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Reflective Practice

How Ritual Can Inspire Connection in the Classroom

Toolkit

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By Chy Sprauve

It is easy to understand why instructors and teachers might value cultivating connection with their students. For one, fostering feelings of community might build a sense of safety among students, who may or may not have access to other social spaces that engender feelings of security. Feeling secure is a core part of any person’s wellbeing. Though instructors (particularly at the college level) are not officially tasked with addressing the wellbeing of their students, students who feel a sense of security in their classroom are in a better position to be present[1] in the space of the classroom. Secondly, students who feel connected to their classroom (community) might be motivated to engage more deeply with the course material, which in turn engenders feelings of accomplishment among instructors and encourages them to continue investing in community building. One of the ways we can help to build community in our classrooms is by creating a ritual toolkit for use in that space.

Ritual is another name for habit. It can be argued that our habits make up who we are – yet, many of us do not pay much attention to our habits. Ritual-work is an intentional practice of something one builds in their routine to bring them feelings of joy, safety or calm. We probably all have rituals we practice as instructors and students, and in the space of the classroom I invite us all to bring those things more to the surface. I think especially now, rituals can help us to feel grounded in a very groundless time. Engaging students in the process of ritual-work can also help to create a sense of stability, or groundedness, in their new all-virtual classroom experience.

In his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett, professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, writes:

Religion and war are both organized through rituals, and I investigate ritual as a kind of craft…codes of honor become concrete by choreographing movement and gesture within the physical containers of walls, military camps, and battlefields on one hand, and shrines, burial grounds, monasteries, and retreats on the other. Ritual requires skill; it needs to be done well.[2]

Sennett contends that the “workshop” (where craft-making, or ritual-work, for our purposes, occurs) should be considered a social space because they have “glue people together through work rituals…through mentoring…through face-to-face sharing of information.”[3] Sennett also argues that craft (in this case, ritual, for the author) is “collective” and anonymous.” I reference Sennett’s work here because he is arguing for the notion of a ritual space as a communal space. In other words, a space where rituals (craft-hood) take place is a space where community is convened. Through ritual work, we are “choreographing movement and gesture” within the “physical containment” of the classroom, which “glues us together.”  It may help us to imagine the classroom as a kind of workshop, where the participants (students, instructors) come together to build beautiful (or, at least useful) things. I would also like to underscore Sennett’s contention that ritual requires skill. Often when we come across the affective in the academy, it is framed as distinct from other endeavors because, I would argue, it engages the sensory. I posit here that work requiring conscious engagement of the sensory is “skilled” work.[4]

Now that we have established a sense of the classroom as a workshop, we might imagine next what we as craftspeople (students and instructors) might bring to the shop. It helps to engage independent scholar Sara Ahmed’s conception of a toolkit here. In her work Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed opines that in order for the female academic to “survive” in the academy (and in life), she should build a toolkit of items (typically texts) that sustain her and her sisters.[5] Ahmed writes, “We need a handle when we lose it. A killjoy[6] survival kit is about finding a handle at the very moment one seems to lose it, when things seem to fly out of hand; a way of holding on when the possibility you were reaching for seems to be slipping away. Feminist killjoys: even when things fly out of hand, even when we fly out of hand, we need a handle on things [emphasis added].”[7] For Ahmed, a toolkit can help feminist scholars to “get a handle on things.” I think “getting a handle on things” can also be described as “getting grounded,” which can help us to feel safe.[8] It is important to understand that anything can exist in the ritual toolkit I am proposing. The most important quality of the object one places in the toolkit is that it encourages feelings of safety. Feelings of inspiration and creativity follow behind feelings of security.

