Monday, October 21, 2013

Playing with blocks to learn gothic art & archetecture

I love it when, while teaching, I don't need to tell the students the information because they figure it out themselves.  That is what happened last week during my third grade art history lesson.  The topic was Gothic architecture and I had given groups of students toy building sets (Tinkertoys, alphabet blocks, etc.)  I told each group to build a church as tall as they could without the walls falling over.  At first, a couple of the buildings collapsed.  Pretty quickly, however, the kids figured out ways to add height while strengthening the walls, and without any prompting from me I saw buildings constructed with nine-year-olds' block versions of pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and buttresses.  It was perfect.

Before we started playing with the blocks, the class discussed some historical context.  I introduced the high middle ages by explaining that the culture at this time was kind of like what people imagine when they think of fairy tales.  The students told me what they thought it would be like to live in a fairy tale, and I had some pictures from manuscripts and museums that illustrated a few of their ideas (e.g. they said, "princesses wore fancy dresses and hats" and I showed them a manuscript image of noblewomen).

Next, we discussed the Black Death.  I didn't go into much detail, because the point of the discussion wasn't to explain the illness itself, but to give one reason why religious imagery was so prevalent in Gothic art and architecture.  I used the Black Death as a tool to explore the emotions of medieval people during the Gothic period.  We thought about how the students would feel if they lost up to 30% of their loved ones in a short period of time, then proposed that medieval people may have felt similarly.  I pointed out that, during times of fear and sorrow, people sometimes turn to God as a way to deal with their emotions.

I realize that the plague was certainly not the only factor influencing the religious nature of high medieval culture and Gothic architecture.  I chose not to mention others due to time constraints.  I had only about an hour available:  simply not enough time to delve into the political environment or international relations of the age.  The most important part of the lesson was to let the children play with the building sets, so I wanted to get the lecture out of the way.

When playtime was over, we discussed the churches built by the students.

Me:  How did you build your church?
Group 1:  We made it with arches.
Me:  Good!  How might you change the shape of your arch to make your church taller?
(Group 1 wasn't sure)
Group 2:  They could make a pointy roof like we did!
Me:  That's exactly how the people 800 years ago made their churches taller.

Ambulatory of the Church of St.-Denis
Generally recognized as the earliest Gothic church built 1135-
From Wikimedia Commons

Me:  What made you (Group 2) decide to make a roof that pointed in middle, like an X?
Group 2:  At first we didn't, but then our building kept collapsing and we thought that if we could have some of the Tinkertoys going diagonally then the walls would be stronger.
Me:  And now your building stays up.  People in the high middle ages figured this out, too.  It's called ribbed vaulting.
A ribbed vault in Reims Cathedral, probably 13th cent.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Me:  What about the group that used the Lego blocks?  You built one really tall wall. How did you keep it from falling over?
Group 3:  We built a small wall on each side of the tall one to hold the tall one up.
Me:  Wow, you built buttresses!  Here's a picture of flying buttresses outside a cathedral.  Do you see how they're holding the other wall up?
Flying buttresses outside Notre Dame de Paris, 1160-1345
From Wikimedia Commons
Me:  Group 4 used alphabet blocks.  If you wanted to put big windows in your building, how would you do it?
(Group 4 didn't know)
Me:  People in the high middle ages didn't know how to do it, either.  They could only make small panes of glass.  Let me show you a picture of the solution they came up with.
Group 4:  Hey!  We could put a ton of little windows together to make one great big window!
Me:  That's exactly what medieval people did.
Windows of Toledo Cathedral, 13th cent.
From Wikimedia Commons
By the end of the lesson the students could look at pictures of Romanesque and Gothic style churches and name four characteristics of Gothic churches not present in the Romanesque style:  pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and tracery supported windows.  I was very impressed with the students.

Adapting for younger students.  A couple of days later I taught the same lesson to a class of first-graders. The first grade teacher gave me less time to teach; I needed to reduce my lesson accordingly.  Therefore, I skipped the discussion on the plague entirely, simply saying, "during this time there were a lot of churches," and the young kids accepted this information at face value.  I also altered the way I taught with the building sets.  Instead, I brought just one box of Tinkertoys to the classroom and called on individual students to help me build a church while the others watched.  I showed the students how the initial wobbly church we built became more stable as the children added pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and buttresses.  I then showed them the pictures.  I am much less satisfied with this technique, but fortunately the art history curriculum repeats itself every three years so I will hopefully be able to teach the better lesson to these children when they reach fourth grade.

Adapting for older students.  The sixth grade class I taught was able to handle deeper information.  I supplemented what I taught the third grade class with the story of Abbot Sugar introducing the Gothic style as he rebuilt the abbey church of Saint-Denis about 1140.  I also told the class about the construction, collapse, and rebuilding of Beauvais Cathedral as the 13th century architects pushed the boundaries of Gothic architecture to their limits.

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