Architechture curriculum for homeschoolers

We are studying architecture this week. I can’t remember the last time both my kids studied the same thing at once. Well, I guess in the olden days, when they were 6 and 9 and played Minecraft all day, you could say they were studying the same thing. But it’s been a while.

My older son is studying the Protestant Reformation, and I got excited to show him how the emergence of oil paint coincided with the secular desire to paint non-church scenes in a very realistic way. My son got excited too, because he studies a lot of science and I show no interest. The homeschooling mantra about how learning is so nice as a family is true, but only realistic if I don’t have to do chemical equations.

My younger son is playing Bach. And his cello teacher told him that Bach wrote during the period of Gothic architecture. She said Gothic architecture is a repetition of the same shapes in slightly different ways, and Bach’s music is the same shape in many different ways.

I am a terrible cello mom when it comes to reading notes (it all goes back to math) and hearing what’s in tune (you might think you know what’s in tune, but it might be because you have’t watched a cello teacher talk about a single note on a single string with a single finger for fifteen minutes…. actually I probably didn’t really listen either.) But when the cello teacher talks about non-music stuff I am a genius.

So we started with castles (any topics works with boys if there’s blood and guts) and made our way from Gothic where the church dominated, to the Renaissance where the Medici family said to hell with the church and they built buildings in honor of themselves.

I am now certain that unschooling has been successful in instilling a belief in self-directed learning because both kids said they were totally not interested and if I like architecture so much I should study if myself.

I wanted to tell them that I can barely write blog posts for myself because I am so immersed in the stuff they want to do with their lives. But that would be passive aggressive and anyway, I probably do have time to accomplish stuff I want to, I am just choosing instead to torture my kids with my own interests.

“Architecture is politics,” I tell them.

“Because of Trump Towers?”

I pause. There must be a lesson here. “Well,” I say, “That’s one example. Yes. Trump used architecture to exhibit his own power in his community. Like the church with Gothic architecture.”

“And his golf courses.”

The kids hijack my lesson plan. But all learning is war, and I force a retreat.

I show them pictures I took in Houston. “Look you guys. The same company that builds prisons in Texas also builds the schools.”

They don’t believe me. Until they see the pictures. There are no windows.

“School is a prison,” my older son says.

My younger son goes to his cello. Plays four long open somber strings. He says, “This is what Bach’s music would sound like if he wrote music in Houston today.”

This is what a great, magical unschooling moment looks like with a highly engaged loving creative mom.

And it was so exhausting that I finally decided that today I’d rather be blogging.

16 replies
  1. Jessica from Down Under
    Jessica from Down Under says:

    Oh my goodness! One of the reasons I h-school is because I don’t like the schools in my area, and I don’t think I should force my kids to go to school if I wouldn’t like to go myself. How could parents send their kids to school at that place with a clear conscience? It screams future mental cases to me…

  2. Jeff Melvin
    Jeff Melvin says:


    Wrong post to respond to. Apparently, it is still early. Smile. Go architecture! I am actually 5 years in to a 7 year architectural degree with about 5 to go. I put the degre on hold when my mother moved in with me and my wife 5 years ago. I didn’t resume it when I kicked her out 9 months later. Then the cancer came. No guilt. Just other stuff.

    Was that a Freudian Post?

  3. Lauren Teller
    Lauren Teller says:

    The original buildings at Swarthmore were designed based on Quaker principles of balance, classic proportion, and simplicity. The modern buildings are in the same mold. Take a look at the Swarthmore’s all right there in wood and green velvet.
    Mid century modern furniture is reflection of those same founding values. Minimalism and harmony without ostentation.
    How does the cello express that?

  4. Liz
    Liz says:

    You’ve been on my mind a lot lately. And, I’m so glad you’re blogging again, but am sorry that you’re going through all you’re going through (e.g., the laundry and other stuff). I hope it gets easier soon.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Castles and Gothic architecture to Trump Towers to prisons and schools. LOL. Entertaining and educational at the same time. It’s the best way to learn. I like your approach to unschooling in an interdisciplinary format rather than by subject. I think it’s more memorable and therefore useful. The people of Finland also believe this to be true as they will no longer be teaching in their schools by a curriculum defined by subjects – .

  6. Mali
    Mali says:

    My eyes watered when I read this. I went to high school in Houston and always thought that I was in jail. The classroom walls were cinder blocks painted white! Looking back I am glad I knew myself enough to always be late and miss the maximum days of school.

    I enjoy when you share your creative taste and knowledge on the blog.

  7. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    The prison-school connection (architecturally and administratively) is chilling. The history of school architecture and its societal meanings could be an interesting study, more than just an offhand conversation. The history of what schools meant to people can be fascinating even to homeschoolers.

    In America, schools were typically ramshackle wooden buildings until the turn of the 19th century. After universal schooling became mandatory, the reformers who brought it about, such as Horace Mann, also developed plans for school buildings to support their vision. Many of these buildings are quite beautiful outside, and were pleasant inside as well. For example, Mann insisted on windows on both sides of classrooms, ventilation, and high ceilings, to combat the tendency for schools to resemble dark, dank factories. The school was intended to be an emblem of civic virtue, and looked the part.

