Image that include logos for Philadelphia Writing Project and Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium, which PhilWP is a member of. Logos are flanked by cropped photo of mural, lithograph of Octavius Catto, and publication of National Woman Suffrage Association. Sources for images listed at bottom of page.

Reading and (re)writing historical markers, monuments, murals, and other public texts

Additional Resources Prepared for the 2020 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Virtual Conference

Philadelphia, like many other communities in the United States, has been reckoning with the role of its monuments, murals, and statues, particularly those that might perpetuate narratives of white supremacy. 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 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.


Slideshow — September: Reading and (re)writing historical markers, monuments, murals, and other public texts — PhilWP TPS Webinar


In our webinar on Tuesday, September 29, 2020:

  1. We shared our inquiries as practitioners using Philadelphia’s monuments, murals, historical markers, and other public texts in our classrooms.

  2. We addressed leveraging digitized historical primary sources from institutions like the Library of Congress as part of planning possible classroom inquiries with students.

  3. We shared a growing curated list of resources for teachers to plan similar work with students.

  4. We provided space for conversations about how to support students in exploring their relationships to the city and civic engagement.

Learn more about our teaching with primary sources webinar series.

Webinar Co-Facilitators

  • Erica Darken, Grade 4 Teacher; PhilWP TC

  • June Freifelder, Grade 9 English and Grade 11 Theory of Knowledge Teacher; PhilWP TC

  • Adina Goldstein, Grade 7 English Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher; PhilWP TC

  • Samantha Hunter, Senior Specialist, School and Youth Programs, Eastern State Penitentiary

  • Geena Molinaro, Grades 7 and 8 Reading Specialist; PhilWP TC

  • Javaha Ross, Grade 3 Teacher; PhilWP TC

  • Trey Smith, Grades 9-12 Technology Teacher; PhilWP TC

  • Lisa (Yuk Kuen) Yau, 邱玉娟, Grade 4 Teacher; PhilWP TC

Adina and June

Examining Connections Between Histories and Public Art

Two secondary teachers, June Freifelder and Adina Goldstein, promote student research, discussion, and exploration of Philadelphia’s public art in their classrooms. June teaches high school students in English and IB Theory of Knowledge courses. Adina 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:

  1. What are the purposes of public monuments?

  2. Do current monuments serve those purposes?

  3. How can monuments better reflect those purposes within our communities?

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

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

Podcast: Monumental questions (On the Media, 2020)

News article: The protests heard 'round the world (NPR Code Switch, 2020)

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 resource: How culturally responsive lessons teach critical thinking (Teaching Tolerance, 2020)

Javaha and Geena

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, Javaha Ross in Philadelphia and Geena 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.


Reading and (Re)writing Monuments to Columbus and the Taino

Recent events in Philadelphia and around the globe have intensified public debates about monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus.

When he taught middle school social studies in North Philadelphia, Trey Smith's students critically 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.

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

Teacher resource: Toolkit for “Set In Stone” (Teaching Tolerance, 2013)

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

Erica and Lisa

Exploring the Built Environment Using Digital Mapping Tools

Murals, monuments, and markers are just some of the public texts we might read and (re)write in our neighborhoods. We can also analyze the buildings and public spaces, which often are named after individuals, as texts. We also can consider the ways that the built environment has changed over time—and even imagine different futures.

A digital walking tour, especially during a time when many schools are only holding classes online, allows students to explore a neighborhood together and reflect on public texts. Teachers and students can pair present images with historical texts as they dig into the histories of a built environment.

Discussions are ongoing in Philadelphia (and many other communities) about whose names should be on schools. This is the case for Lisa and Erica's school. Students can participate in these conversations about school names.

Monuments Resources for Teachers from the National Writing Project

The National Writing Project has resources for teachers for supporting students in entering ongoing public conversations about monuments.

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.

StoryMap with Teacher Stories and Text Sets

Want to explore some of these resources spatially?

Check out a StoryMap JS version of the webinar.