The power of rituals

Sometimes something is so obvious you can't see it.  It hides in plain sight.  After we happen by chance to see it, we look back and wonder how we missed it.  This is what happened to me when I was a principal.

As a new principal in an elementary school, I was fortunate to have a staff of creative and dedicated teachers who made learning meaningful and engaging for their students.  After a year of popping into classrooms, observing great lessons and seeing students experience the satisfaction that comes with authentic learning, I realized that this learning shouldn’t have an audience of just one.  What I observed needed a bigger audience; there had to be a way to bring what was happening in the classroom out to the whole school community.

After I communicated my realization to our staff and parent decision-making team, two key words emerged from our discussion: share and celebrate. We agreed that we had to find a way for our school to share its learning and to celebrate it.

Hence monthly assemblies entitled Share and Celebrate were added to our calendar for the last hour of the day on the last Friday of every month. Some staff raised valid objections that assemblies required weeks of planning and preparation and they were worried about the time drain of such events.  So we, who believed in the importance of having these assemblies, designed them differently.

Share and Celebrate assemblies had to, as much as possible, be easy to plan and execute. Teachers would have their students present what they had learned during the previous month. They could have students decide how to share what they learned.   Since the event was meant to be "of the students, by the students and for the students" we had fifth grade students (our highest grade) be ushers and the emcees introducing the classes. Students would sit on the floor of the gym to avoid setting up and taking down chairs. Presenting would be voluntary. Teachers that wanted their class to share would notify a team of teachers who volunteered to coordinate the event.  Our music teacher was happy to lead the student body in singing "Happy Birthday" to the students celebrating them that month.  We had to tweak some details and logistics, but soon Share and Celebrate became a monthly ritual for our school for my remaining fifteen years as principal.

What we discovered from establishing this ritual was the power and impact of the gesture itself and the message it sent to our students. A class of students standing in front of the school community announced to everyone that learning was not just an individual experience designed to achieve a grade, but rather a collective enterprise where each person had a special and unique contribution to make.  The Share and Celebrate ritual was a visible and tangible demonstration of what a community of learners looked like and sounded like. This ritual helped our students discover the purpose and meaning of what they learned because they could see, hear and feel their learning reaching an audience beyond their classroom.

Rituals are everywhere, yet somehow in our busy lives, they can be undervalued or dismissed as a so-called going-through-the-motions type of experience. This is why the rituals that happen in schools are often not intentionally planned.  Instead they are embedded in the factory structure that most school environments adhere to. Students are conditioned to respond to bells and PA announcements. 

This doesn't have to be the case. Rituals, when educators consciously design them, can enhance and deepen learning. They can punctuate experience and help students make better sense of their learning.  Rituals enable students to value and appreciate what they are about to do and what they just did.  And rituals don't have to be elaborate or time consuming to be effective.

A great example of a simple and powerful ritual, as an integral part of learning for young children, was the opening of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

His shows began the same way: the camera panning to his front door and as the music swells the door opens and we see Mister Rogers with his white shirt, tie and sports jacket, looking at the camera and going to his closet. On most of his shows, however, he is holding a different object: something unfamiliar that later turns out to be related to his topic of the day.  Given the reassurance and comfort of his routine of changing from jacket to sweater followed by his sitting down and changing shoes to sneakers, the children in his audience are waiting with calm anticipation for his personal greeting and the expectation that he will tell them what the different object was all about. In a few seconds, Mr. Rogers has provided the right balance of predictability and novelty: the sweet spot for learning. He harnesses the power of rituals to elevate ordinary experience into something special and memorable.

Our Share and Celebrate ritual may not work for every school. And it may be difficult to create the type of simple and powerful rituals that Mister Rogers designed, but that should not deter educators from trying to use them in any learning context. If educators devote time to thinking and talking about rituals, they will find ways to make the content of their lessons more meaningful and memorable. In addition, when educators become architects of learning experiences by interweaving rituals into their lessons, their students will learn the right things about learning.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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