**This is the first in a four-part series chronicling how our learning on our Fund for Teachers trip manifested in our classroom instruction.
In our travels this summer, one of the questions that kept popping into our minds and our conversations was “How can we get 80 kids–40 in my room and 40 in yours–to create one, cohesive mural?” With our first mural, “I AM…YOU,” we played around with several of the answers to that question. Supported by local art non-profit Art Resource Collaborative for Kids, students created a composite mural, each designing a symbol based on an aspect of their individual identities. They then painted their symbols in black over a white background to create the first mural, I AM…YOU.
The creation process took four weeks. In the first week, students learned about symbols and practiced creating their own. We had a discussion about what symbols represent Boston, students’ home countries, students’ interests, etc, and how to combine those symbols that people already recognize to create powerful new symbols that represent complex identities. In the second week, students chose the symbol that they were going to contribute to the mural and re-drew it to make it clearer and more detailed. Our teaching artist, Will, and other team members from the ARCK collaborative took all the symbols with them and collaged them together to create one piece of artwork.
A small group of students got together between the second and third week to trace the symbols onto giant panels–that is, to scale them. Students projected the image onto the panels and traced them with permanent marker. Some students also primed the panels with whiteboard paint so that, when the symbols and phrases were added in black, the public would be able to interact with the mural by drawing on it in colorful whiteboard markers. Finally, the last two weeks students spent painting symbols onto the panels.
A few weeks later, the mural went up in the City Hall Plaza for Boston’s HUBWeek, a collaboration between The Boston Globe, Harvard University, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital that showcases, celebrates and convenes the most inventive minds making an impact in Boston and around the world. Our students took public transportation to downtown Boston to see their creation on display for the city. They were intrigued by all that the public had added with whiteboard marker, and added their own touches before leaving to explore HUBWeek’s other exhibits, which included life-sized board games such as Connect Four, light displays, and one booth where kids got to look at their own cheek cells in a test tube. ARCK’s display included not only our murals, but also interactive fiber artwork. Students had a great time exploring HUBWeek and meeting each other at our picnic lunch in the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.
**We the teachers–Kat Atkins-Pattenson and Alice Laramore–could not have possibly done this project with such integrity and skill without the support of ARCK, the Art Resource Collaborative for Kids. The members of the organization were integral to our teaching, and we thank them profusely.
**This blog post was co-written by Kat Atkins-Pattenson and Alice Laramore
Today, the last day of our trip, we are energized by the Borders and Identity Unit that we have built and will use to launch the year with our students. We are flooded with all that we’ve seen in our seven cities. We are entrenched in the creative part of teaching, the part that involves being an interesting, engaged individual to better support the interesting, engaged individuals in our classrooms. The part that means we learn something new in order to teach something new. The experience of being a learner better prepares a teacher to teach, and this summer was an opportunity for us to authentically learn about murals on different borders, to confront not knowing and to investigate, to use art as a lens into community.
This trip made space for us to be learners. After the 12th grade, those opportunities almost always come with one (or many) literal costs. And Fund for Teachers (along with the school year calendar) gave us the time, space, and finances to learn more in a way that will support our students, but also in a way that sustains us as teachers, professionals, and individuals. It made it possible for us to end the trip feeling rejuvenated rather than depleted. There is a constant push for teachers to continue professional development; it is indeed essential. But driving this profession development experience (and literally driving more than 900 miles) meant that we could pace our learning and reflection, and that we could intentionally choose meaningful experiences that hit our “zone of proximal development.”
When looking at this mural, designed by Kristy Sandoval supported by members of the EL NIdo Family Centers and Community, don’t miss the map on the scalp of the central figure.
The Crater Lake, Nevado de Toluca (aka Cloud Mountain)
This month, we immersed ourselves in adult project-based learning. We’ve tried lots of new things, from food to cloud-mountain hiking to driving to places we’d never been (while blogging) to talking about art from sunrise to sunset. And we’ve done the whole thing together. Often, in our classrooms, we create groups that we believe will benefit from the individuality of each member. We build in scaffolds meant to allow the group to discover each individual’s strengths and to make empathy a non-negotiable. Though we embarked with empathy and respect already in place, our twenty-six days together have illuminated the strengths and areas of growth (thanks, BPS, for the language) of our partnership. We both value efficiency, and, in the face of less-than-such (e.g., when the internet goes as turtle-pace, when people get motion sick, when you walk up the wrong side of the mountain, etc), we have learned much about each other. That knowledge has made us better collaborators and better friends.
