Magazine article School Arts

Telling Community Stories: Although This Mural Experience Focused on New York City Stories, the Process Can Be Adapted to Any Locale

Magazine article School Arts

Telling Community Stories: Although This Mural Experience Focused on New York City Stories, the Process Can Be Adapted to Any Locale

Article excerpt

What do Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Helen Keller, Lena Horne, and Christopher Walken have in common? They all lived in Queens. The borough of Queens is significant to the history of migration and immigration in New York City. In the early 1900s, the borough had a population of 152,099. Currently, in 2002, the population estimate is more than 3 million.

The unique history of Queens is illustrated through the creation of Procession: A Mural About Migration and Immigration in Queens. Funded by a college grant, part of the curriculum for the Mural Painting Class included historical research and contemporary oral histories. Students incorporated this research into the mural-making process. Over a period of four months, eleven graduate art education students interviewed a diverse group of immigrants. They studied historical records of famous Queens residents and documented their stories as part of the process. Since most interviews came from family histories that went back two or three generations, the class gathered stories that spanned the past hundred years. These interviews led to the creation of original drawings and designs, which were then incorporated into a final full-scale rendering. The project offered the community a deeper understanding of the generations who came before us.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

The aesthetic challenge for students was to produce a professional and sophisticated work of public art that tells a collective story. Procedures included gathering oral histories of a cross section of people who represent the area, historical research, and design decisions. From the oral histories, students represented their impressions of immigration and migration through photographs, drawings, collage, and paintings. We shared in the strengths associated with interdisciplinary approaches for our students, most of whom were prospective teachers. Students utilized oral history methods from the social sciences, mural creation from fine arts, and communication skills from the foreign language classroom.

Pre-Service to Public School

Many of the New York City public school teachers who worked on this mural, are now using the mural experience in their own classrooms. At the elementary level, an after-school mural club works with the theme of famous African Americans who lived in the neighborhood; and a secondary level program uses murals as a framework for understanding the community through art and local history.

Although this mural experience focused on New York City stories, the process can be adapted to any locale. The following unit plan describes how the disciplines of art, foreign language, and social studies are taught through the examination of the mural-making process.

Art and History Connections

Oral history provides teachers with an opportunity to transform stale textbook stories into living lessons as the experiences of people known to students take center stage in the classroom. By generating documents that are their own primary sources, students create personal texts that balance the panorama of history in their textbooks. They compare the experiences of their interview subjects with the experiences described in textbooks. Thus, the use of personal stories not only promotes critical thinking, but also sparks an interest that may motivate further study, or help students obtain another perspective. The stories of those who migrated to the United States serve as material to be illuminated through artistic media.

Art and Foreign Language Connections

Language teachers spend considerable time studying the literature and culture of the languages they teach. Knowledge of aesthetics and artistic works are often a part of the language teacher's preparation. This makes language teachers excellent resources for culture-based interdisciplinary units. …

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