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Monday, September 17, 2018

Forging connections between lost L.A. murals and muralism in San Francisco

Most good ideas, the ones that last long enough to be executed, are birthed through trial and error. That was what the Exquisite Mural Project was - hard work, laden with questions that needed to be answered, but ultimately a product of love. It was born out of a desire to share the exhibition Murales Rebeldes: L. A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege (co-produced with LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes), with young people, to help forge connections between lost and disappearing murals in Los Angeles and muralism in San Francisco, and to always emphasizing that each individual could be and is an artist in his/her/their own right.

It began with the surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse is played with a piece of paper folded (portrait style) into thirds. One person draws the top portion, another draws the middle, and the final person completes the bottom portion. The surprise is that no one can see what the prior person drew, so when it is completed, an oftentimes wild and hilarious image is produced. Jessica Hough, CHS's Director of Exhibitions, loved the game and told me about how artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo played it, albeit in a much more tongue in cheek way. Drawing from that concept, I thought it would be really fun to take a large piece of paper, fold it (landscape style) into thirds and have different students, artists, friends, and colleagues join in. The final "exquisite mural" piece would have three different people communicating across it, from different times, different locations, and perhaps without ever meeting each other. It was exciting to think of what connections, disconnections, and continuities might appear. Thus, The Exquisite Mural Project was born! That was the idea.
Mural created as a collaboration by three participants during the Exquisite Mural project
All good ideas face the challenge of execution. Who would do it? How would we do it? What if it didn't work? What if the kids didn't understand the concept? These questions helped us develop the the project and avoid many pitfalls, but not all of them! I began to work with my colleagues at CHS to identify after school and summer programs we might collaborate with. I immediately thought of Mission Beacon, an after-school summer program that we have worked with in the past. Another colleague suggested Jamestown and introduced me to his contact there. We were on our way to the answer of one of our questions: who would do it?

In order to figure out how the project would work, several CHS staff members from different departments came together to share ideas and concepts. Each person presented a few options and we even brought in an outside arts educator who offered great feedback and ideas. Finally, we devised the process: sites and site supervisors would be informed of the project ahead of time and would be sent examples of completed Exquisite Murals, in order to prepare them for the project and a visit to CHS. Groups of students would come to CHS, where they would meet a docent who would engage them in a discussion about muralism, graffiti, and the public art in their own communities. The group would then have a conversation with the docent inside the exhibition galleries about concepts embedded in the murals and stories on display: the Chicano Movement, social activism, art making, and preservation. Finally, they would sit down with snacks, be taught the "exquisite mural" concept, and create their own piece of art.

(L to R) CHS Executive Director Anthea Hartig, Programs & Visitor Experience Manager Patricia Pforte, poet Eileen Torrez, Guest Concierge & Docent Erik Zuniga, and L.A. muralist Ernesto de la Loza.
Once we had the project concepts nailed down, I elicited feedback from staff at Mission Beacon and Jamestown  to ensure that the project would work well with their students. I learned that it was essential to have docents that spoke Spanish as well as English, that the kids receive snacks, and that the trip be several hours long. They also made suggestions as to how to engage the students with the content. I took that feedback and incorporated it into the project.

We decided to do a test-run of the project shortly after the opening of Murales Rebeldes in San Francisco in April. Barbara Carrasco, one of the exhibition’s featured artists, was in town, and was eager to participate. We learned a lot from the trial run, including the importance of language skills, and that every group was unique and required flexibility.

One of the first changes that we made was involving Erik Zuniga, who works at CHS as a Guest Concierge. Erik had expressed interest in the exhibition, is originally from Los Angeles, and is bi-lingual. After Erik confirmed his availability, we discussed the types of questions we might ask the kids and devised strategies to engage them if they strayed from the content or became bored. We continued to re-work the tour and after each one, discussed new strategies and questions to pose. Towards the end, Erik independently devised methods that were successful with the younger kids. So much of the project involved circling back, occasionally abandoning old processes for new ones, and not being too hard on ourselves when things did not go as planned. I reminded myself, Erik, and others that keeping it simple and being flexible would be our constant friends during this process. Those two ideas stayed with us through the project’s four months.

