seven
ritual: despite all rumors, the rhythm is not going to get you

fewer procedures mean more students follow procedures

A student asks me to find her missing article. When I tell her that it's “somewhere,” she raises one eyebrow at me and then stares at my desk. I feel exposed, as if I'm in the fifth grade again and the teacher is doing “desk checks” and I have papers spread everywhere. I swear it was clean a few days back.
“I'll find it for you.” Ahh, the yellow sticky. I write an illegible note and pile it onto the other sticky notes.

The phone rings with its high pitched screech. Don't you get that tone with me. When I'm really stressed out, I resort to internally lecturing technology and using puns in the process. It's ugly.
“You never sent the kids for testing,” the curriculum specialist reminds me.

Another phone call, “You never sent the basketball players for their group pictures. Remember, today was the make-up for that.” I shuffle through the five calendars in search for anything else I'm missing. The bell work has now lasted fifteen minutes. I can't find the materials for the lesson. I haven't taken attendance. I have forms I'm supposed to bring for the meeting on my prep period.

A few kids have resorted to arm wrestling. When I remind them that arm wrestling is forbidden, they remind me that it wasn't part of our long list of procedures. In frustration, I time them out. I resort to social isolation and then day dream for a moment about the joy of having my own time out. I need a time-out. I need a Think Sheet. I need to get away for awhile, rethink this whole deal and figure out how to run things more efficiently.

It's not that I don't have procedures, but I have too many. I have multiple calendars. I have file folders and sticky notes and student binders and student notebooks and student portfolios and a system of grading that is alphabetized.

*     *     *

The same student comes back a week later and asks for her project. “Don't worry about it. I already gave you the rubric. You earned an A. You're good.”

“No, I worked hard on that paper and I really want to have it back,” she explains.

“You'll get it back. I promise.” On some level, I'm hoping she doesn't ask too many more times. I'm scared that I filed it in the cylinder filing cabinet next to my desk and the janitor sent it away after school.

“It's important. I really need it,” she adds.

“I know. I'll find it eventually.”

“You promised us that you would hand back our work and it's been over a month. Can you find it?” she asks.

“Why is it so important to you?”

“Remember how I wrote about gangs? Remember how I wrote the poem in there? I want to give it to my brother. We visit him this weekend. He's in prison.”

*     *     *

Quinn says that the hardest thing about writing process procedures is the delicate balance between too little and too much. He tells me that, on a day like that, the natural tendency is to “get organized” and create more structures. You start developing a protocol for swift procedures that encompass the worst case scenario and, while believing you are creating something efficient, you are actually maintaining a bureaucracy.

Quinn compares it to dancing and instantly my mind drifts off to Gloria Estefan. The rhythm is going to get me. It will. The pace, the daily banality of a classroom teacher, is going to kill my love of teaching.
“If dancing doesn't work for you, think of it as a ritual. Think of it as the sacred process you go through on a daily basis that enables you to deal better with the relational side of teaching.”

I stare into my Venti cup and think about the coffee ritual. I pop open the lid and inhale the fumes. I pull out a slim wooden stir stick, unloosen the cap and watch the cream dance with the coffee in a swirl. I drop in the sugar, mix it together quickly and close the lid. Simple magic.

Our school is state-of-the art.  Okay, it's more state-of-the-science in its layout and design.  In order to run efficiently, the architects included a series of automated eco-friendly devices.  While each device might help reduce carbon emissions, there is a downside to an automated ecology.

Often times the toilet will flush multiple times assuming that my lack of movement means I am finished.  On many occasions, I find myself personifying the toilet and telling it, "I'm not done."  When I grade papers, the lights suddenly shut off and onlookers can view my hand-waving, jumping "Let There Be Light" dance. I'm dancing in the dark (which, incidentally is the same name as a song that has more clich├ęs per second than any other pop song)

While the automated solution might save resources, it is less effective than the more human, albeit imperfect solution.  I might not hold a doctorate in engineering, but I can flip a switch or pull a lever. Perhaps I am wrong.  Maybe we are a nation populated by flushing-averse germaphobes and light-addicts.  However, on an individual level, I think I might have mastered those skills more effectively than my mechanical alternative.

Furthermore, the automated alternative fails in its promise of making life more convenient. Sure, I have to do less, but I have never before felt such an intense anger toward lights and I have never felt that I am wasting life away by having to flush toilets. In other words, the  paradox of automation is that the more it simplifies life, the more life becomes complicated.

So, it has me thinking about my classroom in my first year of teaching. I created too many procedures. I became the automatic light and the automated flush and the students grew frustrated in the process. It became clear that they existed to serve the procedures. The efficiency promised in all of our processes proved to be exhausting.

Rituals exist in community. They are shared experiences that represent deeper values. True, some rituals grow tiresome and empty in tradition, but they keep a sense of shared story within the group. How could I move from cumbersome procedures to a few shared rituals?

*     *     *

Sometimes I wonder if there is a little anarchist inside of me that cries out, “eff the rules and the systems and the arbitrary regulations. Live and live boldly.” Anarchy sounds interesting when its spray-painted on the side of a Wal-Mart, but in a classroom, it's chaos and fear. Kids need ritual and routine. They need a sense of stability. It's the dance that accompanies the meandering music of a classroom.

On the first day of school, I spend about twenty minutes on our classroom rituals. I begin with a brief explanation, “Everyone needs rituals. What are rituals?” Students talk about morning rituals, religious rituals and social rituals and then I remind the class that we all have different ritualistic experiences as students. So, I begin with questions from students. Typically, these include: When can I sharpen my pencil? When can I talk? When can I get out of my seat? I show them a ritual grid with each question followed by individual, partner, group and whole class. I then explain the homework bin and we leave it at that.

“Where do you want me to put my name?” a student asks.

“On your papers,” I explain.

“No, but which side?”

“On the front. I won't see it on the back and the sides are all too narrow.”

“Which corner?” he asks.

“Wherever you want. Top, bottom, middle, margin. Wherever. Do whatever feels normal to you. Our rituals exist so that we can ensure learning. If it's not connected to learning, you have the individual freedom to do whatever you want.” I'm determined to avoid the traps of automated flushers.

A student asks me about roles. “Rituals happen at church, right? So, I'm Catholic. We have acolytes and they do the candles and there are old people who pass the offering plate. Why don't we have some of us do the rituals?” (Incidentally, I've only been to a Catholic Mass one time in my life and for people with such rigid dogma, they had a hard time making up their mind about whether to sit or stand)

“Well, I guess we could do that,” I explain. “But this isn't really church.”

A girl interrupts, “It's sacred, though, right? I mean, learning is a sacred act. So really, school can be a little bit like church.” It becomes yet another moment to let go and become less of a teacher. I find parts of the ritual that students can take over and it becomes a part of the dance.

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