Ritual-Work in Action

I put index cards in my toolkit for two ritual activities: “Draw Your Feelings” and “Reflection Essays.” “Draw Your Feelings” is an activity in which I ask participants (students, in the case of the classroom) to draw their current feelings (anger, sadness, joy, etc.). I usually give students five minutes to draw and ten minutes to discuss and share. I almost always practice this activity at the very beginning of a class for a few reasons. For one, practicing an activity at the same time everyday establishes a sense of constancy among the students (and myself, as I always know how I will open the class), which can lead to feelings of comfort. Secondly, I think that this particular activity can help students (and myself) to “check-in” with themselves and give them a sense of how they are feeling as we begin to discuss the course topic(s) that day. Variations of this activity could be writing (instead of drawing) one’s feelings or a simple fifteen-minute discussion about students’ feelings. What is also important to note here is that I make it clear to the class that anyone can opt-out of the activity at any time. Discussing or describing one’s feelings can be triggering for some of us, and because security is the most important characteristic of ritual objects in the toolkit that I am proposing, it is important to ensure safety as best we can by imparting to our students that they can refuse traumatic practices at any time.

Reflection essays, also known to some as “exit tickets,”[9] are small observations I ask students to make about their experience in class that day. I typically ask them to describe one thing they learned that day and one thing they are struggling with or confused about. I typically allot five minutes at the end of class for this activity. I hand out index cards at the end of each class meeting and collect them when the students are finished. Once in a while, the prompts change, usually because of an important discussion in class I would like to continue. What I appreciate most about the reflection essays is that one, students might get a better understanding of what they feel comfortable with in the class and what they are uncomfortable with. In this way, reflection essays serve as a kind of self-assessment tool for students. Another reason I like reflection essays is that I get a better idea of what the class collectively feels comfortable with and areas where I might need to revise or review. I also use reflection essays to record attendance, by asking students to write their names on the essays. Obviously, here one could change the questions to suit the needs or goals of their particular class. Even though I find reflection essays very helpful, there may be questions here about student privacy. We are asking students to produce work for us constantly. Do reflection essays ask students to labor emotionally needlessly? What I can say is that because I do my best to cultivate an environment where safety and non-punitive approaches to teaching and learning are essential, inviting students to do affective activities does not seem incongruous within the shape of my classroom. I also make sure to tell students that they can write as little or as much as possible and that my questions are open to wide interpretation. I do think it is important to consider the tone of one’s class as one develops ritual work—consider personal goals as well as the larger goals of the course. What do those goals say about the personality of the course?

Both Sennett and Ahmed give us useful terms to define ritual and community. Being “glued together” in the space of the classroom (or workshop) allows us to experience activities together; being “glued together” also necessarily means that we will experience various emotional states by individuals in the classroom at all times as well as our own. As a social space, the classroom is a place (now a fully digital place) where we carry in all of our feelings from other places. Getting a “handle” on our baggage requires conscious acknowledgement and perhaps something to literally hold on to as we do our work.

We often think of learning communities in the university as distinct from other communities, but building values like trust, care and safety are important in any community. Our classrooms function as (educational) communities. Developing a sense of connection among members of a community can build feelings of safety and comfort, which, as I suggested earlier, can lead to more engaged classroom participants—especially vital during these times. One of the ways we as instructors can build a sense of community in the classroom is by developing rituals with (and perhaps among) our students.

Building a Toolkit

A feminist toolkit, for Sara Ahmed, is a collection of objects, writings, and / or practices that she collected in order to ensure her survival in the academy (and in life). For our purposes, think of toolkits as a collection of ritual items (physical objects and/or writings and thoughts) that our classrooms can access in order to deepen their ties to one another.

There are different ways to build ritual toolkits. Perhaps you might ask your students (and yourself), at the top of the class for a few minutes, what practices bring them a sense of stability and base the toolkit on those responses. You might introduce a pre-crafted one and change some of the activities on the fly depending on how your classroom reacts. You might encourage students to develop their own collective toolkit that you may or may not contribute to. The important thing is having something to reach into when you all need it. Ideally, you would build-in ritual activities as a feature of the classroom, but, for whatever reason if that is not feasible or does not fit in with the tenor of your course, have on-hand activities that are familiar with you and your students that can be accessed when the classroom needs to “get a handle”[10] on something. Ritual toolkits are for you as an individual person (not just “instructor” you, you you) and also for your individual students. They are also for the collective of the classroom. By introducing the notion of a toolkit, hopefully you introduce a language for the notion of individual care practices as well as collective ones. Ritual toolkits are simultaneously for everyone and just for you.

