Tell me the stories of San Francisco...and help me tell others!
November 23, 2012 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Help me teach the stories of San Francisco!

I'm teaching a one semester HS elective for upperclassmen that is organised under the title "San Francisco Stories."

Problem: I've lived in the SF Bay Area for most of my life, but I don't know that much (read: almost nothing) about the specific movements or stories. The semester is organised chronologically with a major novel for each period (none of which I've read*):
Gold Rush (Crown of Dust)
Great Earthquake (1906)
1920's (Maltese Falcon)
Beat Poets (Dharma Bums)
Modern (The Golden Gate)

I have from January to June to teach all of this. So that's about four to six weeks per unit. I also really don't like the beat poets. Like really really don't like. Also: I'm in Marin, so SF is literally a short ferry ride away.

*This is one of six new classes I was assigned a few weeks before school started at a new school. This year has been really intense and I haven't had time to read everything yet. Please don't judge me. I will read them before I teach them.


What I need:
--resources for creative projects that are uniquely San Francisco, ideally ones that will engage HS juniors and seniors but are pushing up to a beginning college level in terms of skill/critical thinking
--great web resources that present SF history in more than a wikipedia way
--ideas for field trips/speakers
--fun SF lore
--creative/expository well-written non-fiction to go with each of the units
--other stuff I don't even know I need

Any help you can offer
posted by guster4lovers to Education (27 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
A good friend recommended to me the fantastic Sparkletack podcasts. I think they'll really work for you.
posted by Miko at 7:31 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's one creative project appropriate for your "Modern" segment. The Grand Piano is a collective autobiography written by San Francisco poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and specifically with performances at the eponymous Grand Piano coffeehouse in the 70s. And one of those poets in particular, Lyn Hejinian, has an especially well-known (and wonderful) work called My Life. So there's tons of background material on this, if you want it.

Anyway, one of the really cool things about My Life is how easy it might be for high school students to imitate it to generate very personal, very interesting poems that, insofar as they're from the area, happen to constitute San Francisco stories themselves.

I imagine this isn't exactly what Lyn Hejinian did, but to generate My Life poems, take a period of your life and write one sentence per memory you can dredge up. The less complete, less narratable, and more dream-like the memory is the better. Just string those oblique, disconnected memories together--one per sentence with few or no connections between them--and voila. When you look at the examples, you'll see how easy it is.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:42 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Rick Prelinger's annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco. Might be a bit scattered for your curriculum, but it's a fun look back at SF history through random video snippets. A few (if not all) of the showings can be streamed online.

Bonus for anyone remotely interested in SF through the ages: Lost Landscapes 7 is playing at the Castro on Dec 11.
posted by agenais at 7:46 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys - I'm excited to start looking into all of the links.

Monsieur Caution reminded me of how much I love to assign style-alike writing assignments. I'd love to have suggestions for texts that would work for that - both fiction and non-fiction. I use McSweeney's pieces for that a lot, because of the great unique styles/genres.

I love the recommendations so far - thanks!
posted by guster4lovers at 7:59 PM on November 23, 2012

I know you say you're not a fan of the Beat Poets, but damn if Ferlinghetti isn't completely amazing.

I'd suggest maybe picking up a copy of this CD [iTunes, also available on Rhapsody and probably through other services], which is a nicely modern yet retro reading of A Coney Island Of The Mind by the poet with musical backing, along with a few of his other poems. It might give you a better grasp on why people like his stuff, and would help his poetry come alive for your students.

(Plus, he's still alive and still running City Lights Bookstore -- that might be a worthwhile field trip. You might contact him first and see if he'd be willing to have the students there and would even do a short talk for them. I've heard he's game for such things -- I've run into him a couple of times and he's never had any reluctance about waxing on to an interesting audience of me and a friend, and he's always signed things I've wanted autographed.)
posted by hippybear at 8:17 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Take a look at Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
posted by lathrop at 8:18 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

OK, you're in for a treat. Bay Area history is fascinating and exciting and fun (and sometimes quite tragic). There are soooo many resources, you'll be having to throw out tons of good stuff.

First off, Shaping San Francisco has a great interactive website. They do bike-based and walking history tours, and I bet money you could arrange one for your class. Their tours focus on specific ethnic, political and cultural histories and are good.

