“I can be anything…because I CAN and I want to.” ~ Mari Evans, from the poem “I Can”
For the past few weeks in my classroom, we have read many books and explored different art forms including poetry, painting and collaging quilts with felt pieces. This has all been an important part of our recognition and celebration of Black History Month. While it is a challenge to speak to young children about historical events (including slavery, the Civil War, segregation and civil rights) it is necessary, and vital to the development of their empathy and understanding. And children understand what is fair and right, and what is not. Furthermore, they can be helped to see that in the face of challenges and unfairness people can find their voice and make beauty emerge from the hardest of circumstances – whether it is a quilt that tells the story of a community, a book, or a poem about pride. It is with great pride that I share what children in my classroom have created, inspired by author Ashley Bryan, poet Mari Evans and the quilters of Gee’s Bend.
“We’ll see the difference a touch of black can make. Just remember, whatever I do, I’ll be me and you’ll be you.” ~ Ashley Bryan, Beautiful Blackbird
A while back I read Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan. I found this book at the library while searching for just the right poem for Black History Month. When I found Mari Evans’ I Can in a collection of poems for black children it was clear to me how the book and the poem complimented each other. Finding these beautiful resources, with their messages about pride inspired the lesson plan and related blog post from 2013. It was a wonderful experience then, and one worth revisiting. A significant change this time was to have children create a vibrant watercolour painting, and add to it a touch of black, using a chalk pastel, to highlight some of the text from Bryan’s book. Although the classroom poem “I am…. I can….” was created using the same writing prompts from 2013, the children in my class brought their own ideas, voices and expressions of pride to the experience which made the activity new again. And the result was wonderful.
“Colour on the outside is not what’s on the inside.” ~ Ashley Bryan, Beautiful Blackbird
Our final project – quilts - was the result of a few serendipitous events. In 2017, when I was working on a quilt project of my own, using Japanese paper stained with watercolour paint, my art teacher brought my attention to the quilts of Gee’s Bend. This became the subject of another blog post. Soon after that I found a box of fringed fleece squares (in addition to a book about making paper quilts). Lastly I saw a lovely quilt exhibit at the Textile Museum during the summer of 2018. I seemed to be receiving all kinds of signs that quilts should be made by the children in my classroom, and this idea has been percolating for a long time, patiently waiting for February, for Black History Month. The art activity itself was quite simple, and involved glueing felt pieces to the fleece squares after reading the picture book Stitchin’ and Pullin’ by Patricia McKissack. This beautiful book describes how a young child learns from her family and neighbours how to create a unique quilt and how these quilts have been made for many years, while important historical events took place. In this simple way, the children in my class learned something about the past, about the talent of the artists of Gee’s Bend, about creating their own patchwork and about the pride that comes with creating something beautiful.
“Just look at your artwork….Only someone with a strong life force could possibly have created that.” ~ Paul Fleischman, Whirligig (1998)