Mission Murals to Remember

The Mujeres Muralistas collective decided we would design images of our Mexican/Latino culture, who we were, where we came from. That was really important to us. And we also looked at the community–who is our audience, who lives here, who’s going to see the mural images and learn from them–and it was the children born here and all the Latino Community living in the Mission. The murals were created to honor the beauty and color of the Latino American culture. The way that we knew we were right on with our plan is that people would come and look at the murals that we were painting and sit there on a bench and cry. And then the next day they’d show up with lunch or beer as thank-you gifts. And we’d ask “Do you like the mural?” “Oh yes, it’s beautiful…because you’re speaking directly to us. We’ve been here all our lives…we risked our lives crossing the border to get here to have a better life and nobody knows that we live here, nobody knows that we exist. And these murals are showing that we are alive, that somebody’s thinking about us. Thank you for painting our culture.”

–Patricia Rodriguez (The Mission, pg 73)

There were too many murals in The Mission and Bay Area to capture–so much that was larger-than-life, bright, emotive, and filled with layers of history and meaning. In our first post, Balmy Alley: The Desire Path, we wrote about the ways that our guide, Carla Wojczuk, showed us to take in murals. We recommend reading that post before this one. In this post, we are remembering in writing the murals we saw in the Mission that we will bring back to our classrooms for our unit about how borders and walls impact identity (both personal and communal), and how the experience of crossing can be told by pen, by paintbrush, and by tongue.

Much of what we know about the murals below is a combination of information from our tour guide Carla, and two books that we purchased at the Precita Eyes Mural Center: The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans and Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, edited by Annice Jacoby for Precita Eyes Muralists. The books are also where we found the quote above, which we will use to introduce our students to this unit.

500 Years of Resistance (1992), Isaias Mata

St. Peter’s Church stands on the corner of 24th and Florida Street. The church served as a sanctuary for political refugees from El Salvador in the 80s and early 90s, many of whom were single men fleeing forced conscription into the army and military oppression of the poor. Among these political refugees was Isaias Mata, a professor by trade. Though eventually allowed to return to his home country, he stayed in St. Peter’s for more than a year, and, during his time in the parish, he painted a three panel mural (visioned along with Father Jack Isaacs, a priest at St. Peter’s) titled 500 Years of Resistance, a reference to the 500 years since the Spanish invasion of the Americas.

St Peters Panel 1On the 24th Street side of the mural, there are two panels. One frames the entrance to the parish. Over the entrance is a figure blowing into a conch shell, which is a reference to the method in which many indigenous religions salute the four cardinal points of the universe. Speaking to the power of ancestral knowledge, on either side of the open doorway, looking from bottom to top, the viewer sees rainbow-colored leaves below a strip of almost-black that contains several skeletons. Above the skeletons, a layer of more recently buried indigenous people whose flesh has not yet gone to the earth. Above the soil, Mata has created a lush landscape that includes corn, cacti, trees, grasses, and flowers native to the Americas. Connecting the landscape to the people below the soil are thousands of thin roots. This, we learned from Street Art San Francisco, is a reference to Diego Rivera’s mural in the Chapel de Chapingo, depicting the idea that the bodies of the dead serve as nourishment for those that still live.

The middle panel, upon which the rainbow leaves at the very bottom continue, includes several larger-than-life faces. The struggles depicted on this panel are a amalgamation of the many battles that indigenous communities faced at the hands of oppressors. Most striking to us was the section, greenish in color, that shows a troop of conquistadores with spears advancing. Upon second look, we noticed that, while many of the conquistadores wear historic battle dress, the figure closest to us is wearing a gas mask. The connection this makes about ongoing violence and destruction of indigenous lands and communities gives pause.

The third panel, facing Florida Street, radiates the grueling effort of revolution. Directly in the center is a gargantuan wheel being pushed from below by three large figures and pulled from above by six figures straining at a rope. Between the wheel and the six figures above are flames, symbolizing the friction produced by change. In the bottom left corner, people stream down from a city skyline in a protest march, holding signs that read “Viva La Huelga Strike,” “Paz y Justicia,” “Pan, Tierra, y Libertad,” and more. Balancing that image in the top right corner are images of social justice leaders including Oscar A. Romero, Sor Juana J. De La Cruz, Fray Bartolome De las Casas, Kateri Tekakwitha, and others. Finally, in the bottom right corner are two young people holding flowers and a white flag. This panel addresses the question “Do the oppressed have agency?,” and question we will address with our students as we move through this unit.