In San Francisco, where we started our trip, we were oriented to the idea of looking. This was not just because there was so much to look at in The Mission, but also because we did our first day with a guide, who was able to re-frame what we had seen and interpreted in the context of history and community. Carla made us cognizant of how much we needed other people’s knowledge and understanding to build our own. The Pacoima (L.A.) murals added a layer of “looking around corners” to that concept. On the hottest day of our trip, we spent the majority of it seeking out art on the walls of automotive dealerships and in the parking lots of community centers. It wasn’t always going to be all in one alley. In San Diego, a park once occupied by people and now occupied by art, had us looking for four hours and not seeing enough. We returned home those nights googling Aztec symbols and stories, trying to learn enough to know something.
Tucson and Dr. Acosta gave us yet another frame through which to experience our learning. Freedom of education does not mean freedom to learn about the American Revolution and the Civil War through a lens of whiteness. Precious Knowledge, to our generation of “urban baby teachers,” is a reflection of our intentions. Though we (the generation of “urban baby teachers”) are in no way united in our vision or our understanding of social justice, the power of conviction in ideas, history, and lifting stories and voices drove us into the work of education. We wonder if he knows how many teachers who are only five or six years in are tracking his legal battle and celebrating his victories.
In Santa Fe, we absorbed the International Folk Art Market, how artists envision and reimagine, how tradition can morph modern and can accommodate the present day without reneging its roots. This mirrors the murals we’ve seen and the art of Frida Kahlo, taking symbols from the past and bringing them to life in the now. In Mexico City, we saw so much. Teotihuacan, Frida, Diego, the Anthropology Museum, street art, the culinary art of Pujol, the stained glass and craters of Toluca. With American eyes and feet, we navigated the city, and learned all that we still had to learn.
It is hard to classify this trip, and even harder to know all that it will bring to our classrooms. It falls somewhere in the vicinity of sabbatical–an intentional, purposeful break that brings new insight–but also touches the realm of professional development, continuing education, and creative project. We vision a unit with three parts. First, with our students, we will read several memoirs that broadly address the topic of borders and walls, thinking with our students about potential barriers and how to scale them. Second, we will all generate and share memoirs from our own lives on the same topic. The author of each memoir will formulate his or her own theme about the topic, communicating a piece of knowledge gained from navigating–either adeptly or crudely–a border. Finally, after examining many primary sources collected on our trip and within Boston, students will co-construct a mural combining the themes of their memoirs to create a community creation.
The idea of “insider and outsider” has been, in many ways, the crux of our travels. We asked questions and navigated our identity as visitor, as white visitor, as American visitor. In our classrooms we are often the the outsiders to the communities in which we teach. However our ethnicities and upbringing reflect the dominant histories and tools that are demanded from dominant culture. In this unit, we hope to illuminate these walls, supporting students to name them, scale them, and ultimately paint them. As humanities teachers, we believe that providing students vocabulary and time to think and discuss the world and its issues leads to a brighter, more creative, and smarter future than the two of us can imagine. Solutions lie in the writing, in the art, in the conversations, and in the relationships that students create. Just as we wrote in our FFT proposal, students must see themselves reflected in curriculum, in physical space, and in pedagogy in order to be successful. Because we do not physically reflect our students’ identities, we think constantly about how to make all other facets of our teaching affirming. This unit and this project will be a launching point for discussions about personal identity, community, and what comes next.
Kat + Alice
To Jenn, for extending opportunities and providing support to those who choose them; to Erica Herman and Pauline Lugira, for being principals who support and encourage teacher learning and leadership; to our families and hosts along the way, thank you for your support, trust, and generosity while we adventured; and to the Writing Is Thinking team, whose Mission, Vision, and Foundational Beliefs propel collaboration and innovative teaching.
Our first day in Mexico City was a Monday, which is the day that most museums are closed. We decided to spend that day touring Teotihuacan, ruins located in the Basin of Central Mexico. After visiting Chicano Park and seeing so many symbols for Aztlan and Aztec history that we didn’t have schema for, we knew we had to learn much more. Teotihuacan is one of many places housing the historical knowledge essential to the unit we are planning.
