Oakland students find common thread in learning math through quilting

The sound of sewing machines isn't just about stitching at the Rock, Paper, Scissors Collective studio space in downtown Oakland.

It's also about mathematics in the making for Oakland MetWest High School students who signed up for a unique internship.

"I really like the colors. The colors made it pop," said Johan Rivera-Garcia as he labored over the fabric, stitching squares together.

"It is going to be a quilt," said Andreana Lewis, another intern from MetWest High School who was working on a pink trimmed square with a forest of animals in the middle.

Quilting might not be on most teenager's to-do list, but twice a week, they come to meet their mentor Wendy Lichtman, a retired MetWest High School math teacher who years ago started the classes after facing a problem she wanted to solve.

"I had a student five years ago who said, I don't get it. I flunked geometry three times. I'm not going to graduate. That's it. Forget and I'm never gonna graduate," said Lichtman.

And that is when Wendy Lichtman's love for her students, led to a brilliant idea.

She put two and two together, blending her love of math with her love of quilting.

"And I said, Wait a minute. What do you think about doing hands on geometry? What do you think about if we just start quilting," said Lichtman, "It does so much with measurement and shapes and ratio and proportion. It's living geometry. And she went for it and my principal went for it. And then I've had 10 kids a year do it."

A former colleague who works at Rock, Paper, Scissors Collective gallery donates the space.  Licthman supplies the sewing machines.

For her, there's joy in showing students the common thread between math and the quilts.

"Not very many 15-year-olds care that two parallel lines are crossed by a transversal. They don't really care very much about that. But right here are two parallel lines and these are transversals and they are at a 90-degree angle, and you really got to get it to look right," said Lichtman.

Her student interns plot their projects on graph paper, then do multiplication and measurements to put the pieces together.

"I love the whole process of it and I love quilting itself. I think it's a beautiful form of art," said Catrina Maldonado-Arias, another intern from MetWest High School, "It's geometric shapes, then you tessellate, and there are lots of measurements."

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Johan Rivera-Garcia is a MetWest High School student. "This is the first pillow I ever made," said Rivera-Garcia, showing a colorful pillow with blue and pink rectangles and squares, "It just brings out a lot of shapes and colors and I really enjoyed it from starting and finishing it."

Lichtman says putting the pieces together helps students discover their own creativity. She says quilting can also be a very personal journey.

"What's the phrase? You take your broken heart and make art. You know that phrase? That's what I like about these things," said Licthman, "My brother died 5 years ago and he always wore gorgeous ties.

"These three are from the same silk tie," said Licthman, "These are sometimes called memory quilts that are done this way."

She hopes the students are making memories as they sew the quilts that will bring joy and pride. Students take their work home to share with their families.

The quilts also are donated to patients at Children's Hospital and to keep foster children cozy in the Bay Area.

"It feels good that it's going towards people who need it," said Lewis. 

For each of these student interns, Lichtman hopes the quilts and pillows they stich will be a lasting lesson in math, learning, and life.