Freedom Quilts, Cotton Gins: Invite Historical Understanding with Hands-On Activities

by Deana Swanson

Slavery. The births of Argentina and Brazil. The Industrial Revolution.

Are your students’ eyes glazed over yet? Studying the past can involve a wearying barrage of names, dates, and far-away forces. But those events were very real and life-changing for thousands of people. To allow your students to imagine what life must have been like in the past, Deana encourages hands-on activities. Whether making a map of South America with coffee beans or weaving a bookmark from cotton they’ve processed themselves, students will grow in their empathy with and interest in the people of the past.

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I try to come up with as many hands-on activities as I can. I don’t do this every single unit, but I try at the end of a chapter to have some activity like this that we do hands-on. That’s my goal. We’re studying slavery right now, and I made this years ago before I had children, but it wouldn’t be hard to make one. You could even make one out of construction paper, but this is an underground railroad quilt, and every year one of my students, at least, picked this topic for their research paper, but this is really interesting. This was a secret code that the slaves would use to know when they were going to escape.

For instance, this one is monkey wrench. It meant get your tools ready. This one is wagon wheel, it meant load everything secretly in the wagon. This is bear paw and it meant to go through the woods where the bears would go—don’t go on the road. This next one is crossroads. It was where to meet somebody or something. This is log cabin, and they were supposed to go to the log cabin. Usually, there was a signal like two or three candles lit in the window. That was the safe one. This is bow tie and it meant once they got to the cabin, they were supposed to dress up, get out of their slave clothes and wear formal clothes. This is flying geese meant to go north. This is drunkard’s path. It meant to take a crooked path through the woods. This one is a north star or some kind of star to follow the North Star. This one is tumbling blocks, keep going, tumble quickly so you don’t get caught.

Again, just to hang that up on the wall where we’re studying slavery, something to look at that makes more sense and to think that they would’ve, in secret, hung these out the window and, “Look, okay, this one, there’s the churn dash we better load our stuff up.”

We were studying the colonial period, and we made little yarn dolls. The guys made boy yarn—they had legs—the boys made boy yarn dolls and the girls make girl yarn dolls.

We made these little pouches; before they would’ve had pockets, they would have had little leather pouches.

For one, we had studied South America last year, and what do you do for South America? Well, I don’t know, what do you do? I thought they could make a map and the easy thing would be get a white poster board, and mark all the countries and make a map. I said, “You have to make some kind of a map of South America.” But I love to put crazy parameters on them. “But,” I said, “you can’t use a poster—you can’t just put a poster board in and put the map on it. You have to do something interesting.” Some of them glued coffee beans and little oranges and bananas, and they actually use those for, like, the texture on their map. Some of them made hysterical cartoons like the guy crashing into South America thinking that they’d hit India or whatever. They had cartoons on them. There were several different ideas I gave them.

I always present to my students—I feel like they’re young, they don’t have a broad range of experience. If I just said, “You have to make a map,” I’d probably get a bunch of little pieces of paper with a map. I try to let them think big and I trie to give them is many crazy ideas as I could.

Again, I picked up—it was a string art of a ship—and I just happened to glance over at that and say, “Oh you could do string art,” and I got two of these that were just beautiful and they’re even color coded. Green is Brazil and whatever. Then actually one student got so excited he made one of the whole United States.

We just got through with the Industrial Revolution. We actually got cotton. I make them like touch the poky thing on the cotton. It hurts. It’s very sharp, and then I actually make my students—I give them a blob of cotton—and they have to sit there and pull the seeds out. If you’ve ever done that—like, here’s the seed, and so you have to pull it and pull it and pull it.

Then you get this little bitty seed out of there. Can you imagine before the cotton gin, and you had to sit there, the slaves had to sit there by hand and pull these out. Then when I show them the picture of the cotton gin and say, “By cranking that handle, one person could get done fifty times the amount of work rather than us sitting her pulling out this little cottonseed.” Again, you can get cotton online or if you know somebody who lives in the South. We used to pick this up on the side of the road when I lived in Texas.

Then we’re talking about the Industrial Revolution: You had to get all the cotton and then usually—I don’t have enough time, but I’ll demonstrate how to card. After they get all the seeds out of it, they card it, and this isn’t carding very well, but they’ll get these little Rolos they call them. Then they get a spinning thing and they spin it, which we can’t really demonstrate. Then we get yarn. We have this yarn and then some of my students—I’ve done this a couple of times—I’ve said, “Hey guys, who has extra two by fours lying around their shop,” and a bunch of the boys raise their hands, and I say I need 30 of these. All it is is the two by four.

I just get yarn. I went to the Goodwill and got a big bag of yarn for a couple of dollars. Again, I go through shopping and I just look for stuff like that and I buy it. Then we just took one color yarn and wrapped it around the two by four. One year I ordered little plastic needles, but this year I just went to the art room and got a popsicle stick and taped it on there. I tell them, “Once you’ve woven your wool, then you have to weave this.” And you have to go over and under and over and under and over and under. They sit there and do this for twenty minutes, and they have this much done. I say, “Can you imagine making your own clothes? All you’re trying to do is make a bookmark.”

What if you had to sheer your own sheep, grow your own cotton, pick the seeds out, make the Rolos, make all the yarn, and then sit here and do that. Could you make three yards of fabric for a dress? All of a sudden, the Industrial Revolution makes a lot more sense.

I actually had them make bookmarks. This was last year, but we were doing the Industrial Revolution as well. I actually had them—they all had to finish a bookmark for a grade because I wanted them to know how hard it was to sit there and weave on a loom. I got all these beautiful bookmarks. Some of them use different kinds of thread. That’s just something that they can touch and realize, “It must have been really hard back then. No wonder the sewing machines were so fabulous.”

This year, I had them go back—I have on my fish tank back there a treadwheel stand, and I had them for their homework… go back there and punch the treadwheel three times and make the flywheel go round. Can you imagine how much faster that would’ve been than sitting there doing this by hand? Anything that we can think of like that.

I am working on a list of ideas, so if anybody’s interested, they can contact somebody from Faith Builders and I’m compiling a list of all these different activities.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

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