By Michelle Swinehart—
This here is a breakdown of three visits that I had the pleasure of sharing with middle school students throughout the Portland metro area as a part of Object Stories from the Middle, a project by the Portland Art Museum.
Quilts tell stories. Why a quilt? Originally, the social process by which some quilts are made (otherwise known as a quilting bee) drew me to quilts as a starting point. The common image of a group of women, each sewing and talking around a quilt lends itself to storytelling. But there’s more to a quilt, similar to an art object. Perhaps the visual elements give explicit clues to a time or place. With this in mind, I decided to approach Object Stories by making collective quilts with students, inspired by students’ objects and the elements of their stories.
Starting from scratch. What makes a good story? Our ears know the answer to this question, however allusive because when we hear a good one we naturally want to keep listening. To begin, I ask students this essential question and they always brainstorm an impressive list. The one I’m secretly looking for is description or vivid details. Students then write down at least six details about their object. These are usually specific descriptions like color, size, and function. At this point, I ask students about the personal significance of their object. Why is it important to you? What does your object represent? At the end of this process students select their favorite descriptive detail. Another way I’ve described this—is the descriptive detail that gets to the heart of your object’s story. (see Download at the end of this post for worksheet)
Making it square. How can a word be brought to life? With a buffet of materials collected from Scrap (http://scrappdx.org) students begin their quilt square. This is the fun part. Some students decide to include imagery alongside their descriptive word while other students weave imagery into the letters of their word. As a teaching artist, I appreciate this hands-on time because I’m able to check in with students individually while they’re occupied and ask them about their objects. This is an excellent time to ask questions that bridge student’s visual quilt square to a verbal story about their object. Why did you pick your object? What is a vivid memory about your object? (see Download at the end of this post for worksheet)
Connecting stories. What do our objects have in common? With quilt squares completed, it’s time to start putting the quilt together as a class. We use safety pins because it’s a simple way to connect all the squares and can be easily deconstructed—so students can take home their individual squares. All the words together make a dynamic collection and we spend time as a group discussing if there are other words that apply to students’ objects. Afterward we break up into small groups to start telling stories. I love this part and found it to be a powerful experience for students to share their stories with peers as nervousness mixes with a desire to share. Students begin by sharing the descriptive word they picked for their quilt square and then telling a story about their object. If students don’t have a specific “story” in mind—I ask them to tell us about a vivid memory they have about their object or how they got it. After each student shares I ask the rest of the group to ask questions about what they heard.
Story slam. If I had one more class to spend with students I would do a story slam based on students’ objects. When students start telling stories there is a contagious quality to their storytelling (it’s like wildfire). For example, a student picked their dog’s leash and told a story about chasing their dog after it escaped from the dog park. After the student finished talking (actually before) hands shot up with excitement as if to shout, “Me too, I have a story about that too.” So I would invite students to choose another student’s object—one that they too have a personal story about and tell it in front of the class in story slam style. The thing I like about group storytelling is it incorporates listening and through listening we often find ourselves empathizing with the storyteller. I also feel that verbally processing ideas is an important part of the writing process (especially for struggling writers).