Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Sand Mandalas and the Utility Room

Image result for sand mandalaLast Monday on my trade day, I ended up at the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown St. Pete. It happened to be the day that the Venerable Losang Samten, a renowned Tibetan scholar and former Buddhist monk started his sand mandala in the museum. 

A sand mandala is an incredibly intricate work of art created by sand that takes days and days to complete. He used a ruler and a compass and math and drew out his plan on a huge board. He did a chant and blessed the sand and then allowed the museum visitors to add tiny amounts of sand to the mandala. He then spent six hours a day for the next two weeks (still ongoing) creating this incredible work of art. My daughter was so enthralled by the chanting and the artistry and the math and the sand! (she’s a little artsy...)

On this Saturday, Jan 16, Losang Samten (and others) will “dismantle” it. Sweep it away. Two weeks of math, science, and art. Gone.

Isn’t that what it feels like in the classroom sometimes? We work day in and day out to create something amazing and intricate and beautiful and then we sweep it all away and start over.

It can feel overwhelming and frustrating and futile.

But it can be really, really awesome when it’s “right”, in the “now”.

I am an artist. I am a scientist. I am a social studies teacher.

M. Colleen Cruz, author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, says this.
                        I believe, as many people do, that teachers are both scientists and artists.
                        Yet, so many of us, myself included, wish time and again that once we have learned something, once we have mastered a lesson, a teaching method, a unit, a rubric, a parent letter, that it should be preserved in amber -- never to be touched or changed again. This is very understandable. You work so d*&% hard. Why can’t our work be preserved and used again and again for always?

            The answer is of course: we are scientists and artists. And just as we would be horrified by the notion that a scientist today was still using radioactive materials without protective equipment the way Marie Curie did, or repelled by the notion of someone killing and stuffing an endangered animal to paint it the way Audubon did, we should feel just as horrified by the notion that a teacher in her thirtieth year would be teaching exactly the same things in the same way as she did when she started. We have all heard stories about those teachers. There are even sayings about them: “He’s been teaching the same year for twenty-five years”

I know most of you aren't teaching the same “year” for twenty five years. That's impractical, out of date, and would possibly involve a filmstrip machine and a slide carousel from 1965. Plus - how would you make a scale for that's? (Ha!)

But we can all learn to live more comfortably in the “ now” of what we do and to understand the relative impermanence of our lessons. It's not that “those administrators” or “those coaches” or “the big District Blobby Monster” are trying to come up with new ways of teacher-torture. It's that the world changes. Kids change. Research teaches us new things about education.

We build a new sand mandala, which is a beautiful, perfect work of art, and then we start all over again.

For goodness sake, work smarter not harder. Use the sand from the last mandala to build a new one. Don't reinvent the wheel (ha!). But don't use the same old tire that's worn out, either.

I don't have a garage in my house. The people who lived there before me enclosed it into a big utility room. Or as I call it, the futility room. Because it's futile to try to keep it permanently clean and organized. It is a constant task to organize and rework the shelves, containers, and miscellaneous stuff in there.

It's annoying, and always a mess. But it's also a little bit of Harry Potter’s “room of requirement”. The room turns into different things as I need them. This month I need a place to stash all my holiday gift wrap, gifts, and whatnot? The futility room! Need an extra bed for an additional houseguest? The futility room! Need a place to organize tools and craft supplies? The futility room!

I hope as you think about the new semester (and the new year), I hope you can find a little peace with the impermanence of your craft, like the sand mandala. I hope you can reorganize and update your tools out of necessity, like my futility room. I hope you don't capture your lessons in Amber, never to be changed. I really hope you aren't using radioactive materials like Marie Curie did. Or filmstrip machines or slide carousels.

In second semester, as 2016 dawns, think about the art and science of your classroom. And update what you do, knowing that the last sand mandala (or lesson)you created was incredibly beautiful. And the next one will be too.

Use your artistic and scientific sides to be more flexible and adaptive. It will pay off in your classroom.

What are your New Year's resolutions? Do you capture your lessons in amber or do you make new sand mandalas all the time? I love to hear what you're trying out, changing, and adapting this semester. Email me!

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