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Quilt Blocks to Freedom

Subject: History, Geography, Visual Arts, Math

Grade Level: elementary and middle school

Materials: Books for Read Aloud:

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkins

Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter

Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkins

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold

Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin

Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan

Following Freedom by Leni Donlan

Books for Professional Development:

Quilting Activities Across the Curriculum by Wendy Buchberg

The Underground Railroad for Kids : From Slavery to Freedom with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson.

Construction paper – assorted colors Graphing paper Fabrics- Patterns and solids Glue Scissors Pencils Computers with Internet access

About: Every February, students are encouraged to recognize the spirit of Black History Month. In my classroom, we study the life of the slave and how regular men, women, and children (like themselves) helped the slaves attempt to gain freedom.

This project offers a visual understanding, through quilting, of the trials and tribulations that African American slaves faced as they followed the Underground Railroad to freedom. Children learn that early American household quilts were more than just blankets. Quilts were used as secret codes of communication to show locations on maps or to identify a safe house.

As a final product, they conceptualize what they would communicate to a runaway slave and create their own secret code. Students design individual coded quilt blocks that become flags and group quilts that represent maps.

Learning in this unit is twofold. Students learn about Colonial Quilting and the experiences of slaves attempting to seek freedom. They learn that quilts served many purposes: warmth (as blankets), communication (to share past events or tell a story), and socialization (allowed women to talk outside of their homes at quilting bees).

I immerse my students in endless illustrated picture books, easy chapter books, and Internet sources referencing quilting and the Underground Railroad. All books are available during free-read time so students can read and discuss independently. I read aloud many books and integrate turn and talk so students can discuss feelings and thoughts. This is how my students understand who the slaves were, how they lived, and why they wanted their freedom.

We read “Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt”. Groups of students use MapQuest to locate and map out distances of key locations mentioned in the story. They learn that slaves needed to travel long distances in order to gain freedom. We read “The Drinking Gourd”. Through this story, students learn that slaves tracked location by the stars (the Big Dipper and the North Star) in order to travel north towards Canada. They create constellation maps using the North Star as a focal point. We explore the Internet for links that help us identify the quilt patterns within the secret code and learn how the slaves used this information.

Students create a physical map made of fabric and/or construction paper in a similar fashion to Sweet Clara and present their products at a Black History Celebration attended by other classes and parents.

This program is an exciting and creative way to learn Social Studies and integrate it with science and art. Its best feature is that students learn that many people --not just a select few--assisted the slaves to gain their freedom, and that helping those in need is important. I use this project as an innovative way to teach map skills. The children learn direction, land features, and distance by tracking the Underground Railroad’s paths. By using MapQuest, children use the Internet to generate ideas about maps. They also use Google Earth to see the actual obstacles slaves might have encountered.

Before you start, visit your library and get as many books about quilting and the Underground Railroad as you can, so that you have many resources to use. If fabric is unavailable, you can use construction paper and make paper quilts. This project can be used at any grade level. One just has to use different language to facilitate the lessons.

This is an excellent project for Black History Month. Teachers are able to integrate all academic areas. Teachers are also able to integrate the Teachers College model through read-alouds, turn and talk, small moment encounters, and non-fiction reading.

Students will be able to navigate the Internet and reference books.
Students will be able to navigate the Internet and reference books. Objective 2: Students will be able to discuss how human beings interact with each other and how slaves were not treated like human beings.
Students will be able to understand the star patterns of the Big Dipper.
Students will be able to distinguish a compass rose and tell directions.

Aboard the Underground Railroad. A National Register Travel Itinerary provides primary source information and pictures. A map shows the routes taken by slaves and each state had numerous locations that were used by slaves as safe houses. This site is constantly being updated as new information is added.
This site gives an explanation of the Underground Railroad Quilter’s Code and shows students the process of making a quilt. I find this site easy to navigate.
This site has the words and lyrics for “The Drinking Gourd”. Slaves would sing this song to share information among each other without the plantation owners being aware.
An overall view of the Underground Railroad with many links. There are personal narratives included.
Google Earth is a resource that children can use to see the actual land and obstacles the slaves might have encountered. It allows you to see the actual buildings and land forms.

