“It’s just been wonderful, and the kids have really enjoyed learning about quilts, and then creating their own personal blocks that have personal meaning,” Janzen said.
The idea for using quilt-making as the instrument for teaching math skills came to Janzen as she was examining the new Common Core Standards.
“As I was reviewing them, one domain in particular I wanted to put more emphasis on was proportions and ratios and how to solve them,” she said. “This project is allowing students to do that in a fabulous way, and it even includes math skills that I didn’t anticipate.”
Students were challenged to create their personal quilt blocks using simple shapes in a design that represents something about to them.
“We tried to encourage them to keep the shapes simple—to use the shapes they’ve studied because eventually they’ll do area and perimeter for them, too,” Noble said. “We didn’t want them to pick pentagons or (more complex shapes) they hadn’t been exposed to yet.
“We can see how their individuality has really showed up.”
Added Noble: “It’s been a unique opportunity for them to use math in the real world. It’s unbelievable how much real-world math they are using.”
The project not only makes math come alive through hands-on problem-solving, it spills into other disciplines, including history, art and English.
Janzen and Noble introduced the project by discussing the history of quilting, particularly the use of slave codes in the American past.
Though the claim is debated in some circles, historians have suggested that African American slaves may have used a quilt code to navigate the Underground Railroad.
Quilts with patterns named “wagon wheel,” “tumbling blocks” and “bear’s paw” appear to have contained secret messages that helped direct slaves to freedom, the historians say.
“Families, or people who were helping the slaves, would leave these quilts out and the slaves would know, based on the patter or design of the quilt, what to do and what to prepare for,” Janzen said.
“That’s how we started (this project). Then we had the kids draw their original designs on a 6-by-5-inch block on graph paper, then they had to transfer them over to an 81⁄2-by-81⁄2 block—that’s where the proportions and ratios came in.
“Now they’re transfering them all to fabric. We’re going to sew it all together for them and make a quilt for the class. We’re excited.”
Students will receive a grade based on the design of their block and how they were able to convert their initial design to the actual quilt.
Both teachers have been pleasantly surprised with the way their students have grabbed hold of the project; the teachers are planning to make it an annual enterprise.
“Toward the end of the school year it’s difficult to keep their attention on a math project, so this has really helped,” Janzen said.
Another bonus has been the way students have helped each other with the project.
“It’s been neat watching them engage with the other kids in a productive way,” Noble said.
The two teachers said they will determine, with input from the students, whether to make a separate quilt for each section, or to combine them into one.
But Janzen, who will be the one to actually stitch the blocks together and add the border to the quilt, is determined to have a finished project by the end of the school year.
“I want them to see it,” she said.