Rituals and routines will save your lessons

During Cambodian national anthem.

Rituals constitute a kind of discipline in advance, before the disturbance. They avoid a lot of violence and coercion. Their benefits are huge. I daresay that they are more important than the system of rules and punishments. People seldom behave in accordance to the law. We don’t even know the law, let’s be honest, although we are supposed to. We rather behave in accordance to customs and social habits. In fact, it is possible to influence the customs, by creating an official set of sayings and gestures to be done on a regular basis: rituals. At school, rituals do most of the job of keeping the students at work in a peaceful environement, the regulation is important to deal with the few remaining issues.

Here I will comment a few common practices, especially those I’ve seen in Cambodia. But it would be good to further discuss the question. I strongly suggest you to comment this article, or to present the rituals you find useful in your daily routines. Sharing good pratices is much more important than attending a lecture or reading an article about pedagogy.

Uniform

A school uniform avoids useless discussions about what is decent clothing. How much skin can a maiden uncover before looking like a whore? The question itself is totally uninteresting. It’s also fundamentaly unsolvable, as the answer depends a lot on customs, attitudes, and feelings. A niqab does not prevent young Arab men from being lecherous. Their imagination is so powerful! On the contrary, men in primitive tribes can look at a naked woman without getting the slightest erection, because they are used to it. But in practice clothing can become a real nuisance. Discussions on this topic are endless. At least, a school uniform sets up the rule once and for all. Keep in mind why you have it. Wearing a nice uniform is not a goal by itself. It’s meant to facilitate the relations inside the school. If, for a reason or another, the uniform itself becomes a matter of controversy, the benefit is lost. For instance, the uniform is considered by some to be a symbol of oppression or of a militaristic inspiration. Hopefully, it doesn’t seem to be the case in Asia, but it sure is in France. To be acceptable, the uniform must be decent according to the common standard of the country, practical and reasonnably elegant. While you may want to teach modesty to the students, you need a uniform that would not shame them. They should be proud to belong to the school and to wear its colours! A few years ago, some French senators had the idea to introduce a school uniform made of jeans and a white t-shirt! How stupid! What a psychological mistake! Hopefully the proposal was rebuked. A uniform will never save a bad school. On the contrary! If the students don’t like their school, they don’t like to wear its uniform either. The uniforms reinforce the good schools and weaken the bad ones.

Flag-raising ceremony

In many schools, but not in France, they raise the national flag in order to teach the children to love their country and to some extent to teach them commitment, devotion and care to the others. On a practical level, those ceremonies are useful to gather the students and to give a clear start to the working day. Sometimes it’s the occasion to give some general information. The moral effect is rather low, if it’s not made on a regular basis. Such a ritual should be perform as if it was obvious, not as a pretty curiosity.

Official ceremonies may be boring sometimes, but remain important.

Greetings

Cambodian students have the habit to greet the teacher altogether. They say “Thank you, teacher”, before they sit down. It’s a good ritual, but what is its meaning? Well, it has obviously some utility to teach politeness and kindness. But the main benefit is probably to begin the lesson clearly. It helps the students to pay attention to the first instructions given by the teacher. There should be a deep silence just after those greetings. This part of the ritual is rather poorly implemented. We loose a good occcasion to improve the quality of the lessons, because we hurry too much.

Recall rituals

Clapping hands is a good way to recall the attention of the students. And I’ve seen that it’s quite common here, but sometimes under-used, because some teachers don’t take enough time to actually get silence. They go on with new explanations and loose the benefit of the ritual.

Group works are great, with a good organization.

