Victoria St. Martin is a writer and former journalism teacher at the University of Notre Dame who lived in Indiana while reporting this story. Barbara Johnston is a photographer in Osceola, Indiana. This story takes place in Porter County (population 173,000), which has a bi-weekly newspaper, the Chesterton Tribune.
It can happen in an instant: that moment when you go from not knowing what you want to do for the rest of your life, to having absolute certainty about it. For Tarik El-Naggar, this happened in 1970, when he was in seventh grade working on a project for the English class.
Task? Build a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater from everyday objects. He built a cardboard model 2 feet in diameter – and an architect was born. “As a child, you build miniature cars or rockets, but never a building,” says El-Naggar, who is now 63 and co-owner of an architecture and interior design firm. “I don’t know what was going on with the building. It had all the seats, the stage and the roof open – it was just great. It was a light bulb moment.
El-Naggar’s life came full circle when he added “high school teacher” to his resume nine years ago – creating a STEM program with members of the administration from his old school in the north. -western Indiana. In his Valparaiso High School classroom, students have their own light bulb moments by creating projects using ping-pong balls, cardboard, computers and 3D printers. “Instead of just teaching the basics of architecture, I’m actually teaching them design theory,” says El-Naggar, whose course is similar to the one he taught at a nearby college.
And he got results: This year, his Valparaiso students won the Indiana High School architectural design competition, winning all nine awards out of 72 entries from eight schools – possibly a school’s best performance in decades. . “It was really shocking,” El-Naggar said. “I feel like we have something unique.”
Valparaiso, a middle-class community located about 55 miles southeast of Chicago, began incorporating more STEM classes into its curriculum about six years ago. A school official said the district wanted to put more emphasis on skills such as critical thinking, communication, creativity and problem-solving, and got several grants from the county redevelopment commission for strengthen tools in Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms. The high school ranks roughly in Indiana’s top 10 percent, and its standardized test scores in reading and math significantly outperform the rest of the state.
“There are schools across the country that have great basketball programs. So what are parents doing? You are moving because you want your son or daughter to go, ”says El-Naggar. “I want people to look at what we’re doing here and say, ‘My kids are going to be engineers, architects. They must be here. “
For high school students who want to pursue a career in architecture, taking courses with El-Naggar pays off: in the past three years, all five students who have applied to college-level architecture programs have been accepted. “People were really impressed that I had this experience before,” says Henry Youngren, now a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He won top honors in the high school competition for his design of a town hall that mimicked the old factories in the region; his version brought brick back to life with arches and a green roof. “I’m really grateful to have this experience because a lot of people don’t get the chance,” he says. “It really guided me on how I want to live the rest of my life. “
Brandon Farley, an architect who is the chairman of the high school design competition, says he has records dating back to the 1970s and that he has “never seen anything where a school has won all the awards.” Rarely do judges see high school teachers with formal training in architecture, he adds. With the entries from Valparaiso High School, he says, “you can see it immediately in the way students approach problems and their solutions, and in the way they talk about their designs. It really raised the bar compared to the competition.
El-Naggar discusses an architectural project with students. “Instead of just teaching the basics of architecture, I’m actually teaching them design theory,” he says.
Wearing virtual reality headsets, students Hayden King and Kaitlin Gilleo explore student-created projects and historical sites in the school’s virtual reality lab.
Olivia Lozano’s house model.
TOP: El-Naggar discusses an architectural project with students. “Instead of just teaching the basics of architecture, I’m actually teaching them design theory,” he says. BOTTOM LEFT: Wearing virtual reality headsets, students Hayden King and Kaitlin Gilleo explore student-created projects and historical sites in the school’s virtual reality lab. BOTTOM RIGHT: Olivia Lozano’s model house.
Olivia Lozano, 17, received one of the awards. “It kind of got the ball rolling for me,” she says of the competition, for which she created a reading room filled with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the outside. “Then it turns into a vortex and you’re in El-Naggar’s classroom about four hours a day, then you’re here after school, then you’re here on weekends and during spring break.” “
El-Naggar says the bulb moment for his students today really happens when they first see a 3D view of their building. “Those who say, ‘Oh, my God,’ and they start going through it and say to the rest of them, ‘Look at this,’ you can say it’s their time, ‘he said.’ And for all the winners, it happened at one point. “
El-Naggar’s father, a civil engineer and professor, cultivated his son’s enthusiasm for architecture early on by taking him to conferences around the world while he lectured on his work. The young El-Naggar was drawn to town planning, helping design communities in the Midwest, as well as in Maryland, California, New England and Canada.
When the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana asked him to criticize the students’ plans, he met a fellow architect and professor who would help him secure his first teaching position, at Andrews University in Michigan. Once he started he knew he had discovered a second passion. Several years later, he was asked to replace and teach architecture in his hometown in high school. He welcomed the opportunity to teach five minutes from home.
Now his fervor for teaching is gaining more and more attention, which earned him the Teacher of the Year award from a national project-based learning group last fall. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have a teacher like him in the classroom,” said Nick Allison, deputy school district superintendent for secondary education. “He is someone who has decided to take the highest level of professionalism and integrate it into our school environment.”
El-Naggar intends to continue to inspire the young architects of Valparaiso. He’s even taking 80 parents and students to France and Italy in 2022. He won’t see Shakespeare’s Globe on this trip, but hopes to see it for the first time in the next few years. Until then he will build and help others learn to build too.
For El-Naggar, the power of architecture comes to life in “spaces where memories originate”. “This is your favorite room, the place where you got married, your favorite restaurant,” he says. “I love creating these kinds of places.
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