Un Pasado Que Aun Vive/A Past that Still Lives (2004), by Joel Bergner

This mural, located about halfway down Balmy Alley, shows the echoes of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). The center of the mural is a paved road, showing that time does not stop in the face of tragedy. At the end of the road, in the foreground of the mural, are a mother and son in the back of a cart. The mother looks wistfully ahead, holding the sleeping boy in her lap. In her hand is a letter from her husband, who has moved to find work in the US. This practice is common, and tears families apart still today. This mural juxtaposes ongoing daily life with the ghosts of war. One extraordinary example of this juxtaposition is top center, where a man is walking down the street, but his shadow is crying, head in hands. Another is on the side of the building labeled Papusaria Paty. There families are eating breakfast. Meanwhile, the silhouettes of three soldiers, a firing squad, are shooting and killing civilians.

This mural is a statement that the artist and many others stand in solidarity with the liberation movements in Central America. The mural welcomes the thousands of people exiled from their homes, searching for a safe place to raise their families.

La Cultura Contiene la Sevilla de Resistancia que Resplendor de la Flor del Liberacion/Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossons into the Flower of Liberation (1984, 2014), Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele 

This mural is the last remaining PLACA mural. The PLACA muralists were a group of artists who spoke with the residents of Balmy Alley, gaining permission to paint a the first series of murals meant to give voice to people being oppressed by war and violence in Central America. Their narrative countered the “official” narrative of the American government, and spoke the Mission community’s truth. On the right panel is a bountiful agricultural scene, filled with smiling people and music. In the corner, a young woman holds a book titled “Nuestra Historia.” On the left panel, the eye is drawn to man, bent over, the sack he holds spilling golden corn out onto the ground. The bag reads “Solo para exportacion.” The large boot of a solder steps into the spilled corn, seemingly disregarding the value of the crop. To the right of the bent man is a group of women holding weapons and photos of los desaparecidos, a few of the thousands of dissidents and innocent civilians who vanished without a trace after the military junta seized power in Argentina in 1976.

La Llorona’s Sacred Waters (2004), Juana Alicia

La Llorona Whole.JPGLocated at the corner of 24th and York Streets, the wall that is home to La Llorona’s Sacred Waters used to be home to another of Juana Alicia’s murals, Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers). After that mural suffered water damage in 2001, Juana Alicia chose to adjust the theme of the new mural to reflect urgent issues of the day.

This mural, almost entirely blue, is an homage to water-centered conflict. There is a thin red stroke at the top of the mural, visually separating its content from the blue sky above. La Llorona, the myth tells us, is a woman who drowns her children and then drowns herself. Unable to enter heaven without finding her lost children, she walks the earth forever, crying. At the center of this mural is a woman holding a young boy in her left arm, and reaching into the rushing water with her right. A large tear rolls down her cheek.

Also found in this mural are references to the farm workers in India’s Narmada Valley who protested against their government’s dam projects which caused their homes and towns to flood, the Bolivian women in Cochabamba who fought to keep corporations from buying water rights, and women protesting the unsolved murders of Juarez women. The mural calls attention to the fact that women disproportionately bear the weight of poverty and the consequences of environmental devastation.

Indigenous Eyes: War or Peace (1991), Susan Kelk Cervantes

Eyes.JPGSusan Cervantes is the founder and director of the Precita Eyes Muralists in the Mission. She repainted this mural in 1991 after the garage door hosting the original mural (painted by Nicole Emmanuel in 1984) was destroyed. This new mural honors the previous by restoring the original images on the garage structure. The garage door now features they eyes of a Nicaraguan child, in which is reflected the impact of Nicaragua’s civil war. In the pupil of one eye, there is a a skeleton soldier, symbolizing the violence that the children surviving in the war witness on a daily basis. The pupil of the other eye shows a dove, the symbol of peace, and in the iris to the right floats a question mark.

More Mission Murals to Remember (In No Particular Order)

La Rumba No Para: The Chata Gutierrez Mural (2015), Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez with the Precita Eyes Muralists located on 24th Street near South Van Ness

Community leader

Naya Bihana/A New Day (2002) Martin Travers with Gustavo Sanchez, Pooja Pant, Eric Norberg, Paulette Liang-Norberg, and Kaira Portilla located in Balmy Alley

Naya Ana.jpgCultivating Resistance (2017), Clarion Alley Mural Project located in Clarion Alley

Imitation is the Whitest Form of Flattery (2015), Texta Queen located in Clarion Alley

Whitest Flattery.JPG

For the murals below, we have incomplete information. One of the big learnings from our first mural walk is that we need to be more vigilant about collecting as much information as possible when we are looking (location, artist, title, date, etc), and we will be much more careful about that going forward.

