This is the story of children, a quilter, and how they connected ideas to create art that hangs in national museums. The first story (prior post) depicts the evolution of the Peace Quilt, and this story is the next chapter. Milly is the master quilter. All her work and stitching is done by hand. She is a founding figure in the New England quilting community. When she came into my classroom, magic happened.
The story continues, as the beautiful Peace Quilt was delivered to the National Liberty Museum in historic Philadelphia in the spring. It is a permanent display. Six children and their families, along with friends, relatives, and of course Milly, made the trip from New England to Philadelphia. What a welcoming reception we received.
The following school year things began as usual. Milly was now part of our class, visiting and playing with the children. She and ‘Gloria’ bonded, to the point of trading their favorite necklaces. Milly was often ‘Helper of the Day’, learned our calendar and weather song, and thoroughly enjoyed singing with the children. Patriotic songs were her favorites and she gave the class a pop-up book of the song “America the Beautiful”. We often sang “God Bless America” with Milly. That’s where things started to change.
Children enjoy singing all types of songs and listening to a variety of music. In my classroom, I introduce everything from Vivaldi, to show tunes, to the Beatles and in between. We listen, sing, dance, and move. I play a number of songs on the autoharp, including “God Bless America”. The song quickly became a favorite! By October many children were spontaneously singing the song in the classroom. They began to stage themselves along the edge of the sandbox on the playground in order to sing for other classes. Now I stepped back, watching something remarkable beginning to happen.
Children could not get enough of this song! I had to do something. As a proponent of emergent curriculum, I knew this was ‘a moment’, an opportunity to bring the children into a greater learning experience. In November we invited soldiers into the classroom for a Veteran’s Day ‘thank you’ and a chance for the children to really showcase this song. It was successful and heartfelt, yet I knew it wasn’t enough to satisfy what the children needed. In December we made our own classroom God Bless America book with children working together to make all the illustrations and write the words. To this day it is my favorite classroom book. In the words of a soldier, “Jennie, you should donate the book to the Wounded Warrior Project.” Again, I had the strong sense that the children wanted and needed more. This song still had a bigger job to do.
In January Milly and the children planned a quilt, a ‘God Bless America’ quilt. Together they studied every every word and drawing in our classroom book. Then came the task of putting the ideas onto a big drawing. We rolled out the butcher paper onto the floor and children decided how to illustrate mountains, prairies, home sweet home, and all the elements in the song. It was a transformation of months of learning and work. As the drawing came to life, I watched the children ‘find their way’, as if what they had been searching for was right in front of them at last. Over the next few months, Milly worked her magic with the children, as she always does. She helped them select and place all the different fabrics for the quilt. As they watched her sew, they witnessed the remarkable evolution of a song becoming a work of art. That’s exactly what they needed. I knew it.
The finished quilt was first displayed at our local post office for the whole community to enjoy. Next, it traveled to New York City as a guest on the Intrepid Museum. That was both thrilling and humbling. Many children and their families attended, and Milly was the honored guest. The final trip was to the Fisher House in Boston where it hangs as the focal point for families of wounded soldiers. It was the staff at the Intrepid Museum who urged us to donate the quilt to the Fisher House. What a fitting place of honor for the God Bless America quilt. That summer, the quilt, children, and Milly welcomed the Fisher Foundation to Boston. Yes, we sang “God Bless America” standing in front of the quilt to a packed house. Milly received a command coin and a standing ovation.