I think it’s very important to have some kind of ritual for this purpose, especially when you’re implementing cooperative learning and other pedagogies that involve a certain amount or disorder. If you want to give the students some autonomy, it’s essential that you keep the possibility to retake their attention in order to give new instructions. You need a strong and very clear signal that means “Stop whatever you’re currently doing. Listen. There is something important to know.” With the boys scouts, the chief used to say “Crick!” To what we answered “Crack!” It was done without the slightest hesitation. Or you can just knock 3 times on the table and say with a firm and confident voice: “Your attention, please!” To get the maximum benefit of the ritual, there are a few precautions to take. Wait systematically for the silence before you give your instructions, there should be no mistake about the meaning of the ritual or about the fact that it is an order. The rituals that involves some kind of answer from the students are the most efficient, although they can look a little bit silly from the outside. Having them clap their hands in return or say some predefine word halps the teacher monitor the class and the student be aware of the recall. Also resist the temptation to use your recall ritual too often. If you tell the students to write a story, you cannot interrupt them every 5 minutes to give new instructions. It’s far better to circulate in the ranks and provide individual support. The new instructions should be really important.

In the same way, you should give a clear signal to resume the activity or to launch another one. Sometimes, we are under the impression that the students don’t respect the teacher, while in fact they are just doing things too fast, before you’re finished with your instructions, or they don’t know exactly what to do, because they are waiting for other instructions.

Preparing the students to listen and speak

Making the students stand up to give an answer is a show of respect. It is also rather common in Cambodian classes. It designates clearly the child who is authorized to speak, and helps the other to pay attention to him. It helps the speaker to focus on his task because it will not be finished untill the teacher tells him to sit down. A quick comment from the teacher, such as “good, thank you”, completes the ritual and makes it efficient. With experience, it appears that being in a hurry is a bad idea, once again. Take your time to begin and finish an answer. We should always show the student that we care about the quality of their speech, either by correcting it or by congratulating. Another ritual with the same objective is the rod of speech. The teacher has a rod or any recongnizable object. Typically, a microphone will do the job in the exact same way. Only the person who has the rod is allowed to speak. This sytem can be very useful in a tense situation, for instance when people are resentful and hate each other. But it must be very strictly implemented and can be rather complicated in a big or tidy classroom.

Raising a hand to ask the permission to speak is such a common practice that we don’t consider how important it is. This is the main problem with rituals and customs in general. With time, we forgot why we have them. It’s the counterpart of what makes them so efficient: we set up rituals precisely to not have to think about our daily actions and to save our cognitive power for more interesting things. From time to time, however, it’s important to renew the ritual a little bit, in order to empower it.

Other preparations

Other rituals can be invented to prepare the school supplies and the book. Before a dictation, make the students raise their chalkboard over their head. You will make sure that they’re ready! It may seem a little bit ridiculous, if you’re not used to it, but it’s very useful in lower classes. When the students are more disciplined, for instance in upper high school, you may drop out such rituals. But still the teacher must prepare his students to listen to the lesson. It’s as important as the content of the lesson itself.

Having a ritual for this kind of daily preparation saves you a lot of time in the long run. Before a test, you should not loose 10 minutes to get a sheet of paper and to put the books in the bag. It should be done quickly and without any hesitation, as something obvious. But nothing is really obvious in teaching. Only the strenght of habits can make anything obvious. It means that you should take enough time at the beginning of the term to establish your rules firmly. Explain that “we have a test” means that they should take a sheet of paper and a pen, pack anything else, write their name on the paper according to a given layout, and remain silent. All those operations should take less than two minutes. Train them, if needed.

In short

You can use rituals for instance to:

— begin and finish the activities properly,
— designate the speakers,
— prepare the mind of the students,
— prepare the material,
— manage time (tell the students when to speak, when to listen, when to write the lesson),
— recall attention and keep the students alert,
— avoid conflicts and useless discussions.

To be efficient a ritual should be:

— simple enough, so to not loose time,
— easy to perform, it should not become a burden,
— respectful, so to be accepted or even inspiring, like “Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs, asseyez-vous, je vous en prie.”
— unambigous, not to be mistaken with some other action,
— useful (idealy, the utility should be obvious enough so not to require a specific explanation).

Avoid useless speaking: gestures can reduce the noise. If you can keep the students quiet by a simple finger before your mouth, it’s much more efficient than yelling them to shut up!

If the same ritual is shared by several teachers, it becomes a little more efficient, but it is not a necessity. As long as it is not totally strange and out of context, you can set up whatever ritual you think to be necessary.

Your main concern will be to remain consistent. It’s the hardest part of the job.

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