Meaningful learning with African American families: the freedom quilt FunPacks.
Education (United States)
African Americans (Education)
Powell-Mikle, Angiline
Patton, Mary Martin
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Summer, 2004 Source Volume: 80 Source Issue: 4
Computer Subject: Technology in education
Product Code: 8200000 Education NAICS Code: 61 Educational Services SIC Code: 8200 EDUCATIONAL SERVICES
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Despite some characterization as being uninvolved in the education of their children, African American parents have always valued education and recognized it as the key to economic and political freedom. Despite laws in the United States prohibiting the education of slaves, African Americans were the first southerners to campaign for universal, state-supported public education. Yet, schools for African American children were not fully established in the United States until the middle of the 20th century. Even today, African American parents are still battling for equitable education for their children (Anderson, 1988).

Without equity in education, particularly in mathematics education, students cannot gain access to higher education and, subsequently, higher paying careers. Equity, defined here as equal resources, instruction, and outcomes (Allexsaht-Schider & Hart, 2001), has not been realized by people of color. Data from the National Association of Educational Progress (Brawell et al., 2001) documents a pervasive and persistent gap in mathematics test scores between African American and European American students. The gap is in part due to historical inequities in resources. For example, in Lowdes County, Alabama, during the early 20th century, the school district spent $20 per year on European American students, compared with 67 cents on African American students. During the same time, African American teachers' salaries were half that of their European American counterparts (Anderson, 1990).

While not as quantifiable as in the past, major issues concerning equity for African Americans and other students of color remain, attributable to the disproportionate number of African Americans in poverty (more than twice that of European Americans), the concentration of African Americans in urban environments (52 percent), and the way U.S. public schools are funded (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Students in wealthy districts have well-funded schools, while students in high poverty districts tend to receive considerably less funding and have teachers with less experience and education than their counterparts in better-off areas (Biddle & Berliner, 2002).

With fewer resources and less experienced teachers, it is no surprise that a gap exists in achievement test scores between African Americans and European Americans. While progress was made in narrowing the gap during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, little progress was made in the 1990s. What is conspicuous about the gap is that it widens perceptively in upper elementary school. Therefore, elementary teachers have a crucial role to play in closing the gap in mathematics achievement. They can do so by providing high and clear standards, assessing students' work in alignment with these standards, and encouraging parental involvement in mathematics (Haycock, 2001).

Mathematics FunPacks

While homework is an established practice in schools, research indicates that it is only effective if it is relevant, creative, and meaningful to the student and parent (Sullivan & Sequeira, 1996; Walberg, Paschal, & Weinstein, 1985). When homework meets these criteria, it can have significantly positive effects on African American students' educational aspirations and chances for academic success (Smith-Maddox, 1999). Mathematics FunPacks replace the traditional homework of paper-and-pencil drills with meaningful, hands-on learning for the whole family (Koskoski & Patton, 1997). FunPacks can best be described as traveling learning centers, in that they contain all the materials needed to engage the whole family in mathematics explorations. Every FunPack includes:

* Activities that are hands-on, inquiry-based, and interactive

* Children's literature and information books that promote parent-child engagement in active analytical talk

* A family letter to invite parent participation and explain the importance of the mathematics concepts reinforced in the FunPack

* A family journal to promote home-to-school communication and evaluation of the FunPack

* Ideas for extending the activities in the FunPack through suggestions for books, Web sites, and family outings related to the topic.

The Freedom Quilt FunPack was developed to capitalize on mathematical concepts deeply rooted in African American culture. As Tobin and Dobard (1999) explain, "The African American quilt is a communicator conveying heritage, as it once displayed a means for slaves to flee the plantation and journey to freedom. Although the African American quilt appears to be a bed cover, it is more" (p. 35). The activities in the Freedom Quilt FunPack align with standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics by connecting history, mathematics, and families to enhance learning for students. In the Quilts: Shaping Our History activity (see Figure 1), families learn about the importance of map-making to runaway slaves, and then apply this knowledge to their own neighborhoods by drawing a map from home to school. The Art of Quilts activity (see Figure 1) connects art, African American artists, and spatial relations. It uses Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts (Wahlman, 2001) to highlight the contributions of African American women quilters to American folk art. One of the quilters featured in that book, Faith Ringgold, wrote Tar Beach (1991), a children's book that uses visual imagery to encourage imagination and creativity.

Involving Parents With the Mathematics FunPack

We were particularly interested in field-testing the Freedom Quilt FunPack with parents and students in an urban elementary school. The school enrolls approximately 370 students, of whom 178 identify themselves as African American. Seventy percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 16 percent are limited English proficient. After contacting a receptive 4th-grade teacher, the authors began the study. Of the 15 students enrolled, there were seven females and eight males; eight African Americans, four Hispanics, two Asian Americans, and one European American. We set up a time to meet with the students and demonstrate some of the activities in the FunPack. We also asked the students to encourage their parents to come early on PTA night so we could talk about the FunPack concept. Twelve parents attended and signed up for a convenient time to take the FunPack home for two nights. A letter explaining the FunPack concept, along with an invitation to participate, was sent home to those parents who could not attend the PTA meeting.

Managing and Assessing the FunPack

The organization of the FunPack is key to its success. The materials and books needed to complete the activities are gathered in labeled baggies. The directions for each activity are written in family-friendly language that invites all of the family members to participate. A sufficient amount of materials to complete the activities is included so that the entire family can participate. When the student returns the FunPack, the teacher checks the contents and replenishes any consumables.

