Trabeation, Fenestration, and Useful Changes to our Minds

This fall I spent a wonderful week at Akademeia High School in Warsaw, Poland. I met new friends and colleagues … and discovered a new way to observe classes. Maybe you’d like to try it, too. I set myself the challenge of writing a blog during one half of the class. 40 minutes from start to finish. I just wrote what goes on in my head as I watch high school students learn and the teacher teach.

This first classroom observation is of an art history class for Year 13 students.

I didn’t expect to be learning about trabeation. It took going on a school visit in Warsaw to hear this word for the first time. We’re looking at Queen’s House in Greenwich, a symmetrical three story building painted in white. The building is constructed with load bearing beams. “Post and lintel” is written on the board, along with other terms. Trabeation. I look for the word’s etymology. Latin for beam, timber. Trabeation goes back to the 16th century. For me it goes back a few minutes.

There are only three students sitting on one side of an oval, boardroom style table. The teacher stands on the other side, between the table and the large screen on her right, the white board on her left. 

The conversation moves to materials. Roman concrete, I learn, is made using volcanic ash, it actually gets stronger when exposed to salt water, and the Romans would often mix in chunks of sand, gravel, stone, or broken pottery. Whatever they did seems awfully clever for two thousand years ago.

The architecture of the school building we are in relies on exposed concrete, stainless steel, exposed ventilation systems, and blonde wood. It’s beautiful, in a Chipotle-industrial-look sort of way. The teacher steps to the concrete wall in the room and points out the imperfections. They are part of the beauty. And it is, in its way, beautiful. I see that.

We move on to the Royal National Theatre, built of reinforced concrete and glass. The teacher calls the style brutalism. Square, strong, solid, unforgiving. 

I suppose when the students leave a class like this, if it’s made an impression at all, they look at buildings a bit differently. As they move about the city, do they start to form classifications and categories in their minds? This building looks a bit brutal, and that construction relies on trabeation. This building’s aesthetic works for me, that one’s doesn’t. Do they start experiencing the world in a richer manner? They might start looking at more than buildings in a different way. They may start looking for patterns they didn’t notice before, in streets, in forests, in texts, in ideas and hypotheses.

The teacher reviews the term fenestration for the students. Fenestration describes the window system. I like the word, as a linguist, because it’s yet another example of borrowing from French, with a strong whiff of Latin, to make something fancier, more important, perhaps more elite. It’s a window system, but saying it that way is so … brutal. So uninteresting. Let’s look at the fenestration, now there we have something. This is not part of the class discussion, just me ruminating. There you go again. Why think when you can ruminate?

And isn’t this what education is about? Getting ourselves to think. At the moment it happens to be a residence, a theater, and now on the next slide, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. Looks like an updated queen’s house, symmetrical, white, rectangular, but modern. A student points this out even as I’m thinking it. The teacher knows what she is doing, she selected these similar but dissimilar buildings on purpose. We are thinking, the students and I, we are making useful changes to our minds, that’s how David Perkins defined learning once. At least I think they are useful changes. With art I sometimes don’t really know. The words art and useful are uneasy bedfellows. 

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