The GLBT History Museum is another good resource. SF history and queer history are really closely connected, and it's one way that our local story has national and international significance. Scroll down their site to find their online resources.

For African-American focused SF history, check out these Thomas Fleming archives. Again, this is an interesting way to tell a national story from a local perspective. (There was a large influx of African Americans into the Bay Area during the Great Migrations and War years, and in recent years African Americans are largely being priced out of the area. Very interesting (and sad) socio-cultural stuff here. (One good topic could be urban renewal and the destruction of The Fillmore district).

I don't know a ton about SF's Chinese American History but here's a nice interactive site about Oakland Chinatown history. Unfortuantely, this book is pretty poorly written, but it gives the most thorough history I know of about anti-Chinese racism during the gold rush era. Look into the Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese riots (massacres) in California, Washington and elsewhere.

The natural history of the Bay Area is pretty riveting as well. For example, there is a great network of creeks underground. You could have your students map the creeks under their neighborhoods - find out where they come from and drain to, what wildlife still depend on them.

Sort of related, check out the Freeway Revolt. Your students might be interested to learn what the city would have looked like in some alternate, more freewayed universe, and you could talk about how quality of life would have been different.

Eric Fisher's photostream is a goldmine of historical documents, much of it related to Bay Area urban planning, but also documenting his project of walking every street in SF.

Oh, here are some other cool photos.

Checking out some New Deal projects could be a good way to learn about economic history as well as local history.

What else...? How about pre-European history? The Ohlone Way is a wonderful book. I cried when I finished it. The chapters can easily work as stand-alone reading assignments if you just want to assign one or two sections to give a taste of life here before Europeans.

Give the Beats a second look. There were a lot of them, some better than others (I'm not a Ginsberg fan, and Kerouac is unreadable after age 20, but there are lots of others. Fun fact: "Raid: Kills Bugs Dead" was written by beat poet Lew Welch.) A field trip to City Lights could be fun.

Good luck with all your new classes, I hope you have a good time!
posted by latkes at 8:44 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

One more thought based on my assumption this is essentially an English class. Between the 1920s and the Beat Poets, you might have the students watch Vertigo (coincidentally both a film that features San Francisco very prominently and "the greatest film of all time") and any number of great critical pieces available on Youtube:

Alfred Hitchcock's explanation to François Truffaut of a particular scene
Kim Novak on Vertigo
Martin Scorsese on Vertigo
Vertigo parallelisms
Slavoj Žižek on Vertigo and fantasy realized

Etc., etc. There are videos about San Francisco locations in the film, trailers, videos about screenwriting that use Vertigo as an example--all kinds of things.

If this is indeed a sort of English class, the Žižek piece is especially useful, because it calls attention to interesting aspects of the film, but it's still very enigmatic--the kind of thing you can pull a dozen quotes from to serve as essay prompts to make the students formulate a point of view on the film.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:09 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Good point Monsieur Caution. Look, there's a (rather incomplete, but still...) wikipedia page on San Francisco in Popular Culture!
posted by latkes at 9:14 PM on November 23, 2012

Also, a great, great, documentary about SF history is The Times of Harvey Milk.

Stopping now!
posted by latkes at 9:16 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Monsieur Caution, you are correct. This is an English class.

And latkes, I vote you should keep going if/when you have more. It's immensely helpful!
posted by guster4lovers at 9:46 PM on November 23, 2012

I've got it!

Have your students work in teams to create literary tours of SF for each of the novels. Pick physical sites that are important to the novel or its author, and have them write guidebooks.

Better yet, do a website. With a very little technical help you can get an Omeka database and with their geolocation plugin create something like this. The linked website is one I created with several classes of college students, who identified and interpreted historical sites in my town. We did it for a mobile app that scrapes the database to put historical tours of people's smartphones, but the website side of it would work fine without the app. You can PM me for details.
posted by LarryC at 10:28 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: LarryC, that's a great idea. I'm part of the flipped class movement, and integration of technology and innovation are always a bonus. I will memail you when I get a little closer to knowing what I'll need. Thanks!
posted by guster4lovers at 10:42 PM on November 23, 2012

I am an SF native and went to high school in San Francisco in the not entirely distant past. While we didn't read any of these particular texts, here are a couple quality things that we did with reasonable relevance to your class and some other ideas that come to mind:

- It always has amazed me how much of downtown San Francisco literally didn't exist until settlers started filling in the bay. Showing a map of the original coastline and considering the shipwrecks under parts of the Financial District might be a fun exercise. The original SF rivers and the sand dunes of the Mission also fit in with this. The GGNRA folks from the Park Service have a lot of resources on the original geography of the City, including some of the Native American activity in the area.

