Innovative Educational Programs: ArchForKids

We all remember the classes that changed our lives. No matter how old we get, the lessons we learned from great teachers in inspiring programs stay with us.

But what makes a class truly great? To understand why some curricula are especially effective at motivating and inspiring young minds, Noodle is shining a light on amazing educational programs across the country.

One of these is ArchForKids (the “Arch” is short for “Architecture”), which designs customized, out-of-the-box learning opportunities for kids. With an emphasis on project-based learning, ArchForKids engages students in hands-on educational activities for schools, museums, and libraries designed to meet their specific needs, goals, and interests.

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ArchForKids founders Karen Orloff, Kathryn Slocum, and Janny Gédéon

ArchForKids

“Look, there’s a cornice!” yelled one of the first-graders from the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights.

We were walking around their neighborhood on an architecture scavenger hunt. Each student had been given a sheet with pictures and architectural terms — plinth, oculus window, buttress (this one elicited a few laughs). Their little fingers pointed up at the buildings, finding new elements on the streets they had walked every day to go to school.

The program was run by ArchForKids, a project-based enrichment program that teaches kids STEAM through architecture, engineering, and urban planning. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art + design, and math.)

Find out more about STEAM in this article written by members from ArchForKids, STEM to STEAM: In Defense of the Creative Critical Thinker.

The kids had already participated in three sessions with co-founder Janny Gédéon. In these, they undertook several projects — from designing the façades of cardboard houses to drawing the buildings they value most in their community. These lessons, in turn, all lead up to the final project: creating an architecture book, in which each child drew an architectural element from her neighborhood, described in in poetry or prose, and answered mathematical questions about it.

ArchForKids creates customized programs for all kinds of settings, from K–12 classrooms to libraries to camps to professional development workshops for teachers. I spoke with the founders, Janny Gédéon, Karen Orloff, and Kathryn Slocum. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, in which they discussed the importance of child-centered learning and the value of enrichment programs.

How did you decide that you wanted to create ArchForKids?

KS: We had a vision, which was working individually with organizations — schools, libraries, museums, and community organizations — and coming up with the programs grounded in architecture and design that fit them: fit what their kids need, fit what the community needs, for example, enriching a library summer reading program or a museum exhibit. It's a lot of heavy lifting in the beginning because we are creating something new and individualized for every place we work with.

JG: It's a little tough, because you have to tailor to all these different organizations and different schools — but the outcome, what the kids get, is more rewarding because they can see how every program fits with their curriculum, and they can see how their curriculum fits with the topic at hand, from community studies to building math skills.

What are some examples of the programs you lead?

KS: We do everything from “Adventures in Architecture” (which features a different building activity every session), to multisession programs on skyscrapers or bridges or sustainable design, to all-day design challenges on topics ranging from space colonies to how to make NYC more kid-friendly. The one thing that all our programs utilize is the design process – posing a challenge, coming up with solutions and presenting your work to the group.

KO: We recently created a workshop for Westchester youth librarians and library’s teen ambassadors. It was based on going beyond words, going beyond the usual activity of reading a book aloud to children. We told participants to put themselves in a character’s shoes and think about what they would do in a given situation. What does the setting look like? Then they construct it. One of my favorite creations was one for this book about dragons. There were all these different types of dragons, and each had certain powers, and a student represented them as paper airplanes. He made the different shapes and folded them in such a way that the superior dragon/plane flew much farther than the other ones.

JG: That's going beyond the words. You read the book, but now you can do a project-based activity to get the kids to really understand what is happening in the book.

KO: It's multidisciplinary. Everything we do incorporates many different subjects. Janny and I went to Sleepy Hollow High School, and we did tessellations with the art class, with the AP Chemistry class we talked about different types of materials and made concrete. And then with the AIS class, they built their bridges and they did trigonometry to test the angles. All of these activities took the topics they were learning in class but framed them through the lens of architecture.

JG: The kids don't even feel like they're doing the math, or like they're doing the chemistry. Because they're doing the hands-on part of it, it's a fun thing to do. At the same time, they're learning key concepts, and they don't even realize that's what the teacher is trying to teach them.

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An example of an entry for the books the kids at Renaissance Charter School made for their final project.

What is the problem that ArchForKids is attempting to solve?

JG: We found out that a lot of kids need to sharpen problem-solving skills. When they can’t figure something out, they go to the adult and say, "I can't do this, can you do it for me?" So by doing group work, they actually help each other solve the challenges we pose. They're thinking for themselves, and they come up with their own solutions. It is not about the right or wrong solution, it's more open-ended, as in, "What is my interpretation of this?" ArchForKids is not teacher-driven, it's student-driven.

KS: That's very important, and I think that we found in a lot of schools there is a so much prepping for tests, there isn't a lot of focus on using your hands, building things, working in groups, and thinking creatively.

KO: So we come in and encourage kids to build and think. It creates good chaos — the kids are thinking and talking and maybe arguing, but it is because they are trying to work in groups.

KS: Sometimes you see an educator who is initially skeptical, who's like, "This is so noisy," and then, by the end, the teacher is like, "This was great!" You can see they went through the process of understanding how productive it is.

What are the skills that the kids are learning?

JG: We encourage critical thinking and creativity — kids like to experiment, that's why two- or three-year-olds touch everything they see. When they get to school and things are too focused on testing and memorization, the exploration stops. There's little room for creativity. Most importantly, we teach kids to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. When they’re in the classroom, many concepts seem abstract and unrelated to their lives, but then, after they’ve had hands-on learning opportunities, they can see how the forces they studied in physics affect the strength and stability of structures like skyscrapers and bridges.

KO: We want to give young people the skills to go out in the world and think for themselves. Being confident with your own voice is so important for contributing to the world later as thinking adults.

