Learning to Reflect: A Historian’s experience teaching design
Last month I completed a seven week experience, called Explo at Yale. Explo, short for Exploration Summer Programs, hosts academic camps at three major universities in the northeast. At the Yale program high school students come from all over the world for a college-like experience, only there are no grades.
What was my role in all of this? I taught Architecture. Yes I, a historian in training, taught drafting and design. Why? Because architects and historians use the same language. Architects use drafting and design to create while historians use it to discover, understand, explain, or contextualize. Also as an aspiring professor teaching experience is a must. Now this whole experience was not sunshine and rainbows, especially having never taught before, but seven weeks later I feel empowered.
Primarily my course taught hand drafting and creative thinking. Students learned to use tools like t-squares and scales, identify and draw plans, as well as axons, and experience the architecture in the world around them.
Below the surface I challenged my students. They defined Architecture for themselves, and engaged in discussions about why. I brought my students into the world and made them vocalize the functions of spaces based on what they could see or how they felt. Even their final project was less typical, they created pavilions for public use sited in the New Haven Green. The students were paired together, each with a different sub-site on the Green, and designed in compliment to their partner.
I mentioned earlier that this experience was a struggle, and it was. I learned very quickly that the lesson plans I created before going to teach were far too complicated for high school students. Every day for three weeks I saw my daily lesson plans fail, but about the middle of week two I had distilled several important rules which helped me guide the students through a successful final project. Rule 1: One cannot teach more than three new concepts in a day. Rule 2: Draw and display visual examples, make sure there is a step by step handout, and verbally ask them to talk about the assignment. Rule 3: Help their creativity along by posting lots of visual examples. Rule 4: Design the assignments to build directly from one to the next.
I came to know each of these rule because every time a lesson failed I had to reflect on the reasons for failure, figure out what of the original lesson needed to be saved, and brainstorm, with an adviser, new formats for the lesson. Constant struggle motivated me to work harder and think outside my own proverbial box. At the conclusion of session one I had successfully guided the students through their final project and I had also completed a revised curriculum for session two.
Session two was by far the more successful session for teaching. I helped students discuss definitions architecture, learn to use their drawing tools, identifying drawing types, design in plan and axon their ideal architecture classroom, present and critique with their peers, observe and verbalize observations of architecture around them, and finally design in plan and axon a pavilion for public use. My students were not the only ones who learned a great deal.
I have one great take away from Explo, reflection. Many times in the past academic year the professors in our department engaged us as students about the questions which fuel the research and perspective of our papers. This practice did not make sense to me until the beginning of Explo’s second session…approximately four weeks ago.
At that moment having completely rewritten my curriculum a single question entered my head, do I have to teach them drafting? I realized at this moment that my curriculum, while sherking some traditional aspects of design, had not challenged my assumptions of the design process. The entire two months I spent writing my original curriculum I had not taken the time to reflect on the assumptions inherent in it. Reflection during research phases and writing phases are fundamental to historians so that they can effectively communicate a desired perspective, and this is exactly what my professors had attempted to teach.
While in the moment I felt rather slow, seeing as I had missed a fundamental lesson from the academic year, in retrospect I feel accomplished for learning the lesson of reflection and much more. I wrote two curricula, taught about sixty high school students how to draw, interpret and create architectural drawings, I learned to time manage a classroom, observe the behaviors of my students for signs of struggle or frustration, and received the opportunity to help inspire a love of architecture.
Would I recommend this opportunity? Absolutely. In fact I am considering re-applying to teach the course again next summer. It would be quite a challenge to teach an architecture course that revolved around neither drafting nor modeling.
Editor’s note: Meghan Nagle is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History department at SCAD.