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Architecture is elementary.

Renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had a sometimes stem and uncompromising way of viewing learning. When a student asked for his opinion on self-expression, he responded by telling the young woman to write her name on a piece of paper. After she had complied, van der Rohe said, "That's for self-expression. Now we get to work."

Recently, David Mark Roccosalva, a graduate of the Catholic University of America, took a different tack concerning teaching by giving young children a free rein at self-expression. David was not satisfied with such mundane questions as What is architecture? and What do architects do? - the way the subject was skirted when he was in grade school. He decided to take things a step further. During a four-class experimental session, he taught architecture to a class of nine- to eleven-year-old students at the Mater Amoris Montessori School in Ashton, Maryland.

David's goal was to help the students understand that they can have a hand in deciding what the human-made world of tomorrow will look like. Another goal was to inspire in them the same sense of excitement he himself feels when working within an architectural framework.

From Bodies to Buildings

David began his four-session semester by introducing the students to architecture via building and body systems. Realizing the importance of bringing a subject into the children's own realm of experience, he presented a slide show depicting the anthropomorphic qualities of architectural elements. To help get the vital points across to the children, and to make the presentation more appealing, David used characters from popular culture to help describe concepts. Slides were shown depicting skeletal/framing systems using Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a Home Alone advertisement and Simpsons cutouts.

During that first session, the students mapped out building and body systems by tracing each other's bodies on large pieces of paper. Next, they drew similarly proportioned pictures of buildings and their electrical, mechanical and ventilation systems. They compared the two drawings, going so far as to color-code parallel elements (i.e. eyes and windows, lungs and air conditioning, clothing and facades).

A Bird in the House

After a lunch break, David introduced the children to their long-term project which was for each of them to design a birdhouse. He had the students write a brief story about the birds for whom they would be designing a house. Some students researched Audubon books, others used their imagination. One story concerned a rich bird who wanted a heavenly Victorian mansion, while another introduced a bird who wanted to take over the world, starting with the Chrysler Building.

Session one ended with a discussion of the dreaded homework assignments. In this case, however, the students were delighted to discover that their task was to develop and work on their own birdhouse drawings, and complete their building/body systems project.

Experimental Lessons

The second session dealt with structures and architectural tools and terms. It began with a short slide session, and David exhibited pictures from Forrest Wilson's book, What It Feels Like to Be a Building. In addition to the slide show, David presented a series of experiments which involved the children's participation.

The first experiment involved folding sheets of construction paper in half, fourths, eighths and sixteenths to test different strengths. Students also tested a space frame made out of toothpicks. David presented a model arch for the children to assemble and dissemble to teach them about keystones and arches.

These experiments led to the demonstration of architectural tools. David had designed a series of four posters that explained the proper (and safe) use of a knife, an architect's scale, a T-square and triangles. A sheet of measuring problems helped the students practice their skills. Of all the tools, the children had the most difficulty with the architect's scale. The class also discussed how architects communicate with their clients through drawings.

Next, the class held birdhouse critiques. These involved discussing the different features individual birds might want in their houses. At this point, the children quickly personified their birds, indicating the bird's desires to have - of all things - bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms. To close out the session, David introduced a homework assignment requiring the completion of the birdhouse plans using everything they had learned that day.

Session three involved the building of a human cathedral in an attempt to show what keeps a cathedral from collapsing under its own weight (weight-load transference). Outside, two pairs of children who were to represent the cathedral's walls, stood upright and interlocked their arms. Behind each of them, with hands on the wall's shoulders, one student acted as a flying buttress and four students acted as regular buttresses. One more student completed the demonstration by acting as the load which rested on the roof of arms.

Following this exciting demonstration, the design critiques of the completed homework began. The group discussed the type of bird that was going to live in each house. The group agreed that the interiors of the homes should be kept clear, and that amenities would be left outdoors - a nearby birdbath would be consigned for bathing purposes.

Further discussion focused on proportion and dimensions, with an explanation of how objects could be proportioned to add comfort to the birds' lives. As an example, the class noted that their own chairs and the teacher's chair were similar in shape, but different in size.

David next explained the model building process, and told the students that they would be constructing cardboard models proportioned at half scale. Help was provided for cutting out anything that required the critical use of a stencil knife. The children, under the teacher's watchful eyes, cut out all the smaller pieces and glued them together.

The semester ended with a field-trip scavenger hunt for twenty architectural elements. The first part of the trip was to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, chosen for its embodiment of many of the structural elements that had been presented in class. Next, a visit to a local architectural firm gave the students a chance to see architects at work. They also had the opportunity to see the same tools they had used in class being used in real life.

At the project's end, David asked the students to fill out an evaluation sheet as part of his thesis assignment. The students managed to get a promise from him to come back once more to help them build their birdhouses.

On an overcast day in June, the sound of sawing and hammering filled the basketball court of Mater Amoris, and the serious eyes of pre-professional architects could be seen eyeing their creations. A final "Thanks, Dave," and a going-away party with cake and ice cream, along with some photos of the finished products marked the end of David's project, but not, he hopes, the end of his idea.

In 1894, Maria Montessori became the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School. As a student, teacher and psychiatrist, she showed great interest in child development, and was particularly interested in teaching children committed to institutions for the insane. Through her unique method of mentoring, she was able to teach her patients more than anyone had ever thought they were capable of learning.

The Montessori Method employs unique instructional materials, and employs individualized attention to the children allowing them to learn at their own pace. The result is confident and independent learners. Today, there are at least six hundred schools in the United States applying the Montessori style of schooling.

Michael E. Walker is a writer and editor for the Bureau of National Affairs, Washington, DC.
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Title Annotation:teaching architecture to elementary school students
Author:Walker, Michael E.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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