Saturday, February 1, 2014

Precious Moments in Art: A Story of Symbolism and Identity

This week, I had a unique experience in my 4th grade class.  The students were painting their clay boxes from my Clay Slab Unit (which I titled "Boxes of Hope" inspired by the Greek myth of Pandora's Box).

Before I get to my story, I wanted to share how my district is incredibly diverse.  We have a great mixture of Polish, Arabic, African-American, Hispanic, along with a mixture of many other cultures.  There is no majority, although on the "state report card," there are fewer categories to place them.

I have one student who is of Hindu faith in my class.  While painting his box, he added the symbol of a swastika on his box.  Students immediately started to panic, thinking he was promoting the nazi idea, but I knew the symbol's history.

"Oh!  You painted your symbol for prosperity!  Awesome!"

The students were shocked.  I took this as a teachable moment, and shared how the swastika was a symbol for prosperity, before the nazi party had adopted the symbol as their own.  The word swastika literally means "it is good," and was drawn on doors and windows of houses during festivals to bring good luck in Indian and Middle Eastern Culture.  Knowing that the students was of Hindu faith, I knew he was only expressing his religious identity in his artwork.

The students were amazed I knew that.  If I did not study into symbology during my early college years, I would not have known the symbol's history.  Many people immediately assume an idea the moment we see symbols.  Since mainstream media doesn't share much about symbols and their origins, we easily follow what we know without researching ourselves.

Takes the pentacle for example.  When people see this sign most react and think it's a symbol for satanism:

This symbol is in fact, not.  It has nothing to do with satanism.  It is a symbol for the 5 elements in Paganism: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.  Right side up represents the feminine, while inverted represents the masculine.  There are many families who hold this symbol sacred, but are reserved because they don't care to battle the judgements they receive.  You may have a few students in your classes who come from households that practice and not even know it.

In our classes, we promote self-expression, and encourage students to share their identities in their artworks.  Part of that expression is with the use of symbols.  With my district being so diverse, I feel it's important to share our heritage to help educate our community and find our commonalities.  As educators, we are role models to our students, and we must always keep an open mind when understanding them.

Skeptics may say, "Well what if you have a Pagan Family?  Or a Jehovah's Witness? Or a Satanist family?"  I'll say I will welcome them because I accept all students as they are (I also listed those three religions because they have to most common misconceptions, and mostly do not share their beliefs due to the fear of bullying).  My advice to everyone is this: If you have a students of a minor culture or religion, educate yourself by asking questions.  Talk with the parents to find out a bit about their belief or culture.  Study on the symbolism used within those beliefs and/or cultures.  The more you show your support for that student and their family, the more comfortable that child will feel in their community and school environment.

We are on a nation-wide campaign to stop bullying, and one of the steps to helps students feel safe in their school environment is by taking away the fear of being ridiculed.  What better way than to recognize your students' heritage?

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