The Ceremony of Learning

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Schools do a good job of creating ceremony for endings – graduation from school is one of the archetypal rites of passage we share as a culture.  As an assistant principal, I am an integral part of planning graduation each year: auditioning student speakers and performers, working with the custodial crew on set up, pushing/pulling seniors through the (at times) slippery, difficult last weeks (or months) of their compulsory education.  Events like graduations are obvious choices for bringing a community together to reflect and celebrate.  But is this heightened sense of bonding, transition, and transformation enough once every four years for our students?

I would argue that we have a dearth of ceremony in our culture; it isn’t enough to be celebrated – and celebrate others – when we’re “hatched, matched, and dispatched,” as the aphorism goes.  Ceremonies ask for our presence in the moment, that we experience something that the broader collective of people has identified as meaningful and relevant in the journey of living.  Ceremonies require preparation – both physical and mental.  They may have their slow moments (hopefully not too many), but even ceremony-induced boredom provides an opportunity for the heart and mind to be receptive to new thoughts, feelings, and insights.

Ceremony is no less important in the classroom.  The daily act of going to school is an opportunity for a group of people to consciously participate in a collective act of creation – creation of knowledge, of meaning, of memories.  Every class period is different; every child and adult has an experience that is totally unique.  That said, the machinery of the institution (bells, schedules, grades, deadlines, etc.) can make this daily experience feel rote; there is a danger that we (adults, students) go into autopilot.  One key question emerges: How can we create a sense of ceremony during every class, every day, to ensure that each discrete experience deepens us as people and broadens our awareness of the world?

I work alongside many educators who have an intrinsic sense of ceremony in their daily work with students.  There is nothing rote about what they do – even if they teach the same level class four or five times a day.  This spirit of newness and wonder that great educators impart reminds me of the movie Without Limits – Billy Crudup as runner Steve Prefontaine listening wide-eyed to Coach Bowerman’s opening speech as a freshman, and then years later from the sidelines. The words were the same, but they represented a ceremony of induction that was unique, meaningful, and memorable to every new runner under his tutelage.

Ceremonies also rely on the physical space as a key aspect of the experience.  The arrangement of the space defines the role of those present: Audience, or participant?  Giver, or recipient?  This is important to keep in mind as we think about the role our students play in the daily ceremony of the class period.

Bianca Hewes contributed a tremendous post on using archetypes about how humans gather and pass along/share knowledge in creating physical and digital spaces for learning.  This reminds me of a few world language colleagues who have taken inspiration from each other and removed all desks from their classrooms. Students sit in a circle or semicircle, though there is great flexibility (a key factor in the success of a learning space!) in how teacher/students arrange desks to match the needs of the task at hand.  At first, this can make you feel a bit vulnerable – exposed!  Once students adjust to this new physical paradigm (no desks), they experience a heightened sense of connection with their teacher, and each other.

Spaces like this build a sense of collective endeavor and connection; they communicate an implicit message that the students are participants in the work of learning.  In the hands of a teacher attuned to the unique energy of these students on this day, spaces like this make learning a ceremony and not a rote act of compliance.

David Theriault has constructed a beautiful, inspiring resource on his blog: “Cool pictures to use in your class.”  Scroll a ways down and you will see this phrase:professors-of-the-future-bigger

My wife decided that the future is now, and did this with her classes one day; the effect it had on the energy in the room and on the students’ focus for the rest of the period was unmistakable.  Rather than rush headlong into the day’s lesson, she provided her students time to breathe, inflect, and shed the layers of the day.

We don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, or to be students, or to be in education.  But for the millions of us that are, let’s slow down a bit each day, take note of our surroundings and the people in it, and contribute something unique to the ceremony.

2 thoughts on “The Ceremony of Learning

  1. Eric… I love the deep thinking that you play with in this exploration. There are three concepts here I would like to address:

    1. We have a rivalry week once a year for our Bell Game. It’s a huge football game that we lose far too often, but the week leading up to the game there is a tremendous amount of fun, play, and pride evident. I wish we called it pride week rather than Bell Week, so we could still celebrate our pride rather than bemoaning our defeat.
    2. We have so many cultural holidays, family traditions and these celebrations are what we remember later in life. We push these aside as frivolous because we need to “prepare” kids for the real world. Studies have shown time and time again that the most effective way to raise student achievement is to change or improve a school’s culture. Perhaps fun traditions and celebrations aren’t so frivolous after all.
    3. I start every class with a moment of silence, usually just a few seconds for all of us to take a deep breath and transition out of passing period. I may need to expand that concept. I think it would be a positive experience in a world filled with noise.

    Thanks for writing this. I love that you are willing to share your thoughts with others.

    1. Hi David – thanks again for taking the time to read, reflect, and write down your own thoughts on these ideas! I think the intense interest we found among teachers when we shared your webpage shows that there is a deep desire for more time and space for quiet introspection and building a sense of ritual and ceremony in daily learning experiences. I couldn’t agree more about your point about school culture – so often schools seemingly go on autopilot after being around for decades and there is a fixed sense of “this is how things are,” when I would argue that culture can be consciously created with questions like “Who are we?” and “What do we want to be?” Students need to be implicitly involved in this, and, over time, the act of imagining and reimagining the collective space becomes the cultural norm. After all, every four years we have an entirely new combination of students – fresh water flowing in that keeps us from growing stagnant. At any rate, I think there are a few posts on building/nourishing school culture that need to be written – I’ll be waiting for yours! BTW – thanks for the “Young Guns” clip – one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies! Who is better than Emilio Estevez in that film? No one.

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