Overview: Teaching cultural impacts in various cultures through visual art and the use of mandalas.
Earlier this spring I was asked to prepare a presentation for elementary principals about our district’s visual arts program. Not one to do anything without a team, I immediately pulled together four art teachers (Rebecca Bailey, Tracy Evans, Linda Ford & Wynita Harris) and the brainstorming began as it always does. The ideas evolved from collaborative art to “big ideas” until we settled in on a cross-curricular project – but what? Two of our teachers had time to visit us while working a regional art event and brought the mandala to the group. The mandala is an ancient symbol from various cultural traditions, most often being Buddhist and Hindu. The word mandala is Sanskrit for “circle”. Mandalas are beautiful, intricate, symmetrically patterned circles.
Once we had settled on the most important part of the presentation, the project, how would we teach the lesson, facilitate the presentation and make the cross-curricular connections? Creating lesson plans and presentations is similar to all creative processes: there is trial, error and chemistry when things click and snap into place.
It seemed once we’d settled on the mandala, I saw them everywhere – sort of like buying a new car then seeing the same car everywhere you look. Mandalas were in fabric patterns, jewelry, the print on my tote bag repeated in so many varieties and in so many other places. In fact, I walked into a high school art room and expectedly found the most wonderful image on the wall: a work by Brian Evans, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, variation 5 (Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, digital print, pigmented ink on paper, 11 x 11 inches, 2000 http://lightspace.com/academic/index.htm). It is a perfect connection to technology, music and it was a mandala! We had the meat of the lesson/presentation and now an image/artist to use. Now it was time to dig in and build further cross-curricular connections!
Sometimes the best way to create a lesson is to create the art first. We all made our own mandalas, each of us making multiple versions, and then had fun on a group text by sending pictures of the creations. We posted images to twitter, pinterest, etc. and were truly artists invested in the process. Throughout this creative collaboration, we bounced ideas back and forth. Making mandalas, we immediately drew mathematical conclusions including symmetry, fractions, divisions, and patterns. Thinking about patterns, we drew a nature connection as demonstrated in The Mandala Book: Patterns of the Universe by Lori Bailey Cunningham. There are social studies connections within the cultural significance of the mandala, as well as Asian traditions and geography. It seemed the more we worked to create mandalas, the more connections we made and there were infinite cross-curricular options.
In order to bridge the cross-curricular connections and bring the lesson together, we used a thinking routine from Artful Thinking, http://www.pz.gse.harvard.edu/artful_thinking.php. The presentation began with a See, Think, Wonder routine of the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, variation 5, then concluded this portion with the music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and moved directly into a basic yoga routine to include movement and to connect to Indian culture. Then, we asked the presentation participants to create their own mandalas and discover the math/science connections. It was wonderful having educational administrators making art and discovering the numerous cross-curricular connections, even beyond the ones our team had hoped they would find.
Mandalas are a perfect centerpiece for arts integration; arts are a bridge for making connections to all the disciplines. Creating art requires understanding its process, math, cultural significance and perceptions, and the mandala provides an ideal starting place.