So, what came of all of this? We served 250 individuals from after school and summer camp groups from Mission Beacon and Jamestown between April and July, and brought the project to the Oakland Museum of California to serve another 100 people, bringing our total reach to 350. We also hosted tours from schools across San Francisco, Dewitt Anderson School, and a Mission dance group, among others. With hundreds of kids inspired by the exhibition and now aware of its message, we could step back and be proud of the work.

Exquisite Murals adorning the gallery walls above the ¡Murales Rebeldes! exhibition. 
What did we learn? We learned to reach out and collaborate, take suggestions and try out new ideas, utilize our strengths, and think positively in challenging moments. Lastly, we learned to expand and contract the project based on our needs as well as those of  the group. Erik also developed new skills, and got to work with muralists from Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

I look back at this project with great fondness and am reminded of what it taught me: that if you have a good idea, remember to think about how to execute it and do that thinking with all the people involved. With collaboration as your shining light and your foundation, you can never go wrong.

Watch a video of our Exquisite Mural celebration and poetry reading:

by Patty Pforte, Programs & Visitor Experience Manager

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Teaching California, An Origin Story

Funded by a $5 million grant from the State Department of Education to the California Historical Society, Teaching California offers schools and teachers classroom-ready curriculum designed to engage students in exciting and inspiring investigations of the past. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, this program provides a research-based approach to improve student reading, writing, critical thinking and civic engagement, all aligned with the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework.

We sat down with the directors of the two organizations spearheading the project to find out how Teaching California came to be. A former high school history and government teacher, Nancy McTygue serves as the California History-Social Science Project's Executive Director. Anthea Hartig serves as Executive Director and CEO of the California Historical Society. She is a Ph.D. historian and former history and cultural studies teacher. 

               Anthea Hartig, California Historical Society
Nancy McTygue, California History-Social Science Project

1. What is Teaching California and what prompted this collaboration between CHS and CHSSP?

When complete, Teaching California will offer K-12 teachers an innovative, free, online collection of instructional resources, organized by grade level, standard, and investigative question, to support the implementation of California’s History-Social Science Framework.

The inspiration for Teaching California actually came from K-12 teachers who were excited by the new Framework but lacked the appropriate resources to implement the instructional approach outlined in the document. I told Anthea about conversations I had with teachers across the state as part of the Framework rollout – teachers who wanted access to engaging and relevant primary sources, organized to specifically (and easily) address the inquiry-based instructional model we had outlined in the Framework.

Anthea and I had met years before; she served on advisory committee for our History Blueprint initiative. We continued to talk even after that development period ended because our organizations share a commitment to public history and a desire to provide teachers with the most engaging and up to date resources for their students. When I heard this request for resources again and again at Framework rollout events, I mentioned it to Anthea, who immediately connected the dots to CHS’s archive and their desire to have it accessed widely. At that point we thought about what our organizations do best and how working closely together could lead to an important synergy that would mean we could produce something that neither of us could do alone and all for a relatively small investment from the state. We’re deep in development right now, but I think we’re both getting excited about what this may actually offer to teachers and more importantly, California’s students.

The birth of Teaching California stemmed from the completion of the new Framework for K-12 history and the real need that we felt in the field from teachers. From CHS’s perspective, the creation of our new digital capacities, as well as raising funds and staff competencies in order to launch our digital library, was the other stream that joined this effort.

On a more global level, Teaching California was the result of a huge and unmet need to fulfill the dreams of those who have been pushing to teach with primary sources rather than with textbooks. This includes Sam Wineburg at Stanford, whose work “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past” was groundbreaking in getting students to engage with primary sources. We also recognize the need to frame California experiences, peoples, and the phenomenal diversity of our past and to incorporate that into contemporary life and the dominate narrative of how history is taught.