We entered the archeological site of Teotihuacan near the San Juan River and the first thing we saw was a large statue of Chaciuhtlicue, the Aztec water goddess. Our guide explained that the original statue is in the Anthropological Museum, but that this goddess was a foundational part of daily goings-on in Teotihuacan. We started our tour in the Citadel, then walked down to climb the Sun Pyramid, and then climbed half-way up the Moon Pyramid.
As we went through Teotihuacan (and actually since we left Mexico City at 5:45 that morning), we were led by Gersom, our fearless guide. He led in us English and Spanish, and UDLed his tour, using a whiteboard and marker to draw the concepts he most hoped we would understand. For example, each pyramid is actually five layers of pyramid, one on top of another. He also illustrated for us several of the sacrificial rituals believed to have been a part of the city’s daily routine. One of the principles we were left thinking about, however, was Gersom’s insistence that everything we would read on a sign at Teotihuacan was outdated and false. He told us that, since they had been posted, several large anthropological studies proved the signs inaccurate. He spoke of teams coming in from other countries and excavating, all at once discovering new truths and destroying the site. While it is often true that to gain knowledge, one must destroy a little, it caused us to question how the Mexican government is vetting international exploration, especially that which causes the Moon Pyramid to be so unstable.
To complement our trip to Teotihuacan, we went to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. To say that it was informative would be an understatement–there was enough in that museum to occupy two or three days of learning without stop. We spent the majority of time in a few rooms including “Introduccion de la Anthropologia,” “Poblamiento de America,” “Teotihuacan,” “Mexica,” and a few others, doing our best to learn the what and the how of ancient life in the places that eventually gave life to murals we had seen.
Carving, Anthropology Museum
Beadwork, Anthropology Museum
While visiting Teotihuacan and in the museum alike, it was clear to us how much we didn’t know. Teachers spend quite a bit of time knowing, being the authority on a subject or a book. Spending this time as learners, we acknowledged just how much we did not know, and how much we wanted to understand but didn’t yet have the tools to get.
One of the types of murals we’ve seen again and again during our travels is a mural that tells a linear history, from left to right, of a culture or civilization. In San Francisco, it was the mural on St. Peter’s Church (described in this blog post). In L.A., we saw a mural chronicling Filipino history beginning with Lapu Lapu who fought Migellan and colonization. Right as one enters Chicano Park, there is a mural beginning with dark tones of colonization and illustrating the changes and triumphs of Aztlan culture. In Albuquerque, a fresco depicting the history of the world (sorry, no photos allowed), is housed in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. In Mexico City, one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s murals, found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, fill two court yards, three levels high. Along the ground floor, these murals share the plight of the worker.
St. Peter’s Mural
Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)
Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural
Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica
These murals often begin with the roots of a culture, whether they be figurative or literal. For example, the St. Peter’s mural (which actually reads right to left) shows bodies underneath a field of corn, fertilizing the growth of the culture. In contrast, the murals in L.A. and San Diego begin with more historical representations of figures and events. The middle of the this type of mural usually depicts the battles–literal, civil rights-oriented, social, and otherwise–that the group confronted. In the final panels of these murals are the successes and the community’s visions for the future. In three of the five (L.A., Chicano Park, and San Francisco), the mural also featured little portraits of celebrity community members with little name plates floating underneath.
When confronted with the Filipino mural in L.A., we were struck by how little we knew about Filipino history and Filipino-Americans today. Besides recognizing one or two figures in the more “present day” section of the mural, we were pretty ignorant of the contributions and impacts that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have had on the country we live in. For us, it highlighted how much cultural knowledge it takes to read one of these murals. They are so rich, nuanced, and deep; even the two of us, college-educated women with a focus in American Studies/Literature/History, knew only a surface amount of these populations’ historical narratives. We were clearly outsiders entering to examine murals, and the feeling of illiteracy stuck with us (spurring us to check books out of the library and do quite a bit of googling to better understand what we saw, which has yet to be satisfying).
These murals exist in neighborhoods that the people represented in the murals fought to establish and maintain. After seeing these murals in many different neighborhoods, we are left wondering: What role they play in the continued preservation and maintenance of these neighborhoods as the generational gap between those who fought for them and the youth widens? In Filipinotown, as we looked and photographed, there were five young children playing in the park near the mural. Is the mural a talking piece that parents and grandparents use to engage children in stories about their history? Do kids internalize the experience of seeing their culture on the wall in a most familiar space? Are they inspected and seen often, or are they a backdrop as the community works, plays, and lives? Do they play a role in preserving communities that are under threat of gentrification? While we don’t have the answers to these questions (and expect that no one really does), the asking makes us look again and again and again, working to unearth the knowledge “written on the wall.”
