Skylines Lesson Plans


Many teachers have a favorite Back to School Lesson Plan to kick off the new school year. Heather McDonnell from Walter Turnbow Elementary suggested an unusual one.

She studies skylines.

Heather’s mission, she says, is “to bring the world to my classroom.” So she uses the Dr. Seuss bookOh, the Places You’ll Go! to jumpstart the year. She laminated pages from Skylines: American Cities Yesterday and Today, a book of skyline photos, to present to her class.

She’ll have the students research the places in the pictures. Later, they’ll write tourism brochures, research places where they might want to go to college, and put their dreams for the future into their geography lessons.

A skyline is a view of a city showing its tall buildings against the sky. There a lot of things you can do with skylines in the classroom.

First you need some pictures. Do what Ms. McDonnell did and use a book, or seek them out in magazines and travel brochures. Ask your friends to lend you their vacation pictures. Or check out these sites showing the best skylines in the world, according to Mr. DiSerio.


  • It is said that the truly American contributions to modern culture are skyscrapers and jazz. Listen toGershwin’s Rhapsody in Blueduring this study.
  • Jay Mechling’s powerpoint “How Jazz is like a Skyscraper” has some great points to make. If you know some things about jazz and skyscrapers already, you could use this as is with your class. Otherwise, be inspired by it.
  • The style that we now call “Art Deco” was once known as “skyscraper” (and also as “jazz style”). Decopix is a site of resources on Art Deco architecture in particular.
  • Architecture is an obvious connection. Boston College has a site showing buildings designed by Louis Sullivan, the  father of the skyscraper, here is a page for Mies Van der Rohe, andhere is a page of images of early skyscrapers. Explore the site for plenty of images and information on skyscraper architecture.
  • Several of the links below suggest making a model of a skyscraper or a skyline. Let this be an art lesson!


  • Discovery has a technology lesson plan on skyscrapers involving web research.
  • The Franklin Institute has a collection of ideas for using SimCity in the classroom.
  • Teacher’s Domain has a video lesson on some particular challenges that arise when designing and building skyscrapers, and the kinds of technology engineers use to address them.
  • Use Google SketchUp or AutoCAD Freestyle to create skyscrapers and skylines. SketchUp is free (with a paid premium option) and can make 3-D structures. Freestyle is a software package, works for 2-D, and is very easy to use. Both give valuable practice with computer skills at a variety of levels.


  • Emporis has created an interesting chart comparing city skylines on the basis of quantifiable data. There are lots of numbers to work with here, so you can fit it into whatever math skills you want to study. If you do this lesson at the beginning of the year, you can use it to review a lot of different math issues in one activity. Compare this approach with that of the people who picked out the “best” skylines. Here is a site which used mathematical data to choose the “best” skylines. And don’t miss this cool chart for your graph-reading practice.
  • Have students chart the various choices for best skyline. They’ll notice that there is a lot of agreement at the #1 position but that it begins to vary later in the list. it might be most interesting to have them make their own list of the best skylines from the pictures you find before doing this exercise.
  • Use either an overhead projector or your photo software to simplify the skylines to silhouettes. Have young students recognize the simple shapes in the skyline. If your students are older, they can measure the buildings and compare them to one another.

  • Cut simple skyscraper shapes from construction paper and line them up by height. Make this more special if you have time by using real skylines, so that you have all the buildings from a picture of Sydney or Dubai or Chicago to work with. Put each city’s pieces in its own envelope for a center.
  • Here is an interesting PDF lesson on calculating a building’s height from its shadow. This comes from the Schoolyards to Skylines unit from the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
  • Discovery has a math-rich lesson on skyscrapers involving charts and timelines.


  • Engineering is an obvious connection here, and many of the links above touch on the scientific issues involved. HowStuffWorks has an article with lots of data.
  • A 1931 article discusses the behavior of skyscrapers in storms. Bring in your study of weather!
  • National Geographic has a lesson about earthquakes and cities that combines research, critical thinking, and science.

Social Studies

  • Use paper bags to make masks or hand puppets of buildings. Then kids can line up and make a skyline. Depending on the grade level you’re teaching, this can cover communities, architecture, differences between urban and rural life, and much more.
  • When skyscrapers were first built, some people were afraid of them, either because of fear of heights or because they were a symbol of modernism, the hurried new pace of life, the smallness of humans, and so on. The 1931 article linked above mentions how fear of riding in elevators affected people’s feelings about skyscrapers. After the attack on the World Trade Center, fear of skyscrapers came up again. Here is an essay looking at how people tried to make skyscrapers (and the Chrysler Building in particular) more friendly-seeming to humans. Challenge students to think and write about their own feelings toward sky scrapers.
  • The famous skylines are all in big cities, but your community might have a skyline worth photographing or drawing, too. Compare your local skylines with the famous ones you’ve been studying
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