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Cultural Connections Through Mandalas

Editor's Note: Sandra Makielski, seventh grade social studies teacher at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, shares an international collaborative project that helps students understand cultural differences—and more importantly, similarities—around the world. See her lesson plan as well. 

By guest blogger Sandra Makielski

student mandalas.jpeg

In 2015, I had the honor of participating in Teachers for Global Classrooms, funded by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the U.S Department of State and administered by IREX. As a seventh-grade social studies teacher in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to travel to the Philippines. After nine months of preparation, I nervously boarded the plane. Sixteen American teachers were paired with 8 Filipino teachers. Upon arrival, we were scattered across various islands. 

My American partner and I were assigned to a school in metro Manila: José Rizal University located in Mandaluyong. In a short time span of just 10 days, we observed numerous classes, taught countless lessons about our home states, attended various meetings with teachers and administrators, and paired up with a Filipino teacher to co-teach a lesson.

Forming a Lasting Partnership

Upon returning to Rhode Island, I taught my students how to dance Tinikling, and I shared artifacts I had purchased on my trip. We read Filipino folktales and learned about key events in Filipino history. Dancing, reading, analyzing...all of these activities were great fun and engaging for my students, but it still was not enough. How could I help my students connect with the students at José Rizal University?

After some serious brainstorming and many messages back and forth between Rhode Island and Mandaluyong, Sir Rufo de Leon, the Filipino teacher I had been paired with, and I decided to use a lesson that my students complete every year: cultural mandalas. A cultural mandala is a circle that has been divided into 8 pie wedges that depict the 8 attributes of culture. The students then draw pictures or symbols that represent themselves for each attribute. On the back, the students attach an "I Am" poem that connects to the mandala.

My students then swapped their mandalas with students in the Philippines as a first step in connecting.

Swapping Projects

Sir de Leon paired me with a José Rizal University social studies teacher, Ms. Jeanne Esteves, who was open squeezing this lesson into their busy days. Seventh-grade students in Rhode Island carefully drew their mandalas and wrote their personal poems while students on the other side of the planet were doing the same.

atual mandalas.jpeg

On the designated day, I packaged up nearly 100 mandalas and sent them on their way. My students and I waited impatiently for the return package, and my students frequently bemoaned the slowness of "snail mail."

Then it happened: the mandalas from the Philippines arrived! For one entire lesson, my students admired the colorful mandalas and the intensely personal poems. My students delved into the mandalas looking for connections. Do Filipinos practice the same religion as Rhode Islanders? What songs and musicians are popular? Is pizza a favored food? And the same thing was happening simultaneously at José Rizal University! With this exchange, the Philippines came alive for my students. 

Logistics for Making It Happen

If you are interested in making global connections using cultural mandalas or a similar project, a few simple steps will make the process simple to execute:

  • Establishing and maintaining connections is key. We as adults might have to make that initial contact, but once contact has been made and a plan put in place, the students should take over.
  • Do the familiar. Do not feel pressured to do something fancy or that might require lots of extra work. By keeping it simple, you may have an easier time getting buy-in from the partner teacher. Making connections is key.
  • When choosing a project, send student samples via email. The partner teacher will have a better expectation of the outcome.
  • Use "snail mail" when sending the student projects. Nothing can replace the feeling of receiving a package that has traveled halfway around the world. To top it off, the students love seeing the stamps!
  • When swapping projects, limit one page per student. It can be very expensive to mail articles.
  • Don't forget to share the swapped projects with your school. Create a display in the hall or have your students share their findings with another class. Help the other students become global citizens as they learn about the partner country.
  • Get started with the lesson plan.

Moving Forward

This year I will be swapping cultural mandalas again, this time with Sir Rufo de Leon's students. Anticipation will build as we wait for the mail to deliver the projects. Once again, my students will be surprised that Filipino students are very much like Rhode Island seventh-graders. In the future, Sir Rufo and I hope to Skype with our students, but until we can work out the logistics, we will swap mandalas and watch the connections grow.

The author would like to thank her colleague, Colleen Baurele, for introducing her to mandalas.

Images taken by, and used courtesy of, the author. 

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