    Many schools in my city, Boston, were built in the early 19th century, and demonstrate these good design principles despite the later advent of electric light and air conditioning. When I think of a beautiful classroom, it’s impossible for me to divorce that from the architecture of the late 19th / early 20th century. One of my children goes to school in a building from 1922, the other in a building from 1915.

    In the thirties, the next reform movement exemplified by John Dewey lead to “progressive” schools that emphasized connection with the outdoors and child-centered learning. Few of these schools remain today (following a sputnik-era backlash), many with the moniker “Country Day School” after their names.

    The baby boom after WWII lead to a great need for new school buildings. By that time, electric light was ubiquitous, though air conditioning was not, and ventilation through windows was still necessary. The student population rose by 2.3 million in the decade between 1958 and 1968. The schools built for these kids were almost uniformly horrid: one-story, flat-roofed cracker boxes, lit by fluorescent lights, with single walls of glass. In my city, most schools built in that era have been torn down already.

    In the sixties and seventies, many “experimental” school buildings were erected, using bizarre open plan layouts and UFO-like domes. Many of the standards and ideas of a century previous were the baby thrown out with the bathwater. In this era, air conditioning became more common, and windows became closed off to ventilation. I went to one of those schools as a kid, and it was particularly noisy and dank.

    After a decline in new school-building because of declining enrollment during the 80s and 90s, the new century has seen a return to some of the ideas of the early 20th century, in terms of greater natural light, ventilation, and acoustic dampening. Added to this, energy considerations like LEED certification and green roofs are making their way into school design.

    Although some areas still erect plain brick crackerboxes for schools, in other areas new state of the art schools cost into nine figures and again reach for design prestige as they did a century ago. More than one school building costing a quarter billion dollars is in the pipeline locally.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Perhaps this is different depending on k-5 or middle school vs high school. Our public elementary schools are pretty basic like you describe, but the middle and high schools have gorgeous state of the art campuses with a park like feel and a quad. And of course the independent private schools are beyond beautiful.

      Regionally there are differences as well. I expect (wrongly or rightly) east coast schools to be more prestigious (?) than other regions.

      Of course homeschooling and using modern state of the art learning centers for STEM classes has been ideal for us.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        Hi, YMKAS.

        I wonder about regional differences in school architecture. I’d imagine it has more to do with the age of the buildings than anything. If the biggest population boom in an area was in the 70s-90s, you can expect the schools to look terrible. We talk about prisons looking terrible and forbidding, but in Boston the Liberty Hotel is located in what was once the Charles Street Jail, a beautiful building completed in 1851.

        Also, as you know from California, the wealth of the surrounding area probably has a marked impact on the beauty of the school.

        To be clear, I still believe that homeschooling is the right choice for a lot of people – several times as many who currently do it. I’m glad it’s still working for you, because schools certainly bring their own headaches.

        I just don’t think it’s the right choice for all kids at all times.

    • Julie Varvaro
      Julie Varvaro says:

      The study of this connection was done long ago by Foucault in Discipline and Punishment. In fact, after reading this book, my husband got on board to unschool.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love Bach.

    I am a bad music mom as well. I don’t know how to be. I say things like “That sounded terrible. Try it again” and “Good job!”

    Studying architecture has so many layers to it. Maybe instead of framing it as “studying architecture” you can reframe it as something else. From an engineering perspective, to an artistic perspective, to social/historical/political…many angles. The east coast offers a lot for you to consume and digest!!

  9. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    “I am a terrible cello mom when it comes to reading notes (it all goes back to math) and hearing what’s in tune (you might think you know what’s in tune, but it might be because you have’t watched a cello teacher talk about a single note on a single string with a single finger for fifteen minutes…. actually I probably didn’t really listen either.) But when the cello teacher talks about non-music stuff I am a genius.”

    **I am that cello teacher!** :)


    “This is what a great, magical unschooling moment looks like with a highly engaged loving creative mom.

    And it was so exhausting that I finally decided that today I’d rather be blogging.”

  10. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Apologies for pedantry, but as Bach was a Baroque composer, confusing children with spurious comparisons to much earlier Gothic architecture is not very helpful at all to understanding context of his music. Nice it sparked a project though. Remember well my own home-educated children’s disdainful lack of interest in many of my imposed Great Cultural Educational Plans – and the (very) occasional golden moments that confirmed we were on the right path.

    I too was a ‘non-music music mum’ – overseeing (winging) hours and hours of violin practice that I really knew nothing about. Unable to sort out any misunderstandings or answer questions – or teach anything between lessons. And I always knew my son was a bit disadvantaged by my ignorance, despite reassurance from musician music mums (the norm) and teachers that ‘it didn’t matter a bit’. I knew very well that it did.

  11. John
    John says:

    “The same company that builds prisons in Texas also builds the schools.” Is this true or just a joke?

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