Ritual vs Routine in the K-12 Classroom: What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

Becky Searls
Spanish Teacher
Upper Arlington School District

I am naturally a pretty type-A individual. While my husband may argue otherwise based on my tidiness level at home sometimes, I would say that I’m a pretty organized person, particularly as a teacher in my classroom. I remember, over a decade ago, reading The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong, clinging to the classroom management and organizational strategies it proposed, and writing, I kid you not, this document outlining all of my procedures and rules and possible consequences.

That book was a safety blanket for me my first year of teaching. It helped me fake it until I made it as a teacher. I was able to develop my teacher persona and feel ¨with it¨ and confident by hiding behind routines that helped my classroom run smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and made everything look under control if an administrator dropped by.

While there is nothing wrong with having routines in place in your classroom (like bell-ringers, reviewing daily learning objectives, and perhaps introducing/modeling any homework and previewing the next lesson at the end of your day), on this Fulbright trip to the Andes in South America, I am learning that there is a unique opportunity to incorporate rituals that go much deeper than simple routines.

From my experience, routines are mostly about making things run more efficiently in the classroom , and perhaps also about having an if/then contingency plan in place for behavior and unexpected events, whereas rituals, from my limited experience with them on this trip, allow us to go deeper, tapping into culture in a meaningful way, and self-assessing our social-emotional state.

Research into the so-called affective filter hypothesis confirms that, especially for language learners, our mental and emotional states play a huge role in our ability to relax, open our minds, collaborate and communicate effectively, and, ultimately, learn and master complex content and concepts. Linguistic scholars, language teachers and language learners all agree, whether drawing from research or anecdotal experience, that it is important to do anything possible to lower the anxiety associated with learning a language in order to help facilitate the process and make it more enjoyable. Rituals, I suspect, are one way of helping to center us and our students, thereby helping to reduce anxiety and open our minds. All of this makes acquiring another language so much easier, not to mention more meaningful and fun!

We have practiced a couple of different rituals to start off various lectures here in Ecuador. I’ll walk you through three of them here, along with some ideas of how to adjust them for potential use in the K-12 classroom.

Ritual #1: Passing a Candle

Our first introduction to one of our local contacts, an indigenous anthropologist, involved him lighting incense and herbs in the center of the room, which filled the space we sat in with a fragrant smoke as he introduced himself:

Next, we moved to the back of the room where there was some open space, stood in a circle and passed a lit candle from person to person as we introduced ourselves, where we were from, and what we hoped to get out of our time together that day:

While I’ve done many icebreaker activities in the vein of “introduce yourself, your age/where you’re from and add detail X (your favorite food, what you did this summer, how many siblings you have, etc)” to the group, the simple act of passing a candle seemed to really add a lot of meaning to this ritual and helped to personalize the experience. I really did feel, while I held the candle and spoke, that everyone else in the circle was listening attentively and appreciating my words, and I in turn attempted to reciprocate with that same level of respect when it was their turn to share.

Possible K-12 Classroom Applications-Passing a Candle:

Use the passing a candle ritual as a start-of-year icebreaker or to ensure everyone gets a chance to talk in a group:
•Elementary School: Even elementary school kids (2nd grade and up) are capable of carefully holding a candle while they introduce themselves. Furthermore, it would be a good opportunity to introduce the idea that all voices are equally important/valuable in the classroom; everyone gets a turn to express themselves; and we can know whose turn it is by who is holding the candle. Also, I’m sure that kids would probably love how special it makes them feel to have the floor and all of their peers’ attention while holding the candle.

•Middle and High School: Middle and High school students will also be able to handle the responsibility of (and enjoy the novelty associated with) a candle in the classroom, and, much like their primary counterparts, are sure to love the sense of having their own time and space to talk, along with the requirement that everybody else must listen as long as they are holding the candle.

Alternative Applications:

Perhaps you like the idea of a ritual that allows students to take turns speaking and encourages them to listen actively to one another, but you find yourself in a context where a candle is too impractical. Here are some ideas for how to modify this ritual a bit for various purposes:
•Very Young Kids – Replace the candle with a rain stick, or some other culturally relevant object that you plan to use in your teaching this year (e.g., a maraca, carved gourd, etc.). Even a stuffed animal would be okay in a pinch, as long as you clearly set the expectation up front that whoever has the object is the one doing the talking and everyone else is actively listening and not interrupting. You must physically be holding the object in order to speak, and everyone will get a chance to share.