On the side of the Galeria de la Raza building in The Mission:

Galleria de La Raza Mural.JPG

Name and Artist Unknown, located in Lilac Alley

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Balmy Alley: The Desire Path

The Mission District, the historic Latinx neighborhood in San Francisco, is home to officially 99 (but arguably many more) murals. Murals are part of the literal and figurative color of The Mission community. Wednesday morning, joined by Kat’s parents, Phil and Wendy, and sister Liz, Oakland natives and our generous hosts, we began our mural learning with a guided tour. Artist Carla Wojczuk, a Precita Eyes muralist, led us down 24th Street to Balmy Alley, which, Carla says “is the grandmother to the mural alleys in the Mission.”

Precita Eyes Shopfront

Precita Eyes Tour SignBalmy Alley Street Sign

 

 

 

 

 

Carla began by pointing out a blank wall and saying that it all began with the children’s mural, which is now hidden under layers of paint. The story goes that the first mural was painted by kids who came to 24th Street Place, a community center for neighborhood children. The mural that they painted has since been painted over, but that mural, that history, still exists under the new layers of paint. The history is part of the art. Carla’s knowledge of the murals in Balmy Alley and the larger neighborhood refined and directed our process of looking for the day, and probably will for the rest of our study.

Mission Makeover Whole.JPG

The looking can be difficult. How far away is the viewer standing? From which direction does she approach? What does he see first? How does her personal experience inform her viewing?

What We Learned About Looking: Where to Start

Enrique's Journey Whole

Some murals unfold their stories from one end to the other. The mural Enrique’s Journey (2009), painted by Josue Rojas who was assisted by Maria E. Garcia, is read from right to left. It depicts the story of a young boy’s journey from Honduras to the US (also chronicled in a biography/memoir of the same name by Sonia Nazario). At the far right, a train–La Bestia–steams downward through the rolling hills. In the foreground on the right, Enrique stretches his arms out as if he is flying toward the US. La Bestia, otherwise known as el tren de la muerte, is infamous for horrors such as robbery, injury, police encounter, and death that migrants experience on their trip northward. On the left is Enrique’s mother, who he imagines will be waiting for him as soon as he arrives, arms wide open. The heart outlined on Enrique’s mother’s chest is echoed by the heart over the Honduran countryside (top right). Between Enrique and his mother are the very real obstacles labeled “ICE,” “La Migra,” “Fear,” and “Unjust Immigration Policies.”

In contrast, some mural themes radiate from the center. Victorion: El Defensor de la Mision (2007), created by Sirron Norris, does just that. The strength of the transformer-esque figure in the foreground draws the eye first. With each step closer, the viewer uncovers new evil that Victorion (composed of Victorian houses historic to the neighborhood) must guard against. For example, the building at the bottom left appears so overcrowded that arms and legs burst from the windows. Meanwhile, the “Organic, Fair-Trade Condos” above do not have the same problem. On the street corner behind the pink bunny are two stores, The Cornerstore Classroom, advertising beer, wine, candy, pain, revista, lotto, and soda, and Hipster Unique Together. In front of the stores are two newspaper holders labeled “Lies” and “More Lies” and a trash can with an arrow pointing towards it indicating “Blanco Basura.” Carla told us that the man on the skateboard holding the dog is the artist himself, a part of the community. His image, in relation to the people at the bus stop, is huge. Carla reminded us that the choices artists make about scale are all intentional, reflecting the message of the overall mural.

Victorian Whole

Zoom in Skateboard VictorionZoom in Victorion

What We Learned About Looking: Seeing the “Trapdoor” Images

Norris’s mural, located toward the start of Balmy Alley, is one example of the ways in which mural artists communicate an obvious message with many subtle secondary messages embedded in the scape. Often, the viewer needs both context and a good eye to notice these embedded symbols and coded messages.

As we continued down the alley, we talked about the details in these murals that connected to our personal experiences and knowledge. In Carla’s introduction to The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans, they write “Within each mural, there are myriad ‘trapdoor’ images –hidden visual details that lead the viewer down secret pathways of local and ancestral knowledge.” These conversations made us wonder what other viewers notice when they see these murals, and the intentions of the artists. Who are the details for? Are they for the artists themselves? Are they to affirm the experiences and knowledge of the community members? Are they to shock or humor outsiders? These are questions we will continue to explore along our journey.

