Ideas From Readers
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We love publishing ideas from our readers about new ways to teach with The Times, and the project we feature below is one of the most creative
we have ever encountered.
You probably have some wonderful ideas for teaching with The Times, too. Please write in and tell us about them.
Teacher: George Mayo
Institution: Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, Md.
Grade Level of Students: Secondary (ages 14-18)
Idea: Using a Times article about a similar project as inspiration, high school students studying “Catcher in the Rye” create architectural models to convey their understanding of the
Why We Chose It: We love the story Mr. Mayo tells of being so inspired by a Times article that he tracked down its author, convinced him to help, and reproduced the author’s ambitious graduate-level
project in a 10th-grade classroom. The results speak for themselves.
What Mr. Mayo Did, and Why, in His Own Words:
I’m not an architect, nor do I have any training on how to design a building. But last summer, I was inspired to teach basic principles of architecture in my English class.
I read an article in The New York Times, “Writers as Architects,” that got me thinking about how buildings are like stories.
Matteo Pericoli, an Italian-born architect, illustrator, teacher and author, described a course he taught last spring at Columbia University School of the Arts called “The Laboratory of Literary Architecture.” During the course, creative writing students at Columbia envisioned architectural structures inspired by their favorite pieces of literature. They then teamed up and collaborated with architectural students who
helped them design their structures, or models.
As Mr. Pericoli explained:
Great architects build structures that can make us feel enclosed, liberated or suspended. They lead us through space, make us slow down, speed up or stop to contemplate. Great writers, in devising their literary
structures, do exactly the same.
The article included images of the completed student structures along with short pieces of student writing.
For example, the piece in this photograph “recreates the experience of reading ‘The Falls’ by George Saunders, a short story narrated in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner,” writes
Javier Fuentes, a Fiction student who was partnered with Lorenzo Villaggi, an architecture student.
The work, more of which you can see as you scroll through the article, was amazing, and I was immediately inspired to attempt a streamlined version of this with my 10th-grade English students. I thought it would make
a great culminating project for our first novel of the year, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
However, I knew this would be a challenge. For one, I don’t know a lot about architecture. I also had no idea how to teach students to build architectural models, or even what materials we would need. But I suspected
my students would appreciate the opportunity to do something unusual like this. It would force them (and me) to think about literature in a new way.
I began searching the web for any information I could find about Mr. Pericoli’s Columbia course. I also sent emails
to Mr. Pericoli and a few students at Columbia who participated in the course last spring. I asked if anyone would be open to Skyping with
my class throughout the project.
Within a few weeks I had multiple Skype talks scheduled, including a few with Mr. Pericoli (from his home in Italy!). I also invited two graduate architectural students from The University of Maryland, David Ensor and
Abraham Murrell, to come in and teach us basic model-building skills. The two taught us how to make accurate and clean cuts, gave us tips for gluing and most importantly, taught us the correct methods for using
our exacto knives without cutting ourselves.
One of the coolest parts of this project was collaborating with so many different people, both in person and online via Skype.
When I first introduced the project, the students were pretty confused. Fortunately, we were able to Skype with Mr. Pericoli so he could answer our questions. In our first Skype conversation, he summed up the project
beautifully, telling them, “You are designing a space that will resemble your intuition about the novel.”
He then explained that entering a novel is similar to entering an architectural structure. Literature, like architecture, can evoke strong emotions and feelings. So if my students were going to design and build meaningful
architectural spaces they first had to connect with the novel on a very personal level.
As the students read “The Catcher in the Rye,” I asked them to take notes and make annotations on parts of the novel they found significant. Class discussions revolved around talking about the text and
the structure and the flow of the text. We also talked about mood, tone, symbolism, theme and first-person narration. These literary terms would play an important role in the student’s later design decisions
for their architectural models.
I also introduced a basic list of architectural terms and concepts. Many of these terms are similar to literary
devices. Through our discussions with Mr. Pericoli, students began making connections between architecture and literature.
As we neared the end of the novel, students began brainstorming ideas for their structures by doodling and drawing rough sketches on large pieces of bulletin board paper. As Mr. Pericoli pointed out a few times, this
was an important aspect of the course: giving students ample time to play and experiment with possible ideas without worrying about being wrong.
Students had to decide what particular aspect, or aspects, of the novel they were going to explore in their structures. All their design decisions had to be based on elements from the novel. It was a difficult task.
Student design ideas went through many iterations throughout the process. One of the mantras of the project, as Mr. Pericoli reiterated many times is: Literary not Literal.
Here is video I created of insightful comments from Mr. Pericoli during one of our Skype conversations:
Once students had some good ideas for their structures they began working in their small groups to create test models.
This was another critical step in the process that forced students to rethink and reimagine their original plans. The test model is similar to creating a rough draft of a piece of writing. For the test models we just
used common cardboard and paper. Again, it was important that students were free to play and experiment as they attempted to create their test models based on their earlier sketches.
As the students completed their test models, many of them struggled with their final design decisions. I emailed Mr. Pericoli and asked if he would be available to Skype in and talk with different groups about their
designs before they started their final models. Fortunately, he agreed.
I set up my laptop in an adjacent room, and various groups had 10 to 15 minutes to talk directly with Mr. Pericoli. I thought it was amazing that a man who lives over 4,000 miles away in Turin, Italy, could basically
step into our classroom via Skype to help my students one on one.
You can check out all the final student structures and read the project reflections on a website I created to share the work titled, Architectural Models Inspired by “The Catcher in the Rye”.
Students were not creating structures, spaces or settings that actually appear in the novel. Instead, they had to convey what they felt was significant about the novel in architectural terms. The crucial question for
each of them was: How can I create a space that represents my point of view on an important aspect of the novel? It’s a challenging concept to get your mind around, and definitely forces students to use their
critical thinking skills.
As my student Amanda wrote in a final reflection:
… almost every 10th grader reads J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” In our class, we did things a little differently.
With the help, inspiration, and teaching of many people, we in Mr. Mayo’s English 10 class attempted to express our ideas, reactions, and analyses from the classic novel through the structural and tangible
medium of architecture.
Mr. Mayo saw the project in a New York Times article. Architecture students at Colombia joined with writing majors to construct meaningful designs representing pieces of literature they selected. We did not know
if it would work, if we would actually be able to pull this project together like the students in New York, but we all dove in with full commitment.
… Other students read the text and transfer information into another form of text: an essay. However, we had to take our ideas and translate them across multiple dimensions. We had to deeply understand everything
we wanted to convey, and then develop techniques to show this though a 3D artistic structure. I learned a lot more about the effect language has on the reader because I spent so much time trying to use space
and light to make a person feel the way I felt when I read the book … The challenge we conquered in our culminating project taught us more about Salinger’s writing style than a simple essay ever