Connecting Through Stories: Seventh-Graders and Fourth-Graders Come Together to Create a 'Quilt'

Story by Kelly Howes

“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.”

This is the first sentence of The Day You Begin, a picture book by Jacqueline Woodson, the award-winning author of the celebrated memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming and other books for children, young adults and adults. This beautifully illustrated, lyrical story features a diverse cast of characters who converge in a classroom on the first day of school and learn that differences make people wonderfully unique, that similarities unite them, and that sharing stories can help them connect with each other. 

In their seventh-grade classrooms, Durham Academy students encountered this book as the center of their first seminar discussion of the school year. The seventh-graders’ positive response to the book and sensitive analysis of its messages led me and my language arts teaching partner, Rachel Cummings, to consider an extension activity that would reach across the distance between the Middle and Lower Schools and bring younger and older students together for a fun and meaningful experience.

Once they leave the friendly halls of the Lower School, the location of DA’s Middle School can make it challenging for students to easily venture back. They continue to cherish their memories of simpler times and especially of beloved teachers, but the geography of campuses 2 miles apart means that interactions between Middle School students and younger students can be somewhat rare.

As teachers, we are well aware that one of the best paths toward learning is provided by the necessity of teaching something to others. The central lesson of The Day You Begin is that by actively embracing differences, celebrating similarities and sharing stories, we can forge connections with others in ways that make us even stronger versions of ourselves. What better way to reinforce values of empathy and inclusion than to give our seventh-graders an opportunity to teach fourth-grade students that lesson?

As DA Learning Specialist and Middle School diversity coordinator Dr. Cindy Moore noted, the seventh-graders would be allowed to spread their wings as leaders while also laying the groundwork for their future fifth- and eighth-grade partnerships. [As fifth-graders, students are paired with eighth-grade “buddies” with whom they participate in activities and to whom they bid fond farewells in end-of-year letters.] Lower School Director Carolyn Ronco and fourth-grade teachers Jean Coene, Anna Larson, Chip Lupa and Chris Mason enthusiastically agreed to host us and carved out an afternoon slot on our first late start day of the school year, Sept. 25. [Late start days allow teachers early-morning time for professional development and collaboration. At the Middle School, the rest of the day is devoted to exploring curricular and other themes and activities the regular schedule might not allow.]

We began by asking each of the seventh-graders to design a lesson plan that included an objective, an activity and an assessment. The exercise was intended to help them determine what they would want their students to understand when the lesson was over, and how they would know their students had learned what they set out to teach them. Working through this process required students to think not only about the best ways to highlight the book’s important themes of embracing diversity and making connections across differences, but how to manage classroom logistics and other challenges. Individually and in small groups, the students set goals and thought through plans and hoped-for outcomes, taking time-frames, age-appropriateness and varied learning styles into consideration. Mrs. Cummings and I were impressed by the possibilities they envisioned, which ranged from art-making to drama to written reflection to active games.

As the day approached, Mrs. Cummings and I melded together a number of students’ suggestions and made a plan. The nearly 100 seventh-graders and more than 80 fourth-graders would interact through a read-aloud and short discussion of the book, followed by an activity in which fourth- and seventh-grade partners would meet, chat and use Venn diagrams to brainstorm their differences and similarities. Each set of partners would then create “quilt squares” to illustrate these discoveries, which would eventually be joined together in a beautiful display of unique and shared traits and experiences. 

Finally the day and hour arrived, and the seventh-graders climbed off their buses and trooped into each of the fourth-grade classrooms. Despite some (perhaps inevitable!) awkward moments as the two sets of students eyed each other and the older ones wondered what to do with their suddenly bigger-seeming selves, the experience got underway. Seventh-graders designated as “lead teachers” took charge of the read-aloud and led the discussion. Then the partners paired up and walked over to Brumley Performing Arts Building, where they found supplies and space to spread out for collaborative work.

Soon the auditorium floor was covered with pairs and small groups of fourth- and seventh-graders, and as they got acquainted, the noise level rose along with the comfort level! The lead teachers circulated through the crowd, answering questions, distributing supplies and endeavoring to keep everyone on task. The Venn diagrams began to bloom with details connected to hobbies, sports teams, families, cultures, pets and passions. 

