by Kari Van Gelder
Over the course of a week-long collaborative project, Salmonberry School’s 4th- 6th grade Eagles class created a breathtaking sand mandala in their Eastsound classroom. Inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist practice, they carefully applied fine-colored sand onto an original 4-foot diameter geometric mandala design grain-by-grain, followed by its ritual dismantling and dispersing in the sea. “My students were fully absorbed in this experiential project, immersing themselves in this group meditation on impermanence,” shared Eagles teacher Kari Van Gelder.
The sand mandala project was the culmination of a 10-week integrated thematic study introducing these 15 students to many of the rich cultural traditions of Nepal and Tibet, and the faith traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Their study included both nonfiction and fiction reading, geography, writing, discussion, art, music appreciation and a meditation practice. The sand mandala creation included a teach-in event where guest speakers brought their own practices, stories and teachings, while parents visited throughout the day.
Several weeks ago, as another part of this thematic unit, the Eagles celebrated the Hindu holiday of Diwali. The room was festooned with brightly colored decorations. Colored rice rangoli designs lined the room along a path lit by diyas, a traditional oil lamp. Parents visited to see this path of light, to share in traditional Diwali sweets, and to hear the students tell a short story of the origin of Diwali as the Hindu festival of light.
Over the course of this study, the classroom environment was transformed through the support of WorldOregon, a Portland-based nonprofit, and its amazing collection of images, artifacts, books, art and resources in a series of “culture boxes.” WorldOregon’s offerings help bring Salmonberry’s commitment to experiential learning to life.
Beginning in January, the Eagles class will embark on a similar study of the Middle East including an exploration of the faith traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. And finally, in the spring, the class will organize its curriculum around China and Chinese traditions and religion. As a culminating experience, the class will travel to the Seattle area to visit places of worship representing each of the faith traditions they have studied. They will meet with religious leaders to deepen their appreciation and understanding of diverse practices around the world.
“We are committed to planting seeds of global citizenship, and appreciation for multiculturalism, among these children, many of whom experience limited diversity otherwise,” said Salmonberry’s Head of School, Paul Freedman. Earlier this month, all 54 Salmonberry students, including the school’s Kindergarten class participated in an afternoon of storytelling with Asian-American storytelling artists, Eth-noh-Tec. “It’s important to develop openness and understanding beginning with our very youngest children,” Freedman said.
“Deeper than just reaching towards the appearance of diversity,” Freedman continued, “Salmonberry is working at every level of the organization to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for people of all backgrounds, gender orientations, races and ethnicities. We recognize that as a tuition-based school in a predominantly white community, we have an opportunity and obligation to dig into some critical work, examining all of our curricula and policies while working towards decolonizing our organization.”
The Salmonberry faculty and Board have embarked on an ambitious and ongoing study of understanding and de-centering whiteness. “We are challenging ourselves to reach towards becoming an anti-racist and inclusive organization,” said Freedman.
Previous and future curriculum development focus includes the recognition and embracing of indigenous peoples and cultures, as well as designing a multidisciplinary Black Lives Matter curriculum. Salmonberry welcomes inquiries from parents and community members who want to know more about their work toward inclusion and multiculturalism. Email: email@example.com.