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One square at a time
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Children can hardly imagine the life of a slave. Although they learn about slavery in class, it's a concept they can't quit wrap their minds around, much like fractions. And if it seems odd to compare the two, students in Alice Brown's fourth grade class at Heard-Mixon Elementary School can show you how lessons in fractions and slavery go together.

The students are getting ready to study fractions and are currently learning about black history, specifically the Underground Railroad. Brown came up with a way to help them better understand both concepts when she was looking at quilt squares made by slaves.

"When I looked at the quilt patterns I saw that they could be made into fractions. (Paraprofessional) Mary (Matthews) was here last year and she decided to make a square for the students to see. It all started with that one square."

In the 1800s, slaves would use quilts to communicate with one another secretly. Certain patterns would have different meanings. For example, if the quilt square had a "Flying Geese" design (several triangles facing different directions), it told an escaping slave which direction to travel. "The Sailboat" would signal that there was a body of water nearby or that there were boats available, and "Drunkard's Path (a zig-zag designs) was a warning to fugitives to take a circuitous route to avoid slave hunters in the area.

Brown's class studied these patterns online and duplicated them on paper, breaking the designs into fractions. And after making one large quilt square for the students to use as a pattern, Matthews decided to do another.

"One block led to another and one day I decided to lay all the blocks out and I realized that they covered my queen-sized bed," Matthews said. "I decided I should probably put a back on it and make it into a quilt."

Matthews, who does all sorts of crafts, didn't have a pattern to use, so she made each quilt block by hand just using an artist's eye to duplicate the designs she saw online. The feat took six months. She made the blocks larger than normal so that students sitting in the back row could see the design clearly.

For many students, the quilt helped things click, not only with the concept of fractions, but when they thought about slavery and the Underground Railroad as well.

"It looks so confusing but we all did it and it turned out to be fun," said 9-year-old Autumn Austin.

"Some of the patterns were really easy but others not so much," said Riley Thompson, 10, who also called the assignment fun.

"It helped me to understand more about those days," said 11-year-old Antavian Love.

And 10-year-old Taylor Costley said, "I like fractions and I'm really into social studies, so for me it was really fun to learn about them both together. I got to learn about slaves and the old time. I also though it was cool that Ms. Matthews made that beautiful quilt and she did it all by hand."

For Matthews, the fact that the students are able to look at her quilt and learn from the patterns, not only history but also math, made all the hard work worthwhile.

"I wanted to bring it out that these people were very intelligent but they didn't get the opportunity to go to school like us," she said of the slaves.

"For them to do this shows how intelligent they were and it's a shame they were not given the same opportunities like our children are. I made this quilt so I could help Ms. Brown bring some history into the classroom."