When first planning our trip, Mexico City was not on our itinerary at all. However, as we began to plan more in depth, we realized it was a place we had to go. It held too much history, too much wealth about murals and Chicano art. It was and still is home to too many progressive artists, activists, and thinkers who are the roots of this project. We learned so much in our six days there that we will incorporate into our classrooms in September.
While in Mexico City, we walked more than 50 miles with at least two (usually three or five) destinations a day. While most every place we went contributed to our learning, below we want to highlight some of the brightest spots–places we found unexpected friendship or beauty or knowledge–below.
First (and without which many of the stops below could not have happened), The Red Tree House. This bed and breakfast where we stayed for the first four nights was the perfect way to orient ourselves to the city. Besides beautiful rooms, a garden, and cheerful common spaces, the staff, smiling and full of advice, took an interest in our project and in us. They helped us plan outings (such as our private tour with Street Art Chilango, our tickets to Friday Kahlo’s home, transportation to Toluca, and even reservations at Pujol) recommending and prioritizing places we should go. Huge thank yous to Alex, Jose, Victor, Craig, Yaya, and Carlos! In addition to the staff, The Red Tree House hosts breakfast and happy hour, which we attended each day we were able. In those exchanges, we learned from other visitors about where to go, what to see, and shared our days (mistakes and all) with them.
Dining Room looking out on the Garden (Red Tree House)
Breakfast at the Red Tree House
Extended Dining Room view (Red Tree House)
Sitting Room (Red Tree House)
On our first full day in Mexico City, we visited the ancient city of Teotihuacan with a group of people and a guide, Gersom. The name of the city translates to “birthplace of the gods,” and its vast layout, including two pyramids (the Sun Pyramid and the Moon Pyramid), the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Avenue of the Dead, gives credence to such a majestic name. The ruins reach about 8 square miles and archeologists estimate that, at one time, the city was home to 100,000 people. Gersom, our animated guide who described things in Spanish and in English while simultaneously illustrating concepts on a white board (very UDL), told us right at the start not to believe the things we read on signs about Teotihuacan. Recent technology has debunked much of what is written at the historical site. Archeologists are always discovering new things, disproving previous beliefs. Thus, at each sign, he would carefully point out everything that was untrue, righting the wrongs of archeologists past.
The Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan
Looking down from the top of the Sun Pyramid, Teotihuacan
The Moon Pyramid in the distance, Teotihuacan
The Sun Pyramid, taken from half way up the Mood Pyramid, Teotihuacan
Carving, Anthropology Museum
Beadwork, Anthropology Museum
Gersom’s sentiment about “righting” historical claims followed us for the rest of our trip, especially to the Anthropology Museum, where we learned more about the ancient peoples who inhabited Mexico. There is a post about Teotihuacan and this museum in the making.
We took a day trip to Toluca. Our original aim was to see Cosmovitral Jardin Botanico, a building that was originally a market, but is now home to a botanical garden. It features 48 stained-glass panels by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores. As we have been studying large works of art, this place fit the purpose of our work. Our Red Tree House hosts mentioned that, while in Toluca, we should consider a hike at Nevado de Toluca, a stratovolcano that is either the fourth or fifth highest peak in Mexico City, depending on who you ask. After having hiked Tent Rocks in Santa Fe, we were eager to do more climbing. Little did we know that we would be hiking down (and up and up and up) a virtually unmarked trail in a cloud. We could not see more than a yard in front of us, and on three occasions lost the path. We had to listen for other hikers’ voices to find our way back to the car after making it to the crater lake, and when we got back to the car, we immediately started laughing, mostly out of relief–there were moments we thought we might never see it again. All in all, though, it was an adventure that, with slightly more attention to the weather, we would both attempt again.
Other points of interest in the Mexico City leg of our trip were: the Museo Frida Kahlo, Secretaria de Educacion Publica, the Diego Rivera Mural Museum (which houses exhibits related to Rivera, but not much of Rivera’s own art), Museo de Bellas Artes, Diego Rivera’s mural at the Olympic Stadium at the University, (there are several other extraordinary murals on campus as well), and several restaurants including Pujol (a restaurant known for its modern interpretations of Mexican dishes with an emphasis on local and indigenous ingredients including chicatana ants and maguey worm salt, as well as its 1334 day-old mole), Rosetta, Alipus, and El Moro, famous for its churros. Plus, lots of el pastor tacos! We are already planning our next trip to MXDC.
