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Discover the
Art and History
L.A.'s Murals.

(Art, Local History)

by Tacy Trowbridge


In American Family, murals are an important vehicle for culture expression. Through this lesson, students learn some of the history of mural making, explore symbolism, and then create their own mural.

Grade level: 6-12

Estimated time: The length of this lesson will depend upon the age of your students, your goals and resources. Plan to spend at least one class period to present and discuss murals, their history, and their cultural importance and another period to work on symbolism. Creating a class mural can take anywhere from four days to two weeks.


  • learn about murals, their history, and their importance as a form of artistic expression.

  • identify visual symbolism in murals and design their own symbols.

  • become more aware of visual art in the local community.


  • Images of murals printed from the web, as slides, scenes from American Family, postcards, posters, photographs or in your local neighborhood

  • Art supplies

  • Computer with Internet access (optional)

Related National Standards

This lesson addresses national content standards found at

  • Historical Understanding Standards

    • Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns

    • Understands the historical perspective

  • United States History Standards

    • Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States

  • World History Standards

    • Understands the search for community and stability in an interdependent world

  • Visual Arts Standards

    • Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts

    • Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures


  1. Introduce students to this lesson by showing them images of murals. Use slides, books, images on the web, and scenes from American Family. See the resource section for specific resource ideas. After viewing a number of examples, ask students to describe what they see, what they already know about these murals and what they would like to know.

  2. Study or review visual symbolism. "What are symbols? Why do people use symbols? Can you come up with examples? How would you design a personal symbol to represent you, your family, or your community? How and why do artists use symbols?" Choose your own examples to analyze as a class or use Si Se Puede (, a mural of Cesar Chavez on a Mission district school which includes images of grapes, clasped hands, sign language, and sun shining from behind his head.

  3. Introduce students to the long history of mural art with Lascaux's cave art ( and the Mayan murals at Bonampak ( Be sure to mention Diego Rivera and the Mexican 20th century tradition of public art. You will also want to highlight the importance of murals in the Chicano movement of the 1960's and 70's as political statements, as expressions of culture pride, and as depictions of shared history. As a resource, read a brief history at Social and Public Art Resource Center (

  4. Choose a number of murals for students to explore on their own. If possible, include local murals students see at school or in their communities. You may wish to have students take a "virtual tour" of murals in Los Angeles. Have students choose, sketch, and then interpret three different symbols in writing.

  5. Plan a classroom mural to reflect local history, culture, and events. At least half of the events should be within student memory so they can contribute their interpretations to this project. Discuss and decide upon appropriate symbols. Help students consider the needs and sensitivities of the surrounding community. As appropriate, take advantage of local resources such as artists, community leaders, and institutions such as museums or community centers.

  6. You may choose to create a temporary mural within your classroom or more permanent mural for a broader audience. Plan carefully to get the necessary permissions, measurements, and materials. Decide how students will be involved in the planning, design, preparation, painting, and clean up. You may find this teacher's advice ( about planning and executing a mural project helpful.

Extension Ideas

  • Work with local artists and community members to design a public community mural.

  • Take a field trip to observe and analyze local public art. Prepare students to see and interpret important symbols. If you live in an area with mural art, arrange for a tour or guide your students yourself.

  • Have students interview artists and their own family members about public art.

  • Help students work in pairs to explore and research a particular mural and to share their interpretation of its symbols with the class.

Assessment Recommendations

  • Assess student knowledge and understanding of murals as a contemporary and historical art form. Can students demonstrate an understanding of the history of murals and their importance today in Latino culture?

  • How well do students understand symbolism? Can they apply this knowledge by interpreting and creating symbols?



  • Cockroft, Eva Sperling. Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals. University of New Mexico Press. 1993.

  • Drescher, Timothy. San Francisco Bay Area Murals: Communities Create Their Muses 1904-1997. Pogo Press. 1998

  • Dunitz, Robin, and Prigoff, James. Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals. Pomegranate Communications, Inc. 2000.

  • Dunitz, Robin. Street Gallery: Guide to over 1000 Los Angeles Murals, Revised 2nd Ed. 1998.

  • Dunitz, Robin, and Prigoff, James. Painting the Towns: Murals of California. 1997.

  • Miller, Mary E. The Murals of Bonampak, Princeton University Press, 1986.

Web sites

  • The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum
    This site's collection of murals and timeline of Diego Rivera's life are a valuable resource.

  • Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center
    Precita Eyes posts examples of San Francisco's murals ( and a history of murals in the Mission District (

  • Nicaraguan Murals
    See a large collection of Nicaraguan murals grouped thematically.

  • Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles
    This public service organization helps document and describe the murals in the LA area. While the pictures are small, they have gathered a huge collection of mural photographs.

  • Lascaux Cave Art
    Visit France's famous prehistoric cave paintings.

  • Virtual Reality Bonampak Murals
    Download files to view the murals at Bonampak.

After teaching in San Francisco area schools for ten years, Tacy Trowbridge currently helps teachers integrate technology into curriculum. She holds a B.A. in history from Wesleyan University and a master's degree in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford's School of Education.

Off-Air Taping Rights: Pre K-12 teachers in the United States may videotape “American Family” and use it in the classroom for one year after the original broadcast date. This program premieres on January 23, 2002 with weekly episodes through May 2002 and rebroadcasts after May (check local listings). For more information on teacher resources to accompany PBS programs and on PBS extended taping rights for educators, please visit PBS TeacherSource.

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