We were very lucky to be able to find support from legislative leaders like Assemblymember Phil Ting as well as Tom Adams at the California Department of Education. We found willing partners all over the state but especially here at San Francisco Unified. The grant that we received not only allows for us to create a free online portal of discovery through primary sources, but also allows CHS to delve into the depths of our collection which is underused and somewhat unknown, and to continue to digitize it to make it accessible to everyone. We are creating partnerships with other archives across the state and the nation in order to help bring forth their material and make them available as part of Teaching California as well.

2. Why is this project relevant and needed now?

I don’t know if Teaching California could have happened in a prior time; I don’t think the conditions necessary to make it a reality existed. As I detailed above, the project originated in the minds of teachers tasked with teaching California’s new Framework. As the writers of the new Framework, we are obviously committed to its implementation and, knowing a lack of relevant resources could kill the momentum developed during its writing and adoption, we were especially keen to respond to those teachers asking for help.

In addition, although the business of education still lags behind its private and even non-profit colleagues, I think we’ve now reached at least the necessary minimum level of access to and effective use of digital resources in classrooms across the state. According to a recent newsletter from the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), 356 remote and underserved schools have just joined 100% of county offices of education, 87% of school districts (904), 83% (8,739) of schools, and over 5 million students who are already connected to CalREN, the California Research and Education Network, a high-capacity computer network with more than 8,000 miles of optical fiber. This number isn’t everything – many classrooms actually have fairly limited access to internet-connected technology and aren’t ready to scale up for wider access. However, it does bode well for our goal of providing access to our collection of classroom-ready materials, including never-seen-before primary sources from CHS’s archive.

Moreover, I believe that California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) contributed to the need for resources like Teaching California. Passed in 2013, LCFF gave local schools unprecedented flexibility in how they spend their money from the state. Although I’m sure this was not the authors’ intent, what this has meant, in practice, is that some schools have decided to prioritize their now flexible funding on costs that don’t directly address a teacher’s need for quality instructional materials. Instead of spending money adopting new textbooks or the latest instructional materials, for example, some schools and districts are investing their money in staff salaries and benefits, facilities, transportation, and any number of other important and necessary expenses. The whole purpose of LCFF was to allow schools to prioritize their spending to areas of greatest need and to put an end to the era of inflexible (and honestly, sometimes ridiculous) categorical spending. An unintended consequence of that, however, is that for some teachers in some schools, this has meant that they no longer can count on their districts buying new materials for their classrooms – even after the adoption of a new Framework that fundamentally reconsiders the instructional practice of classroom teachers. When completed, the Teaching California collection won’t take the place of a comprehensive and high quality instructional material package, but it will go a long way to helping teachers begin and - after time and additional support – truly achieve implementation of the new Framework.

I used to think that American popular discourse, especially American political popular discourse, was ahistorical and a-intellectual, that people didn’t really care about historical context. Now the tenor of the times is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-historical and the need for a critical lens and the capacity to ascertain the real from the fake, the propaganda from the document, is more important than ever. We’ve seen this on the international stage, especially in relation to cyber security during the election of 2016.

I also think the need for us, as a people, to not forget our past in all of its beauty and all of its ugliness is more important than ever. America is careening towards its 250th year - what does that look like? What does mean for us? Understanding the basic materials of history as a doorway into discovery and learning is increasingly important. It’s also very important for our youth to see themselves reflected in the past and to comprehend that they too are part of a long, complicated set of movements, migrations, immigrations, and change. I hope that seeing themselves reflected in history inspires students to recognize that they can be agents of change. History is made by people and the choices that we make every day, whether it be yesterday or 10,000 years ago.

No one should be excluded from the richness of the past. A lot of teachers don’t have extensive training in history, especially in grades K-8 when they must teach a very broad range of subjects. Many high school teachers are incredible historians yet are feeling like they don’t have enough support or materials. We want to do everything we can to help these teachers access primary sources and powerful visuals so that all students, regardless of their literacy and language capacities, can find meaningful engagement with history. In the end this can truly bring about the kind of change that I and CHS would love to see in relation to history – that it increasingly becomes a vibrant and critical part of our contemporary lives and an empowering and enlightening tool of utility that creates a more just and informed world.

