Celebrate Black History With Gee's Bend Quilts
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Working on a project that reflects learning in multiple disciplines is one small piece of the core curriculum puzzle, so when I find a lesson that covers multiple tasks at once, I rejoice! This particular project started with the idea that I wanted students to know about the Gee’s Bend quilters from an art perspective and that quilts, by nature, involve a lot of math. It grew from there until we were integrating all subjects. The Gee’s Bend quilters gave me just the format I needed to celebrate black history and Alabama history, exercise writing and math skills, make a cool art display, and commemorate the 100th day of school all in one project.
You don’t have to know Gee’s Bend or have an interest in quilts. Read on to find out how one small idea turned into a great learning project and then adapt it to incorporate your own interests for stellar cross-curricular integration.
Background — "Gee-Who?"
Gee’s Bend is an area of Alabama that started as a major cotton plantation. Later, freed slaves settled in the area. They remained through the Great Depression and stayed even when a new dam on the Alabama River flooded much of the farmland. Tucked in a crook in the river, Gee's Bend was cut off from most everywhere else and remained isolated when ferry service to the area was discontinued.
Women passed down the tradition of quilt making, first out of necessity, but then as a way of social networking. The quilts were deemed high art in the 1990s when a collector, after seeing a picture, purchased hundreds of them. Since then, the Gee’s Bend quilters have enjoyed fame with international art exhibits, though issues of ownership and exploitation are sometimes raised.
The Skill Sets
Reading and History: Building Background With Close Reading and Time Lines
I start with a background on the history of Gee’s Bend for my students. We practice close reading skills with difficult text from a variety of websites. As students read, we develop a time line that shows the major events in Gee’s Bend history. Once we are finished, I show them the time line I made based on a lesson plan from the Whitney Museum of American Art. We read Stitchin’ and Pullin': A Gee’s Bend Quilt, watch part of the PBS NewsHour documentary on Gee’s Bend, and locate Gee’s Bend on a state map. After students understand the history of Gee’s Bend, we look up the quilts and enjoy discussing the art.
Using a blank hundred chart, I have students color a pattern of their choice on the squares. Most students are inspired by the geometry of the Gee’s Bend quilts. I caution students that if they want to “cut” the blocks in half, that is OK, but letting them get more creative can work against my next objective: decimals. Once the blocks are colored, I give students a chart to record how many of each color they have used as a fraction, decimal, and percent. Even the struggling math students find the fraction easily. I use this as the jumping off point for converting to a decimal and percent. This artistic entry point gives students confidence when beginning decimal conversions. This is a great time to talk about all the patterns and mathematical concepts in quilting. This is part of our hundredth day display because we use the hundred block and the hundred in the denominator of each fraction.
Students use their knowledge of Gee’s Bend to create two poems. For one poem, we create a cinquain and put each line onto a quilt piece of a different color. The pieces are assembled into one larger quilt square. The poems are hung side-by-side to create a larger quilt from everyone’s work.
For the second poem, students create an “I am from” poem, but write it from the perspective of a Gee’s Bend quilter. We discuss that they should aim for a quilter from 100 years ago, or a quilter who has lived to be 100 today. This brings in the hundredth day celebration again. All of the finished quilts are hung together with the students' math work.
Make It Yours
In my case, my mom is a quilter, and I naturally came to know Gee’s Bend. My love of art and my need to teach core concepts resulted in this lesson. It is one in which I have a personal interest, that engages students, and that meets our learning objectives all at once. Take something you know, something you love, and see how far you can stretch it to serve your students.
What projects have started as an interest and grown for you? What topics would you like to explore? Share and maybe we can sew one together!