No similar activities available in your child's school? Check out these 5 After-School Programs Teaching Kids Creative Problem-Solving Skills.

How does your leadership as women and a woman of color shape the impact that you have on children?

JG: There are still relatively few women doing what we do — architecture, engineering, and math. So a lot of times, we find kids who just say, "Are you an architect? Really? You don't look like an architect," just because we’re women. ArchForKids works in a lot of schools where there's a high population of people of color, and I think it's good because they see that I am a female professional person of color. The younger ones sometimes say, "I want to do what you do!" As an immigrant, coming from Haiti, and becoming not only a female architect but also a business owner, I am living proof of what can be accomplished, and strive to be an inspiration for them.

What challenges have you encountered in your work, and how you have overcome them?

JG: I think that enrichment programs like ours should be everywhere because the results speak for themselves. We would love to spend two hours doing STEAM projects with the kids because project-based learning requires time — but we don't always have two hours; sometimes we just get 45 minutes. So what can you do in that period of time? Because of budget cuts and the urgency people feel when they see the U.S. lagging behind in math and science, educators sometimes view enrichment programs as “extras” that don’t necessarily make an impact. But we know our program makes a difference.

KO: When teachers work us into their schedule, it means we are taking away part of their day. The higher you go up in grades, the more difficult it is to find that time to bring us in — they're so afraid of losing any class time because they have to teach to the tests.

Tell me about a moment when you were teaching that had a big impact on you.

KO: I was teaching second-graders as part of a social studies enrichment residency, and we were going to create a timeline of buildings in New York City, from the 1600s all the way to 2015. They didn't quite get what a timeline is or that you can can understand the growth of the city through its structure. When we got to the middle segment, they learned all about the stock market crash, the drought, and the dust bowl, and they learned that amid all of that that, we built the Chrysler building and the Empire State Building. The light went on; they were just amazed. They said, "This timeline really tells us a story of what happened in New York City and America." They just got it. That was really cool.

JG: One thing that really struck me was this time I took a class of fifth-graders in Brooklyn to map out their neighborhood, and this student named April came back very upset. She was crying so hard, and I thought something happened, but she just kept saying, "Thank you, thank you," and I said, "For what?" And then she said, "I walk this neighborhood, and I never realized there's a tree right there." She takes the route every single day, but she never paid attention to what was around her. She said, "Well, if I were to tell somebody how to get here, I could use the tree as a landmark, and before I couldn't haven’t done that because I didn't notice it." So it was really an eye-opening experience for her, and I would never forget that.

JG: Once, at P.S. 105 in Far Rockaway, one of the kids in my class said, "You know what, if we keep bringing new things in this neighborhood there's going to be gentrification," and the rest of the class said, "Gentri-what?" So we started talking, and we had a lively conversation about urban planning and urban design. We discussed how the mayor is planning to revitalize the area, and then they said, "Maybe we should write a letter to the mayor and tell him the things that we would really want in our community. Can we do that?" They were already working on models of the buildings they wanted in the area, so they made them especially nice so the kids could show the mayor. Who can top that?

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Façades the students at Renaissance Charter School created out of cardboard.

When you're working on professional development with teachers, what's the most important skill or lesson you want to transmit to them?

JG: That's a tough one. I’d say being able to use what they have to teach kids, and then make lessons interactive. You know, using different methods to actually reach each student. It's not just you telling the kid what to do, because there are multiple intelligences. You need to have differentiated learning, meaning that some students can be taught by talking, some people can be visual learners — you have to know your audience.

KO: And not to spoon-feed the student. Learning has to be a process in which the kids pick their journey and figure out the way through the learning process. It is kid-driven, but facilitated by teachers.

What are key characteristics of great educational programs or enrichment programs for kids? What do all the great ones have in common?

KO: Active learning kids can engage in.

JG: That's pretty much the main thing. The kids have to see the relevance of the program. One of the things we do is use the six A's of project-based learning. The first A is authenticity — it has to be authentic to the kid and to the audience. Next is academic rigor. You have to think about what you're creating and how it relates to the curriculum. Then comes applied learning, which means you can put this into practice in the real world. The fourth A is active exploration, or having the kids do primary research to discover new information. The fifth A is adult relationships, which means having a parent, teacher, or guide come in to facilitate a conversation instead of spoon-feeding information to kids. The last A stands for assessment — how do you assess what the kids learned? We follow the design process when we are creating our lesson plan, but we also make sure that the six A's are embedded within it so the kids also experience them.

What is the role of outside educational programs or enrichment programs in a child's life?

JG: Teachers don't have time to add these types of enrichment curricula into their lessons, and the schools don't have the personnel to bring that kind of enrichment. So if you have another program that can do that for you, why not?

KS: We get teachers who say to us, "I love architecture, but I really don't feel confident that I can do a model with my kids” — that’s where we come in.

JG: We're not going to change the broken system tomorrow, but I think that if schools continue having these little programs, and kids get to really think for themselves, then that would be life-changing.

KS: It's also exposure. Exposure to things you're not getting exposed to in the classroom. The built and designed world is an amazing resource for learning.

How can parents instill problem-solving skills at home?

JG: As a parent, you don't answer all of your kids' questions; it’s important to let them discover, and there are things that you can discover together. It doesn't have to be, "Oh, I'm telling you this, I'm telling you that." You want kids to discover certain things on their own and make mistakes. I think that a lot of us don't want kids to fail, but trial and error is what discovery is all about.

KS: I think that's important. That mistakes are a part of life, and they happen.

JG: When you do research, 90 percent of your research fails anyway. It's not that you're going to give up in light of that, but you're going to find a creative solution to solve your problem.

Follow this link to see the previous installment of our spotlight on innovative educators, on Hilary Lewis and the Excellence Girls Charter School.