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I NEVER THOUGHT I’D WALK into a temple in Thailand and say, “Look at the Angry Birds dive-bombing the World Trade Center!” but that is exactly what I said upon visiting the shrine inside the Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai.
The assignment was to use our trip to the Golden Triangle as a text through which to explore the concepts of Cultural Diffusion, Cultural Assimilation and Cultural Imperialism. The trip was rich in learning: the Opium Museum taught us how war, exploration, immigration and emigration have shaped the trades of opium and tea across Southeast Asia, and also explained the presence of Mandarin-speaking populations across Thailand (cue Lin celebrating in the back!). At the Akha Hill Tribe, the students learned how to work a loom and then heard that the younger generations prefer to buy their clothes instead of making them in the traditional way. At Think Elephants International, the students learned about social and cultural clashes and partnerships among mahouts, conservationists and scientists in the preservation of elephant species across Thailand.
Although these pieces and many more were laid out like breadcrumbs across the path of our trip, the other faculty and I worried that our students would not process all of the clues. Walking into the shrine at the White Temple, it all came together.
We were told we would be touring the “White Temple,” or “Wat Rong Khun,” but we didn’t know much more than that. As we drove up, the Wat appeared like a surreal specter along the highway, something straight out of a fairytale. My mind jumped to Hansel and Gretel gnawing on their Gingerbread House; I wondered what good or evil lurked within. Even with my over-active imagination, I was not prepared. Wat Rong Khun is cast in cement and reflective glass. The surrounding compound is awash in the same materials: severed cement heads hanging from trees with Lai Thai detail surrounding them, hands reaching up from the depths of mirror-like ponds surrounding the bridge into the shrine. The outside is enough to make your head spin, but what waits inside will blow you away.
The mural inside the White Temple is a riveting amalgam of Western and Thai culture. Towering images of the Buddha and the Boddhisattva are inundated with Neo from The Matrix, Michael Jackson, Osama bin Laden, and George W. Bush. One student turned to me and said:
What’s up with the skulls? Those are messed up and awesome!
Intricate Lai Thai imagery links all of these disparate images into one (as yet unfinished) breathtaking mural. I am faltering as I write this description because the artistic expression of cultural diffusion, assimilation, imperialism and social critique is truly indescribable. The experience of visiting this temple was the living embodiment of everything that I have been teaching, and everything that we, as THINK Global School, believe is enriching about place-based learning.
Creative Arts teacher Lindsay and I gave the students one hour to sketch. We asked that they choose either cultural diffusion, assimilation, or imperialism, and create a visual representation of this concept inspired by the Wat Rong Khun or any of their other learning on our Golden Triangle Trip. When we returned to campus, we gave them one week to create a mixed media interpretation of this concept, and loop in their learning from at least one other discipline. This project was designed so that students could process the real-world issues behind their learning, and so they could begin to see the ways that their learning in each discipline can come together to create a holistic sense of the world.
Overall, most of the students showed a clear grasp of the concepts introduced and a rich engagement with their experiences during our trip. Based on their output, I’ve learned that we still have some learning to do in terms of helping the students link concepts across disciplines. In the future I will continue to design assessments which ask the student to reflect on how their learning in other classes affects their learning in mine.
The consistent challenge for me as an educator in the wake of these trips is to maintain the excitement of discovery as we bring our reflection into the classroom. Projects like this are definitely the beginning, but I also have work to do as a teacher to make sure that the glimmer of discovery never ceases to leave my students’ eyes.