India Hook Elementary students stitch replica Underground Railroad quilts

It’s been years since sewing and quilting were a part of most children’s lives, let alone the curriculum at school. But at India Hook Elementary School, Tonya Janicke’s fourth-grade class found a way to incorporate these skills with their history lesson to turn their knowledge into two queen-size quilts.

Janicke’s students got help from master quilter Glenda Lewis and apprentice quilter, Bette Jean Janicke, Tonya’s mother. The pair spent countless hours helping the students hand stitch their quilt blocks together, then assembled the full quilts.

“They were eager to learn,” Lewis said of Tonya Janicke’s 26 students. “They learned like their great-grandmothers would have years and years ago.”

Lewis had always wanted to make an Underground Railroad-inspired quilt, complete with squares whose designs served as a map for slaves escaping the South before and during the Civil War.

Tonya Janicke had always wanted to incorporate a quilt project into her social studies lessons. When Bette Jean Janicke introduced the two, they both knew the project was meant to be.

And while quilting might not seem like the activity of choice for today’s tech-savvy children, Tonya Janicke’s students embraced the project with remarkable enthusiasm, said India Hook principal Crystal Guyton, who started to tear up when the students dedicated the quilts to her and assistant principal Rhonda Kelsey on behalf of the school.

“It was really fun that I got to learn new things about stitching and how fun it could be,” said student Franci Wright.

Showing off their battered fingertips, Franci and her classmate Julio Bonilla said they learned quilting took a lot of time, patience, and needle sticks to get it right.

“I like to sew because you get to put the pieces together,” Julio said.

In front of an audience of fellow students, parents and grandparents on Friday afternoon, Tonya Janicke’s students presented their finished products. They also explained each of the squares and what it would have meant to an escaping slave.

“For our kids, this is bringing all of their social studies standards together,” Guyton said.

But, more than that, Guyton said it showed the students’ hearts and their dedication to completing such an extensive project, which will hang on display at the school.

“These are powerful things, and that human part – you just can’t recreate,” she said.