Megan’s focus is on the connections between culture and craft, and certain projects highlight each year’s cultural study. “Some of the decorative work of the Lenape people included the use of porcupine quills. These are two inches long, and they were flattened by pulling them between the teeth. Flattened quills were then dyed and woven in and out of stitches preapplied to the work.” Megan keeps containers of porcupine quills on hand, which she purchases from a craft source in Texas. “The kids sometimes try this, but there is no way they are going to get the hang of doing quill work.” Megan incorporates yarn into her craft lesson as a replacement for the quills, allowing her students to follow a similar process and create similar patterns. “Often, their work looks like the authentic Lenape pieces.” Students create wristbands as a first assignment. “Then they make and decorate a medicine pouch, which is used to carry power objects.” Later in the year while studying colonial Philadelphia, Megan’s students practice cross-stitching, knitting, and other homespun skills. They are also rewarded with the occasional appearance of an adult spinner who can talk about the craft and its historical importance. “What the students knit are basically squares. But then this turns into this… ” As she describes the activity, Megan reveals how a specific pull of a string of yarn (with a bit of yarn-based origami magic) transforms a knitted square into the head and body of a small animal toy. “To learn how to spin yarn, learn to knit, knit a square, and turn that square into a critter takes most of the second semester.” Along the way, there is always room for a small slice of colonial culture. “One time I found out that a colonial Philadelphia family had a rule that kids were not allowed outside to play until they had knitted four rows in their socks! That kind of historical tidbit helps boys as well as girls feel okay about doing handcrafts that might, today, be considered ‘a girl thing’.”
Two wrist bands and a medicine pouch in the Lenape style
The second year in Megan’s class is structured around the varied cultures of Africa. “We spend the first part of the year learning about different people of the continent, reading lots and lots of extraordinarily illustrated books to learn about who some of these people are. Fairly early on, we learn a bit about the Zulu people of southern Africa. The Zulus do beautiful beadwork, and we use their beadwork as inspiration. The students design their own work on paper first, choosing the patterns and colors they would like for their finished creations, working with a grid. Though the Zulus don’t use looms, Megan has found it helpful to provide a simple beading loom for the students to work with. “For months there are little beads rolling all over the floor of the classroom while the kids do their beadwork!” Later in the year, when all the third grade classes celebrate their learning of Africa with a student marketplace, Megan’s students offer their wristbands for sale (using cowry shells for money) or for trade. “After several months of work exploring the diversity of the African continent, we focus in on the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria.” Megan’s exploration of the Yoruba includes a close look at their lifestyle. “For centuries, many Yoruba have lived in towns, but have had strong ties with the countryside; they visit relatives who farm and live in rural compounds. To help the kids understand the architecture, we sometimes build a scale model compound, using red clay to make bricks and straw to thatch the roofs of the model dwellings.” “By the end of the year, we’ve read scores of stories from all over the African continent, many with animals as main characters. And we do a play which I adapt from some of the stories we’ve read. This year’s play will involve West African tricksters: Anansi the rabbit (from the Hausa people of northern Nigeria), and Ajapa the turtle (from the Yoruba). We turn kids into animals through the use of head-masks, which the students create with papier-mâché. They wear them on the tops of their heads. The play is performed for other students and for their parents. It offers an opportunity for students to not only learn about public speaking and acting, but also perform some of the West African-style drumming which they work on, through the year. The school has a class set of Djembe drums.” NOTE: One of Megan’s craft-based cultural lessons is featured in the September 2008 newsletter, and can also be found under the “Lesson Plans” section of the Museum website.
Head masks used in the class play
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