- There's a great film depicting a trip down Market St. circa 1905.

- I've never been a great fan of beat poetry by any means, but I have always been interested in the beat movement more broadly. For one English class where we read some Kerouac and Kesey, I did a presentation that was largely based on John Markoff's wonderful What the Dormouse Said, a history that chains together the following Bay Area players: the post-WWII defense research community, the beat generation, the hippie movement and the 60s counterculture, and Timothy Leary et al. to show how they all mixed together in SF and the Peninsula to create the personal computer revolution. For those of us born in the 80s and 90s, the 60s are incredibly abstract and often viewed through pretty broad stereotypes. Personally, I'd love to use the beat poetry section of the class to learn more about the Bay Area's counterculture scene in general. If you're really lucky, Stewart Brand lives in Sausalito, and might just be willing to speak to your class. The Beat Museum on Broadway is small, but should have some good resources for local teachers as well.

- We did a theater production of Execution of Justice, a play about the Milk/Moscone shootings and subsequent trial. As latkes says above, Times Of Harvey Milk is excellent, and is more of a documentary than the more mainstream Milk. Should you want to explore this topic further, a great field trip can involve visiting the memorial and exhibits at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro (the GLBT Museum can provide a docent, iirc), then walking/taking Muni down to Civic Center (along the candlelight vigil route in fact) and walking the path where the events took place in City Hall (they can provide a guide as well). It's a very moving day. I was about to suggest contacting everybody's favorite drag nun Sister Boom Boom (a.k.a. Jack Fertig) before remembering that he sadly passed away a few months ago.

- Oddly, South Park's Smug Alert! We watched it in a high school math class of all places (got to do something after the AP exam), but it's short, fun, and actually could stimulate an interesting little discussion. I remember it being pretty tame for South Park, but still, appropriateness concerns apply.

- It might be interesting to end the class by having students capture "San Francisco stories" of their own (or extend it to the Bay Area for practicality). You could potentially work with a group that collects oral histories or is otherwise involved in local history to have students conduct interviews and/or research to tell a new story or preserve an old one. Students could link the non-fiction story they tell with relevant literary and/or artistic elements that contextualize the story.

A few texts not included in your list that might be worth considering:

-- William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Time of Your Live is a great slice of life set in a San Francisco bar in 1939. There's a film version and a TV movie version as well.

-- I haven't read it, but San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay is supposed to be excellent.

-- Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City is a bit bawdy, but gives a lot of local color; might be interesting to do some excerpts. Maupin provides a map of SF locations mentioned in the series.

-- Angels in America is set in New York, but it is a play that sets heaven in San Francisco, where all the angels left after the 1906 earthquake and is a play very much rooted in SF (in fact, it was commissioned and premiered here). Also available as the excellent HBO miniseries, featuring Meryl Streep as the Rabbi.

-- The Crying of Lot 49 is set in SF and could potentially serve as a good text for a discussion of postmodernism.
posted by zachlipton at 1:56 AM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think for all of your needs, this one will work:

Jade Snow Wong's book, Fifth Chinese Daughter, is a lucid description of growing up in SF's Chinatown before and during WWII. It's written in the third person so reads as a history rather than a memoir. It covers her immigrant family's history, her father's conversion to christianity, her grandmother's non-conversion, the family's factory, Jade Snow's schooling and immersion, eventually, in the world outside Chinatown, learning English but staying true to her family's teaching, her education at Mills College, and her triumph as a potter in 1940s Chinatown (her pottery has been displayed in museums). You could map out her neighborhood by her descriptions. The University Of Washington Press copy has wonderful illustrations by Kathryn Uhl.

It's a great San Francisco story. If you have trouble finding a copy, please holler.
posted by goofyfoot at 4:11 AM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, the top floor of the Main Library, in the almost-rare-books section, should have a copy of Herbert Asbury's Barbary Coast. It's a great read, and because it's Asbury, possibly discredited, but has pinpointed stories about many parts of The City, and many old photographs, including such horrific things as the cribs.