Suggestions + Prompts:

  • While the prospect of building a ritual toolkit may seem daunting, it may be helpful to do a small exercise for yourself before introducing the idea to your students. Are there any objects, writings, sayings, or practices you reach for in order to ground or support yourself? If so, what are they? And what about them makes it effective? When do you find yourself reaching for these things?
  • Consider asking your students to think about an object, writing, saying or action they use in order to ground themselves. As you and your students become increasingly familiarized with one another, perhaps you will build a deeper understanding of what triggers them and what uplifts them and begin to build a toolkit to reach for when you all come across the inevitable highs and lows in the classroom.

Sample Ritual Toolkits

Toolkit #1: The Feeling Toolkit

Open your class with “Draw your Feelings.”[11] This activity can last from five to ten minutes, depending on level of engagement. After drawing,[12] begin a conversation about the content of the activity (the drawings) for five to ten minutes, again, depending on level of engagement. Close your class with reflection essays.[13] This should take up the last five to ten minutes of class. Suggestion: open and close with these activities (or variations of them) at each class meeting, as this creates a sense of ritual and constancy for both you and your students.

Toolkit #2: The Object Toolkit

Part one – Get a handle on it: During a class meeting, ask your students to think of objects or words / phrases they reach for when they are under periods of stress or when they want to feel secure. Only engage students who feel comfortable sharing this. Ask students to present and discuss at the next class meeting. This activity should last from fifteen to twenty minutes (break up the presentations if there is high student buy-in). Part twoRitualize it: At the end of your classroom meetings, you may ask your students who have shared to think about how they engaged their ritual object today, if they have, or, how they may use it later in the day to engender feelings of comfort / safety. This closing activity can take from ten to fifteen minutes. Students who did not show interest initially may express interest as you continue this activity, and some may practice quietly. Still others will not; ensure their comfort by discussing the goals of the activity broadly and emphasize it being optional; you can also encourage any students averse to this practice to take a break during the time of this activity.

Toolkit #3: The Everyday Toolkit

This ritual toolkit is a smaller one in that it requires less time and focus, but still engages the sensory and establishes routine. Choose a time during your class where students are engaging in discussion or doing individual class work and play a song (perhaps instrumental). Try to do this at the same time in the class whenever you meet. Start or end each class with an optional[14] prompt (think of quotes or short poems you like) that touches on the notion of care or safety.

Toolkit#4: The Grab-Bag Toolkit

You might consider collecting a bunch of activities to reach for at varying times. Some activities might include:

  1. “Perfect Day” journaling activity: Ask your students (those who are willing) to describe their “perfect day,” either through writing or drawing (or some other medium). Some questions to jump-start the prompt might be: A) Where are you located on your perfect day? B) Who are you with on your perfect day? C) What are you doing during this day? D) Describe your immediate surroundings on this day—try to be as specific as possible. What do you hear, smell, see and feel? E) Finally, what about this day makes you feel alive / safe / secure / joyful? How might you re-create elements of this in your life right now?
  2. Community playlist: Ask your students to collaborate on a music playlist they can listen to in the classroom. Create a Google doc, create the prompt in the message box on Zoom, or create a semi-permanent list on your classroom’s Blackboard discussion page.
  3. Socially distant meet-up: If you and your students feel comfortable and this feels feasible, perhaps consider a responsible meet-up in a public park for a class. Logistically this may not be possible, but if this appeals to you and your class at all, meeting outdoors might be a boon to collective wellbeing! Note: Obviously, this meet-up should be 100% optional.
  4. Build a collective group-care agenda: This activity can build off of the first in this list. What elements of the “Perfect Day” activity could be included in a classroom-wide ritual document? Collect the responses and put it in a shared document for you and your students to refer to when you need an activity or a thought exercise to refocus or recenter in class.
  5. Develop a “community contract”:  A community contract is a list of directives built by a group to ensure community safety. If your group is interested in this activity, ask your students to come up with policies (like “maintain respectful tones in discussion”) that would help them feel secure in your classroom. Encourage your students to focus on what they want to see in the classroom rather than what they don’t want to see to build an affirming, inviting list.
  6. Movement: Choose a simple, accessible[15] yogic pose (like Mountain Pose) for the students to practice at the top or end of each class. Cameras can be off for this practice if students so choose. This can take up to five minutes.
  7. Affirmation Cards[16]: Affirmation cards are cards with a motivational prompt printed on them. One such deck (there are plenty) is called Affirmators! at Work Deck: 50 Affirmation Cards to Help You Help Yourself – Without the Self-helpy-ness! By Suzi Barrett. Cards like these[17] can help to encourage self-reflective discussion among students.