“I learned that no matter the age or gender of someone, you can always connect to them in some way… I thought it was really cool to see my classmates leading and teaching a class!” — Lily Goldin

“My partner was a girl named Edie and she was awesome. She was a little shy at first, but once we started talking she kind of came out of her shell. We had a really good conversation and got to learn a lot about ourselves.” — Will Hunter 

“I learned so much and had so much fun from being able to do this activity with my partner, Stella. She was really funny and cheerful, and I felt like I really got to get to know her. While we were brainstorming, it turned out that we had a lot more things in common than I originally thought we would.” — Erin Lee

“It was like going through time to the past. I got to relearn activities that fourth-graders do from my buddy. The best part was getting to know your buddy with the Venn diagrams. I can’t believe how long it has been since I’ve been in fourth grade.” — Jet Bilsborrow

“In past experiences, when I would do activities with people younger than me, they would be really shy. However, [they] were very friendly and nice. I learned that though my partner and I had our differences, we definitely had a lot of similarities too.” — Nicholas Wang

“I feel it was a very positive experience for me and my partner Gabriella. I liked hearing about what we had in common the most because it was a lot more than our differences. At the start Gabriella was very quiet. I think she thought we were so different. When we started the activity though, and she realized that we had a lot in common, she was more open and friendly. I loved the energy in the room where we were working. It was so happy, and I learned a lot.” — Shreya Rao

Next the students began work on their colorfully illustrated quilt squares, which the lead teachers then glued to poster boards that would later be joined together. Before we knew it, it was time for the fourth-graders to make their way to PE class. After a round of goodbyes and a quick cleanup, the seventh-graders reboarded their buses for their trip back to the somewhat more complicated (in their eyes, anyway!) world of middle school.

“I liked the quilt activity because it helped us recognize who we are and what we like to do, rather than just try to keep up with the social norms. The quilt activity also helped us learn that we are all unique and have our own things about us, but we also share similarities as well.” — Andrew Lim

In reflecting on this first-time activity, both students and teachers saw many ways in which it could be improved. In this way, though, the experience mirrored what so much of teaching is all about — trying out new ideas, taking risks, and learning about learning! Spending time with the fourth-graders had been both fun and interesting, as the partners made unexpected discoveries about each other. 

“I really enjoyed meeting someone new and learning about them. It was also interesting to learn about what kids that age like to do now, and compare that with what I liked to do in fourth grade.” — Anneke Schmidt

“I learned many things about the fourth-graders, especially that I underestimated their knowledge. I enjoyed working with my fourth grade partner because he was very confident and seemed excited to talk and work with me.” — Ethan Li 

“Something that I enjoyed about the experience was that we got to know some facts about them before they will be fifth-grade buddies.” — Ben Lacoff 

“I enjoyed talking to my partner and talking about things we enjoyed. I also had to be a little patient while he was working because he didn’t necessarily understand it, so I was helping him comprehend the meaning of this and what we were doing.” — Kyngston Gaddy

“I think one great thing about the activity was that my partner was a little shy at the beginning but by the end he seemed much less afraid of talking to me. I think that I could’ve talked more to make my partner more comfortable talking to me, but I thought that in the end the awkwardness was pretty much gone.” — Ori Moore

“I enjoyed that I got to meet someone new. The person I was paired with I really got to know. We had a very interesting conversation that really got me to understand him and that part of the generation.” — Leah Lipsitch

Mostly, students’ comments were positive. The seventh-grade lead teachers expressed appreciation for the energy and often exhausting work that goes into the planning and execution of lessons and into interacting with people younger than oneself. 

“I learned about how exhausted teachers must be. I learned how to cope with all ages. Also, I learned about a few more time management and public speaking skills. It was hard at first to stand up there with all those eyes beating down on us. But it also brought opportunity to do something great. So I think the other lead teachers and I showed some responsibility. We all tried to be great role models… We had to create an encouraging friendly space for them to get to know each other.” — Maya Patel

“One of my favorite parts of the trip was seeing all the fourth-graders having fun and learning. I really loved seeing that because we all worked so hard on making sure everything went smoothly and making sure that the activity was fun, and it was really rewarding to see all of the hard work come together.” — Chloe Bidgood 

“I learned that managing groups while still keeping a focused mind was very difficult, and I have gained a lot of new respect for teachers now.” — Aneesh Patkar

Seventh-graders who had attended DA’s Lower School voiced their pleasure in seeing old haunts and former teachers. And all agreed that it had been a positive experience that should definitely be repeated in the years to come.

“I enjoyed meeting and learning about my partner, and I think that this was a really good way to get to know the fourth-graders while also connecting to the book.” — Gage Rogers

For me and the other adults present (which included all of the seventh-grade advisors), the human “quilt” of young people spread out on Brumley’s expansive floor was a heartening sight. Surely this is the way to make connections: sharing stories and laughter, thinking out loud, finding common ground and using words and art to illustrate the beautiful diversity of our community. 

The closing words of Woodson’s book articulate this message well: “And all at once, in a room where no one else is quite like you, the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you. This is the day you begin … to find the places inside your laughter and your lunches, your books, your travel and your stories, where every new friend has something else so fabulously not quite like you at all.”