guide students into that reading process. And I think it was because of her that I decided to give this a shot. I went to the USC Rossier School of Education, and I had some really encouraging professors who I picked their brain like nothing. But it was really helpful because I learned that the skills I had picked up in Japan for teaching vocabulary and using scaffolding aids like pictures and devices (were skills that were useful here as well). And so I found that a lot of what I had learned in my practice was something that I was learning about in theory that I could actually apply to the class.
Did you have a teacher who inspired you to become a teacher?
My biggest influence was my Japanese teacher in high school at Narbonne. I was not a model student by any stretch, and she really took time to show me, “This is how you behave in a classroom setting. These are the things that you do to present yourself, or this is how you speak when you’re giving presentations.” And so she really took time to look at me for who I was and to mold me into a better person in that classroom.
What has been your best moment or your proudest accomplishment so far?
I had a young lady who was at my school two years ago and she was going through some things at home, and at some point her parents took her out of our school, but I worked with her on building a more manageable personality of building social relationships or really just understanding that the work you put in is the results that you get in the end. And I told her, “If you continue to go this way, school’s going to be hard. You’re going to get to high school, and you’re going to face challenges you weren’t prepared for because you didn’t put the work in.”
About a year ago, she sent me an email and said, “Mr. Sensabaugh, you were right. It has been a challenge. But I started working harder and I raised my grade up from a D to a B. And right now I’m trying to earn an A, and I’m really enjoying school.” And the fact that she took the time on her own to send me an email and to let me know, that was really a proud moment for me.
What’s your main goal for the next school year?
Right now I’m working on my reading certification through UCSD’s reading specialist program. And my goal really is now to work on reading intervention while also incorporating the arts. I’ve already had it planned in my mind to heavily incorporate theater arts and dance this coming school year. There are some visual art things that I’ve worked on, but personally, I want to get better at that. Now I want to work on theater arts and dance because I think that’s somewhere I can take my students this time. I’m working on those two things because I see those two needs. Building reading improvement and then getting them exposed to different things that will help their comprehension.