When the 5th-graders from PS 19 on the Lower East Side arrived at the Morgan Library and Museum on their class trip, museum educator Lauren Kaplan asked them to sit in a circle. Not just because it was the easiest way to do introductions, but because she wanted to get them thinking immediately about shapes and their characteristics.
The Morgan is known for housing the private collections of financier J. Pierpont Morgan — from rare manuscripts to annotated musical scores — and for its exhibitions of notable artwork and manuscripts. But the students in Liana Rosenman and Christopher Gianesses’ class had come to the Morgan for a new math workshop that helps upper elementary school students explore the relationship between familiar shapes and the Morgan’s unique architecture.
As the children sat in the Morgan’s steel and glass atrium, designed by Renzo Piano in 2006, Kaplan passed out a series of geometric shapes. Then she set a timer for two minutes, directing students to find their shape somewhere in the building.
“The goal is for students to think about geometric shapes and patterns in architecture,” she said.
Some students struck gold immediately: The rectangular floor tiles, for instance, were obvious. Others had no such luck. Marc studied his irregular trapezoid, looking puzzled. “How am I going to find this?” he murmured to himself.
Back in their circle, the students regrouped, with Kaplan taking the time to illuminate the difference between features that were part of the architecture of the building and those — like the square salt and pepper shakers, for example — that merely resided inside it.
“The way I think about it,” Kaplan said, “is to ask: ‘If you removed it, would the building fall apart?’”
The treasure hunt soon led to a discussion about the relationship between geometry and architecture.
“Why do you think rectangles and squares are the most common shape in this building?” Kaplan asked.
“Because they’re pretty strong,” Brandon volunteered.
Next, the students clustered in small groups around bags of magnetic shapes. Their goal: to recreate the pattern of shapes that made up the facade of the exhibition gallery (known as “the Cube”) in front of them. In one group, students were busily stacking rectangles when Jenny put her hand up to halt her classmates.
“Hold on, each square has two smaller ones inside!” she said as her classmates rushed to rearrange them.
“It helps us learn how two shapes can make a big one,” said Maya.
For the grand finale, Kaplan led the students into Morgan’s ornate Renaissance library, where they were awed by the elaborate decor. Soon, students were pointing out a wealth of shapes — cylinders, spheres and triangles — they hadn’t seen in the atrium.
“Shapes are important because they’re the foundation of the building in architecture,” noted Ciara. “So you have to choose the right shapes when you’re building.”
As the trip came to a close, teacher Liana Rosenman said it had acted as a bridge from familiar concepts like geometric shapes to newer ideas like geometry.
“This was definitely connected to what we’re learning and a good introduction to geometry that we can draw on when we do begin learning about it,” she said.
Among its other student workshops, the Morgan offers an exploration of myths and symbols for upper elementary students and an examination of its magnificent library for students in all grades. Free professional development is also available for teachers. See the Morgan's website for more information.