If these walls could speak…

By Aruna Arjunan, November 5, 2006

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Design History

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

Seven fifty-minute class periods, or four class periods plus homework


This lesson topic is most simply the “historical use of space.” As an educator with a focus on social studies, I became interested in the use of different buildings and spaces over time and what shaped or determined those uses. This topic is very interesting to my students when it is focused on the neighborhoods from which they come and the neighborhood where our school is located. Over the course of the lesson, the students research, explore, and experience the space they choose to examine, and then attempt to create models of the space: past, present, and future (which they will base on research and educated guesses). The goal of the lesson is to engage students into thinking about how different spaces can be used over time, and what shapes those uses. While the focus of this specific lesson is Philadelphia, these sources and activities can be modified for any location.

National Standards

English and Language Arts Literacy
Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.  Standard 7: Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, and people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience. Standard 8: Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, and video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Information Literacy
Standard 1: The student who is information literate accesses information efficiently and effectively. Standard 2: The student who is information literate evaluates information critically and competently. Standard 3: The student who is information literate uses information accurately and creatively.
Science and Technology
E1. Abilities of technological design:
  • Identify a problem or design an opportunity.
  • Propose designs and choose between alternative solutions.
  • Implement a proposed design.
  • Evaluate the solution and its consequences.
  • Communicate the problem, process, and solution.
E2. Understanding about science and technology:
  • Scientists in different disciplines ask different questions, use different methods of investigation, and accept different types of evidence to support their explanations.
  • Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies.
  • Creativity, imagination, and a good knowledge base are all required in the work of science and engineering.
Social Studies
  • analyze and explain the ways groups, societies, and cultures address human needs and concerns
  • compare and analyze societal patterns for preserving and transmitting culture while adapting to environmental or social change
Time, Continuity, Change
  • apply key concepts such as time, chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity
  • systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality
  • investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment
People, Places, Environments
  • use appropriate resources, data sources, and geographic tools such as aerial photographs, satellite images, geographic information systems (GIS), map projections, and cartography to generate, manipulate, and interpret information such as atlases, data bases, grid systems, charts, graphs, and maps
  • describe and compare how people create places that reflect culture, human needs, government policy, and current values and ideals as they design and build specialized buildings, neighborhoods, shopping centers, urban centers, industrial parks, and the like
  •  propose, compare, and evaluate alternative policies for the use of land and other resources in communities, regions, nations, and the world

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Anchor Standards for Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Knowledge of Language:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will:

  • understand the relationship between history, the use of a given space, and its design
  • better understand the relationship between technology and design
  • understand how to do and improve upon their research skills using a variety of sources
  • understand what scale is, what a scale model is, and how to build scale models


  • local history museum
  • Promethean Boards (smart board like)
  • ActivStudio software
  • Microsoft learning essentials software–tutorials on research, organization, and brainstorming
  • reading materials / Internet sites (see attachment)
  • "If These Walls Could Speak..." PowerPoint
  • "Hearing What our Walls Have to Say..." Handout
  • Feedback Funnel


  • computers with Internet access
  • sculpting clay – Crayola model magic
  • cutting mats
  • LCD projector
  • razors for cutting
  • foam board
  • sketch pads
  • pencils
  • paper mâché
  • rulers
  • compass
  • t-square
  • protractor
  • foam core
  • graph paper


architecture, influence, time, history, arch, scale, pitch, research, zoning, vaults, structure, materials


Set-Up: Pick a series of buildings or spaces in your neighborhood that are easily accessible, and easy for the students to get to. The number is up to you, but for about 25 students, approximately 5 buildings are recommended. (If it is not possible to make trips to more than one site, have the students investigate different aspects of the same building.) Make sure that those spaces also have documentation through time, or some sort of history associated with them that is easily accessible. Create handouts that suggest the parameters of the project. Also, make sure you have acquired all the art materials ahead of time. This activity does not have to occur over seven class periods, as several of the assignments can be done as homework.
Teacher Presentation and Motivation:
The purpose of this activity is for students to use the study of design in order to understand more about the community they come from and learn in. By understanding the use of spaces over time in their community, they will better understand that community’s history.
Class One: Ask students if they think their classroom has always been a school classroom. Brainstorm what the space might have been used for before. Ask them to walk around the building, and notice different details. Were the spaces designed for the purpose that they are used for now? Has the design changed over time? After brainstorming, present students with some materials about the school building’s history–do their educated guesses match the history?
Ask students to respond in a written reflection as to why they think the use of the spaces or design has changed over time. Introduce the idea of analyzing a space over time to the students, and what such an inquiry can tell them–especially focusing on what it can suggest about a community’s history. Mention to students that they can learn more about their community by analyzing the use of different spaces in the community throughout time.
Class Two:
Introduce a space in the neighborhood to the students. Present them with research that suggests what the space used to be and ask them to compare it to its use now. Have them brainstorm in groups how the space could have changed over time and what may have contributed to that. Ask them to fully experience the space by walking around it, taking photographs or drawing pictures of what it looks like now. Tell them not to pay attention to detail (it may help to have a form to fill out while in the space, such as guiding questions that will get them thinking about the space and why it was designed the way it was, and whether it was always designed that way, etc.).
Class Three: Have students research the history of the neighborhood, and ask them to decide whether or not the history of the neighborhood might have contributed to the design and use of the space over time.
Students will present their findings and hypothesize with the rest of class. Have them share their ideas in groups of 2-3, then in larger groups, then with the class in order to discuss how history can be expressed through the design and change of a space.
Class Four:
Present students with the PowerPoint slide show of "If These Walls Could Speak..."  and use the time to recap what has been learned. Detail the new assignment using the slides and present students with different buildings/spaces (suggested about 5 for every 25 students) in the neighborhood for them to examine on their own. Group students by similar interests in space or building (works out to about 5 per group if 25 students and 5 spaces). *Note: All of the students can work on the same building in groups, if that is easier. Accompany students to the spaces and have them analyze the space as it is now. Give each student a copy of the "Hearing What Our Wall Have to Say..." handout  to use in order to analyze their space.
Class Five:
Go over the basics of research using the Internet and ask students to research their space’s history. Have them focus on one time period (depending on the research they find, or their interests).
Class Six:
The students should then re-create the space’s design at the historically chosen time and at the present time out of clay, drawing, markers, (whatever medium the teacher and students find appropriate).
Class Seven:
Review what it means to make inferences based on available information and ask students to gather as much information as possible on the space they are working on currently, and the information on the neighborhood. With this information, the students should attempt to infer what the space will be used for in the future based on what it was, and what it is now. Review constructive criticism/how to give feedback and passout the "Feedback Funnel" handout to the students. Have the students use the handout when assessing their fellow classmates. The students will present their work to other groups and will receive feedback, criticism, questions, etc. The students should improve upon or change their predictions. To further the lesson, have students present to other classes in the school or members in the community.
Wrap up: Ask students to assess themselves on their work.
Ask students to write a 1 page reflection on what they learned from the project.


Students should be assessed on their presentations and projects. Rubrics cand be made to use during assessment. Students will also self-assess during the wrap-up.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Make a community timeline through the information learned by analyzing the use of spaces. Create a museum exhibit to be placed somewhere within the community for community members and students to visit and learn about the neighborhood.

Teacher Reflection

Many high school students are not comfortable giving feedback to their peers. This is a skill that really needs to be worked on and rehearsed before using in class.

It would also be useful to set deadlines for the project, if parts of it are to be done out of class time in order for the students to be better organized.

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