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Diagramming Tzeltal Souls: Learning from Perspective in Cultural Anthropology

Two student diagrams of Tzeltal Maya souls

After reading Pedro Pitarch's amazing ethnography "The Jaguar and the Priest: An Ethnography of Tzeltal souls," I asked my students to create visual representations of Tzeltal Maya souls to spur active learning while raising comprehension of Pitarch's complex work. First, students worked together in groups to summarize and synthesize key the concepts described Pitarch's ethnography. Then, in democratic fashion, they organized their concepts into a visual representation (seen below). 

This learning exercise was necessary, because the Tzeltal (Indigenous Maya) people living in the highlands of Chiapas Mexico have a worldview, ontology, and belief system that is dramatically different from common western perspectives. 

Pitarch describes how Tzeltal people have three distinct kinds of "souls" or animate energy centers that behave differently under varieties of conditions. As a result, the Tzeltal people view and approach the world, sickness, and life in a manner which reflects concern for these spiritual energies found within each person. Learning about this Tzeltal culture and beliefs, helped students appreciate, understand, and value cultural perspectives and ways of life that vary greatly from their own. 

As can be seen in the pictures and video below, my students all had their own perspectives on how Tzeltal souls should be represented.  

Learning together and from each other, The College of New Jersey Students shared their perspectives and collectively produced diagrams in five small groups. These diagrams were transferred from paper to the chalk board for presentation to the class (and for you my readers). The differences and similarities in the diagrams helped students appreciate the complexity of the topics at hand while allowing the class to learn from the differences of perspective that existed in the classroom itself. 

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