Imagine the following: an athletics facility where the primary customers are female, a recreation center designed for the mobility-impaired, and an environmental center where parking spots are reserved for free shuttles and space is made for a bicycle shop. These are just a few of the facilities conjured up by fourth graders exploring the intersection between social justice and architecture.
This winter, each student researched a social justice issue that interested them such as racism, ageism, classism, ableism, sexism, and even environmental justice. In humanities, they channeled their knowledge—and often deep empathy—into poems about their topic. In math, they used their newfound understanding to create architectural designs for facilities that countered that injustice.
“Last year, associate teacher Lizzie Mann and I were walking through the Lower School halls when we saw the fourth graders’ social justice poems on display,” said Lower School math specialist Emily Lenhart. “They were so moving. We knew we had to find a way to connect this work back to math.”
To start the architectural component of the project, students were able to choose from three potential plots of land (lots that were actually for sale this fall). Students designed their facilities with the dimensions of their land in mind. They explored concepts including area, perimeter, and scale. They worked on large-figure multiplication skills by looking at the cost per square yard and calculating the total cost of the land. “It felt like an authentic application of math skills,” said Emily.
In December, students presented their designs to panelists with expertise in urban planning and social justice, including San Bruno City Manager Jaovan Grogan and Leora Tanjuatco Ross, organizing director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County. Jaovan observed that students intuitively made choices that many good architects would consider such as allocating space for storage, making efficient use of hallway space, and the intentional design of outdoor space.
Kota N. was one of the students who considered outdoor space when he designed a shelter for the homeless—a population which some planners may forget includes children. “It has a large open space for children to play safely,” he said.
Emily piloted this design project last year, but made one critical change for the presentation format this year—students had to read their social justice poem before presenting their building plans. The result: the higher purpose for each building was front and center.
Excerpts from Student Poems