Mission Makeover Whole 2.JPG

Mission Makeover Adam and EveWe found this to be particularly true for a mural located a little further down Balmy Alley called Mission Makeover (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza. At first glance, the theme of this mural is gentrification; however, a closer look reveals the specific agents responsible for the forced displacement of this Mission residents. Mission Makeover StarsucksAt the top right, the muralist has included logos of Google and Facebook, and a lightly penciled in Twitter logo on the riot gear of the officers forcing Adam and Eve out of Eden. The tech industry has raised the cost of housing in the Bay Area to a level that squeezes long-time locals out of the city or into homelessness. Featured in the lower right panel are logos such as “Starsucks,” Wealth Foods,” and “Trader Foes,” establishments that pop up as neighborhoods gentrify. A white cop and a well-dressed white woman share a cup of coffee, oblivious to the man sleeping on the sidewalk to their left.

Mission Makeover Top LeftIn contrast to the mainly white figures on the right panel of the mural and the signature businesses of gentrification, the left panel features businesses and landmarks native to The Mission, such as Discolandia, papel picado and a piragua cart. The house behind the bus on the left panel reads “Eviction.” A family exit, holding heavy bags and boxes. Most prominent, police hold two young Latino men in handcuffs in the foreground. The officer’s hat has Mickey Mouse ears on it, signifying “Mickey Mouse Cops,” and his nameplate reads “Rentacop.” The cop’s crossed out eyes and the graffiti on the bus were added by members of the community.  An additional piece of political significance in this mural is the bag of Skittles falling from the jacket of the young man on the bench.  This mural was painted right after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the Skittles are a marker of the danger all young men of color face. These details make a viewer stop to look a 4th, 5th, 12th time.

Misson Makeover Mickey Mouse Cop

 

What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links

Rainbow Connection.jpg

Near the end of the alley, we spent a long time looking at Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation (1984 and 2014) by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele. We will discuss this mural more in an upcoming post. However it is an example of the awareness these muralists have about the work surrounding their spaces. Featured prominently on the right panel is a sweeping rainbow connecting the hard-won resources in the woman’s basket to the joyful music of the man’s guitarra. Lu_The WandererThe rainbow extends, appearing in the mural directly to the right, called Lu/The Wanderer (2011) and painted by our guide Carla Wojczuk (!!!!) and Julian Roward. Traces of the rainbow can be seen up and down Balmy Alley. The ways in which artists connect their pieces to those of other artists are subtle, but speak loudly of the respect that the artists hold for one another and the power of many united voices.

As we approached the end of Balmy Alley, we heard a camp counselor shouting “If you need to use the bathroom, use it now,” in the park across the street. Carla told us that in the early 1970’s, when kids were making their way to 24th Street Place from the housing projects behind the park, they were often warned that the alley was unsafe. Despite the warnings, kids continued to take the alley as opposed to longer routes. Carla told us architects refer to this phenomenon as the “desire path,” a path created as a consequence of human foot traffic. As the desire path leads to a more responsive architectural layout, the art in Balmy Alley is about embracing and responding to the beauty that is The Mission.

pic-with-karla.jpg

A HUGE thank you to our guide, Carla Wojczuk. At the end of our tour, Carla told us that the more a community loves a mural, the more likely it will be protected. After spending time with Carla, we can tell how deeply loved and protected these murals are by Precita Eyes and The Mission community.

In solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Paredes Que Hablan: Language Arts on the Borders

Happy summer, everybody! Our brilliant WritingIsThinking colleague-friend Christina Kostaras once wrote a post about teacher summers and how they are a necessary part of the work we do. We use them to get smarter at our jobs, to make ourselves better for our students in the coming year. Christina says we do this because our students deserve “absolute greatness. Always.” I couldn’t agree more.

FFT-Fellow-PlacardThis summer, my colleague Kat and I received a Fund for Teachers grant for our project Paredes que Hablan. Here are some excerpts from our proposal that explain what we plan to do:

As urban teachers for Boston Public Schools, we work with a diverse student body. Over 80% of our students are classified as high needs, over 60% of our students are English Language Learners, and over 40% of our students have special needs. Our students cross borders every day…Every time these young people change spaces, they must reconcile their identities and pasts with their presents and futures. We know that in order for our students to truly succeed academically, they must see mirrors of themselves in our curricula–art, poetry, and text–and validation of their identities in our classrooms.