Again, if you have trouble finding a copy, holler. I have one .
posted by goofyfoot at 4:32 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of the post-war image of San Francisco was shaped by newspaper columnist Herb Caen, whose gossipy, martini-fuelled column was a staple of the San Francisco Chronicle for decades. The two books, 'Baghdad by the Bay' and 'Don't Call it Frisco' are a good place to start.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:17 AM on November 24, 2012

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner is a heartbreaking memoir of a teenage girl coming of age in the 'anything goes' late '70s San Francisco. Many of the places she described and illustrated are still there.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:40 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard great things about walking tours with City Guides. I'd contact them and see if they have ideas for you.
posted by shesbookish at 9:37 AM on November 24, 2012

I'm not sure what this could do for you, but my first thought was of this story about sidewalk graffiti made by one kid in the '60s. Something about reading traces of an era in the urban landscape...
Anyway, 99% invisible is great in general and while not exclusively about SF has lots of great local stories and might be helpful in some way.
posted by silvergoat at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

SF is pretty diverse, so here are some relevant selections from people of color:
  • China Boy by Gus Lee (post-war NOPA & Haight/Ashbury amongst other districts).
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Ch. 27 through the end of the book; 1940's Mission, Fillmore, & Downtown)
  • Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (Chinatown in the 1970's)
I'm sad to say I don't of any works offhand by latino or Filipino authors, although no doubt they're out there.

Given how close Marin is (hello, neighbor!), I'd consider an oral history project, either by theme, historical period, or neighborhood. If you're looking for a multimedia project (yay, 21st century skills!), the students could map the stories to the physical location and add supplementary photos and/or video. Google Maps makes this pretty easy. You could also do a timeline.
posted by smirkette at 12:41 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the answers, everyone. I showed my teaching partner and he was pretty impressed by the wealth of knowledge and resources here on Metafilter.

Smirkette, interestingly enough, we have all three of those books in the bookroom, approved for other courses (but available for this class as well).

I'm not marking best answers yet because I don't want to discourage others who have resources to share. Thanks again to all of you!
posted by guster4lovers at 1:17 PM on November 24, 2012

The San Francisco Public Library has digitized an unbelievable amount of information and made it available through - here's a list of the nearly 4000 items the SFPL has added to so far.

It includes: And there are lots of great works contributed by organizations other than the San Francisco Public Library:
As for field trips - I am a huge fan of City Guides, a non-profit affiliated with the Friends of the Library. They do a great North Beach tour - that could save you from having to teach the Beats yourself. There are also writer landmarks on the Russian Hill walk.
posted by kristi at 7:38 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a neat project done by Shawn Clover of then-and-now composite photographs of SF locations affected by the 1906 earthquake.

You already have a novel for the Gold Rush period, but I'd recommend The Associates as supplemental reading. It's a fascinating telling of the four titans of San Francisco (Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins) who accumulated massive wealth during the Gold Rush and became the force behind the transcontinental railroad...with a handshake agreement serving as the only contract. Many Bay Area institutions (Stanford University, museums, libraries, parks, banks) are direct results of their ambitions and power.
posted by hampanda at 2:13 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

For the Maltese Falcon, don't overlook a trip to see a movie prop Maltese Falcon in the lobby of the Flood Building and John's Grill, which also features in the novel.

Your class might enjoy the SF Treasure Hunt during Chinese New Year; I had fun searching for the clues and finding little-known landmarks in San Francisco. Not free, but it might be a fun field trip.
posted by JDC8 at 2:16 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What a fun discussion--I have stolen a bunch of links for my Digital History course.
posted by LarryC at 9:56 PM on December 9, 2012

Response by poster: Totally overwhelmed and awestruck by how much awesome is in this thread. My colleague and I have combed through and used something from nearly every commenter.

Current plan is to build an epic SF literary/history website with original student research, stories, and analysis of the novels, complete with a tagged map (as LarryC suggested). If I teach it again next year, we can just keep adding to it.

Really excited. Thank you to everyone who participated in sharing the SF love (but not like that).
posted by guster4lovers at 9:08 PM on January 7, 2013

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