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The Broad Street quilt.

When the Rhode Island Foundation offered a Great Expectations grant to encourage new approaches to curriculum, I jumped at the chance to design an interdisciplinary project that would take my students out of the classroom to explore the living history of their neighborhood. The Broad Street Community Quilt project gave fifty-five students a unique opportunity to investigate their neighborhood and visually document the many individuals who make up a community.

Discovering the Community

Sixth grade students were targeted as participants in the project because they were new to the school and many were unfamiliar with the neighborhood. Broad Street stretches through an economically disadvantaged area noted for inner city problems. The goal of our project was to interview individuals who make up the working community of Broad Street to discover personal histories that brought them to the area, and to record their perceptions about the neighborhood.

The first phase of the project was to decide what to ask the people on Broad Street. The students brain-stormed ideas and eventually narrowed their choices to twenty-five questions ranging from "Why did you pick this job?" to "What would you do if you won the lottery?" Students were then divided into groups of four reporters and assigned to rotating duties of interviewer, tape recorder, note taker, and Polaroid photographer.

Our field trips to Broad Street revealed an exciting renewal of a depressed area. We interviewed many store owners who took great pride in their achievements and were optimistic about the neighborhood. The majority of participants were from the Dominican Republic, but there were also shop owners from Greece, Russia, Ireland, and Columbia. Often an employee would not speak English, so a student reporter would have to spontaneously translate the interview questions into Spanish. Students were also encouraged to rephrase questions for clarification or ask for additional information if a person's response was too brief. In all, we interviewed thirty people who worked on Broad Street.

An Upbeat View of Broad Street

Back in the classroom, students were introduced to the artwork of Faith Ringgold, whose vibrant story quilts celebrate community and illustrate aspects of African-American culture. Our visiting artist Nonnie O'Brien explained the history of quilt making and demonstrated the process of piecing quilts together. Then the quilting fury began, as entire classrooms diligently sewed fabric squares together to create a colorful patchwork border.

The central panel of the quilt was designed next. Students had to recall details from their field trips to Broad Street and reconstruct the character of the street, with building fronts, trees, street fixtures and common sights. Ms. O'Brien showed students how to use "Wonderunder," and adhesive materials that fuse fabric together. Treated patches of cloth were cut into building shapes, windows, street lamps, and store signs, then ironed on to a background cloth to create an upbeat view of Broad Street. A prominent feature was the electric truck, created by a student who said "there is ALWAYS a truck fixing something on the street."

Bringing it to Life

The next phase of the project was more challenging, as students created portraits of the Broad Street participants from the Polaroid photos taken during the interviews. Our technique was to draw the portraits in pencil on 9 x 12" (23 x 31 cm) paper, then tape a piece of muslin over the drawing and trace the image. Students then taped the fabric to a nonabsorbent surface and used fabric paint to add color and life to their portraits. Besides aiming for a likeness, the students added clues in the background environment to reveal the person's profession.

During the quilt making process, students discovered their own niches among portrait painting, creative writing, and handwriting on the quilt. While some students were painting, others took on the task of transcribing the recorded interviews and editing the unique information about each individual. They wrote paragraphs describing the person's origins, goals and attitudes towards the neighborhood. The owner of Bessie's Deli, for instance, "remembers the trolley cars on Broad Street," while the owner of Jason's Furniture would "love to build a foster home for children in the Dominican Republic" if she won the lottery. Paul of Brother's Pizza philosophized about the joys of making pizza, but stressed that students should study hard so they would do better in life than be a pizza man. The short biographies were handwritten onto muslin panels with permanent markers and sewn into the quilt.

Opportunities for Learning

The complexity and variety of tasks necessary for the completion of the quilt gave the student participants multiple opportunities for learning. Students learned to work together and depend upon one another for direction. Through group interaction, students determined their strengths and weaknesses and chose which aspects of the quilt they would work on. Since there was no predetermined look for the quilt, student input was very important, and all ideas were considered.

Once all the pieces were ready, our visiting artist sewed the quilt together and added backing material. With the portraits, biographies, and patchwork border, the finished quilt measured 10 1/2 feet by 8 feet (3 x 2 m)! There was a grand signing by all the artists on the back of the quilt, and then this community kaleidoscope was proudly unveiled at our school to enthusiastic applause and amazement.

The quilt has since been warmly received and admired at various community spaces in the area. Although the project is finished, the lessons learned through the experience continue to affect the participants. The innovative use of the visual and language arts broke down cultural, economical, and generation barriers, and helped students understand the diversity of human conditions that make up a neighborhood. The people of Broad Street encountered students who were polite, inquisitive, and appreciative of their personal reflections about the neighborhood. In all, the project created a mutual awareness and respect for the significant contributions individuals make to the community, whether they are students or shop owners or senior citizens.

Patricia Huntington is an art educator at Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island.
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Title Annotation:using the community as a classroom
Author:Huntington, Patricia
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1997
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