I love museums. They always inspire me, personally and professionally. I also firmly believe in emergent curriculum in my teaching of young children. It works! The two together often ignite learning that transcends over months, and in some cases years. That is exactly what happened when I visited the Bennington Museum in Vermont some years ago. I wanted to see the Grandma Moses collection, as her art had been introduced to me by my grandmother, Nan, and was part of fond memories in my childhood. The featured exhibit at the museum was a collection of Haitian quilts. I was thunderstruck. Never had I seen quilts that were such works of art. These were magnificent murals with beautiful colors and intricate, unusual designs. I simply stood and stared, unable to absorb all that was in front of me.
My husband said, “Jennie, I know that look”. Yes, it was the look of ‘this is it’, and ‘I can do this with the children’. We breezed through the Grandma Moses collection, as I was consumed with a hundred ideas about the quilts, particularly an idea about peace. My classroom had created a Peace Portal the year before, just like the one that greets visitors in the foyer of the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. Now, that was an exciting project. Even though we had written poetry and made our own book about peace, I never felt as though the children had fully realized everything, as if I had left things undone. Creating a Peace Quilt would be a grand way to learn more and do more. I just knew.
On the way home my husband said, “Jennie, do you really think the children can create a quilt? If you’re right, then it should hang in a museum”. Well, that was a lofty thought. Back at school I dove right into the project. We read our Peace Poetry Book, drew pictures, painted peaceful art while listening to music, and finally talked about what peace looks like. That is a difficult concept for young children to visualize, and it would have been much easier to prompt or suggest things, but I was determined to make this experience a true one for the children. I took the hard route, and it worked. Their ideas were lump-in-the-throat thoughts, straight from the heart; leaves falling from a tree, a tractor, the cow jumping over the moon, baby chicks, triangles.
Next, I needed a quilter. Enter Milly, an eighty-something year old master quilter. Our first meeting did not go so well. I bounded into her quilting group, full of energy and ideas, and pictures of the Haitian quilts. She listened to the whole story, barely saying a word, as her fellow quilters kept their heads bowed as if they knew I was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. At last Milly said, “I’m a traditional quilter and I’ve never quilted like that before. This will be something new. I’d like to do it.” Whew!
At school we had to put our ideas onto paper. That was fun! We rolled out the butcher paper onto the floor and the teacher sketched out all the elements, making plenty of changes that children wanted. Not only did the children make sure that everything was there, they designed the entire placement. This took all morning. Over the next few days children colored the big drawing, which reinforced their ideas of peace and how they should be represented on a quilt.
The next week Milly came into the classroom to meet the children and meet ‘Gloria’ (who had to show Milly her very own quilt). Milly began to work with the children on fabrics from her massive collection, letting them select each different piece. As the days and weeks went by, she sewed in front of the children. It was wonderful to watch children come and go with Milly, developing a strong relationship. Sometimes a child would just go over to give her a big hug. Sometimes a child would watch her fingers as she sewed the quilt and ask her questions. Either way, it felt good!
Months later the quilt was finished. This was art! It was beautiful. It embodied the ideas of the children, stitch by stitch, with the loving hands of Milly. Emergent curriculum allowed the process of seeing the Haitian quilts at the museum evolve into a masterpiece. And, the lofty thought of the quilt hanging in a museum? It does.
More next time, as this was just the beginning of quilting art, and a wonderful relationship with Milly that continues to this day.