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.

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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.

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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

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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

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

Writing Is Thinking Creates Rigorous Writing Opportunities for ELLs and Students with Disabilities.

The following is Jennifer Dines’s elaborated speech for the WritingisThinking.org Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Leadthe US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015. 

“What happens when teachers treat students as intellectuals as opposed to intellectually challenged?” – Linda Christensen

In my 8 years of experience as an educator of ESL students with learning disabilities, I have treated my students as intellectuals, and I can tell you that these students are hard workers who are eager to learn and who rise to the challenges placed in front of them.

However, how can we expect this population of students to make progress towards college and career readiness when they are placed in schools that provide inappropriate or non-existent language services, low expectations, and modifications that water down content to its thinnest? Our population of English Language Learners with Disabilities deserves an education that provides them with a full command of language and prepares them to be fully participating democratic citizens.

I want to talk to you today about Nadira Abdirahman. She is currently a sophomore at the Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury and a member of their school debate team. She is a student with an IEP. She is a student considered Formerly English Limited Proficient.

Nadira arrived to the United States from Somalia by way of Kenya in 2008, and she entered the Boston Public Schools as a 4th grader at the Mattahunt Elementary. I first met Nadira when she became my 6th grade student at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in 2010. At that time, she was considered a Level 3 ESL student.

During Nadira’s 6th grade year, she was a very frustrated reader. I recall that ESL was not offered that year, and I remember that Nadira cried several times during independent reading. That year, I did her special education testing, and, after a team meeting, she was placed on an IEP. I don’t think she had a learning disability, but the thinking was that the accommodations, including having someone read aloud to her, would at least allow her a fair chance on the state tests.

During Nadira’s 7th grade year, I asked and was granted permission to teach ESL during the scheduled intervention block, and this provided two hours of weekly ESL instruction to level 3 students. That year, the school district also offered a stipend opportunity for tutoring ELLs before or after school. I re-branded the program as the ESL Scholarship Group, framing the tutoring program as a special honor for chosen scholars.

ESL Scholarship Group
(left) Nadira is in the red hijab, in the back row, far right. Her class is displaying books created at 826 Boston. (right) Nadira is on the right. She and Angely are collecting voter registration forms for a Mock Presidential Election.

Nadira joined the Scholarship Group. For the next two years, this group of 8 seventh and eighth grade students arrived an hour and fifteen minutes early to school to read, write, read about writing, and write about reading. The work we did had nothing added to it to make it “fun” – the students literally sat at a table with me and engaged in reading, writing, and having discussions together. The only incentive was the membership to the group itself and a twice-yearly field trip to 826 Boston, a local writing center, that included lunch at McDonald’s.

We read novels, selections from a literature textbook, and articles from the NY Times. We wrote and published literary analyses, short works of fiction, poetry, personal essays, and letters. The students joined together as a community of readers and writers, and their authentic voices began to emerge as they wrote regularly together and took risks with their writing. The group became a place where students could express the struggles they went through as immigrants finding their identities in a new country. As a seventh grader, Nadira wrote the following personal statement as part of a literary analysis piece comparing her life to the main character Arturo in the Young Adult novel Any Small Goodness:

People say that I’m bold because I wear a headscarf. People say that I’m ugly and they make me feel bad. Bad words and actions can affect my life by making me miserable. I will be so sad about my life, and I feel like I don’t want to live in the United States anymore. I want to live a hole by myself or hide from the world. It puts me into a deep, dark place that makes me really miserable. It makes me feel bad and uncomfortable. When I am around people who don’t have the same religion or culture as me, they think that there’s always something wrong with me. They think that they have to say rude things to me. I don’t make fun of people because of their culture. I could make fun of them, but I have a heart that tells me not to do it. I use my brain before I say anything.

This statement speaks to Nadira’s struggle with preserving her Muslim identity in an American world. I noticed that as Nadira continued to work with our ESL Scholarship group, she strengthened her identity and her voice through her writing. In her 8th grade year, Nadira wrote the following in a letter to Pakistani teen activitist Malala Yousafzai shortly after Malala had been shot by the Taliban:

You and your friends were standing up for your rights. I’m a girl who loves my rights and my education. I love my rights to do as I wish. The fact that you have to fight for your rights and get hurt for it makes me sad and furious because the Prophet S.W. said that if we want something for ourselves, we should also want it for our brothers and sisters. I also felt miserable that the Taliban is calling themselves Muslim, but they won’t let you get educated. In Muslim culture, education is very important.

The ESL scholarship group became a place for English Language Learners to come together to share the common bond of learning a new language and to better navigate their immigrant identities – learning how to exist in unfamiliar English language which is not the language their mothers use to wish them good night or to scold them if they’ve been naughty.

In Nadira’s 8th grade year and the year following, I was able to teach a daily block of ESL levels 3, 4, and 5, as the school had created a five day per week intervention period. Many of my students from these ESL classes received excellent scores on their WIDA assessments, and they continued onto high school without the label of being an ELL.

While I am proud that my demand to provide ESL instruction for students during the school day was finally met, I do not think that I should have had to have been such an advocate for this instruction. ESL services are supposed to be mandated for our students. Yet they are often viewed as simply time spent with a teacher licensed in ESL or just another literacy block or something that intermediate and advanced ELLs don’t really need because they sound fine when they are speaking.

It is essential that teachers are prepared to deliver instruction that will propel our students forward, not hold them back. Our English Language Learners with and without disabilities arrive at school eager to learn and are ready to rise to the challenges presented to them. They are not intellectually challenged – they are intellectuals.