Lessons Layered in Quilts

Students’ quilts piece together art, history, and social justice.
Principal Supplement: Champion Creatively Alive Children, September/October 2014

Quilts—reclaimed fabric pieces stitched together for a renewed purpose—weave layers of personal and community history into designs. A traditional art form that provides insights into the artists’ lives, quilts involve math skills of measurement, symmetry, and geometric patterns, as well as crosscurricular studies in resourcefulness, recycling, and fabric art.

At Dana Elementary School in Hendersonville, North Carolina, students participated in a year-long study that wove together seemingly disparate subjects—geography, history, human rights, economics, migration, agriculture, landforms, voting rights, transportation, isolation, international recognition, and artistic beauty—into deep lessons that transcended any established curriculum. They accomplished this by delving beneath the surface of the little-known Gee’s Bend community and their quilts.

Today’s Gee’s Bend quilters are descendants of a community of slaves who were forced to walk from a plantation in North Carolina to Alabama when they were sold. Yet, amidst the excruciating hardships experienced by many generations, this community survived. Their quilts—originally born of necessity from living in unheated shacks with timbers open to wind and rain—have a unique aesthetic that has been taught to each generation.

The incredible beauty of their art is now recognized by museum curators and collectors (who pay incredible prices today for an authentic Gee’s Bend quilt). Although this artistic recognition and source of livelihood are new in their history, the perseverance that brought Gee’s Bend quilters strength today has guided these tenacious people ever since their brutal journey.

When principal Kelly Schofield and art teacher Kristen Walter learned the history of the Gee’s Bend quilters, they knew their students needed to further examine their story. Pieces of worn-out jeans and burlap feed sacks woven into quilts pulled the school’s fifth graders into the year-long journey, tracing the migration of the Gee’s Bend community.

“We started the discussion building on what [students] knew about our state and that people migrate in and out of regions based on economic conditions and livelihoods,” explains Scho field. “It is our philosophy to coach children so they develop good questions. We don’t give students answers. The challenge we help them fine-tune is to generate meaningful questions that lead to deeper insights.”

Dig Deeper
As students were introduced to the Gee’s Bend quilters’ story, their curiosity was piqued. They engaged in increasingly deep research to answer their questions: “How did they get to Alabama? How long did the walk take? What route? What about the mountains? And how did they carry their belongings?”

“Images of children no older than themselves, carrying siblings for hundreds of miles through rough terrain and harsh weather made the injustice of slavery much more real to our students,” says Schofield.

Dana Elementary students explored how this community survived every era, including the Depression, and examined what bound the community together during hard economic years. Deeper questions emerged as students reflected on the ways internal character strength shapes how people see beauty in an impoverished world. “These quilts are all based on the artists’ incredible ability to see elegant patterns in their surroundings—roof tops, housing planks, windows—these everyday visual patterns are the inspiration for their art,” explains Walter.

Dana students started to view their surroundings with a more discerning eye—now seeing beautiful patterns in wood planks, rhythmic ridges on barn walls, and ripples in puddles. Inspired by the original quilts and this renewed look around them, students began sketching quilt-like patterns based on their own observations. The cross-curricular study resulted in a ceramic installation within the school and plans to paint outdoor quilt patterns next year.

Connecting to Civil Rights
Dana Elementary fifth graders, who felt well-steeped in civil rights history, were surprised to learn that in 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Gee’s Bend to learn from and honor the community. King inspired the community to join him in crossing the Alabama River to demand their newly minted voting rights. This public protest landed many of the Gee’s Bend women in Camden jail. Upon their return home they discovered that the river ferry service—their historic and essential connection with the rest of the world—had been cancelled without comment.

“Our students were furious,” says Walter. “How their entire livelihood and connection to the world could be shut down as punishment just for insisting on their right to vote!” Walter explains how this unit of study connected students to a civil rights story they knew nothing about. “Our students know Rosa Park’s story well and are moved by the social injustice she faced. But when our students got to know the personal stories of the Gee’s Bend community, they agonized over the injustices and are troubled that the fate of these people is not well-known.”

Quilts Connect School With Community
Another school that used quilts in its journey toward arts integration is Harwich Elementary School in Massachusetts. It chose quilts as the metaphor for stitching together a more connected school by helping teachers and parents understand the Common Core State Standards. Principal Sam Hein and art teacher Franchesca Jorgensen chose quilts as the cross-disciplinary theme to address the Common Core and build a creative, collegial school culture.

