The Quilt Code: A Lesson in Triangles Through History

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SWBAT identify right triangles.

Big Idea

Students learn to identify right triangles as they study the quilt blocks that were allegedly part of the controversial American Quilt Code abolitionists used to guide slaves to freedom.

Opening: Understanding the Quilt Code

8 minutes

Teacher Prep: Several colors of construction paper cut into right triangles and squares to be used for quilt creation. Two nice resources on the African American quilt making tradition are Math Wire or Really Good Stuff for background information, templates and language arts resources.

 Setting the Stage: I opened the lesson by displaying images of sampler quilts on my SB. I also brought in several quilt block samples and quilts of various ages and kinds for students to view. We looked at each quilt and I explained what blocks were called, where they were from and who made them.

If you do not have these resources, any quilt book with sampler quilts will do. Or, simply discuss sample images from the internet.

I wrote the word "abolition" on the whiteboard. I asked students what they understood about it. Several took guesses and tried to relate it back to quilting. They hadn't remembered that we had talked about it when we had watched "Follow the Drinking Gourd" during African American History Month.

 I told them that we get many of our quilt patterns from African designs and the art really had developed through African Americans. I wanted them to know an interesting story about quilts and the role they might have played in Abolition.

Independent reading: I assigned a reading: National Geographic and asked them to answer the following questions after reading the article. They could jot the answers in their notebook. It was not meant to be a formal writing, but to set the stage for understanding.

1. Do you think that the Quilt Code could be true and why?

 2. How does  oral storytelling help us understand history?

 3. What math skills would a quilt maker need in order to create a quilt?



Defining Right Triangles

5 minutes

Show Me!

Review Angles: I had students stand up as I asked them to show with their arms what a right angle is. Students all produced perpendicular lines using their arms and bodies to show me what they looked like. Right angle arms I widened my arms and asked if anyone could name the angle I was showing. My students didn't know I was showing them an obtuse angle! This told me that they needed to review the names of angles. So I used my arms and named each angle. Then I showed them a right angle with my arms and asked them to shout out loud what angle it was. They were correct with both obtuse and right. They couldn't remember acute. So I did it once more, drawing them on the board and then showing them with my arms again. I showed acute, right and then asked for one more. A student came to the front of the class and made an obtuse angle as everyone adjusted their arms to match hers. We went through this process three times until I was certain everyone knew the names of the angles.

Moving forward: Using one of  my quilt block samples that contained right angles, I asked a student if they could find a right angle in the quilt. She pointed to a square corner in a square. I asked her how many right angles in the shape she saw and she identified four, calling it a square. I asked another student if she saw a right angle in another shape. She pointed to one of the triangles in the Flying Geese Pattern along the edge of the quilt. What makes this a right triangle? ( The triangle is NOT a right triangle, it is an obtuse triangle formed from other little right triangles.) Then, I pointed to how that part of the blocks were created. Everyone could see how the pattern was formed from right triangles and two squares formed from two right triangles. They took turns tracing right angles with their fingers as I let each student touch the quilt blocks and say "This is a right angle." They then traced a right triangle from their piles of triangles on their desk.

Activity: Studying the Meaning of the Blocks

10 minutes

I brought the images of the quilt blocks back up on the SB for a visual. I explained that knowing that the quilt code could possibly be just folklore, I wanted them to think about what each block could possibly mean. This video helped introduce the quilt blocks and understand the quilt code a little better.

This student -made you tube video is a nice student sample of explaining the quilt code and each block and student to student connected. Warning: Use your discretion at 2:21. I still showed this portion of the video, explaining that the language was content appropriate and that we would hear this term used in other American Literature.

When we were done, I showed students samples of the blocks that I had printed on paper from MathWire.  I used only the blocks and the information about the blocks and not the rest of the lesson. Students recognized some from the video they had just seen, helping this to connect their thinking to what was ahead.

Our Own Blocks

20 minutes

Using the right triangles and squares, students created a quilt block using the materials I had prepared. Using the black piece of construction paper (1/2 large sheet) students also chose up to 3 colors and went back to their seat. There, they manipulated the triangles, cut triangles in half to discover they had created smaller right triangles, and used the squares to give it some  I told them that they would be expected to identify the right angle in the triangles and explain what their quilt meant when I visited them.

I watched and listened to them as they planned their blocks. There was chatter between them about what their block would have meant to signal the slave who was trying to escape. As I saw blocks being finished I stopped to ask about them. Creating the story behind our block shows that students are engaged and were thinking through the social studies connection that I was hoping they would grasp. I began to assess their mathematical work and their ability to show me where right triangles were in their pattern.Naming the block and identifying angles shows how a student can pick out his right angles and triangles. Coaching to identify the right angle was something I needed to do in a couple of cases. I turned the triangle for this student so that it looked like 3 o'clock.  I hoped that he could easily see the angle by me holding it like this. Defining a right angle first was the need for some students in order to apply their understanding of the standard prior to finishing their work. They tended to get caught up in the design, forgetting their learning goal.

As I walked around, I saw creativity and understanding of what the right triangle is and how it works within a design.

We finished up our work and I closed with  student shares. They held up their designs, talked for a moment about them and pointed to the right triangles.

Quick Assessment: Mastering the Standard

10 minutes

I used one of the blocks from the Math Wire resource page.

I chose this Ohio Star Pattern , but you can choose any of them for this quick assessment. I simply copied off the patterns, chose a pattern and removed the colored sample from the side. This made a great template for them to color and identify the right triangles in the pattern. It worked quite well! I needed something quick in addition to the work they did in class just as a quick quiz. It complimented their hands on work and oral assessment because it allowed them to think about it quietly, once more and be able to master the standard completely.