Notes:

  • In addition to activities, you might consider having literal objects in a ritual toolkit. Now, considering that our classes are all online, a collective physical toolkit would be harder to conceive of (though, I suppose one might involve postage and shipping, which seems burdensome and not necessary). One could always introduce physical objects in their classroom via Zoom, however. The most useable ritual toolkit items for now will most likely consist of activities and discussion rather than tactile items—though, I would like to underscore here that there is definitely space to engage conversation around the tactile in your ritual-work.
  • I did not emphasize the ritual toolkit’s place in this new Zoom age where all of our work is being done online because I would argue that community building is essential in any kind of classroom, but it is important to note that the coronavirus is isolating us even more than we may have been before. Intentionally practicing ritual-work with the people one is surrounded by (not just in the classroom, but in one’s home, if appropriate, and among one’s friends) seems like deeply necessary work. The classroom is a very important social space—it always has been. But it may be even more important for some of us now. We should get a handle on it.

Chy Sprauve is a doctoral student in English and Composition Rhetoric and a Fellow at the Teaching and Learning Center.

References

[1] “Being present” in this case means being available to actively participate. If a person does not feel secure in their environment, even if they are physically present in the space, it may be more difficult to truly engage in the activities occurring in their immediate environment, as they may be fixated on maintaining a sense of security for themselves.

[2] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2009), 12.

[3] Sennett, The Craftsman.

[4] Though I am making the argument here that affective work is as rigorous as other academic undertakings, I would like us to move away from evaluating the usefulness of work based on “rigor” altogether, as it establishes a hierarchy of “valuable” work in the academy, which often pushes out the work of people of color, women and disabled and queer academics.

[5] Female peers.

[6] Ahmed provides an explanation of the “feminist killjoy” in her article “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects).” She contends that “Becoming a feminist can be an alienation from happiness (though not just that, not only that: oh the joy of being able to leave the place you were given!). When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things.” (Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects),” The Scholar and Feminist Online, 8.3 (2010)).

[7] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press, 2017), 240.

[8] Though I agree that there is no space that is absolutely safe, I do believe that we can make spaces safer—emphasis on the “-er.”

[9] “An exit ticket is essentially a student’s ticket out the door. Assigned at the end of the day, or end of a class period, exit tickets require students to demonstrate something they have learned, or to process some part of the day’s lesson.” (“What are Exit Tickets?” Model Teaching, last modified August 26, 2019, https://www.modelteaching.com/education-articles/testing-strategies-prep/exit-tickets.)

[10] “What happens to you: we need to handle what we come up against. But what if the handle is what breaks? Fragility: losing the handle. When the jug loses its handle, it becomes useless. We sense the terror of its fate; the fragments swept up and away. And when we say we are losing the handle, we of- ten mean we are no longer able to grasp hold of what we need to persist. The handle provides a connection.” (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 170.)

[11] Reference writing above for definition.

[12] Instructor participation is optional here, though participation may encourage class “buy-in.”

[13] Reference writing above for definition.

[14] Students do not have to spend time responding in-class.

[15] An accessible pose is one that students of all physical abilities can do—consider that when you choose a pose. Also, be sure to include modifications to the pose—for example, Mountain Pose can be done in a chair.

[16] This is the only activity listed that might require a purchase on the part of the instructor.

[17] You could also try an oracle deck, if this is up your alley.

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