“Common Core gives us a central focal point and helps tease out best practices,” Hein says. “Art-integrated projects speak to these new standards. We saw quilts as fitting perfectly with both the math and language arts standards.”

The schoolwide quilt program provided tangible reasons for students to apply their skills in measurement, fractions, geometry, and symmetry. The stories behind the quilters—their traditions and history—provided robust non-fiction reading, creative writing, and multi-media presentation opportunities. Hein recommends the following process for a schoolwide creative program.

Form a creative leadership team. It should be led by the art teacher and members with diverse points of view, including classroom teachers from each grade level, Title I staff, and parents. Steep the team in the scope and sequence of each grade level and find a schoolwide project that has strong cross-curricular connections, such as quilts.

Traditionally, quilts are collaboratively handcrafted. The materials they are made from and the visual patterns iconic to a particular quilting community tell stories of their lives, culture, and economic conditions. The collaboration teachers experience in planning a schoolwide quilt program and students’ process of designing their teams’ quilts parallel the traditional collaborative quilt-making process that values each participant’s contribution.

Provide time. Hein used the CCAC grant to pay substitutes so the art teacher and classroom teachers could plan, co-teach, and reflect on arts-integrated lessons—building an interdisciplinary approach together.

Share with community. Hein found teachers more eager to embrace the Common Core when they saw how creative collaboration supported student mastery. “At first, teachers were hesitant. It felt new. But when the creative leadership team worked within their classrooms co-teaching, they realized this was not revolutionary,” Hein explains. “The ‘ah-ha’ moment for our teachers was when something as simple as our quilt project translated theoretical into practical [application].”

When a school fully embraces cross-curricular learning and seeks innovative ways to make content relevant, there is no stopping the depth and breadth of project-based pedagogy. Hein and Jorgensen love how their quilt project’s simplicity united their entire school and helped teachers and parents embrace the Common Core. Now that they have accomplished that, Jorgensen believes they are ready to tackle more, “I’ve heard about the Gee’s Bend quilters,” he says. “Having our students study them would be a great way to build upon what we started this year.”


Art Integration Showcased at White House Art Fair

On May 20, 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the first White House Art Fair, a Turnaround Arts celebration in the White House’s East Wing attended by principals, art educators, and elementary school students.

Obama welcomed guests to the event by proclaiming the impact of art on student achievement. “Kids who get involved in arts have higher grades, higher graduation rates, and higher college enrollment rates,” she acknowledged. “The bottom line is arts education isn’t something we add on after we’ve achieved other priorities, like raising test scores and getting kids into college. Art actually is critical for achieving those priorities in the first place.”

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities invited Dana Elementary School to this special art fair. Principal Kelly Schofield, accompanied by art teacher Kristen Walter and two fourth-grade students, Kyira Fisher and Sarah McConnell, presented a robust art-integration project that fully engaged White House guests. The project, Economics in Action Board Games, had been handcrafted by Dana Elementary students based on their understanding of North Carolina’s natural resources and basic economic principles of supply and demand. The new visual art standards were applied as game players drew cards that challenged them to create miniature Model Magic clay sculptures. “We learned about the economy—you either purchase or create. If the players don’t have enough money saved, they need to create. Actually, that is the fun part,” McConnell explained.

Schofield and Walter helped White House Art Fair attendees understand Dana Elementary’s emphasis on student-directed creative thinking that is the foundation of their entire curriculum. “Art integration is at the root of everything we do. It enables children to connect what they’re learning in math, social studies, and science. Translating all of that into a robust art-integration project enables students to convey meaning visually and connect their ideas with the societal and cultural context that deepens their understanding,” Schofield explained.

Deep understanding was evident as adults played the games and remarked, “These fourth graders know more about the economy than I do.” The students graciously replied, “When you plan and create a complex game like this, you learn every step of the way. I’m sure you’d learn about the economy if you built your own board game.”

During the art fair, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance. In his remarks he said, “The arts are central to who we are as a people and central to the success of our kids. Art is not an afterthought—not just something you do because it’s nice to do. Art is necessary for these young people to succeed. We hope events like this help send a message to school districts, to parents, to governors and leaders across our country, to support the arts in school.”


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