Monday, December 26, 2011


A woman who teaches men to weld provides other life lessons too

An associate professor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Lisa Legohn relies on candor and toughness to reach her students.

By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times |

Lisa Legohn

A Trade Tech alumna, welder Lisa Legohn is now in her 28th year of teaching. “She is stern, but I need that,” one of her students says. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / December 13, 2011)


December 26, 2011 :: Just after 6 one recent morning, Los Angeles Trade Technical College appeared abandoned but for a light shining through an open door on the northwest side of the downtown campus.

Inside, several dozen students, all men, leaned against their lockers and shot the breeze, welding helmets in hand.

At 6:50 a.m. sharp, the door at the front of the room swung open, and Lisa Legohn appeared, hair tied back, thick plastic glasses over her eyes, her name stitched in gold across her jacket.

"All right, you guys!" she bellowed, waving a can of welding rods. "Those of you who showed up yesterday, you get first choice. The rest of you, you get the leftovers."

She smiled.

"Except Gerald," she said. "He was in the hospital. We thank God he's OK."

The class laughed, then slipped on helmets and fired up the welding guns.

"I love this woman and I barely know her," said student Josh Hidalgo, 40, a former terminal operations supervisor at Los Angeles International Airport who hopes to launch a new career as a welder. "I would go to war with this woman.... And now, I know how to weld."

A veteran in a field with relatively few women, Legohn, 50, is a nontraditional teacher at a community college filled with nontraditional students. A Trade Tech alum, she is known for her candor, toughness and an uncompromising approach to her trade as she pushes her students along, then cheers their success.

Her welding skills have been displayed on the TV show "Monster Garage," and she helped build giant toasters, blenders and other objects on the Discovery Channel's "BIG" show.

"She really is a remarkable human being, and she's completely part of our fabric," said Leticia Barajas, a Trade Tech vice president who oversees Legohn's department.

More than half of Trade Tech's students come from families with annual incomes of less than $25,000. Only 37% complete certificate programs, earn their associate degrees or transfer to four-year universities, according to the 2009 accountability report for California's community colleges.

The college's welding students, meanwhile, complete their courses at a clip closer to 82%, and about half of the successful students are Legohn's.

"Like the best trades teachers, Lisa combines really strong technical knowledge with deep concern about the growth of her students as human beings," said UCLA education professor Mike Rose, who observed Legohn's class for his 2004 book, "The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker."

Like many of her students, Legohn has known some tough times.

After bouncing between Los Angeles and New Orleans as a child, she graduated from Hollywood High School and completed a certificate program in welding at Trade Tech. By 18, she had a full-time welding job, which turned out to be the first of many.

Legohn has held up to three jobs at once. At one point, she worked as a pipe welder by day and taught at Compton College at night — while making progress toward her full-time teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach.

Now in her 28th year of teaching, the last 14 as an associate professor at Trade Tech, Legohn has raised a child with special needs and kept working while she battled cancer. She is now in remission.

Legohn shares some of her life story with students, but they didn't know about the cancer until one student, recently released from jail, challenged Legohn about how easy her life must be, compared to his.

"I just lifted up my sleeve," she recalled, "and he said, 'What is that?' " as he stared at a tube attached to her arm. "I said 'I am doing chemo. I have cancer. So now, do you want to switch your life with mine?' "

It's that kind of candor that some of her students say they need to stay on track. Others need her toughness. Many need her compassion.

At 47, Tim Rodenberger said he believes that Legohn's "no excuses" approach is helping him turn his life around — again.

After leaving home in Ohio in 2002, Rodenberger settled into downtown Los Angeles, where he soon became homeless, spent time in jail and was then ordered into a drug rehabilitation program. Now he's staying at a sober-living home whose manager suggested he take college courses.

That's how he met Legohn and learned never to be late. If a student strolls into class at 6:55 a.m., he'll be greeted with "Good afternoon!"

"She is stern, but I need that," Rodenberger said. "I'm not getting any younger … and the longest job I held was 18 months."

Hidalgo, meanwhile, said he needs Legohn's expertise. He has two children to support, so he is eager to finish his training and start working.

"You can teach me whatever you want, but if you're not hands-on, right there next to me, it's not going to happen," Hidalgo said. "She's been there and done that.

"But she also cares about the person. That's the most important part."

