"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 responded. And they’re right. If you’re talking about huts on Lake Titicaca, Peru, where, as a student explained, the secret is "bundling."
Deconstructing the Three Little Pigs and other fables is one way McDavitt captures the attention of students from kindergarten to fifth grade in his architecture class. A mix of architectural history, cultural studies, art, mathematics, and even literature, it is one of three extra classes at Abingdon that provide real-world contexts where children see academics come to life.
Using measurement and geometry skills, children build scale models of castles, cathedrals, teepees and totem poles. But the class is "not so much about grooming students to become architects," said McDavitt, "as it is about explaining how and why the Egyptians built temples."
An Arlington resident and Abingdon teacher of 13 years, McDavitt said his course is the only daily elementary-level architecture class in the country. It is part of the school’s unique curriculum called Project G.I.F.T., which stands for Gaining Instruction, Fostering Talents.
The program was designed in 2002 by a team led by Principal Joanne Uyeda to help close the achievement gap between children of different socio-economic levels.
With special project funding from Arlington Public Schools, Uyeda was able to eliminate almost all early-release Wednesdays (normally used for teacher-planning) and use the time to offer hands-on learning courses: Modern Communications, Science Lab, and Architecture.
WHY ARCHITECTURE? Not only is it interdisciplinary, said McDavitt but it gives children a reason to learn math, social studies and physics.
Nowadays, he said, math and science have been largely divorced from the activities where they originated: measuring land for agriculture, recording commerce and taxes, and designing buildings.
"It makes no sense," he pointed out, "and kids ask, ‘Why do we need to know this?’"
Posters of geometric shapes and formulas for circumference share wall space in McDavitt’s classroom with floorplans, arches and cantilevers, and diagrams of city patterns. Colorful images of people in traditional garb and pictures 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 droned in a mock voice, "‘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, art, nature, and different worldviews, he said.
ANOTHER WAY MCDAVITT engages children is through "weird facts."
"Look at this roof beam painted like a two-headed snake with a face in the middle," he said, pointing to a Northwest Coast Indian house.
McDavitt 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 children are studying Ancient Mali in third grade social studies, in McDavitt’s class they explore the 14th century spread of Islamic architecture into Mali. Students build a model of a mud-brick mosque and synthesize knowledge by writing a traditional Malian song.
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 explained.
Like the other special classes at Abingdon, architecture was chosen because it would give children diverse experiences and background knowledge, or "more concepts to hang new information on," McDavitt said.
McDavitt plays in several African bands and he tries to integrate music into his lessons whenever possible. He also leads the Abingdon West African Rhythm Ensemble, an after-school club of 12 children from grades three to five.
The use of music and other non-traditional routes to learning fits in with Abingdon’s adoption of the theory of Multiple Intelligences.
"Kids that love music," McDavitt explained, "will retain more information with musical avenues to explore what they are studying."
IF STUDENT ENTHUSIASM is any judge, Abingdon’s architecture class is a success.
"Kids love architecture," said Principal Joanne Uyeda, who believes that creating real things gets children engaged and challenged.
Building a tower that can hold 100 pounds, for example, gives students "immediate positive feedback, which is wonderful," she said.
Kindergarteners like Maura Andy 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," said Maura.
McDavitt’s creative teaching style is another factor in the class’s popularity. To keep children listening, he sometimes breaks into a Scottish accent or starts talking like Grover from Sesame Street.
"Odd voices are a good hook. Kids really listen when you start talking like Elvis," remarked McDavitt. "Teaching is very much a performance art."
Parent Cheryl Goodman laughed 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," she said. "And whatever Mr. McDavitt says, goes. He’s like a rock star!"
Marti Mefford said 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 said she likes 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 8-year-old boys," she said "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 from 77 percent in 2003/2004 to 97 percent in 2004/2005 and stayed at those levels in 2005/2006.
"I think the best compliment is the fact that kids make connections constantly," said McDavitt.
He said this happens across disciplines (from architecture to social studies to literature) and across time (from year to year). This, he said, shows that children are not just storing information in their short-term memory, but are truly "owning" the knowledge.
"You know that three times four is 12," explained 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."