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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Constructing a Community

A visual art teacher and a social studies teacher use the distinctive architecture and history of their school's neighborhood to help eighth-graders see their community in a new light.



Intermediate School 230


Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City




Visual Art, Social Studies


Students are immersed in the architecture of their neighborhood.

The Integrated Instruction

Maria Bonilla, Visual Art Teacher
I think it’s important for students to see themselves in terms of their community. So we connect the architecture of Jackson Heights – which is basically the art form of our neighborhood – to our social studies focus, the community of Jackson Heights. Once the students start doing their own research on the neighborhood and working on the art project, they really start to feel that connection.


Gail Altan, Social Studies Teacher
Jackson Heights is a landmark historic district, and I wanted the students to understand and appreciate what landmarks are about. I feel like the students’ history knowledge was really helped by the art-making they did in this project. When they started to see that the models they’d been building actually looked like the buildings we’d been studying, that really excited them.

Watching the Video

Student showing model of a buildingBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What is community? What historical, geographical, economic, cultural, artistic, civic, or regional influences have shaped the community in which your school sits?
  • How do you make the concept of community tangible or visible to students?
  • How do the arts influence community? How does community life affect the arts?


Watch the Program

As you watch, note the roles that collage-making and model-making play in students’ study of local architecture. How do students acquire architectural vocabulary? Note the kinds of issues and concepts students encounter, such as landmark building status and civic planning. Write down what you find interesting, surprising, or especially important about the teaching and learning you see in this unit.


Reflect on the Program

  • What areas of study – arts and non-arts – were connected in students’ work on local architecture?Reflect on the Program
  • What kinds of preparation do you think preceded the lessons seen in the program to make these activities successful for students?
  • What knowledge do these teachers have about their local community, and how does this knowledge help them plan and conduct the unit?
  • Which components of the study – social studies or visual art – would be most challenging for you and your colleagues to incorporate into an integrated unit? Why?
  • What, if any, evidence did you see of the ways students benefited from this unit of study?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Have you ever had students investigate their local community as part of a unit of study?
  • What aspects of your local community lend themselves most to exploration via an integrated arts unit? History? Agriculture? Architecture? Economics? Migration or immigration? Engineering and innovation?
  • What disciplines might this unit involve? Who in your school could you collaborate with on a project connecting your community to the classroom?
  • How do you judge students’ success at understanding and assimilating new information and material?


Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Have students interview local residents about what makes their community unique and share their findings with their classmates. Select one of these community characteristics to explore from different arts and non-arts perspectives.

Compare eras: Have students research what their community looked like 100 years ago and construct a replica, either 2D drawing or 3D model, of an area within this historical landscape. Have students explore how this landscape may have influenced the local community. Have students compare that historic community with their own. What changes do they see? And what effect do they see those changes having on the community?

Connect to today: Discuss with students how their community shapes their lives today. Have them select, from stories in the local newspaper, a development in the community and forecast its effect on a class of students like their own, perhaps 25 years in the future.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

An Exploration of the Jackson Heights Community: A unit overview including goals and a list of lessons taught during the unit (PDF)

The Architect’s Point of View or Discovering the Pepper: A drawing lesson plan focused on three-dimensional form and design (PDF)

Jackson Heights Architectural Collage: An art lesson plan focusing on shape and proportion (PDF)

Drawing Jackson Heights: An art lesson plan stressing architectural drawing, vocabulary, shape, proportion and ratio (PDF)

Classical Architecture Goes Tubular: An art lesson plan to help students create an awareness of structural principles and develop an understanding of three-dimensional form (PDF)

Architecture Vocabulary [student worksheet]: An exercise in matching architecture vocabulary and definitions (PDF)

Architecture and Art Criticism [student worksheet]: A form that guides students in critiquing peers’ architecture-related artwork (PDF)

Print Resources

Dietsch, Deborah K. Architecture for Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2002. ISBN: 0764553968

Green, Betsy. Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood. Santa Monica, Calif.: Santa Monica Press, 2002. ISBN: 1891661248

Hellman, Louis. Architecture for Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers, 1988. ASIN: 0863160417

Light, Sally, & Eberle, Margaret. House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the History of Your House. Spencertown, N.Y.: Golden Hill Press, 1989. ISBN: 0961487615

Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in the American Metropolis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. ISBN: 0231062974

Web Sites

National Register of Historic Places
A national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archaeological resources

National Trust for Historic Preservation
A privately-funded, nonprofit organization that provides leadership, education, and advocacy to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize our communities

Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Museum Web site containing virtual tours, primary documents, and resources for teachers

Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City
Description and photos of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York City, assembled by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group

About the School

Intermediate School 230, Queens, N.Y.

Intermediate School 230, located in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens in New York City, is a large urban public school that serves 973 students in grades six to eight. The school’s diverse population is comprised predominantly of Hispanic and Asian students, a high percentage of whom are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. The school is committed to a safe learning environment where all students can meet a high standard of excellence. The educational mission of the school is to create a community of active learners, through personal development, development of basic communication and learning skills, and instruction in the major knowledge areas of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.

School information compiled from New York City Department of Education Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Maria Bonilla, Visual Art Teacher

What does “8-7” refer to? How long did it take for the students to build their models?

We have ten eighth-grade classes at our school and we use numbers to refer to them. Class 8-7 met for art twice a week. Classes were 50 minutes long and it took six weeks to complete the models. Some groups would have benefited from a couple more weeks to finish.

Why do you think the model-making engaged some of these students so deeply?

Young children love to combine imaginative play with real materials. I believe these activities help promote creative problem-solving skills. At the middle school level, students are skeptical of craft projects and crave a more “adult-looking” result, even in painting and drawing. The materials used enabled students to render the buildings in a rather realistic way. They felt mature and accomplished on seeing the results.

What alternative, less expensive materials could be used for building models?

Boxes rather than foam core, construction paper rather than charcoal paper, painted sand for garden areas.

Do you have a background in architecture, or other special preparation to teach this unit?

I have no special background in architecture but have studied the usual buildings in art history classes. I was trained, however, to teach a children’s architecture program through my school district. The program was called The Rio Grande Collaboration and was sponsored by the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. If I teach any project, I do the project first. I make notes about resources needed and try to simplify according to student abilities.

Gail Altan, 8th-Grade Social Studies Teacher

What are the components of an exit project? Why is it called an exit project?

An exit project consists of several components that must be addressed during the course of study, ranging from choosing a topic through developing teamwork skills through using the library and Internet effectively. For the project, students are required to complete a research paper, a graphic presentation, and an oral presentation. It is called an exit project because students must undertake a long-term task to achieve a stated goal in order to meet one of the requirements for promotion and graduation into the ninth grade.

How did the students do their research for their exit projects? What traditional and community resources did they use?

We began by brainstorming the elements of a community. The students came up with subtopics such as history, business, crime, transportation, and architecture. I divided the class into groups. Each group was responsible for finding information about their sub-topics. We visited the library many times and went out on a tour of the community. After school, students went to places such as the police precinct, businesses, local community centers, and the Jackson Heights Beautification Group.

What differences did you notice between your students who were doing the architecture project with Maria, and students in your other classes?

I noticed that students who were involved with creating the models of the buildings in Jackson Heights were much more involved and anxious to complete the exit project. They showed more ownership and were more responsible with their projects.