At the end of class, as the sparks settled, a student approached Legohn to share some news.

"Byron passed his certification test!" she boomed to the others.

And a cheer went up in the weld shop as the students headed for the door.


He dresses up history and his students like the fit

Roosevelt High teacher Chuck Olynyk uses costumes and props to encourage his students to become engaged with distant times and connect their own lives to history. But beneath the period garb, says a school principal, is a good instructor who cares about his classes.

By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times |


A teacher who dresses up history

Sophomores Ricardo Plascencia, left, and Guillermo Bazan, right, help Roosevelt High School world history teacher Chuck Olynyk into a suit of armor, part of his lesson about the Hundred Years' War. Olynyk uses props and period costumes to encourge his students to become engaged with distant times and connect their own lives to history. (Katie Falkenberg / For the Los Angeles Times / December 6, 2011)

December 26, 2011 - The students in Chuck Olynyk's world history class will learn about the Hundred Years' War by helping him dress for it.

It's not unusual for their teacher to bound around his room at Roosevelt High School — or the "O-zone," as it's known — wearing armor made of aluminum or a puffy tunic as he takes his students on a journey through history.

But even for Olynyk, this day is a little different. For one, he tells his students not to bother taking notes. None of this lesson will show up on a test — it's "enrichment," he says. He wants to show them that the uniform of a knight isn't what they see in the movies: easy to maneuver or even remotely comfortable. It's hot, it's heavy, it's stinky, and it makes whoever is wearing it walk with the stiff-jointed gait of RoboCop.

He asks for volunteers. A few boys come up and assist him as a couple of girls snicker off to the side.

They put on the coat with chain mail and tie the aluminum plates onto his torso. When it comes to the neck brace, he warns them to be careful — a student in an earlier period put it on so tight it "nearly snapped my head like a zit," he said. ("I don't have a neck!" he told them. "We have to pretend I have a neck!")

Within minutes, they had transformed their teacher into a knight.

Olynyk, a veteran teacher, has amassed a wardrobe spanning ancient Greece to the end of the 19th century. He often spends more than $2,000 a year on his classroom, mostly on the costumes and props central to his lessons. He creates most of them himself, or they're given to him by friends. The armor plates, for instance, were homemade, and the knight's helmet was inherited from a friend.

"It's awkward for me to move in. I have to plan my bathroom breaks," he said, complaining about the period wear. But he wouldn't have it any other way. He think it makes a difference, encouraging his students to become engaged with distant times and connect their own lives with history.

Olynyk, in his second year at Roosevelt after many years at Fremont High School, has a theory: 10th grade is about the time a number of students decide if they are going to drop out. He's betting that if he can get them to like just one class — his — what will stop them from getting involved in another, and maybe just hanging around?

Esteban Lopez, a longtime teacher at Roosevelt and Olynyk's teaching partner last year, said educators have to find ways to keep their students' attention. "This is a school that no longer has electives or the fun things," said Lopez, an 11th-grade English instructor who favors button-down shirts and ties.

Dressing up "is another thing a teacher can do to catch them or try to engage them."

Olynyk sees himself in his students. Like many of them, he's the child of immigrants; his Ukrainian parents didn't speak English well and couldn't give him all the educational support he needed at home. "I am not willing to let their reading ability or a lack of a language ability stand in the way," he said.

Students have gravitated toward him. Members of the drill team stow their bags in his room, and students hit him up for fundraisers. He even shows up at football games — dressed, of course, as one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders (the school's nickname).

In the classroom, it appears his concept has worked. Students say his class isn't as boring as others, and they can venture through history with Olynyk's costume as a point of reference.

"It's cool, it grabs your attention," said Claudia Espinoza. "It makes you actually want to learn, because you see it."

Griselda Avalos said her favorite was when Olynyk dressed as an old-school gangster, which she thought was for the lesson on medieval times.

But Juan Herrera corrected her. It was the Renaissance.

Al Lewis, principal of the humanities and arts school on the Boyle Heights campus, said Olynyk didn't come to his job interview in a period costume, but he did show up with a portfolio of photos. Although the costumes are catchy, Lewis has found that Olynyk's success in reaching students has to do with much more than what he wears.

Beneath the coat of armor and his wicked sense of humor, Lewis said, is a good teacher who cares deeply about his students and whether they learn.

"A suit of armor," Lewis said, "only gets you so far."

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