Sunday, November 14, 2010

Children's Education and Totems

My wife and I recently went to an exhibit on Aboriginal American artwork, and it included many totem poles, shamanic masks, sculptures and paintings.

We also recently taught a children's class on spiritual development in our neighbourhood.

In the exhibit there was a stunning mask of the bear spirit, and a sculpture of a raven shaman.

In the class there was one beautiful little child who was so shy, but she comes to life whenever she colours. There's another child who always wants to run around and play rough games.

'Abdu'l-Baha once said that the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas "will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world", "should they be educated and guided".

Baha'u'llah said that we should "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom."

In a previous article, I wrote about how each of us shows forth these gems of divine virtues differently, and how it is a challenge for the teachers of children to understand how to polish each rough stone the way it needs to be polished, in order to bring out its best qualities.

As my wife and I were talking the other day, we realized that we already see the very beginning of this recognition within our current educational system, through the idea that people learn differently, or that there are different types of intelligence. We found ourselves having to applaud the recognition that some people learn, for example, by lecture, while others learn by writing, and still others by doing. We were very grateful that others understand the notion that some people have, for instance, a high physical intellingence, like most sports players, while some might have a mathematical intelligence.

But both of these understandings only deal with the input side of school and education. They don't actually help in the interpersonal stuff.

As we walked amongst the totem poles, we found ourselves looking at what we presumed was the history of a family. As we gazed in wonder at the shamanic masks, we saw ourselves staring at the open recognition of different personality types, expressed through the attributes of the animals.

We already understand that the various animal spirits represent different attributes of God. We know implicitly that the Bear Spirit, to name one, can be easily seen as God, the All-Powerful. Or that the Raven can be viewed as God, the Creator. This is nothing new to us.

But when we look at a child and watch them move with a sinuous grace, playful in all aspects of life, generous beyond all expectation, we recognize that they can easily be seen as an otter. And that the other child, lumbering around in a body too big for him, slightly aggressive and very assertive in his demeanour, can be looked at as a bear. Neither one is better than the other, and neither one is any less precious, but they cannot be handled in the same way. The games of the otter are not the same as the games of the bear.

In the Aboriginal cultures, from what we understand, these children would have been given their totem by their community, consciously acknowledging their strengths, and then guided by people of that same totem, or personality type. Each would have been raised to be the most productive person they could have been in their culture, drawing upon their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses.

Today, it seems that all children are expected to fit into a similar mold, even if it is recognized that they may have different learning styles. They are not expected to seperate into their individual specialties until at least university. By this point, sadly, many have already dropped out of the school system, or are so thoroughly entrenched in their habits that it is practically too late to do anything about them.

And while it is not practical to have a dozen different school systems for the myriad personality types, there are some lessons to be learned from this tradition of the Aboriginal peoples.

Marielle, who was a school teacher for many years, shared some insights about this.

She spoke about those children whose natural assertiveness made them more prone to being bullies, and how they tended to abuse those teachers whose personalities were far more placid. It was expected that the Principal would be the one to handle these issues, but quite often they, too, were far more gentle than was good for the situation. She then talked about one school where she worked in which it was the janitor who stepped in, even though it wasn't in his job description. He was the one who looked out for the teachers, and if any child stepped over the line, he was swift to call them on it. When I was a kid, it was a gym teacher who filled that role.

And all of this led us to some practical thoughts about this problem.

A school, you see, is not made up of a bunch of individual classrooms. It is a full community, dedicated to the raising and educating of children, helping prepare them to become the best contributing members of society that they can. It is there to help them draw upon their strengths, and compensate for their weaknesses.

When we recognize that it is the job of all the staff in a school, including the janitor, to do this, then we have more resources to draw upon. This would also be aided when we better understand how different personality types can work with the different children.

But it isn't limited to the staff at the school. It can't be, nor should it be. The school is just part of the circle of resources for the children. That circle, to be healthy, also needs to include the school board, the parents and all the other people of the area in which the school exists.

We should look at the personality strengths of each teacher and help them learn how to draw upon their strengths of virtue, not just their intellectual education, in helping guide the children.

And besides, in the end, this approach will also help the children learn to interact in a healthy manner with all the other children in their school, too. Which is a great lesson to prepare them for life.

Maybe this is one of those rays of light that this culture will shine upon the world.

1 comment:

  1. This came through on my Facebook account, and I loved it so much, I got permission to repost it here. Thanks Lynnea.
    Mead, I am in the college of education at UTA. We are learning not only how to teach for all styles, but for all children whether they are "normal," developmentally delayed, emotionally difficult, gifted, physically your ...totem. We have to be able to teach all modalities (aural, visual, kinesthetic) to all children. More! We have to individualize our teaching for every child. I had not connected this to the Writings you quoted. Thank you for that. There is a point I'd like to make here: most of my classmates are in their 20s with no children. (Houston, we have a problem...) Their own personalities are not well defined. They sit in class with Facebook up on their computers. One girl I sit next to in one class still hasn't bought the textbook for that class. We have four weeks until the end of this semester. The students who do have children, who are from large families, or who are older are going to make fantastic teachers. The others will get into a classroom and leave the profession in a couple of years. This is really how it goes. There aren't enough mature people who are dedicated to children being cranked out of college.

    I believe there is a simple (not easy) solution to much of the in-class problems. Parents are the key, first and foremost. Second, television teaches children everything we don't want them to think, say, and do. So if parents would throw out their TVs, it would be a marvelous start to some real HUMAN civilizationl. Parents spending honest, hands-on time with their kids during early childhood makes all the difference in the kind of children that walk into a classroom for the first time.

    Throw out the TV. It's radical. It would work.