…This project seeks to build a robust first unit across two schools in Boston that will provide students opportunities to explore the multitude of ways that activists develop their messages and make themselves seen and heard. Students will begin to understand how the personal is political while exploring multimedia resources, all the while developing visual thinking, close reading, questioning, flexible thinking, executive functioning, understanding of audience, and empathy skills that will serve them as they explore texts for the rest of the school year and the rest of their lives.

Our project proposes, at its culmination, to surface these crossings and to give students critical thinking tools, opportunities, and resources to grapple with the complexity of personal identity in multiple spaces. Through art, poetry, and text, students will have multiple ways to enter this conversation about identity, simultaneously seeing themselves–their ideas, their pasts, their futures–in literature, the school community, and each other.  At the end of this unit, students will create multiple responses to the question “How do we show other people the depth of our past and the strength of our future?” that leverage the knowledge collected during this project. They will write, draw, compose, and record their responses.  They will also design a mural that encapsulates the border crossing they do each day.

To gather resources and knowledge for this project, we propose to spend 22 days exploring “literary arts on the border” with a focus on mural creation, zooming in on the many Latino cultures from which our students are rooted. Our project will take us to California, Arizona, and New Mexico to examine murals and artwork that are products of, and in many case images of, immigrant experiences. Along the way, we aspire to interview artists and collect resources about the artists’ diverse creative processes. During the first two weeks of our project, we will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Santa Fe, visiting murals and the artists/artist collectives from which they originated. We will also visit museums that capture different experiences of immigration, as well as centers of immigration in different cities.

The second part of our project will take place on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a mural project was completed in 2014. We will spend a week in Haiti and the DR discovering everyday culture that will allow us to better understand both the artwork created on the bridge between the two countries and the identities of many of the students in our classrooms.

…Walls and borders often give people places to hide. We hope to use this project to reframe the divides that exist in our classrooms, school systems, and cities, so that students can see how sharing identity and stories creates rather than destroys.

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Above is a map of each of our stops, and below is an overview of our itinerary with some of the highlights from each stop. We’ll post in detail about each stop along the way.

Location/Dates Important Stops
San Francisco, CA

July 4th-7th

Precita Eyes Murals

Galeria de La Raza

67 Suenos

The Mexican Museum

Los Angeles, CA

July 7th-9

The Art of Indigenous Resistance Exhibit

Los Angeles Mural Mile

Los Angeles Immigration Center

San Diego, CA

July 9th-11th

Hands of Peace

Chicano Park (and this link, too!)

Galeria de la Raza

Tucson, AZ

July 11th-13th

Meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta

Tucson Mural Arts Program

Santa Fe, NM

July 14th-16th

Indigenous Arts Festival

Art and Remembrance

Mexico City, MX

July 16th-23rd

Museum with Indigenous Ruins

Teotihuacan Ancient Ruins Day Trip

Toluca Day Trip (50 mins) Stained Glass Murals

Frida Kahlo Museum

Diego Rivera Museum

Puerto Plata, DR

July 23rd-30th

Border of Lights

 

Here’s to a summer of sunshine, new places, and teacher-driven learning,

Alice + Kat

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.

Always,

Alice

 

Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.

Always,

Alice

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Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

Using Songwriting in the Classroom

It’s eight in the morning, and every student is singing.

Across the classroom and in the hallways, groups of students are dancing, arguing, laughing. Over the last twenty-four hours, they have practiced at school, at each other’s houses, even over video chat. Soon, they will perform original songs for the class.

What topic inspired such fervor? An unlikely suspect: the Ganges River.

I often bring music into my fifth and sixth grade social studies classes, and I’ve even written a few songs for students. But I rarely asked students to write songs themselves. It’s too unpredictable, I’d thought. Too unstructured and challenging for most kids.  But here we were on a Friday morning, just a few hours away from the students’ performances about a river in India.

How did it go? You can see for yourself:

Something about writing songs resonated with the students in a way that essays and study guides can’t match. For this reason, I believe songwriting in the classroom is worth exploring, particularly for honoring the strengths and needs of English language learners and students with disabilities.

Writing SAM Songs

The method I have developed and used for teaching songwriting is called “SAM Songs.” The graphic organizer for students is below:

SAM Songs Student Organizer

The project will take at least three class periods: two for writing and one for performances.

