George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Road to Change: Resisting the Rituals of School

February 25, 2008

In our attempt to explore alternative ways of looking at the practice of traditional education, I am finding that it is necessary to question and actually resist some of the rituals that have become part of this place called school. I encountered one such ritual this month when we returned from our holiday break. Someone reminded me that the school finals for our annual seventh- and eighth-grade speaking competition would need to take place during the last week of January. We picked that date so our finalists would be able to participate in a regional competition held by a local church group.

I'm not sure about your experiences with public speaking contests, but I have found that they have become a type of curriculum add-on. We provide students with some class time to do research and preparation, but it's been a while since we've really questioned why we actually engage in this annual activity.

Don't get me wrong -- I believe it is important to provide young people with plenty of opportunities to make powerful presentations on things that they care about. The timed, three- to five-minute, "stand in front of an audience with only a set of three × five cue cards" approach, however, seems a little archaic and unrealistic.

I approached my students with three things in mind. First, the annual speech competition was a tradition in most of our district's schools. Second, we had a full slate of curriculum activities scheduled for January. Finally, in our arts@newman program, I had decided to work with students on a spring storytellers festival as part of our "Stories of Home" theme for the year. This event would allow students to present to an audience of peers, parents, and community members.

Given the fact that I would have these same students for two years running, I presented them with the option of doing a formal speech either this year or next. One student opted to prepare a speech this year. That, in itself, told me something quite powerful.

Two weeks ago, the contest organizer approached me for the names of the winners from my class. I reported that we had no participants this year, but we should have some pretty fine presentations for next year. Although I haven't had the opportunity to speak with my colleagues about their reaction to my class's decision, I am hoping this act of resistance will be the catalyst for some much-needed conversations about other parts of our practice that have become part of the ritual of school.

That's my story. What's yours? What rituals or common school activities are you tempted to resist? Are there areas of your own practice to which you have made significant changes after asking, "Why am I doing this?"

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School

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