Teaching the Neighborhoods Next Generation of Preservationists

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By Laura Shin

New York City's youngest residents are learning to be architects. Upper East Side and East Harlem elementary students are weaving words like "cornice" and "pediment" into their everyday vocabulary through the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts' "Building Fun" program.

"Growing up in New York City, I think it's important for the kids to understand their surroundings," said Sarah O'Keefe, education director for FRIENDS. "After we teach the program, it really opens their eyes about their built environment."

"Building Fun" is broken up into three components. First, students learn vocabulary in the classroom. Second, they are taken on a walking tour where they learn about different buildings and see examples of the vocabulary they have learned. Finally, they design their own buildings.

"We try to make it fun for the kids by asking them, 'If the building could talk, what would it tell you about itself?'" O'Keefe said. "'What is it made of?' 'How old is it?' 'What was it used for?'"

Each walking tour is customized for the class so students can learn about the buildings in the areas surrounding their schools. O'Keefe said they scout the areas so the tours will be as relevant as possible for the students.

"It's really great for our social studies curriculum because we study New York City and how it has changed over time and different features that make New York unique," said Pamela Horowitz, a 2nd grade teacher at P.S. 59 on the Upper East Side. She has participated in the "Building Fun" program four times.

"A lot of the kids live in the neighborhood, and the program makes them more aware of their surroundings," she said. "After that trip, whenever we go out, they always point out things they see, so it really sticks with them."

The architecture program was established in 1995. Since then, Friends has added other educational programming, such as "Yorkville Immigration," which teaches students about the German and Hungarian immigration histories of the neighborhood.

"We recognized that there was an opportunity to create a new offering because of the rich Yorkville history," said O'Keefe, who has been with FRIENDS for five years.

In the classroom, students learn about what it was like for immigrants to build their communities. Next, the students go on a walking tour of the areas where these communities once existed. Lastly, the students participate in an Ellis Island simulation in their classroom, where they play the part of immigrants coming to the United States.

In 2011, FRIENDS' education programs reached more than 1,000 students. The programs are offered to classes in both public and private schools on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem.

In addition to "Building Fun" and "Yorkville Immigration," FRIENDS is now also offering a "Preservation and Landmarks" lesson where students learn about the importance of landmarks and participate in a mock Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing.

"We try to get them to think about their favorite buildings and how they would feel if they weren't there or if they were torn down," O'Keefe said. "The kids get really emotional."

The landmarks program is offered as a single lesson or can be added on to the other programs. O'Keefe said she hopes to turn it into a three-part program sometime in the future.

"I love teaching these programs because it really changes the vision of our students and opens their eyes to the history and fabric of their architectural surroundings," she said.

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