Quilt lesson melds English, math, art and history classes

Rick Wagner • Dec 24, 2012 at 11:02 AM

KINGSPORT — Students in an eighth-grade Colonial Heights Middle School English class got pointers on quilting first thing Monday morning from 90-year-old Margaret Benson.

From 7:30 a.m. to 9:05 a.m, the 23 students of Susan Weaver also touched on geometry, art, a refresher on American history of Civil War battles and how quilts helped slaves escape.

In addition, they made, or at least started, Christmas photo ball crafts with the help of Benson and Weaver. They had to take scrambled directions and put them in order and then follow them, with help from the two women, to make the Christmas balls with a fabric-formed star on the back and photo to be put on the front.

“Get it really close, snug it up,” Weaver told students of their photo balls, which formed stars using contrasting material squares folded and held in place with pins.

“Probably she’s the oldest teacher teaching in the United States today,” Weaver said of her mother, an Iowa resident and native of Canada visiting her daughter for the winter.

On Wednesday, Dec. 19, students were to turn in term papers on a Civil War topic that will be graded by both Weaver for writing and by history teacher Michael Hoover for content. It was the last day of the fall semester, with students in class half a day.

“You do across the curriculum. It’s not just one,” Weaver said. “It’s team teaching.”

Benson showed the class quilt after quilt she has made over the past 30 years or so, including ones with the prairie points around the edges instead of the normal smooth edges. She points out one quilt that used a variant on the Irish chain, another with courthouse steps and one with piano keys, as well as a “quillow” — a quilted pillow.

Other quilts with things “hidden in plain view” included the tree of life, log cabin, snow man, tea pots.

The class had read a book called “Hidden in Plain View” about how quilts helped escaped slaves make it to freedom in the northern United States or Canada, as well as another book called “Across Five Aprils” about a family that split allegiances during the Civil War, a proverbial house and family divided in a nation divided.

Homes that were safe havens for escaped slaves displayed quilts outside as a subtle welcome sign, and the escapees were given quilts that acted as road maps of sorts that generally led further north, the students have learned.

Quilts helped escaped slaves, traveling mostly at night, with Ozella’s Underground Quilt Code. For instance, a bear’s claw design indicated a place to get water, and a churndash pattern represented Cleveland, Ohio, near Canada, while a log cabin meant to wait at that house, and a shoe fly or bows batter meant to dress up, and flying geese would point the direction to continue, Weaver and Benson said.

A drunkard path, a zigzag, meant to travel erratically, including through water so as to throw off tracking hounds, they said.

A star symbolized the north, especially Canada. Benson’s father was from Ontario, and she was born in Nut Mountain, Saskatchewan.

Aside from learning language art skills of organizing the random directions, Monday’s lessons also touched on contrasting colors and the color wheel from art class, the Civil War from American history, geometry in the folding of the cloth, and what generations ago would have been a craft in the domain of home economics.

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