Portrait of seven young Japanese girls wearing kimonos at Mission School, ca. 1900_USC digital collections_CHS-5722

3. Why is it important that content from CHS’s collections (and from other repositories across the state) be included in Teaching California’s instructional materials?

My former faculty advisor, Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair at the University of Virginia, told me a story years ago that really sticks with me. He had recently moved to Davis from the East Coast to work in the history department. One day in his early American history class, while lecturing on colonial history (which primarily focuses on English colonies on the East Coast), a student raised her hand and asked, “Professor Taylor, what was happening out here in California at that time?” With tongue firmly in cheek, Alan apparently replied, “nothing,” and after getting a laugh and then acknowledging his joke, he went on with the lecture. Although short-lived, that exchange stuck with him.

American history didn’t just happen on the East Coast and students living here in California have a right to know about their state’s role in our nation’s beginnings, as well as the rest of our collective history. Alan became so committed to this pursuit – to widening the traditional geographic borders of America’s beginnings – that he reorganized his curriculum and even penned a book on the subject, American Colonies, in 2001. American Colonies offers both historians and classroom teachers a much more comprehensive view of the past – beyond the Atlantic seaboard to the entire continent. And so while I’m very reluctant to compare our work to Alan’s, I do believe we share a commitment to California citizens. We deserve to know our state’s history and how that history helped define both the place where we live and our national narrative. Using sources from the CHS’s archive (as well as other state and national collections) can go a long way in making that a reality.

When you get to a textbook stage of production, the curation and the choice of primary sources have been through many variations with a lot of eyes and minds upon them. We don’t think of textbooks as being particularly curated but of course they are. A set of sources is used to inspire historians to write the text. When you think of something like the new Framework, it is an interpretation itself of the state’s standards. We haven’t changed the standards in a long time but we have changed the state Framework through a lot of people’s hard work. So, taking the Framework and using that foundation to consider all the different archival materials in all of the different repositories throughout the state, nation, and world, opens us up to a phenomenal range of possibilities in regards to picking these sources, curating them, and giving them to teachers, students, and their families to investigate and better understand.

The other key driver for me as a public historian is raising awareness of the needs and power of our collections and inspiring people to do research with our primary sources. Obviously digitization leads to a greater amount of accessibility but I hope it also leads people back to the actual archives because for everything we digitize, there’s always going to be more - more boxes and folders that we just didn’t digitize because they were too fragile or we didn’t have the funds. This kind of layered curation brings with it remarkable possibilities as well as honors other archives and libraries who have been working for years to collect, steward, preserve, and make accessible their collections. 

4. The Teaching California team is currently creating inquiry sets as part of the project. Can you break down what they are and what they consist of?

We’re creating inquiry sets, which are basically a collection of primary sources, teaching resources, and literacy support, aligned to the new Framework. When the collection is completed and posted online, teachers will be able to visit CHS’s Teaching California website, and search by grade, standard, and investigative question from the new Framework. From there, they will be able to download a set of relevant primary sources, excerpted as necessary by grade-level, teaching resources, and at least one strategy designed to improve student reading, writing, and / or oral discourse ability.

What I think is interesting about the creation of inquiry sets is they are being created by archivists, librarians, historians, and educators together. We think this is a very different way than how other efforts to bring forth primary sources have been created. As a teacher, you generally don’t get to sit down with a reference librarian and really think about what works and what the students will be excited by. The historians and educators at CHSSP and the archivists, historians, and reference librarians at CHS are that core team. This makes the construction of the inquiry sets a really powerful and dynamic pathway into learning.

5. How do you envision teachers using what we create for Teaching California in the classroom? 

After selecting the appropriate source set, teachers will be able to download the individual sources to display online or print out for student review. They’ll be able to download classroom-ready handouts for their students, special “for the teacher” resources that situate each source in the larger historical narrative, a diverse collection of teaching suggestions, and literacy strategies, aligned with California’s English Language Development Standards.

