Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

Curriculum Collection

Monuments, Memorials, and Public Memory

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 historical figures like Christopher Columbus. These local and global conversations can spark meaningful and engaging learning experiences in classrooms.

Viewing our built environment as a text or collection of texts to be read and rewritten invites students to think critically about how stories and histories are told and retold. What kinds of public monuments, memorials, and markers do we want in our communities? Students can contribute to ongoing conversations about what we value as communities. 




A Unit from a Middle School Classroom

When he taught middle school social studies, 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:

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.

Monuments and Public Memory: Fall 2021



Culturally & Historically Relevant Literacies: 5 Pursuits

While Mr. Smith planned and taught this unit prior to the publication of Gholdy Muhammad's Cultivating Genius (2020) and Unearthing Joy (2023), many of the five pursuits are present in the unit design:

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.

Monuments and Public Memory: Fall 2021 (3D Printing)




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 recent version of this unit, Mr. Smith asked seventh graders to read, listen to, and respond to recent news stories about Christopher Columbus monuments in Philadelphia. Following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, community concern grew locally and globally over who was memorialized and why. Students engaged in inquiries into Philadelphia's public monuments and proposed additions to the city's built environment.

To emphasize that public conversations are ongoing and that students can contribute to them, Mr. Smith used a "They Say / I Say" routine from the National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (NWP C3WP). Students wrote something they heard or read and then responded.

Monuments and Public Memory: Fall 2021 (They Say / I Say)



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:


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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Additional Planning Resources

Unit Planning Resource

Guided primary source analysis: Pulling down the statue (Primary Source Nexus, 2020)

Screenshot of teacher resource linked below: Toolkit for “Set In Stone”

Unit Planning Resource

Toolkit for “Set In Stone” (Learning for Justice, 2013)

Screenshot of teacher resource linked below, which includes contemporary artwork of Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, and Fredrick Douglass in a crowd of people: How culturally responsive lessons teach critical thinking

Teacher Reading

How culturally responsive lessons teach critical thinking (Learning for Justice, 2020)

Screenshot of On the Media podcast page linked below, with image of protest sign in front of Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, VA: Monumental questions

News Article

Monumental questions (On the Media, 2020)

Informational Website

Exploring the Early Americas: Columbus and the Taíno. (Library of Congress, 2007)

Informational Website

Map of public art in Philadelphia (Association for Public Art)

Informational Website

Monument Lab


About This Page

This website features resources created by educators affiliated with the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP), supported by a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress.