TIP Teacher Helps Create a South Philly Mural May 2, 2022 – Posted in: Uncategorized

Teachers Institute of Philadelphia (TIP) fellow and Philadelphia public school teacher Lisa Yau and her students helped mural artist Shira Walinsky create a vibrant addition to South Philadelphia’s streetscape. One of many projects Yau has undertaken that link the arts to literacy, the mural Routing for You is an example of how TIP teachers inject interdisciplinary thinking and cultural diversity into the School District of Philadelphia curriculum.

Routing for You, which adorns a wall opposite the Francis Scott Key School where Yau teaches, captures the richness of the neighborhoods along Snyder Avenue, following the route of SEPTA’s 79 bus. Its imagery and text reflect the diversity of languages and cultures in the school and surrounding neighborhood.

Yau and Walinsky first came to know each other in the late 1990’s when they both worked in museum education at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. The two had bonded through their mutual passions for art, expression, and community building, a bond that remained even as their career paths diverged.

Walinsky had gone on to get her MFA from Penn and pursued her passions working part time at Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program. She found that the mural-making process could link her artistic abilities with her desire to work with people: “I just fell in love with both working with communities and kind of storytelling, and visual transformation of a space.” Walinsky’s teaching in Mural Art’s after school programs led her to an interest in language communication across communities. She became fascinated with the image-text pairings of language cards, which she found were “full of cultural references.” These interests are reflected in the many languages included in in Routing for You.

Yau was similarly inspired by a love of community. Though she had worked as an architect in Hong Kong, and even pursued a degree in architecture at Penn, she eventually fell in love with education. After working briefly at PAFA and the nonprofit Asian American United during the 1990s, she became a School District of Philadelphia teacher in 2001. Yau currently teaches fourth grade at the Key School.

Beginning in 2018, Yau joined the TIP program, where she School District of Philadelphia teachers take seminars with Penn and Temple professors and write units of study on the material they learn. Yau’s TIP courses covered topics ranging from origami engineering to Modern American Poetry. While taking the seminar “Modern and Contemporary U.S. Poetry” with Professor Al Filreis, Yau wrote a curriculum unit entitled “I Am UnBroken: Deconstructing Modern American Poetry to Promote Self-Actualization for English Language Learners,” where one of the assignments was to create sketch of words, numbers, and images students might put on a wall to define American identity. This approach would generate much of the content for “Routing for You.”

While having dinner in 2019, approximately six months before the pandemic, the pair launched their collaboration on Routing for You. Their interest in poetry, language, identity, and representation—and their longstanding desire to activate the empty wall across from the Key School—provided the mural’s building blocks.  Along with the Mural Arts program, the two sought the assistance of SEAMAAC (the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition), and Southeast by Southeast, a center for the Burmese and Bhutanese communities where Walinsky had been working as an arts-based educator. Responding to the prompt “What do you see on your way,” Key School students generated a web of words and images corresponding to the blocks along Snyder Avenue from 10th Street to the Delaware river: schools, rec centers, churches and temples; food and drink, like bowls of pho or pots of tea; greetings in Malaysian and Chinese; sports teams the Eagles, Flyers and Sixers; festivals celebrated in the area, like the Day of the Dead, and even potted plants. Yau organized the students to work directly with Walinksy, giving them a voice in the mural’s imagery.

Yau and Walinsky agree that art is a powerful tool, especially for young students, and English language learners. Says Walinksky, “art is a vital part of being a human, of human development… and when you move it into public space it can become political, it can become a social kind of connection. I think there’s power in that, and I think every kid deserves it.”

For Yau, the TIP program was groundbreaking. “I think I’m a changed person, not just a changed teacher in terms of how I look at things. All the knowledge I bring from TIP into the classroom is invaluable. TIP makes me want to become a teacher that keeps learning…I’m more open minded and empowered.”

Both Yau and Walinsky’s dedications to community, students, and art can be seen across the beautiful canvas that the wall has become. Brightly colored and unapologetically bold, Routing for You truly reflects the interconnected community of South Philadelphia.