Looking back on that, the paper procedures almost always failed. They were never intuitive. To me, the name should always go on the back of a paper so that a teacher could be less biased when grading. Teachers always disagreed. In addition, the procedures were cumbersome. Asking for five pieces of information on each paper felt ridiculous as a student. Why have a student class number and a student name? Why put the date if a teacher already knew when they assigned it?
The procedure benefited the teacher, but not the students. There was never any buy-in from the class, so I ended up with teachers who nagged us repeatedly and threatened to throw away work, because we were putting the class period before the date or placing the student number above the assignment number.
Teachers would make a claim like, “All I ask is just this one little thing,” and I would think, “If it’s really that little, why do you care about it so much?” They had no idea just how anxious and angry many of the students felt regarding the stream of “just this one little thing” tasks that teachers were forcing them to do.
The tricky part is that teachers often assumed their procedures made sense. They have a smooth-running system. It feels logical. It looks fast. It seems to move efficiently with a time and a place for everything. Rigid procedures keep things tidy and prevent confusion. However, a class is not a machine. It’s a community with a series of relationships. Teachers who create a procedure for everything often miss the reality that they are creating a bureaucracy.
The Need for Ritual
We need procedures and systems in place to manage the way that people act. However, I’ve found that it’s easier to think of these actions as rituals rather procedures. I might be picky regarding word choice, but for me a ritual is more human, more horizontal and more natural than a procedure. A ritual can be negotiated. A ritual can go unspoken.
When I fix an iced coffee, I slowly unscrew the lid and pour a tiny stream of cream into the coffee. I watch the brown and tan swirling dance before I add a packet of sugar. We need rituals. In our most mundane and most sacred places, we find rituals. Weddings, coffee, funerals, and cereal - these all require ritualistic knowledge.
Even in our informal, deeply personal, horizontal relationships, rituals exist. It's not a rule, but it is a ritual that I need to be home by five and if I'm going to be late, I should call my wife. It's an unspoken ritual that dictates our place where we sit at the table. Christy and I have a general idea of who gets up when the kids wake-up in the middle of the night, but if it's the "late night" shift and she's really tired, I might get up with Brenna when she has a nightmare. In other words, quality rituals are natural, informal, flexible and motivated by meaning.
Negotiating the Rituals
I begin the first day with a critical thinking question and discussion. Halfway through it, I ask students to define the concept of ritual. Some talk about church, others family or sports. We then debrief the current rituals that the class has silently adopted.
Next, I create a ritual chart with the rituals on the left and then a separate column for individual, partner, small group, whole class and project-based activity. I start with a general brainstorm of the key things students want to know: Where do I turn in work? What do I put on my paper? (I make it simple by asking for a first and last name only) When can I get up? When can I talk? Can I sharpen my pencil?
We negotiate the rituals, emphasizing the need for a balance between freedom and safety. Sometimes I have to be vulnerable and say things like, "I can't have any noise when I'm talking. I get distracted and sometimes angry." This allows students to say things like, "I want to walk around a little more. How can we add more of that to this chart?"
We talk about the criteria for good rituals, including: it happens naturally, it make sense, it is necessary to prevent chaos in the classroom, it is both specific and broad. The goal is something flexible and achievable for all students in the class. Too many rituals and it become a bureaucracy. Not enough rituals and it turns into anarchy. I’m never sure exactly how to strike this balance, but I know it begins with a conversation with students.
What This Looks Like
- Class rituals will vary between grade levels. A senior in high school has been doing the school gig for quite some time whereas a kindergartener might feel clueless. Young students may need weeks to figure out classroom rituals.
- Differentiate between rules and rituals. Rules are about how things are done rather than whether something is "wrong" or "right." Thus, a failure to grasp ritual becomes a learning opportunity rather than a chance to punish a child.
- There should be a reason for rituals. My philosophy is "freedom to learn," meaning the rituals allow students as much freedom as possible to make their own decisions.
- Rituals should be intuitive for the student rather than easy on the teacher. It's why I don't care about the order of name, date, etc. on papers. Just get your name there without worrying. Never let the following of procedures get in the way of learning.
- With older students, it can feel really juvenile to students when a teacher takes extra time to sit there and practice procedures. It starts to feel more like rules where you are daring students to misbehave. It's easier to approach the basic procedures first and then go over new procedures as I progress throughout the school year.
- If you check out the New Teacher Toolkit, there is a ritual checklist and a sample ritual grid.