Feature stories

Building imagination

Architecture teacher helps students see the world in 3-D

Architecture teacher Jawnuta Di Sclafani (right) and one of her students at the Jonathan FickiesArchitecture teacher Jawnuta Di Sclafani (right) and one of her students at the HS for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Queens examine the design of a model bedroom.

The 3-D models students create in Jawnuta Di Sclafani’s architecture class represent more than a class assignment to create a bedroom or design a building. They challenge the students to rethink how they see the world.

Di Sclafani, who teaches at the HS for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Queens, helps her 10th-graders imagine a world beyond the one they know and use their hands to build and create it.

A student holds a Japanese-inspired facade she created in class.Jonathan FickiesA student holds a Japanese-inspired facade she created in class.

Like most young people these days, her students are more comfortable inhabiting the virtual worlds of social media and the internet. In September, she says, they didn’t know how to use an X-Acto knife. Many did not believe they could draw.

When students enter Di Sclafani’s class in September, she asks them to research and write an essay about a famous architect and then make a PowerPoint presentation to the class.

“Everyone’s doing individual work but sharing knowledge,” Di Sclafani explains. “It’s students teaching other students.”

Next, the students make their first architectural drawings for their dream bedroom — where would you place a window or door? — before they tackle the ultimate challenge: translating the idea from the page to a 3-D model using their fine-motor and design skills.

Precision is everything as students measure and attach walls and place windows aJonathan FickiesPrecision is everything as students measure and attach walls and place windows and doors correctly.

“They’re applying different colors and learning how to see things in 1-to-1 scale,” she says. The model-making can take six to eight weeks — their first attempts are not graded so her students can feel free to make mistakes and learn from them.

Students get to explore longer, more complex projects as the year progresses. They take turns playing architect and client: How well can they visualize and bring to life a client’s dream bedroom?

“They’re learning how to be receptive to criticism and to a client’s demands,” Di Sclafani says. “And they’re learning critical thinking.”

She emphasizes the importance of assessing and revising work — always stepping back to ask, “Can it be improved?”

Di Sclafani’s classroom is set up like a professional architect’s office with rows of drafting tables and high stools. In a class in early April, students were focused intently on measuring and cutting the chipboard pieces they needed to create their dream bedrooms. They worked independently, but consulted with each other as necessary.

Each year, Di Sclafani sees the same trajectory. As the students struggle to create their 3-D bedrooms, she says, “There’s a breaking point where they decide to leap forward.”

This “leap forward” is evident in the display cases outside her classroom and in the school lobby. They are filled with building facades and three-dimensional miniature bedrooms decorated with colorful rugs, wallpaper and bedspreads.

By building 3-D models, students’ fine-motor and design skills get a workout — aJonathan FickiesBy building 3-D models, students’ fine-motor and design skills get a workout — and so do their imaginations. Here’s another example of the creative freedom students experience in the class.Jonathan FickiesHere’s another example of the creative freedom students experience in the class.

“Jawnuta is taking architecture by the reins,” says Chapter Leader Monique Lee, who teaches English at the school. “A couple of days ago, I went by her classroom and she had a group of students huddled around her. She’s modeling the process in small groups, explaining how to get from A to B on a project.”

Danny Adegbie, who teaches the 11th-grade architecture class, says Di Sclafani’s students come to his class well-prepared, thanks to her methods. “They’re thinking like young architects,” he says.

Many of her students, Di Sclafani says, had never been to Manhattan, just an hour away by subway from the Ozone Park school.

Di Sclafani brings in photos and articles about buildings around the world to inJonathan FickiesDi Sclafani brings in photos and articles about buildings around the world to inspire students in the creation of their skyscrapers and cityscapes. To build their dream bedrooms, students use chipboard, decorative papers and eveJonathan FickiesTo build their dream bedrooms, students use chipboard, decorative papers and even miniature samples of floor tile and paint chips from Home Depot.

She has taken them there to see the High Line and New York City College of Technology. They also visited the park in the Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn. She also shares information with her class about exhibits, free weekend classes and lectures in Manhattan.

“I use photos of my travels to help them envision different places,” says Di Sclafani.

Her work is igniting a spark in students. Of the 30 students in her current 10th-grade class, 10 have expressed an interest in pursuing architecture in college, Di Sclafani says. One senior who studied with her two years ago has been accepted to study architecture at Cornell University in the fall.

Simranjeet Kaur, 16, says her year in Di Sclafani’s class helped her make the transition from 3-D models to 2-D online models. “It helps to visualize the model first in 3-D when you’re creating a blueprint,” she says.

“I enjoyed that we could express ourselves in her class without being judged,” says Ana Belkis, 15.

Crystal Gamez, 16, is already thinking about how Di Sclafani’s class will give her an edge when she’s in college, where she wants to pursue architecture.

“In college I’ll be more advanced than others,” she says. “These are my building blocks for Syracuse, Buffalo or Pratt.”

Gamez said she originally wanted to be an interior designer. “But now,” she says, “I want to build things — unique things, not just ordinary.”

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