Rural Art Teaches Kids How to do Geometry

May 14, 2015

School is almost out at Rockbridge County High School. But one innovative math teacher gave his students a lesson in geometry that pays homage to the area’s rural heritage.

It’s a lesson they can take with them as they head out for the summer season.  WMRA's Jessie Knadler has the story.

It’s not always easy to make math fun and relatable for teenagers—not even honors geometry students at Rockbridge County High School, eager to swap their rulers for Ray Bans as they gear up for summer break.

But Rockbridge County High School teacher Scott Fleshman hit upon an idea that would take the complex language of numbers and measurements and make it artistic and beautiful while paying homage to Rockbridge County’s rural roots.

SCOTT FLESHMAN: I wanted them to come up with an appreciation of the past.

They’re called barn quilts. Perhaps you’ve seen them. They’re large squares of wood brilliantly painted to look like old fashioned quilting swatches, typically comprised of geometric shapes like stars, diamonds and triangles. You see them displayed on barns and homes across rural parts of the country. It’s a look that says, Americana! And “There is probably a tractor or chain saw somewhere on this property.”

The idea came to Scott from his father, Russell Fleshman, a retired school principal. Russell Fleshman is one of those guys who can’t sit still. He farms. He published a memoir. He’s a skilled carpenter who owns nine apartments, one of which he just finished renovating. And in the winter months, he took up barn quilting because TV is just not his thing and it was a craft that had always appealed to him.

RUSSELL FLESHMAN: Here’s my cow one. This one has been really popular. [JK: Yeah, I really like that.]  You can change the colors, whatever you want. Put them on barns, gardens…students are taking them to school and putting them on their walls, or on their dorms.

There was just one concern. Barn quilting involves extremely precise measurements—even for a carpenter as skilled as Russell Fleshman. If you’re off by even 1/16th of an inch, it throws off the entire pattern. Angles don’t meet up. It involves figuring out how to take a tiny pattern found on the Internet and scaling it up to precisely fit a four by four foot piece of plywood that he would attach to the front of his barn. Fairly sophisticated geometry was involved. He called over Scott for a refresher course.

Russell shows me the barn quilt that got the whole thing started – an intricate star shape that looks kind of like a spinning pinwheel.

RUSSELL FLESHMAN: That was hard.  And that was the one I called my son on that got the stuff started over at the high school. I could not get the dimensions to come out right…from this angle to that angle. And I messed up two of them, and you can’t erase those things, you gotta paint over ‘em.

SCOTT FLESHMAN: And as I was helping him, I thought, this is everything we do in our classes throughout the year in geometry, and this would be a great culminating activity for the students.

Scott asked his father to come in and talk to the students about Barn Quilting 101; how to find a design, how to scale it up to fit onto a specific size matte board, the math concepts and the art involved. A color palette had to be chosen; design chops required. Simpler is better, they urged the students. Don’t go overboard. Some students were unsure at first—math as art? No way. Math as beautiful? Huh?

SCOTT FLESHMAN: But I had several students choose pretty complicated designs. One in particular, the student showed it to me and I said to her, “Oh my, that’s a pretty ambitious design. I’m not sure if you want to undertake that quite yet.”  Her response to me was, “It’s done.” And I said, “What do you mean it’s done?” And she texted me a picture of her project completely done.

These are honors students, remember; over achievers.

Scott was seriously impressed by the results. The students’ barn quilts have been displayed in the high school’s lobby since April.

SCOTT FLESHMAN: Definitely we’ll do this again next year. The feedback that I’ve gotten from the kids has been very positive.

One of his students, freshman Sophia Youngdahl, was inspired by the project and it gave her a deeper appreciation of the region where she lives.

SOPHIA YOUNGDAHL: It looks really complicated but you can make really cool things with math and I didn’t really know at first I was confused how the math would be factored into that but it actually worked out really well. You can put math into a bunch of daily things and you can turn out to make something really cool. Now whenever I go by a barn like when my family is driving and I see a barn quilt, I say, “Hey, I made one of those! “

Scott Fleshman is thinking about adapting the project for all of his students, not just the honor’s group.

As for Russell Fleshman, the inspiration behind the entire project, a couple of years ago, he approached county officials about establishing a Barn Quilt Trail of Rockbridge County. He envisioned it as being similar in scope to the one in Highland County. There, the Chamber of Commerce put together a guided map of 25 or so destinations featuring brilliant barn quilts that tourists could drive past. So far, the Rockbridge County project hasn’t gotten off the ground, though Russell is hopeful.

But who knows? Now that a bunch of local high schoolers are hip to this old timey craft, maybe a Barn Quilt Trail of Rockbridge County will happen sooner than we think.