Life Maps and Time Machines

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Over the past month, I spent a lot of time thinking about the intersections of history, maps, neighborhoods, and creative expression in order to put together a creative writing curriculum for continuation high school students in Los Angeles County for The HeArt Project, in partnership with LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and KCET Departures.

Putting together a curriculum is one of my favorite parts of being a teaching artist, because it is a process of pure inspiration. I spent two afternoons marinating in the amazing multimedia exhibit LA Starts Here at the LA Plaza museum, learning about the origins of Los Angeles. I was especially fascinated by Los Angeles' early history, the 44 Pobladores -- a group of mixed-race settlers who arrived from Mexico at the behest of the Spanish government. Then I virtually explored L.A., through Departures' multimedia website, and begin to think about how people -- especially young people -- think about where they are from.

In planning for a ten-week class on the theme of "Mapping the Metropolis: Finding the Heart of the City", The HeArt Project encouraged us teachers to think of some overarching or driving questions. For inspiration, I began looking up ancient maps and began thinking about how they give us such insight into what and how people were thinking. For example, one of the earliest world maps created was that of Greek philosopher Anaximander (610 - 546 BCE), which shows the world as just Europe, Asia, and Libya -- which represented Africa. I also found a map of California from the 1600s, when it was thought to be an island.

The world according to Greek Philosopher Anaximander, 2500 years ago.

As a poet and fiction writer, these maps definitely set my imagination on fire -- mostly because they represent a time when there was so much unknown. They serve as a portal to a time when the entire world was shaped differently in the minds of people. Through these explorations, I began to formulate one of the driving questions of my workshop: Can creative expression be a time machine?

On the first day of teaching at the Downey Learning Center for Change, a one-room continuation high school located in an office park in Downey, I showed the eight students pictures of a series of maps through time. Then, I asked them to spend most of the rest of the workshop being cartographers themselves. First, I asked them to draw a conceptual Life Map, of their own lives. This could be a visual exploration of everything that has happened to them: where they were born, important moments in their lives, where they have lived, etc. Of course, their Life Maps were incredibly personal and indicative of the trials young people in Downey are facing: multiple moves, watching a parent get arrested, loss of friends and siblings, struggle with school, etc.

Life Map from Downey Learning Center for Change | The HeArt Project Student

I often use this technique when working with young people who have had difficulty in traditional educational environments. When I first introduced myself and told the students we would be working for ten weeks on writing, there were a number of groans. "Writing's not art," one student said sullenly. By using drawing to have the students make symbolic representations of their lives, it was a short step to having them write about those same incidences through creative wordplay.

Once the students had drawn their Life Maps, I asked them to take another fifteen minutes and -- on another piece of paper -- draw a map of their neighborhood, marking the important places, or Hot Spots. It was great to have this idea, drawn from the Departures Youth Voices curriculum, to connect us more firmly to our artistic theme. I was amazed how detailed some students were able to draw their maps. Robert mapped almost every street in his neighborhood, and helped others with their geography.

Robert's neighborhood in Downey

Then, the students looked at the images they had drawn on both maps and were asked to write a few lines of poetry using metaphor about their childhoods, present lives, and neighborhoods. I then asked the students to each write one of their lines on the board, to create a group poem.

Here are some examples of lines of poetry the students wrote:

My childhood was a yo-yo.
My thirteenth year was handcuffs.
My adolescence is getting kicked out.
My neighborhood is a battlefield.
My map is a rollercoaster.

At the end of class, I asked the students to reflect again on the idea that they were so resistant to in the beginning of class, whether they thought writing could be art. Dennae Alvarado wrote: "I think today was very interesting. It brought back a lot of memories and good times. I think writing is art because it expresses emotion better and more detailed than [other ways] of artwork."

I am excited to continue to explore the past, present and future with the students in Downey, who surprised me with their openness and willingness to be personal and honest in their maps.

Next week: Traveling back in time and finding ourselves.

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