Los Angeles Mural Mile: A Pacoima Arts Revolution

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.

IMG_4517Stamps 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.

Heat radiated from the sidewalk as we continued down Van Nuys Blvd, and we began to notice a trend in the murals we saw. Many of them were credited to Levi Ponce, or Levi Ponce and a partner, with a list of names of people who helped put the mural on the wall. We also noticed that the dates on the murals were pretty recent, mostly between 2011-2015. In 2002, Los Angeles instituted a ban on public art because the city was worried about possible corporate messaging embedded within. This ban kept mural artists from creating in the city that was once called the Mural Capital of the World. L.A. lifted the ban in 2013, but the city still has a lot of work to make the process of creating mural art artist-friendly.

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.

Danny trejo.JPG

Because Ponce’s mission is based in the community, he begins his design process by asking the community what they would like to see. He wants the artwork to reflect the multi-faceted neighborhood he grew up in. Community members strike up conversations when they walk past Ponce, hard at work, and then inevitably they pick up a paintbrush and add color to the wall. Our walk down Van Nuys Blvd, looking closely at the 20 +names painted in one corner or another, revealed Ponce’s zeal for collaboration.

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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.

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.Valley feed 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

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.

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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

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.

Writing in Science: Persistence Makes Perfect

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.  That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”  –Octavia E. Butler

Writing is an integral aspect of Science. It is embedded within the Scientific Method and the Engineering Process. Like experimentation, writing requires precision, organization, and perseverance. Whether crafting research papers, observations, or lab reports, scientific writing

This is a look at the Scientific Method through a  writing lens.
This is a look at the Scientific Method through a writing lens.

requires students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of many complex procedures and phenomena that people often take for granted. Examining an idea as simple as breathing can lead to an exploration on the human respiratory system, the molecular composition of gas particles, or the interaction between humans and the environment. This curiosity and exploration is a  key element of learning in the Science classroom, as it is imagination that drives Science beyond it’s limits.

Students are naturally curious, and a in my classroom I find that the more knowledge they acquire, the more questions they have. My role as a Science teacher is to bring context and structure to questions students have about the world around them.  The payoff is found in the “Eureka!” moments that students experience during a carefully planned experiment. However, once these students experience these moments, they must be able to go beyond experimentation and explain what it is they learned. This is where the scientific writer is born.

Scientific writing requires students to ask questions and use experimentation, prior experiences, and content knowledge to develop claims that answer the questions. This is a messy process that requires in-depth research, proper tools, and willingness to engage in trial and error to get the desired results. But while students are eager to “get their hands dirty” with Science experiments, they are paralyzed with anxiety when asked to write about them. As many middle school teachers can attest to, this anxiety comes in form of perceived apathy and work avoidance.

Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.
Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.

My philosophy on writing in my classroom is as follows: Question everything, persevere until you find an answer, and record every step of the journey. At the heart of all we do, I want to them to embrace the curiosity of the world around them and articulate the discoveries that they work so hard to reach through experimentation. This is difficult, however,  as the Boston Public Schools’ middle school science curriculum does not have many lessons on explicitly teaching writing.  There is a discrete set of science content standards that I must teach in my subject area, and I struggle with balancing reading, writing, and content specific concepts. Add in the fact that when implementing any new protocols, I also need to differentiate for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and, as a second year teacher, I feel the same paralyzing anxiety around writing as my students. This has required me to look outside of my curriculum, and seek the guidance of colleagues.

In the upcoming weeks I will be working closely with a team of teachers to document my experiences with teaching writing across the curriculum. I will be guided by the principle theories presented in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model in which classroom writing tasks can be presented through two lenses: writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge. When writing-to-learn, students will focus on key concepts ideas as opposed to grammar, spelling or style elements of writing. In Science, this form of writing can be used during quick-writes in a lab notebook, observations during an experiment, or sorter vocabulary-driven writing assignments. Other times, students will be asked to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of concepts covered over the span of several weeks. When preparing these formal writing assignments such as research papers, lab reports and informational papers, students will be employing strategies focused on writing-to-demonstrate knowledge.

Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.
Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.

It is my hope that utilizing these targeted strategies will help to lessen the anxiety many students feel around writing, resulting an ability to persevere when tackling  complex subject matter. I want my students to see that writing is nothing more than thought manifested into a physical form.  If they can think it up, then they can write it down.