Thirty-six children from diverse backgrounds sat before me in my sixth-grade inner-city class. Daily conflicts arose among them. How was I going to build an environment conducive to learning with this going on? I decided to use a quilt activity. Students would create quilt pieces that told the world something important about themselves. I brought in pieces of felt in various colors, different glues, sequins, glitter and scissors.
This activity had six components. For social studies, the students learned the historical significance of quilting for enslaved African-Americans. For science, we explored the adhesive qualities of different glues. For math, we found the perimeter and area of different shapes. For literacy, the students had to write a paragraph explaining what their quilt piece would be about and why it was significant for them. I modeled first, wrote my paragraph, drew my idea, chose felt pieces, then cut them out and glued down my pictorial representation. I displayed my piece and told the class what it meant to me.
I wondered how invested, how self-revealing my students would be. The students worked hard on their squares. One by one, they stood before the group to share their work. Dyesha created a unique square from a pair of jeans that showed her flare for fashion. Robert designed a car. Dante had a complex set of robots. Others showed equal commitment and satisfaction in their finished products. I even found students from other classes sitting quietly in the back of my class creating squares of their own! Somehow the word got around about our class project. I had to call their teachers and ask if they could stay.
After the pieces were done, we calculated the size to find the best place to display our quilt. We hung it with pride.
Did the conflict among my students subside? At first just a little, but the revelations brought new camaraderie among the students. That camaraderie grew over the months. No longer were we distant individuals forced into the same space every day. Each of us was a person with a context that others could understand. Each child’s uniqueness and beauty shone through.
There was an additional benefit. The students’ quilt squares guided me in finding curriculum topics that would interest them. That helped me make my lessons more culturally relevant.
Grace L. Sussman, Ed.D.
Formerly at Mifflin Elementary School