•Group Work of all ages – Implementing a small group work protocol in which students have to pass an object in order to speak could be an especially powerful tool in situations where some students tend to emerge as more vocal leaders while others fade more quietly into the background. Split the class into small groups (or allow them to choose, depending on the work). Choose an object for each group to pass, and require group members to physically pass the object to one another in order to facilitate their discussion – they must ask permission from one another to speak by requesting the object if they have something to add on to what someone else said. Making the frequency of who is talking more visual may help students to self-regulate (those who tend to share too much may notice and back off while those who tend not to contribute as much may feel a healthy obligation to speak up and get more involved).

•Conflict Resolution Strategy: Use the idea of passing a candle or other object as a way of facilitating conflict resolution between students who are having a disagreement. If and when students come to you with a disagreement and you begin to hear conflicting stories of what happened, bring out the object (candle or otherwise), tell each student that s/he will have the opportunity to tell his or her side of what happened, but may only speak while holding the object. While the other student is holding the object, they must listen and are not allowed to interrupt. If they wish to speak, they must request the object, and this simple barrier will discourage interruption and encourage and facilitate dialogue. Funny side note: I remember that a portion of my premarital counseling used this strategy years ago! My husband and I had to pass an object back and forth in order to speak about risky/touchy topics that often generate disagreement, such as our ideas on how to handle money, and it was amazing how much it forced us to truly stop and listen to one another and not interrupt. It is so common for all of us to simply listen in a surfacy way, biding time until it’s our turn to contribute next…but if we truly want to develop students who are inquisitive, critical thinkers, it’s super important that they learn to simply listen without simultaneously forming their next words.

Ritual #2: Mindfulness Ritual and Hugging Circle

Another day we began by standing in a circle and closing our eyes. Our lecturer then had us focus on and visualize various parts of our body, consciously releasing tension we may have been holding onto, and then picturing our blood and following its path flowing through the body.

When we opened our eyes, one person was told to go around, person to person, hugging each member of the circle. Then the next person followed suit. Within minutes, we were laughing, smiling, giving and receiving heartfelt, warm hugs, and even crying. The hugging circle immediately and wordlessly tore down walls that had been constructed in our group without us even being consciously aware of them:

Possible K-12 Classroom Applications – Mindfulness and Hugging:
•Mindfulness practice – To incorporate mindfulness into your classroom, use an app like Headspace, or try the mindful exercises on GoNoodle to calm students down following lunch, recess, or an assembly, and bring them back into focus for learning.

•Trauma support –Use a hugging circle as a way to reconnect and become more emotionally present with students following a traumatic event such as a schoolwide or community emergency, or perhaps to support a child who has lost a close friend or family member, as a way of demonstrating care and support.

Ritual #3: Animómetro

Yesterday we worked with an actor who uses theatre to break down barriers in groups and facilitate dialogue through productive communication and collaboration. We were led through about a 90 minute workshop with several fascinating exercises in which we assessed our emotional states in various ways, explored our roots and families/ancestors, shared highly personal and often vulnerable information with one another and ultimately re-assessed our emotional states at the end of the experience.

First we used an “animómetro” (¨ánimo¨ – enthusiasm/emotion – ¨meter¨…not a real word, but essentially a device used to take the emotional temperature of a group at any given point in time). We used this tool to measure how we were feeling individually and collectively as a group at the start of our work together:

We were given a heart-shaped Post-it note with the following instructions of what to write:

1) our preferred first name

2) a percentage (e.g. 80%)

3) an emotional state describing what that percent represented (for example: bored, nervous, engaged, interested, curious, etc)

I wrote down:
•Rebecca (easier to pronounce here than Becky)



Eventually we were invited to add our Post-its to the animómetro while also providing a bit more context for why we felt this way at the moment.