Kat + Alice
To The Red Tree House staff, we would have be lost without you and your suggestions and your maps; to Abril, our knowledgeable and hip Street Art Chilango Guide; to Gersom, our Teotihuacan illustrator and guide; to Ricardo, our driver and guide to Toluca; to Cait, for her suggestions and can’t-miss stops; and to Grant, Viv, their kids, Paulina, Susan, and the other Red Tree House guests–your fellowship is much missed.
What are the differences between murals, street art, and graffiti? And do those differences matter? While walking Mexico City (and we have definitely walked it–the Fitbit tells us we’ve walked 48 miles in the last five days), we’ve seen all kinds of work, from tagging to fully painted blocks of buildings. After our tour in The Mission District, we really recognize the value in having a tour guide when looking at street art in new cities. Our knowledgeable hosts at The Red Tree House directed us toward the organization Street Art Chilango, which did not disappoint. When we met our tour guide Abril Trejo, she started the tour by stating three defining characteristics that separate street art from graffiti.
The first, she told us, is material. Graffiti artists use only spray paint. Street artists, on the other hand, may use spray paint, paint brushes, markers, and other types of tools to put art on the walls. She mentioned that, though many street artists are former graffiti artists, others come from graphic design, architecture, or even illustrating backgrounds and thus have less experience with spray paint cans. Second, while graffiti is mostly word-based, street art is image-based. The image allows for more interpretation of art, whereas graffiti is literal whether the viewer understands it or not. And third, street art is created legally. Business and property owners in Mexico City often ask street artists to design on the walls of their buildings because otherwise they will be full of tagging. Graffiti artists suppose that, by tagging a space, they are taking what is rightfully theirs. In contrast, street artists make arrangements with owners to legally secure a space to work.
During the tour, our definition of street art expanded as we thought more deeply about the interaction between street and art. We learned from our tour in The Mission in San Francisco that murals are less likely to be defaced or tagged if the community respects the art on the wall. This is also true in Mexico City, but our guide gave us even more to think about. We saw the tension between street and art, in which the art pushes on the street, and, at times, the street pushes back. We saw mutual respect, lack of respect, and one benefitting the other. We learned that street artists in Mexico City are often commissioned to do advertisements or more directed work, which in turn supports their ability to do their own designing and artistry on walls around the city. Another facet of the interaction between street and art is that sometimes art groups encourage taggers to come over to “the good side,” finding them walls to paint themselves rather than tagging over others’ work. However, these invitations are not always accepted.
As Abril led us through the streets of Roma, Mexico City’s hipster neighborhood, every piece we encountered added nuance to our understanding of street art in this city.
Abril explained that when an artist has a wall, it is expected that the artist invite a colleague or two to share the space. In this way, artists get on many more walls. Plus, they work together, styles mixing. One of the first pieces we saw was a collaboration between Martin Ferreyra, an Argentinian artist, and Revost, a Mexican artist whose name is a combination of revel (rebel) and ghost. Revost only paints animals that are or were considered spiritual, and his contribution to this wall is the dragon on the left that wraps around the human-esque figure on the right. This work is a stellar example of artists melding styles to share a wall. It is also when Abril began to tell us about identifiable styles. Since street artists do not always sign their names, tracing their style (material, kinds of images they paint, etc) is a reliable way to identify an artist. It is also a reliable way to recognize taggers or bombers (tagging is usually thin letters noting the tagger’s identity, whereas bombing is much larger, often bubble letters perhaps accompanied by an icon). This piece of artwork has been bombed by a few, but the most notable is the cat-shaped signature in the middle.
In 2014, ten works of street art were painted as part of Roma’s Art Walk. Artists were brought in from other countries, including Aaron Glasson, originally from New Zealand, now living in San Diego. Glasson’s work most broadly addresses his lived experiences, including the pieces that cannot be seen or explained. Abril told us that instead of a heart inside of the horse (titled Ano tel Caballo), he inserted a moon to illustrate the connection between the universe and living things on Earth. She also pointed out the rectangle that is slightly darker near the bottom in the background of the work. The work was tagged previously, and the neighbors decided to restore the background, in effect to remove the tag themselves. This is one example of neighbors defending the beauty of street art.