Class One:

  1. To introduce the project, ask your students to share their favorite songs. After hearing from your students, tell them, believe it or not, they have the chance to sing these songs in class. Explain that you are trying something new: students will be writing songs to learn, and they will perform these songs for one another. Help students envision the project with an example. For instance, you might show students the “No Taxation Without Representation” clip from the above video (3:44 to 6:03) or “Dump It Off” below:
  1. Introduce the guiding question for the project. This is what students will answer with their songs. The question, like an essay prompt, should require research and critical thinking. For example:
  • What were the causes and effects of the Boston Tea Party?
  • When should a person use estimation?
  • What are the major sources of renewable energy, and how do they work?
  • How does daily exercise affect the body?
  • In what ways can an author establish mood in a text?
  1. Tell your students to include relevant vocabulary (“Say”), take perspectives (“Act”), and use motions to reinforce vocabulary (“Move”) in their songs. If you plan to grade the songs, introduce the rubric.
  2. Allow students to form groups of three to four and begin researching. From my experience, letting students choose their groups keeps students invested in the project and happy with their teammates.

During the songwriting process, students will be loud. They will move around. Some groups will follow the process faithfully, while others will excitedly start picking a song to parody. My advice: embrace the energy, and have faith in your students. The creative process will look different for everyone, and I’m always impressed by what my students accomplish. Students will sometimes ask for help when they are searching for just the right words or trying to explain a concept clearly. With some exceptions, I tell them, “That sounds challenging. I know you can figure it out.” Sure enough, most students do.

Class Two:

Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.
Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.

Students continue writing and rehearsing. During this time, look over students’ lyrics, ask students to show you motions for particular words, and challenge students to incorporate relevant vocabulary into their songs. If students finish, they can practice and give other groups feedback. Before class ends, encourage groups to make plans for practicing outside of school.

Class Three – The Performances:

While students rehearse for five minutes, make a stage area and prepare any music tracks on your computer or phone. Assign one student to start music tracks and another to film performances.  After each performance, take a few audience shout-outs before moving on to the next performance. Later, you can show videos of the performances. Students love watching these, and it’s a great way to wrap up the project.

Benefits for ELLs and SWDs

From my experience, songwriting has three clear benefits for English language learners and students with disabilities:

Combines speaking, listening, reading, writing, and moving

When songwriting, students speak, listen, read, write and move, and in a way that comes naturally to the activity. If I’m writing a song about the Himalayas, I’m writing the word Himalayas, saying it, reading it, hearing students around me say it, and doing a motion that relates to the word.  I also repeat the word many times because I am practicing for my performance. For an ELL or SWD, what could be more immersive than this?

Makes misconceptions visible

When students use motions in their songs, you can see students’ understanding, or lack thereof. For instance, for the Ganges River project, one group was singing about Indians praying in the river. As they sang, the students made a cross with their fingers, despite having learned that most Indians are Hindu, not Christian. It signaled to me that something was misunderstood: Hinduism, praying, or the meaning of the cross symbol. This misconception was unlikely to appear in ordinary writing.

Supports engagement

Perhaps the most important benefit of songwriting for ELLs and SWDs is how engaging it can be for these students.  Students who have trouble sitting still are out of their seats, singing and dancing. English language learners are explaining ideas and using vocabulary without fixating on grammar and syntax. And songwriting is challenging for all students. When ELLs and SWDs see that they aren’t alone in the struggle, they feel up to the challenge.

I was at the copy machine one afternoon, the day before students performed their songs. One of my students, a former ELL, ran up to me in the hallway.

“Yes?” I asked, surprised.

The student, out of breath, replied, “What’s the place where Hindus pray?”

Earlier that afternoon, I asked my students how songwriting made them feel. One student who has a  disability gave this answer:

“Like I woke up. Like I’m covered with lava!”

(I checked with the student later, who assured me that this is a good thing.)

These are the kinds of moments we all hope for as teachers. Through songwriting, we have the potential to engage all of our students – ELLs, SWDs, and their general education peers. Imagine what is possible when all our students “wake up.”

Ben Leddy teaches fifth and sixth grade Social Studies in Boston. Ben presented at 2015 Boston EdTalks, where he introduced the SAM songwriting method for using songs in the classroom. For more information or inquiries, visit www.benleddy.com, or email Ben at benjamin.leddy@gmail.com.

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“Using Songwriting In the Classroom” by Ben Leddy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.