My hope for teachers, having been one, is that they’ll trust in what we’ve created, that they will be engaged by it. They may have even helped pilot it and test it. By the time Teaching California comes to their classroom and it’s a busy Tuesday morning and they’ve reviewed the inquiry sets and lesson for that day, I hope that they’ll find within what we’ve produced a sense of wonder and discovery and newness. I hope they’ll find a story they’ve never heard before, a landscape they’ve never seen depicted, a letter they’ve never read, or a map they’ve never looked at or used. The teachers will be the conduits for bringing archives into the classroom and for helping those sources come alive. I hope the sparks of connection and learning fly and that a sense of belonging to the human continuum of experience is awakened. 

Man atop ladder in roots of tree at Mariposa Grove of Big Trees

6. What has been the most exciting part, or interesting discovery during the creation process so far?

We have a grant from the Library of Congress; we’re part of the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium, which works to introduce K-12 teachers to the Library’s digitized resources which are available at When we first got the grant, my colleague Tuyen Tran (who coincidentally leads our Teaching California project) and I went to DC for the orientation meeting. During the meeting, the archivist pulled out a journal from Christopher Columbus – we actually got to hold it in our own hands and look through it. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my professional career. I had a similar experience at CHS’s archive – Anthea’s archivist showed us a biography on Junipero Serra from 1787 – and again, I was struck by just how cool that was and how this gem from our own state should be easily accessible to California teachers and students. 

[Relacion historica de la vida y apostolicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junipero Serra … /escrita por el R.P.L. F.R. Francisco Palou, 1787]; [Vault 175]; California Historical Society.
One of the challenging things that we’ve encountered so far as a team is taking our desires to use a California lens - which could be an archival lens, a lens of making sure we address native history, Spanish colonial history, and Mexican republican history - and bring all of that back into the broader way in which we teach American history and even world history. Let’s look at world history, which is taught in the 10th grade and a little bit of 6th and 7th grade. You learn about medieval and early modern times and you might ask what that has to do with California, but in our collection we have an early astronomical scientific treatise published in 1680 that talks about watching comets. This document makes all sorts of assumptions about what the comets were doing and on the frontispiece there is a stunning woodcut of our Lady of Guadalupe. If we can show that to students, and to anyone who connects with that image on a cultural or personal level, seeing her in 1680 appearing in the heavens is just incredible. There is also a stunning celestial map. I think this treatise helps us answer one of the questions which is what were the effects of 16th century exchanges between Spanish and native peoples of broader Mexico. If we have something published in 1680 from Mexico City, that just opens up this whole other way of thinking about what that exchange was. There are so many things like this in the collection that surprise you, take you deeper, or challenge assumptions you might carry with you. 

Kino, Eusebio, Exposicion astronomica de el cometa, que el año de 1680 : por los meses de noviembre, y diziembre, y este año de 1681, por los meses de enero y febrero, se ha visto en todo el mundo, y le ha observado en la ciudad de Cadiz, California Historical Society, Vault 523.6 K624e

The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) is a statewide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to improving K-12 student literacy and learning in history-social science. Each year the CHSSP serves more than 4,000 teachers in over 150 different professional learning programs at local schools and universities. The CHSSP also served as the primary writers of California’s History-Social Science Framework. The CHSSP is part of the California Subject Matter Projects, administered by UC Office of the President.

The California Historical Society, founded in 1871, is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to make California's richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives.

Funded by a $5 million grant from the State Department of Education to the California Historical Society, Teaching California offers schools and teachers classroom-ready resources designed to engage students in exciting and inspiring investigations of the past. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, this dynamic tool presents a research-based approach to improve student reading, writing, critical thinking and civic engagement, all aligned with the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework.

