Communities have always debated the roles of their monuments, memorials, murals, and historical markers. Most recently, protests in Philadelphia and around the globe have intensified public conversations about monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus. These local and global conversations can spark meaningful and engaging learning experiences in our classrooms.
Seeing our built environment as a text or collection of texts to be read and (re)written invites students to:
think critically about how/whose stories and histories are told and retold, and
contribute to an ongoing conversation about what we value as communities.
Through its public art and mural arts programs, Philadelphia has promoted remembrance and celebration across its diverse neighborhoods. In some instances, though, members of a community might recognize that stories remain untold or argue for a more honest retelling of a particular history. Community members might, then, create new public art or advocate for changes to existing monuments, murals, markers, and other features of our built environment.
FEATURED PRIMARY SOURCES
A Unit from a Middle School Classroom
When he taught middle school social studies in North Philadelphia, Trey Smith's students analyzed texts depicting Christopher Columbus (including local monuments) and the Taíno. Students then proposed new monuments as part of a classroom project that would (re)tell stories of the Taíno and/or Columbus.
In this video, Mr. Smith explained how he supported students in unpacking narratives about Columbus, uncovering the need for more sources about the Taíno, and proposing new monuments for their final project. He also discussed some of the tensions that arose in doing this work, including how to better include perspectives from Italian Americans both past and present.
Primary Source Analysis Tool
Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress to support students in analyzing prints and other texts related to Columbus. Encourage students to reflect:
What’s happening in the print?
When do you think it was made?
Who do you think was the audience for this print?
Why do you think this print was made?
In a more recent version of a unit on monuments, Mr. Smith's seventh graders analyzed a print showing colonists in New York pulling down a statue of King George III. Students' wonderings helped kickstart a discussion about (1) whether or not we should remove monuments and (2) practices for conducting further investigations with internet searches.
Opportunities for Cultivating Genius
While Mr. Smith planned and taught this unit prior to the publication of Gholdy Muhammad's Cultivating Genius (2020, 2021) and Culturally and Historically Relevant Literacies framework, many of the five pursuits are present in the unit design:
Identities: Students discussed the ways that monuments may be reflections of what communities value and who they say they are. A number of students identified as descendants of the Taíno and were able to share their own understandings and community ideas about Columbus with our class.
Skills: Students used historical thinking skills to analyze and construct narratives with primary and secondary sources. A revision of this unit would involve students crafting Op-Eds or other persuasive texts that make a public case for reading and/or (re)writing a particular monument.
Intellectualism: Students learned about early Europeans colonization and conflict with peoples indigenous to the Americas. A revision of this unit would emphasize the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples prior to European contact.
Criticality: Students identified which texts were told from a Eurocentric perspective and recognized that there were often silences in the curated historical record regarding the Taíno.
Joy: Students reflected on how monuments and stories about our past can bring joy—but also some pain. A revision of this unit would involve featuring more texts and sources that depict the lives of the Taíno past and present so that students would better be able to recognize the beauty of the culture and integrate these understandings into their designs for public memory.
In a more recent version of this unit, Mr. Smith asked seventh graders to use digital manufacturing tools like a 3D printer and a CNC router that carves in wood and plastic to create prototype monument and memorial designs. As they were learning skills to use these tools, students designed artifacts that highlighted something about themselves, about their own identities as young people.
Considering Multiple Perspectives Across Texts
Throughout Mr. Smith's original unit, students engaged with texts—including monuments, prints, and cartoons—that were embedded with arguments about what we should remember about Columbus and the Taíno. Together, these texts offered multiple perspectives on what Columbus did and how others chose to remember him.
Students began the unit by writing what they thought they knew on chart paper.
Throughout the unit, students charted what they learned as they analyzed texts from different time periods and through different lenses.
Responding to Texts with "They Say" / "I Say"
In a more recent version of this unit, Mr. Smith asked seventh graders to read/listen and respond to recent news stories about Christopher Columbus monuments in Philadelphia. After the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, there was increased community concern locally and globally over who was memorialized and why. Students engaged in inquiries into the public monuments in Philadelphia and will be proposing additions to the city's built environment.
To emphasize that public conversations are ongoing and that we can contribute to them, Mr. Smith used a "They Say / I Say" routine. Students wrote something they heard or read and then responded.
Monument Design Proposals
Students contributed to this conversation by offering their own monument designs at the end of the unit as arguments for what we should remember as a community.
Students imagined symbolic features that would be part of their monuments to Columbus, the Taíno, or both Columbus and the Taíno. They explained what the symbolic features represented.
Analyzing and Creating Murals
There are approximately 3,600 murals in Philadelphia. The city's Mural Arts program maintains a map showing the locations of many of the city's murals. The program began in 1981 as part of a city government effort to combat graffiti.