Next we did a larger, human body version of the animómetro wherein Javier, our leader, put a long piece of masking tape across the length of the room and we went to stand where on the spectrum we felt, and had to provide a physical image of how we felt. For example, one of our group members who doesn’t speak much Spanish and therefore felt a bit out of the loop said he was 80% bored and went to stand between the 50 and 100% mark, and sort of rolled his eyes to show his disinterest. After each individual demonstrated their emotional state physically along the life-sized animómetro, we all stood together along it and created a group tableaux of our current group feel.

Only after these extended activities, which lasted about 40 minutes, did Javier say “Now we can begin work.” This sort of introduction, he said, tells a much stronger story than simply entering a classroom, asking “¿Cómo están?¨ (¨How are you?¨), getting some grumbled replies, and then launching full steam ahead into your lesson regardless of the feel of the room.

I will definitely be revisiting other theatre games we learned in a participatory pedagogical approach, such as the animómetro, in a future post. For now, just know that after we had shared how we were feeling, we were much more open to participating in the active theatre approaches that Javier had to share with us. Most important, when we re-visited the animómetro again at the close of the workshop, many of us were more in touch with how we were feeling and why, changing our initial percentages and emotions and, often showed a lot of emotional vulnerability with one another (proof that our group’s relationships had been strengthened).

Possible K-12 Classroom Applications – Animómetro:

As I was participating in the animómetro activities, I was thinking about how I could easily incorporate this kind of work into my classroom. I think probably the most practical idea I came up with was to introduce the animómetro the first day or week of school and each day for the first week or so, to have students grab a Post-it on their way in to class and check in with their emotional state pre-lesson and then again as they left the room post-lesson. I would probably scaffold the experience in some way such as the following:
•First day of school: Explicitly teach and engage students fully by introducing what an animómetro is and having them introduce themselves to the class much like we did as a group, with their preferred name, a percentage, and an emotion, placing it on the line (which could be on the board or a big piece of paper) and explaining why they feel this way (even in a novice language class, this could be done in English for building community and rapport; higher level language classes could be encouraged to participate in the target language). If time permits, follow up with the life sized animómetro and tableaux as a class and revisit the animómetro end of the first day as students leave.

•Rest of first week of school: Have students grab a Post-it as they enter room and self-assess their emotional state and place it on the spectrum. Have them talk in small groups or pairs about how they are feeling today and why. Repeat at the end of the lesson.

•Second week of school and ongoing: Have students grab a Post-it pre/post and add their percentage and emotion, place it on the spectrum (to help you “read the room,” so to speak, at the start and close of lessons, to get to know students better as you continue to associate them with their names, and to help build rapport with students by communicating in an ongoing way that you are truly interested in how they are feeling and why). You could also have students write about how they are feeling (in English or in the target language, depending on proficiency level), or just use it to encourage students to reflect on their emotional state themselves (reinforcing that self-reflection and self-assessment is always a valuable practice in any classroom, but particularly for language study).

•Anytime, to re-establish rapport: Revisit the animómetro as a group at any time you feel the rapport of the class start to suffer and a need to re-establish productive communication and collaboration.

•__________ metro: Remember, the word animómetro is made-up and therefore you can make this strategy your own. Want to measure how confused your students are on a given day about a particular learning target? Use a “confundímetro” (confusion meter) as a quick formative assessment to suss out their level of confidence before you assess the concept summatively.

Questions for self-reflection: Routine vs. Ritual

What is the interplay between routine and ritual? Do they inform one another? In what ways might each be significant in the K-12 classroom setting?

While routines strike me as being very useful for an efficient and well-oiled K-12 classroom, rituals seem much more significant and personal to me. These are some questions I’ve been thinking over the past week that may also help you to reflect on the difference (and whether/why that difference may matter) between routine and ritual:
•What go-to routines do you use in your classroom already? Why do you use them (Try be more specific than simply justifying your practices by saying you do them “to be efficient.”)?

•How could you take a routine and take it deeper, making it into a ritual? What, if any, benefit might there be to ritualizing certain practices in your classroom?

•Do you already use any rituals in your classroom? If so, what are they and when/why do you use them? How might you adjust them for various age groups and different purposes?

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