Another example of street and art interacting to add beauty is a red and pink mural that says “La vida esta completa cuando se comparte”/ “Life is complete when you share.” This work was done as a community project, and it is based on the broken window theory. The theory states that when a place is nice, the community and passersby keep it nice, but when there is already a broken window, litter, crumbling buildings, the community and passersby leave trash and add to the mess. In an effort to make this corner a cleaner space, the community painted the wall. The same group is in the process of putting up two more works in the Roma neighborhood for the same purpose.
Ericailcane, an Italian artist sponsored by Galeria Fifty24, came to Mexico City and painted this work, titled “The Bunny and the Fox.” With the help of one assistant, it took him one week to complete. The artist did not volunteer the meaning of the work to the community, so, like much street art, it is up to the community to interpret what they see as they walk by. Our guide’s interpretation, based on her understanding of Ericailcane’s previous work and politics, was that the bunny represents small business, and the fox represents large banks. The fox is pleading with the bunny to let it go, making promises of kindness. However, it is in the fox’s nature to eat the bunny. The viewer watches the interaction between the bunny and the fox literally unravel, as the bunny eats the ropes that bind the fox, anticipating the harm that will befall the bunny once its work is done.
Street art also provokes a sense of nostalgia from the community. These two pieces, painted side-by-side by the same artist, Noble, evoke memories. Looking closely at the woman wrapped in the blanket, we could see that the blanket has fifty white stars set on blue, just like the American flag. Instead of red and white stripes, however, the blanket is a Mexican print. Designed by Nacho Becerra, this flag and the street art resulting from it, are reminiscent of a time in which US-MX relations were better. (Note how the caption reads Estamos Unidos Mexicanos, just one letter off from Estados Unidos Mexicanos.) Next to the woman wrapped in the blanket is a separate work by the same artist depicting the green taxis that used to flood the streets of Mexico City before they were deemed unsafe and not energy efficient (they had only two doors, and often a whole family would get into a cab, sit the children on the floor, and go to the park on a Sunday afternoon). They have been replaced with pink CDMX cabs. Above the cab is the phrase “I [broken heart] D.F.”, alluding to the moment in January 2016 when the capital city’s name was officially changed from Distrito Federal to Cuidad de Mexico. There is no more DF to love.
Neither the cab nor the woman in the blanket have been tagged at all. When Noble signs his art, he signs “NobleKFC.” KFC stands for Kings Forever Crew, a graffiti crew in Roma so large that other artists do not tag over their work in fear of retribution from one of KFC’s members. Noble’s art is protected by his old graffiti crew, keeping his artwork, for the most part, clean.
Below are several other pieces of art Abril showed us. Many of the artists were brought in by galleries for exhibitions and painted one piece on the street so that the community did not have to pay to benefit from the artist’s presence. Scrolling through, so many artists’ styles are evident.
Walking the streets of Roma with Abril, we saw more evidence of artists interacting with one another and the community than we ever would have on our own. We now know what to look for–be it the material, the specific tag, or a technique or style of a particular artist–when we come across art on our own. Abril mentioned at the beginning of our tour that graffiti art has an inside crowd. It doesn’t care if other people get it or not. Once doors started opening to allow us to understand the interaction between the art, the street, and the artist, it is impossible not to want to know more.
Kat + Alice
P.S. After we left our tour, we went to Holly Waffle, a Belgian Waffle storefront run by Bue the Warrior, one of the street artists whose work we saw with Abril and then several times more on our walk toward breakfast. Abril mentioned jobs of street artists ranging from musician, Coachella poster designer, clothing designer, label-maker for a Mezcal company, and graphic designer. She emphasized that the talent of these artists cannot be confined to street art, but instead enriches the city’s culture in multiple ways. Look out for a new Holly Waffle location in Guadalajara coming soon.
As a part of taking this project back to our Humanities classrooms in Boston, we are always thinking about how stories, quotations, and language arts connect to the imagery and symbolism in the murals we see. In Chicano Park especially, we noticed the use of single words, short quotations, slogans, and longer poems/pieces of writing on the pylons. Reading these words directs a viewer’s seeing of the mural, both narrowing and widening what can be seen, providing a focus through which to view. Below are some examples of how words are used by Chicano Park muralists in their designs.