Two elementary teachers, Ms. Ross in Philadelphia and Ms. Molinaro in Mt. Laurel, NJ, explore some of the ways that artists depict community histories, celebrate cultural identities, commemorate events and people, and contribute to a sense of place.
Teachers can use the Library of Congress's observe, reflect, and question tool to encourage students to notice and wonder about the murals. Photos of some of the murals are also available on the Library of Congress website.
Examining Connections Between Histories and Public Art
Two secondary teachers in Philadelphia, Ms. Freifelder and Ms. Goldstein, promoted student research, discussion, and exploration of Philadelphia’s public art in their classrooms. Ms. Freifelder teaches high school students in English and IB Theory of Knowledge courses. Ms. Goldstein teaches middle school students in social studies and English language arts classes. Philadelphia has more than 1,500 public sculptures. Alongside their students, they consider:
What are the purposes of public monuments?
Do current monuments serve those purposes?
How can monuments better reflect those purposes within our communities?
More Text Sets for Classroom Use
Below you'll find additional text sets that focus on murals, monuments, markers, and other parts of our built environments.
Lenape means “original people,” the “first people,” and the “true people.” Lenapehoking, which includes what we call Philadelphia today, stretches from the Delaware River Valley to the lower Hudson River Valley (including Manhattan), covering all of New Jersey and Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and southern New York.
For local Native Americans, a reckoning over hurtful images goes way beyond one South Philadelphia statue (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2020)
Tamanend (Association for Public Art, 2020)
Reverend John Norwood reflects on Lenni-Lenape and Lenapehoking (History Making Productions, 2014)
William Still, the Underground Railroad, and Philadelphia
William Still was an African American, abolitionist, Philadelphian, businessman, writer, and philanthropist, who lived from 1821 to 1902. He helped approximately 800 people who had been enslaved to find freedom. He kept diaries based on his work with the Underground Railroad and published the accounts in 1872. He also published a brief history of Philadelphia’s segregated streetcars as part of his advocacy for desegregating public transportation.
William Still Historical Marker in Philadelphia (Explore Pennsylvania History)
The underground railroad. A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters (William Still, 1872, available through Library of Congress)
Picture books and primary sources: An interview with Don Tate, author and illustrator of William Still and His Freedom Stories (AASL Knowledge Quest Blog, 2020)
Philadelphia’s African American Memorials: Octavius Catto and All Wars
It wasn't until 2017 that Philadelphia erected a statue honoring the life of an African American man. Another statue, honoring Black soldiers and sailors was erected in 1934 but was placed in an obscure part of Fairmount Park. The soldiers and sailors memorial was recently relocated by the city to a more prominent space in the city. What histories do our students need to explore to understand these monuments? What additional changes should we be making to our public spaces with public art?
Remembering a Forgotten Hero: Octavius Catto (Mural Arts Philadelphia, 2018)
A victory for heros: The battle behind the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors (Hidden City Philadelphia, 2020)
Our alma mater: an address delivered at Concert Hall on the occasion of the twelfth annual commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth, May 10th, 1864 (available through Library of Congress)
Students Propose Historical Marker for 1985 MOVE Bombing by Police
In 1985, Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE organization on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. In 2017, fifth- and sixth-graders at the Jubilee School researched the bombing and, with their teacher, sought a state marker to recognize the site and the fire that killed 11 MOVE members, including 5 children.
Springbreak Camp 2017: Students Request Historical Plaque for MOVE House (WHYY, 2017, video)
Students campaign for historical marker commemorating MOVE bombing (CBS 3 News, 2017)
Students Propose Historical Marker for 1967 Philly Student Protests
In 1967, more than three thousand Philadelphia students walked out of school and presented 25 demands to Philadelphia’s Board of Education, including calls for African American curriculum. They were met by police violence. In 2020, five Masterman high school students gained approval for a state marker to commemorate the event.
1967: African American students strike, survive police riot to force change (Philadelphia Public School Notebook, 2002)
Mural depicting controversial onetime police commissioner, and later mayor, Frank Rizzo in the south Philadelphia neighborhood (Highsmith, 2019, available through Library of Congress)
Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Countryman, 2007)
Preserving Homes of Prominent Philadelphians—and Telling Their Stories
As parts of the built environment, what happens to former homes of figures who achieved notoriety (in their time or later)? Whose legacies may be less known and could be elevated by marking where they lived? How might these homes be places for education and activism that carry on the legacies of those who lived there? These are ongoing discussion in a city like Philadelphia.
Paul Robeson: The artist as revolutionary (Horne, 2016, digital version available through Library of Congress)
Harriet Tubman, Philly-style: Take a themed hike or visit a $20 stamping station (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2019)
Additional Planning Resources