The study of New York State and United States history requires an analysis of the development of American culture, its diversity and multicultural context, and the ways people are unified by many values, practices, and traditions.
Social Studies - History
Study about the major social, political, economic, cultural, and religious developments in New York State and United States history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.
Social Studies - History
Geography can be divided into six essential elements that can be used to analyze important historic, geographic, economic, and environmental questions and issues. These six elements include: the world in spatial terms, places and regions, physical settings (including natural resources), human systems, environment and society, and the use of geography.
Social Studies - History
The Earth and celestial phenomena can be described by principles of relative motion and perspective.
Physical Science
Students will make works of art that explore different kinds of subject matter, topics, themes, and metaphors. Students will understand and use sensory elements, organizational principles, and expressive images to communicate their own ideas in works of art. Students will use a variety of art materials, processes, mediums, and techniques, and use appropriate technologies for creating and exhibiting visual art works.
Visual Arts

Day 1: Black and White--Slave and Master
Students will be able to investigate slavery using the Internet and reference books.
Students will be able to discuss how human beings interact with each other and how slaves were not treated like human beings.
“Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt” by Deborah Hopkins
Computers with Internet access
Chart paper and markers
Do a read aloud of the picturebook “Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt”. Use this introduction as a means to explain slavery. Provide opportunities for children to turn and talk about what is happening. Identify key points including slavery, master/slave, Big Dipper, Underground Railroad. and maps.
Create a group chart about slavery using the 5 Ws:

What is a slave?

Who were the slaves?

Why were they slaves?

When did slaves live?

Where did the slaves live?

(You could add: Are there still slaves?)

Have children use web sites and primary source reference books to help answer questions.
Share results and hang up chart for future reference.
Assessment is through teacher observation and conferencing.

Day 2: The Stars Lead the Way
Students will be able to navigate MapQuest
Students will be able to create the star pattern of the Big Dipper.
Students will be able to distinguish a compass rose and tell directions.
Read-aloud book: “Follow the Drinking Gourd” by Jeanette Winter and copies of the song “The Drinking Gourd”
black construction paper and glue on stars or white paper to create stars.
a chart map of the United States
computers with Internet access
Read “ Follow the Drinking Gourd”. Refer back to the North Star in “Sweet Clara”.
Children do a shared read of the Drinking Gourd song and sing the song. Children learn that this song was sung in the fields as a secret message.
Have children use black construction paper and stars to design the pattern of the constellation the Big Dipper.
Using the chart map, chart a path from Ohio to Canada and have children determine the shortest path.
Using predetermined staring points and destinations, have children use MapQuest to locate where plantations were and how they would get to Canada today. Children then brainstorm how long it would take the slaves.
Students can think of others who might have had to use the stars to navigate their way (Columbus, Pilgrims) and create a dialogue similar to that of Sweet Clara and Aunt Rose to understand how a person could use the stars.

Day 3: Secrets of the Square
Students will be able to understand the link between quilt codes and slave needs.
Students will analyze the emotions and feeling of both slaves and helpers.
read-aloud book: “Under the Quilt of Night” by Deborah Hopkins
computers with Internet access
gsheets of 12X12 pieces of white paper to glue small quilt pieces onto
assorted fabrics or different colored construction paper, graphing paper
Read-aloud with turn and talk “Under the Quilt of Night” by Deborah Hopkins
Have groups of students navigate the Internet to find the Underground Railroad quilters’ secret code.
Using this info, students graph the quilt pattern onto the graphing paper.
Using either fabric or construction paper, students use cut-out quilt pieces from graphing paper to make individual pieces. They then glue the cut pieces onto the 12”x12” white sheet to create an individual Underground Railroad secret quilt block.

Day 4: Sweet Clara’s Map Becomes Your Own
Students will be able to recreate a physical map that represents where the slaves traveled.
Students will share their ideas about slavery and escape in a group presentation celebrating Black History Month.
Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin
Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan
fabric, contruction paper, glue
chart map
Teacher will share more read-alouds and non-fiction text about the Underground Railroad.
Students will work in groups of 4-6 and create a physical map detailing a path from the plantation to Canada. They will create their own symbols referring back to the “Sweet Clara” book and will use other reference to help them.
Students will use the Internet sites for information on what places still exist that were used to help the slaves.
Students will present their maps to children in other classes or at a parent presentation as a unique way of to celebrate Black History Month.

Diane Weisen


PS 120 Q
59-01 136th Street
Flushing, NY 11355

Diane Weisen is a multi-level teacher, a multi-media artist, and a multi-genre writer. She received her BFA at Hartford University and her Masters of Fine Arts and Education from Stony Brook University. Her “Fabric Paintings” inspire children to be creative in their thinking and to explore unusual media for self expression.


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