The effectiveness of the FunPack was evident from the feedback in the family journal and from the teacher's informal interviews with the students. The authors and the classroom teacher engaged in frequent discussions throughout the semester. Parent and student comments indicated that the activities were engaging and fun. One student commented, "I thought the backpack was great because we can learn and have fun at the same time." Parents commented on the learning they observed: "My son and I really enjoyed this project. We did not get to finish everything but we had a wonderful discussion. Thanks," and "I've always enjoyed supervising my daughter's work, watching her develop her creative skills and seeing everything and every project take shape ... it's a lot of fun." For the researchers, the most affirming comment came from a student who wrote a step-by-step account of what she and her mother had done with the FunPack (e.g., "1. First, we found things around the house to make a quilt square."). She listed 10 steps, the last of which was, "We most importantly had fun."


Although the Freedom Quilt FunPack was developed specifically for urban African American students, we believe it is appropriate for all students. This inquiry demonstrates how meaningful homework engages families in meaningful learning. Furthermore, it supports the authors' contention that urban parents care deeply about their children's education. Parents who worked evenings asked the older children in the family to do the FunPack with their siblings. We view this flexibility as an asset, not a liability, in working with the FunPacks. Based on parental feedback, we will extend the rotations to four days.

Many factors contribute to the gap in mathematics achievement for students of color. One way that elementary teachers can make a difference in mathematics achievement is by providing meaningful homework that involves the family in learning. The Freedom Quilt FunPack provides a model for such fun, engaging, and culturally relevant mathematics.

Authors' Note: The authors would like to thank Mya Asberry for her help with this article.


Allexsaht-Schider, M., & Hart, L. E. (2001). Mathematics for all: How do we get there? Theory Into Practice, 40(2), 93-101.

Anderson, J. D. (1988). Education of blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.

Anderson, J. D. (1990). Black rural communities and the struggle for education during the age of Booker T. Washington, 1877-1915. Peabody Journal of Education, 67(4), 46-62.

Biddle, B. J., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). Unequal school funding in the United States. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 48-59.

Brawell, J. S., Lutkus, A. D., Grigg, W. S., Sanatappau, S. L., Tay-Lim, B., & Johnson, M. (2001). The nation's report card; Mathematics 2000. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES No. 2001-517).

Haycock, K. (2001). Closing the achievement gap. Educational Leadership, 58(6), 6-11.

Hopkinson, D. (1993). Sweet Clara and the freedom quilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Koskoski, T. M., & Patton, M. (1997). Beyond homework: Science and mathematics backpacks. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 25(2), 11-16.

Ringgold, F. (1991). Tar beach. New York: Crown Publishers.

Smith-Maddox, R. P. (1999). The social networks and resources of African American eight graders: Evidence from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. Adolescente, 34(133), 169-183.

Sullivan, M. H., & Sequeira, P.V. (1996). The impact of purposeful homework on learning. The Clearing House, 69, 346-348.

Tobin, J., & Dobard, R.G. (1999). Hidden in plain view. New York: Random House.

United States Census Bureau. (2000). The Black population in the United States: March 2002. Retrieved July 10, 2003, from black.html.

Walberg, H. J., Paschal, R. A., & Weinstein, T. (1985). Homework's powerful effects on learning. Educational Leadership, 42(7), 76-79.

Wahlman, M. S. (2001). Signs and symbols: African images in African American quilts (2nd ed.). Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books.

Angiline Powell-Mikle is Assistant Professor, Mathematics Education, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth. Mary Martin Patton is Associate Professor, Early Childhood, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.
Figure 1


Letter Sent Home With the FunPack

Dear Families,

The Quilts FunPack is visiting your home this week. The purpose of this
FunPack is to introduce your family to the artistry, geometry, and
history of quilts in the African American experience. Not only were
quilts used for warmth and artistic expression, they were also used by
slaves as a hidden method of communication.

Quilts have become quite popular again. Many of you have quilts on your
bed. The colorful patterns delight the eye while the quilt keeps you
warm, just like in the "olden" days. Did you know that quilts were
also used to help runaway slaves find their way north to freedom? We
hope you enjoy this exploration of the art and function of quilts!

Activity One
Quilts: Shaping Our History

Read Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (Hopkinson, 1993). To find out
more about how quilts were used to help runaway slaves, we have
included an excerpt from Hidden in Plain View (Tobin & Dobard, 1999)
and a brief article from Newsweek. You and your childe may want to talk
more about how reading about slavery affects you, emotionally.

Using objects found around your house and the items in the "Map-Making
Baggie," make a map showing how to get from your home to school, or
from your home to a friend's home. Your family may want to walk or
drive the route to get ideas for your map. Test out your map. Invite
someone to come along and see if they can use your map to find the way.
Be sure to bring your map to school to share with the class.

Activity Two
The Art of Quilts

Read Tar Beach (Ringgold, 1991). You may now want to read the
information about the author, Faith Ringgold, found at the end of this
book, which explains how she combines autobiography fiction, painting,
and quilt making into one art form. Her work is also described in Signs
and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts (Wahlman, 2001)
on pages 19 and 128. You may want to spend time looking at all the
beautiful quilts in the book. Now you can make a story quilt!

Design a quilt square, using the fabric, trims, and buttons in the
"Quilt Baggie," as well as things found around your house. For your
design, think about a place in your neighborhood that you would like
to fly over and see from above, like Cassie does in Tar Beach. Along
the bottom of your picture, write a sentence that describes why you
want to fly over that place. Pencil in your design on the fabric and
then glue pieces of felt and fabric to decorate your square. Be sure
not to draw outside the penciled line on your square. This space will
be used to connect all the squares into a class quilt.

Be sure to bring your quilt square back to school for our classroom
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.