But I Am Somebody by Joann Little
Save Chicano Park! Saturday March 23, 1996 2pm
“No More Deaths!” “Love Has No Borders!” “No Border Wall” “No Olvidados”
Dedicated to the People that Died during Operation Gatekeeper
Mirame con los ojos porque te quiero besar la cara. Dime que si con esa mirada porque quisiera que me amaras. (Poem by Louis the Foot)
“La tierra es de quien la trabaja con sus proprias manos.”
“Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love/Dejeme decirle a riesgo de paracer ridiculo, que el revolucionario verdadero esta guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor.”
A portion of the identity unit that we are designing based on our travels and learnings this summer will include reading mentor texts on the theme of borders and walls, followed by students writing their own personal memoirs rooted in this theme. Inspired by the murals in the photos above, one strategy we plan to use with our students is to ask them to choose the words and phrases in those mentor texts and the narratives they themselves (and their peers) create to bring to life in mural form, to be displayed on walls in our Boston communities.
We turned onto Van Nuys Boulevard, home to Los Angeles’s Mural Mile, and parked right in front of Pacoima City Hall. Before starting our trek down Van Nuys to see the murals, we stopped into the local post office for some postcard stamps. We asked the postal worker who sold us the stamps whether he knew which murals we should be sure to see. “I don’t really know about that,” he said. “I’m not sure.” This response was similar to those we got from our L.A. hosts, Aunt Sharyn and Uncle Richard, when we told them where we were headed and what we planned to see there. (They also loaned us MUCH needed handheld fans for our walk.) In contrast to the murals in The Mission in San Francisco, people did not seem to know much at all about the Pacoima murals.
Stamps in hand, we left the post office determined to find as many murals as we could. The first mural we wanted to see was behind City Hall itself, but, as it was Saturday, the building was closed and fences kept us from getting close enough to really see the work. We used the Mural Mile Map–super difficult to read on an iPhone–determined about where we were in relation to the highway, and set off down Van Nuys toward the mountains.
The murals were not obvious at all, and, since the map was hard to read, we found ourselves peeking around every corner. Every once in awhile, we would find the large, bright images we were searching for. Mostly, though, we just craned our necks to find the same concrete we’d seen before. The first mural we found was on the back of the Entrepreneur Center. We would have missed it, had it not been for a few wisps of paint on the corner of the building, leading us around it to find a 30-foot piece filled with dynamic colors depicting allusions to Mexican Culture. It was painted in 2015 by Jaime “GERMS” Zachariah and Gil Ortiz.
Meanwhile, in Pacoima, Levi Ponce declared the beginning of an arts revolution. His first mural captures Danny Trejo from the shoulders up, staring out from the side of El Indio restaurant. Trejo, an actor with roots in Pacoima and the San Fernando Valley, shifted from a life of drugs and stealing to a life of acting and activism. Trejo is a symbol of growth and positivity rooted in the Pacoima community. Ponce’s use of color in this mural evokes Van Nuys Blvd at twilight, and his use of the poles and signs in El Indio parking lot is striking.
Mural Mile also hosts murals by artists such as Kristy Sandoval, a graduate of Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who is part of a collaboration of six to eight female artists dubbed H.O.O.D. Sisters. Their mission is to empower young women to see themselves as capable artists. Artists like Rah Azul and Manny Valesquez also feed the collective spirit of creation on Mural Mile in Pacoima. Many of these murals are shown in the slideshow above.
La Vecindad (Levi Ponce and Javier Martinez) Models: Ana A. Hernandez and Melanie Moreno
Right panel of La Vecindad (Levi Ponce and Javier Martinez )
As we walked back toward our car (making a aqua fresca stop in an air-conditioned Myke’s–2.4 miles in 104 degree heat is hard work!), we talked about how the art we saw on Van Nuys was part of the infrastructure of the community. We found murals in the parking lots of autobody shops, behind chain link fences, and around corners. Sometimes, we had to stop and decide whether what we were looking at was indeed part of Mural Mile or instead a clever, intricately painted sign for a local vendor. The paint on the walls of Pacoima businesses and buildings begins to seep so deeply into the city, adding a texture of power, culture, and pride that radiates from the streets
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
We 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. At 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.
In 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.
What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links
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. The 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.
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.
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.
Post 1: The Preparation
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.
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!
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.