Teaching Diego Rivera’s “Pan-American Unity” Mural as a Writing Assignment at Two Different Levels



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Teaching Diego Rivera’s “Pan-American Unity” Mural as a Writing Assignment at Two Different Levels

  • A Flex Day Workshop by
  • Jeffery Goldthorpe and Steven Mayers
  • City College of San Francisco
  • August, 2011

Why Not To Teach the Mural

  • - Mural is a picture, not a text.
  • - English teachers focus on texts
  • - Mural is too complex for students
  • to understand without a specialized
  • art history background

Why Not To Teach the Mural

  • - Writing teachers are overburdened and
  • the mural complicates their work
  • - Have to invent teaching
  • materials on mural from scratch
  •  
  • - Diego Rivera was a communist
  • - Diego Rivera was a cannibal

Why We Can Teach the Mural

  • - Mural’s history & symbolism
  • require reading to understand
  • - Contemporary texts are multi-media.
  • - Students read and write in multi-media
  • environments now.
  • - Scholars, librarians & staff have done
  • work to make mural comprehensible
  • and accessible
  •  
  •  
  • - Teaching materials exist on website,
  • in library and in colleagues’ offices

Why We Can Teach the Mural

  • Diego Rivera’s political affiliations were
  • Marxist, yet in flux. Many influences shaped him, especially “indigenismo,” an
  • early form of multi-culturalism, all of
  • which students can critique.
  •  
  • Not sure about cannibalism. But surely
  • Rivera’s work is in the mainstream of
  • modern art.

Thematic Classes and Project Learning

  • As the English Department has been focusing on thematic classes and project-based learning, the mural is an excellent resource that lends itself to a multiplicity of themes and projects.
  • Jeffrey Goldthorpe incorporates mural into the “public images” theme of his English 93 class, and Steven Mayers incorporates in into the “exile in America” theme of in English 1A class.
  • Other themes within the mural include: History of the Americas, US-Latin America Relations, art as a tool for unity, tradition vs. innovation, harmony with the earth vs. destruction of the earth, etc.

Other Reasons for Teaching the Mural

  • - The mural’s size and power awes viewers, makes them
  • receptive
  • - Asking students to interpret the mural is taking them
  • seriously
  • - Makes students proud to be City College students!
  • - Panel structure is highly structured and symmetrical.
  • -Accessibility: local sights, familiar historical events
  • and iconic figures. Didactic character of mural

Other Reasons for Teaching the Mural

  • Many Latino students (and others) feel a direct stake in
  • the political, cultural, identity issues evoked by the
  • mural.
  • -All students can reflect on complexities of American
  • identity evoked in mural.
  • - Mural’s complexity and accessibility allows for multiple
  • uses
  • - Because it is there! Or here!

Jeff’s Reasons

  • - For fun. Used to visited the mural to escape routine
  • Sabbatical topic: visuals and language
  • Chronicle of Higher Education article on the mural and teaching about it, mostly by ESL colleagues. Jana Zanetto: mural is structured like an essay.
  • Inspired by lesson plans on Diego Rivera Project website

Steven’s Reasons

  • - The mural in the contexts of the Americas, California, San Francisco, and City College
  • - My background and interests in Latin America
  • - The opportunity to analyze a “visual essay” and practice descriptive writing.

  Beginning: Course, Contacts, Assignments

  • English 93 —Introduction to Academic Writing and Reading. Transition course slightly above the basic writing curricula. Many ESL students join native speaker students in this class.
  • - Used Bill Shoaf’s ESL 160 assignment, comparing and contrasting opposing panels. Mural assignment made into last take-home assignment, with extensive preparation
  • Highly structured research paper assignment
  • Meeting mural scholars Julia Bergman and Will Maynez, founders of Diego Rivera Archive, web site, and leaders of the Works of Art committee
  • Masha Zakheim’s scholarship is influential in mural materials

Teaching the Mural

  • Using library and website materials: brochure web site text with annotated mural reproduction. Reserve short readings on people and places in mural: Tina Martin’s ESL 79 folders, and East Reference Desk Mural Binders with short readings on people and places in mural.
  • Reading key texts: short scholarly readings by Masha Zakheim, and two longer M.A. thesis papers, organized by mural panels, and available in multiple copies.
  • Searching larger library collection: biographical, pictorial, historical, and art historical texts on Rivera, Kahlo, New Deal muralism
  • Seeing mural itself, talking with the student docents at mural, and visiting large reproduction in Pierre Coste, ideal for student-led discussions
  •  

Problems of English 93/1A Mural Assignments

  • Students overwhelmed by mural, the research reading, the writing
  • Difficulty with inferring from visuals and historically rooted painting
  • Poor comprehension of readings
  • Avoidance of survey reading, fragmentary reading, poor note-taking
  • Source-dominated writing, patch-writing, plagiarism
  • Pull away from argumentative focus of 93 English curriculum

Particular Challenges with the English 93 Mural Assignment

  • Scaffolding the complex research process
  • Students getting through the steps on time

Particular Challenges of the English 1A Mural Assignment

  • Getting the students to go beyond summarizing Rivera’s message, to “critiquing” his message
  • This requires general knowledge of the United States and Latin America

Adaptations to the Needs of English 93/1A Students

  • - Mural visits, doing different kinds of looking, talking, and writing.
  • - Writing and visual exercises, integrated into larger writing project, to encourage students to use their own perceptions, not just readings
  • - Library tours and Diego Rivera Archive tours

Adaptations to the Needs of English 93/1A Students

  • Student presentations on mural panels
  • Exercises in reading and note-taking, note-taking incentives, Docent interview assignments
  • Web search exercises, using CCSF Mural web site as home base
  • Structuring survey reading

Specialized Bibliography for English 93

  • Bibliography written in Greg Landau’s Diego Rivera and Art of Social Change (LALS 14).
  • Follows mural’s panel structure: for example, Panel One readings focus on Mexico’s Pre-Columbian civilizations, and Rivera’s own interest in Aztec and other Mezo-American cultures. Lower Panel 4’s readings focus on World War II and Hollywood films of the thirties.
  • Readings assessed by levels of difficulty, academic or non-academic styles, and immediate relation to mural figure versus background.
  • Readings subdivided into short excerpts directly related to specific panels/ essay focuses.
  • Activities needed to encourage use of bibliography and searching library.

For Fun: Kingsolver’s “Lacuna”

  • Much of this story set just prior to painting of “Pan American Unity.”
  • Diego, Frida and Trotsky-- minor characters that loom large in this historical novel.
  • Main character is bi-cultural Mexican brought down by the Cold War.

Videos at CCSF and Beyond

  • “Rivera in America.” On painting and politics during his American visits. In AV collection.
  • “Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See.” Biographical film on painting and relationships. In AV collection.
  • “Frida.” Contemporary treatment featuring her relationship with DR. In AV collection.
  • “Cradle Will Rock.” Drama focused on New York in 30’s, Federal Theater Project, and Rivera’s conflict with Rockefeller, leading to mural’s destruction. Not at CCSF.

Video of Rivera at work on PAU

  • http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/collections/sfbatv/index.php
  • For example, go to the Dorothy Gouldner collection.


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