Monday, November 18, 2013

Routines and Rituals: Supportive or Restrictive?

When I began my training program for the New York City Teaching Fellows program four years ago, I was taught that strong routines and protocols were essential prerequisites for good classroom management and culture. Over the course of three years of teaching and observing my colleagues' classrooms, I did find that teachers who had more structure and routines had more control overall. These classrooms in general were quieter; there were generally rehearsed and rapid transitions between activities and "downtime" was almost nonexistent. 

We were handed many books to prepare us for our first year of teaching, including Teach Like a Champion, a series of techniques for establishing a "winning" classroom. Technique #36 is this: 100% compliance. No excuses; 100% of students must follow the teacher's directions, 100% of the time. 

I always struggled with the expectation of a culture of compliance, especially as a Special Education teacher. For some of my students, it took a tremendous amount of energy to curb their impulse to call out if they had a question or comment. Others were unable to remain seated for long periods of time. Those classified as "Emotionally Disturbed" (this is still the language used by the DOE), would become very upset and sometimes aggressive if I pushed hard with a directive. I worried about being too hard or too soft as I sought to build community among my learners. I also resented planning every minute of every lesson, as it made responding to students' curiosity impossible.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are democratic schools. I've spent the past two months interning weekly at Pono, a democratic and outdoor school, where there are no compulsory lessons, no curriculum, and no testing. Children are free to follow their curiosity at any point in the day, as long as it abides by the democratically-established agreements. 
I am very much enjoying how my work at Pono makes me question my assumptions about student learning. Yet, a part of me misses routines and rituals. I remember so enjoying as a student many of the daily routines and made up our day: lighting a candle before a story, daily poems and songs, and school-wide seasonal celebrations, such as the fall lantern walk.  Ceremonies, such as this one, required a tremendous amount of planning by the adults in the learning community, and I think the children benefited from the magic.

A friend and advocate for child-directed learning once remarked that she can tell whether young children have spent time in traditional schools, because these children will form a line for something they're excited about, instead of following their natural impulse to get as close as possible to the source of their excitement. On the one hand, I see the desire to impose systems to create order (e.g. forming lines). On the other hand, when these children become adults, her unschooled children will have spent most of their 18 years running straight toward the source of their interests, while children from traditional schools will have been trained to wait in lines. Just some (radical) food for thought. 

Please comment below: I want your feedback, memories, and reflections! Do you remember any routines or rituals from your K-12 schooling? Do you believe that they were helpful or harmful to your learning process, enjoyment of school, personal growth or bonding? If you are an advocate of free schools, do you see any potential space for community rituals such as the one described above? Is there an ideal balance of student-directed and teacher-directed (or suggested) community activities?


  1. From Laura C.:
    "I had a teacher who filled a jar with marbles, one for anytime someone in the class was particularly nice to another student (say, sharing, or letting them go in front of you in line, etc). It was a great way to reward kindness, and when the jar was full we all got some sort of treat or party. We became competitively kind when we saw the jar was close to full, and I think we thought we were being sneaky, which is adorable in retrospect."

  2. From Nate K.:
    "Silent reading time in 6th grade language arts/social studies (good). warm up/warm-down/clean up by whistle in middle school PE (interesting). Getting pulled out in the middle of class in 3rd grade for tutoring (bad)."

  3. From Kathleen:
    "My 5th grade social studies teacher recited "Double Double Toil & Trouble..." every day to get us in a circle on the floor for oral story time. She had these amazing, elaborate scary stories she had cooked up and told us (with all the voices!!). Magic."

  4. From Adrienne:
    "Unsurprisingly, the thing I remember best from elementary school was the story hour we had (in 6th grade specifically, I remember we would be read to for like an hour or a half hour a day). It felt like extra recess to me, and was always something to look forward to while doing work I enjoyed less. So, it added some balance to the day."

  5. From Arianna:
    "Waldorf education has so many! All of kindergarten;) Morning verse of course (and at the end of the day). Being read to at lunch time in elementary school. And those math problems we'd do in our heads with Mr. Norris ("one man shall now my meadow..." Remember?!). Love your blog!!! Xoxo"

  6. From Arianna (continued):
    "Oh - and I loved them all, even if maybe I didn't always love it in the moment. I like routine. I can see that my 3.5 year old likes it (or does well with it) too:)"