Arlington School Creates Curriculum Based on Leonardo da Vinci's Work
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 1998; Page VA01
On the second floor of Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School, along a short and otherwise barren corridor, is a little Renaissance art gallery -- 20 paintings and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Each is pinned to the wall three feet from the floor, just high enough for a 5-year-old to see.
That is how the study of one of history's most versatile men begins at Barcroft. The kindergartners are told to look carefully at each work. There is "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa," as well as lesser works such as "Twenty-seven Cats and a Dragon."
"He likes to draw animals," one child observes. "I think he was a musician," says another.
At most schools, that would be it. The kindergartners would listen to their teacher tell the great man's story and draw a few pictures, then move on to Christopher Columbus or George Washington or whoever was next on the list.
At Barcroft, the teachers and students come back to Leonardo again and again and again, turning the many parts of his life into lessons in science and mathematics and literature and art and music. "The thing that was wonderful about Leonardo da Vinci was that he was interested in almost everything," said Sandra Phaup, who conducts and coordinates many of the Leonardo writing lessons. "He was the antithesis of a couch potato."
For the last six years, Barcroft has been using a man born half a millennium ago to construct one of the most modern grade-school curriculums in the area. The Leonardo da Vinci project feeds off the latest educational research, which recommends taking students deep into a few subjects and connecting them to each other, mathematics to art, science to social studies. Teaching Leonardo "is another way to learn core subjects without fragmenting them," Barcroft Principal Miriam Hughey-Guy said.
First-graders relate their study of the sun, seasons and weather cycles to Leonardo's interest in the natural world. Second-graders do an analysis of his painting of a distracted young woman, "Ginevra de Benci." "They are very good observers," said Dora Sue Black, a reading and science teacher. "They ask, 'Why is she so sad?' "
Third-graders study Greece and Rome and the impact of classical culture on 15th-century Italians such as Leonardo.
Fifth-graders connect their study of space exploration to the drawings of flying machines he produced in his dreamier moments.
And fourth-graders, asked to study early American culture and history, set up the intellectual equivalent of Godzilla vs. King Kong. They compare Leonardo to America's comparable genius, Thomas Jefferson. They try to fit the two great architects/scientists/ musicians/inventors/writers together.
At the Barcroft fourth-grade Leonardo da Vinci Fair last week, parents and students crowded the classrooms of teachers Becky Lincoln, Toni Gelston, Donna Crocker and Mary Wright to view dozens of interpretations of the Leonardo da Vinci-Jefferson theme. What were their mutual interests? What might they have talked about if Leonardo had not died 224 years before Jefferson was born?
Jessica Williams, one of the fourth-graders at the fair, noted that both men lived in France for a while and admired things French. What intrigued her about Leonardo, she said, was that he achieved such fame despite having a C student's weakness for procrastination. "He never finished a project on time," she said.
James Parker said he studied Leonardo's use of backward writing as a code and tried it himself. Tiffany Evans said she loved the Italian's sketches but thought he was not nearly as "persistent and ambitious" as Jefferson. He did not have Jefferson's gift for politics, just as Jefferson's art was largely confined to architectural drawings.
Like Jefferson, Leonardo "did a lot of interesting things. He was a botanist and a musician. We don't get bored studying him because we can always hear about some other subject that he did," Sarah Toth said. She was with her classmates Carly Dean and Bunky Eaton, all three dressed in Colonial garb.
Daniel imagines meeting the musician in a dream. "Why so down in the dumps?" the boy asks. The musician replies, "I'm not really sad. I just have no teeth, and I'm embarrassed."
Daniel's mother, Annette Osso, said the project "is such an opportunity for the child to go so deeply into so many things."
Her husband, David Michaelson, said that the project "also provides many practical applications."
The fourth-graders made paper structures using cubes, pyramids and cylinders in recognition of the architectural interests of Leonardo and Jefferson. On the walls were metal repousse, hammered aluminum renderings colored by permanent marker that displayed various Renaissance building styles. "We integrate this with geometry," art teacher Marel Sitron said.
Barcroft teachers said a former principal, Ellen Kahan, came up with the Leonardo da Vinci name and focus for the special project the school had been developing after a dinner conversation with her high school daughter, who had studied the man. The first project brochure contrasted the breadth of the artist's vision to the "narrow, confined view of life provided by television, computer games, and horror movies."
Leonardo expands the mind, said teacher Becky Lincoln, but also helps organize what has been learned. What she likes most about the multifaceted artist, she said, is that "he pulls together all the concepts."
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