In summer 2019, the Teaching California website will launch with instructional resource materials for every grade. This curriculum is being developed by the California Historical Society and its partner, the California History-Social Science Project, two organizations dedicated to improving students’ understanding of the past and promoting inquiry, engagement, evidence-based interpretation, and language proficiency. Teaching California integrates both Common Core and English Language Development Standards.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Celebrating a California Surfing Pioneer

My Los Angeles childhood was defined by a relationship with South Bay beach culture. My heroes were the men and women who lifeguarded our local beaches, the surf legends of lore - like Greg Noll or Donald Takayama - who started their careers in Hermosa Beach, the surfers paddling out each morning at El Porto, and my neighbors, who were doing awe inspiring and insane things like kayaking the California coastline in its entirety or swimming the 22 miles from Catalina Island back to LA.

Hearing about Governor Brown’s August 20th actions making surfing California’s official state sport prompted me to remember one of the state’s first ambassadors of surfing, George Freeth. Freeth embodied all of the aforementioned heroic traits and more. Born in Honolulu, HI in 1883, Freeth was the son of an Irish sea captain father and a half Polynesian mother. He began surfing at 19, shortly after decades of Calvinist missionary influence had worked to disrupt indigenous participation in the traditional Polynesian activity. According to surf historian Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Freeth gave a surf lesson to the author Jack London in the summer of 1907. London described his instructor as a "sea-god . . .a brown Mercury. . . calm and superb."

George Freeth, Redondo Beach

Later that year, Freeth became one of the first watermen to bring surfing to the California Coast, an attribution shared with the Hawaiian princes who travelled to Santa Cruz in the 1800s. After leaving Hawaii, Freeth travelled to Southern California, where he instructed the public on surfing, swimming, and lifesaving techniques. Freeth became California’s first professional lifeguard in 1907 and subsequently taught dozens of men, women, and children surfing and lifesaving skills. He pioneered surf breaks from San Diego to Huntington Beach, Palos Verdes, and Ventura, popularizing the sport. He is also recognized as responsible for bring the Hawaiian swim team to California for the first time. One of these visiting swimmers was the Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, who is viewed as the godfather of modern surfing.

George Freeth, Redondo, 1907

Freeth was subsequently recruited by developers like Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney to conduct demonstrations at the Redondo Beach and Venice Piers as a marketing strategy to draw crowds to their development projects. Freeth’s demonstrations drew thousands of spectators and successfully promoted beach culture in the Southland. Once-wary beachgoers became emboldened by Freeth’s actions and the lifesaving strategies, which were responsible for protecting thousands of lives and have informed lifesaving agencies to this day.

I first learned of Freeth during a weeklong training I attended as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard, where Lifeguard Historian Arthur Verge recounted Freeth’s story. Coincidentally, several months ago, while sorting through CHS’s old issues of the journal California History, I found an image of Freeth. In a 2001 copy of the Journal, Vol. 80, No. 2/3, Dr. Verge laid out Freeth’s life history, including a daring rescue of 11 Japanese fishermen off of the Santa Monica pier. If interested, copies of this issue can be found through UC Press.

George Freeth, Hermosa Beach

Tragically, Freeth died of Spanish influenza in 1919 at the age of 35 at a military base in San Deigo; however, his legacy lives on today. Freeth’s statue stands on the Redondo Beach pier. Coincidentally, Redondo Beach also happens to be where I first taught Junior lifeguards of my own, and it remains one of my favorite places to work as a lifeguard, carrying on Freeth’s commitment to ocean safety and education.

These days, Redondo Beach and much of the coastline that Freeth pioneered would be entirely unrecognizable to the Hawaiian and his surfing contemporaries. Coinciding with the development boom of the early 20th century, developers Huntington, Kinney, and others were successful in their marketing campaigns. Southern California has now developed nearly beyond recognition. However, despite this, the spirit, tenacity, and love of the ocean still remains alive in the beach communities that Freeth first touched over a century ago.


Greer Montgomery works as a Development Assistant for the California Historical Society. There she supports fundraising and membership efforts and also enjoys looking at historic photos of the California coastline- especially when they include waves. She is an avid surfer and continues to work as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard each summer.

Images courtesy of Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing