Abingdon Elementary's Architecture Class Builds Success
“Can houses made of hay be strong?” asks teacher David McDavitt as he holds up a miniature straw hut before a group of second graders at Abingdon Elementary School. “Yes!” they respond. And they’re right. If you’re talking about huts on lake Titicaca, Peru, where as eight-year old Waleed explains, the secret is “bundling.” The “Three Little Pigs” were wrong.
Why architecture? Not only is it interdisciplinary, explains McDavitt (who came up with the idea for the class), but it gives kids a reason to learn math, social studies, and physics. Nowadays, he argues, math and science have been largely divorced from the activities where they originated: measuring land for agriculture, recording commerce and taxes,designing buildings. “It makes no sense,” he points out,“and kids ask, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ So we decided to reunite the context with the disciplines and have an authentic, vocation-based way to study the concepts we cover in the Virginia Standards of Learning,” McDavitt explains. “And I think we’ve been very successful,” he says.
“Kids know exactly why they need to learn what we are studying.” Posters of geometric shapes and formulas for circumference and pi share classroom wall space with floor plans, arches and cantilevers, and diagrams of city patterns. Colorful images of people in traditional garb and posters of famous sites like Stonehenge, the Roman Coliseum, Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu and the Golden Gate Bridge seem to convey the message: Look how we are different, yet aren’t we all the same?
“Instead of simply saying,” McDavitt drones mockingly, “’A pagoda has five bowed roofs, ’we discuss how odd numbers are lucky in Japan, and how the roofs are curved because the Japanese felt demons inhabited straight lines.”Architecture is a vehicle to explore culture, history, physics, art, math, nature, and different world-views, he explains.
Another way McDavitt engages children in history is through ‘weird facts.’ “Look at this roof beam painted like a two-headed snake with a face in the middle,” McDavitt says, pointing to a Northwest Coast Indian house, “this is a sisiutl- a powerful spirit among the Kwakiutl used to protect houses of humans and gods. Sisiutl could kill with a look, twist your joints, move though land, water, air, and the ‘land of the dead’, give warriors strength, turn into a self-moving canoe, and be made into magical amulets to rescue lost souls.”
When talking to McDavitt about his class, one gets the impression of its depth. He has created five times the curriculum needed for each grade and has bursting file cabinets to prove it. He often tailors his lessons to cover different angles of what students are learning in their homeroom classes. This broader knowledge base, he believes increases the chances children will internalize the information. For example, while kids are studying Ancient Mali in third grade social studies classes, they simultaneously explore the 14th century spread of Islamic architecture into Mali during McDavitt’s class. Students build a model of Djenne’s mud-brick mosque and synthesize knowledge to write a griot song recounting the story of Mansa Musa, the Malian king who traveled to Mecca and brought new ideas for architecture and learning.
First graders enrich their understanding of George Washington by asking questions about the Washington Monument. Why does George Washington have an Egyptian-style monument? What are obelisks and why were they built? Who are the Masons?
“While some kids are going to museums and having books read to them, others are not,” McDavitt explains. Like the other special classes at Abingdon, Architecture was chosen because it would give disadvantaged children diverse experiences and background knowledge, or “more concepts to hang new information upon,” he says.
McDavitt is apt to integrate music into lessons as he plays in several African bands, and leads the “Abingdon West African Rhythm Ensemble.” The use of music and other non-traditional routes to learning fits in with Abingdon’s adoption of the theory of Multiple Intelligences. Developed by Howard Gardner at Harvard, the theory states that people employ eight forms of ‘intelligence’ to solve problems: not only linguistic and mathematical-logical (most valued by our society), but also music,spatial/art, body movement, social skills, self assessment, and classification.
If student enthusiasm is any judge, Abingdon’s Architecture class is a success. “Kids LOVE Architecture,” says Principal Joanne Uyeda, who believes that the building and creating get children engaged and challenged. Building a tower that can hold 100 pounds, for example, gives children “immediate positive feedback which is wonderful,” she says.
Kindergarteners, talk about constructive learning centers like giant tinker toys, drafting tables, legos, and wooden dollhouses, which they can explore freely after a more structured lesson. “My favorite center is blocks because once I built a big castle,” says Maura. McDavitt says children often create structures related to what they are learning in class.
McDavitt’s creative teaching style is another factor in the class’s popularity. To keep kids listening, he sometimes breaks into a Scottish accent or starts talking like Grover from Sesame Street. “Odd voices area good hook. Kids really listen when you start talking like Elvis,” remarks McDavitt. “Teaching is very much a performance art.” Parent Cheryl Goodman, laughs about what an influence he has on her first-grader,“Angelika says we have to go to Mount Vernon this weekend because Mr. McDavitt said so. And whatever Mr. McDavitt says, goes. He’s like a rock star!”
Marti Mefford that for her third-grader, Elisha, it was McDavitt's stories and fascinating facts that made history, geography and architecture come alive for him. “He now knows more about the Roman Empire than I will ever know!” Mefford appreciates how “alive” and “interactive”McDavitt renders material that could be dry to a young person. “It takes a very gifted individual to capture the attention of a room full of eight year-old boys,” she says “and have them making up songs about history.”
Since Abingdon’s Architecture class and Project G.I.F.T. were instituted in 2003, the school’s scores have skyrocketed. Abingdon third-graders’ Virginia Standards of Learning scores in math and social studies jumped from77% in 2003/04 to 97% in 2004/05. “I think the best compliment is the fact that kids make connections constantly,” says McDavitt. He says this happens across disciplines (from architecture to social studies to literature) and across time (from year to year). This, he says, shows that children are not just storing information in their short-term memory, but truly own the knowledge. Which is important if children are to put their education to use.
“You know that three times four is 12,” explains Uyeda, “but when you’re in a real situation, when do you use multiplication?” Classes that have real-world applications like Architecture promote higher-order thinking, or “being able to pull on all that knowledge to solve a problem, which,” Uyeda says, “is really what we’re trying to teach kids.”