One of the first Nationally Board Certified teachers in America, Rick brings innovation, energy, validity, and high standards to his presentations and his instructional practice, which includes 30 years teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history, and coaching teachers. Rick's work has been reported in numerous media, including ABC's Good Morning America, Hardball with Chris Matthews, National Geographic, and Good Housekeeping magazines, What Matters Most: Teaching for the 21st Century, and The Washington Post.
With his substantive presentations, sense of humor, and unconventional approaches, he's been asked to present to teachers and administrators in all 50 states, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Australia, the Middle East, and at the White House. He is a seasoned veteran of many webcasts, and he is Disney's American Teacher Awards 1996 Outstanding English Teacher of the Nation. He won the 2008 James P. Garvin award from the New England League of Middle Schools for Teaching Excellence, Service, and Leadership, and he has been a consultant for National Public Radio, USA Today, Court TV, and the Smithsonian Institution's Natural Partners Program and their search for the Giant Squid.
He lives in Herndon, Virginia with his wife and two children, one in high school, one in college, where he is currently working on his first young adult fiction novel.
Bring Rick Wormeli to your school!
Well-designed rituals encourage student participation and are an important part of school culture
Picture it. Twenty-four Grade 8 students are standing on one side of a creek, high in the Sierra Mountains in Northern California. Water rushes by, melted from the mountains behind them. This is the last day of their last camping trip of middle school. In the center of the creek, feet planted in a few feet of ice-cold water, stands one of their teachers. Each student gingerly approaches the water, shoes off and strung over their shoulders. They step in, wincing at the cold but bravely looking forward to their teacher and to their friends on the other side. In the center they pause for a word with their teacher, who asks them for an intention as they close their middle school journey and get ready for the next. Then they cross to the other side, greeted by whoops and cheers from their peers.
This ritual was invented by a middle school student. A teacher challenged the class to find a way and a beautiful place in nature to mark the occasion of graduating from middle school. As one student walked down the mountainside after a day’s hike, she spotted the creek and suggested to the teachers that crossing it could be the marker they were looking for. So it was, and it became a treasured memory for all the students and teachers who participated. In a time when many rituals and rites of passage are lost, these students got the benefit of a powerful, memorable ritual to mark a turning point in their lives. It brought them together to share in a common experience, while also celebrating a transformative moment in each student’s life.
Benefits of Rituals
In these times of high anxiety and tremendous change, routines and rituals are more important than ever. For students, they provide a degree of stability and structure in a time when their non-school worlds are filled with turbulence. This is especially true for teens, for whom so much is changing, from friendships to interests to their understanding of the world. Predictable rituals bring people together and provide common ground and safety from which to process and view these changes. They provide space to communicate and hold each other accountable to key values and agreements. Rituals, as exemplified by our eighth graders crossing the creek, help usher in transformative moments, fostering growth and development through communal experiences.
In their book, Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices that Promote Success and Resilience (Corwin, 2016), Rachel Poliner and Jeffrey Benson note rituals can be thought of as involving two fundamental ingredients: relationships and emotions. Rituals can facilitate connection, help bridge gaps between individuals, and provide space with one another for routine or special events. Rituals also provide a way to express, understand, internalize, or manage emotions to different degrees. They hold and generate special meaning for those engaging in them. If you think of rituals in your family or at your school, you might think of morning meetings, how you greet students when they arrive at school, birthday celebrations, movie nights, how your child gets ready for bed each night, or how you close the school year. In various ways, each of these experiences cushion, regulate, or facilitate emotions through relationships. Particularly during times of grief, rituals have an impact on how individuals cope with difficulty.
In the book Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss (Routledge, 2013), Kenneth Doka notes that rituals provide students a structured way that allows for time, space, and support structures to recognize and absorb significant change. Doka notes four different types of rituals, categories that are applicable beyond the grieving process. These include rituals of continuity, rituals of transition, rituals of reconciliation, and rituals of affirmation. Rituals of continuity celebrate or mark connection between individuals or groups. Rituals of transition mark the passage from one moment to another. Rituals of reconciliation help address unfinished tasks, such as expressing forgiveness. Rituals of affirmation recognize and honor contributions. These types of rituals can be powerful in helping students in verbal and nonverbal ways by incorporating practices that are personally and communally meaningful. Enacting ritualized actions can enhance feelings of self-discipline and improve behavioral self-control.
While it might be counterintuitive to think of students, particularly teens, craving structure and stability, rituals provide much-needed connection. A well-designed ritual forms a safe container, a place that feels both familiar and authentic, inviting students to relax and participate fully. Particularly for teens, who are highly attuned to social dynamics and wary of speaking at the wrong time, the right degree of predictability and familiarity with a ritual invites them to drop their guard and participate. Rituals, paradoxically, help students appreciate change because they themselves are stable.
It takes practice and patient tinkering to get these rituals right, but the effort is worth it. At our school, we felt strongly that a Morning Meeting ritual would be important to start our day, yet, at first, we struggled to get the formula right. We began by attempting to transition students from a free-time, conversational space into a quiet mindfulness mode, and the results were comically bad. A teacher dinged a meditation bell in a crowded classroom as half of the students shifted their attention and the other half continued eagerly talking to one another. Our attempt to have a simple, peaceful meeting to set the tone for the day instead was chaotic and felt like a constant battle for attention.
Mulling this over, we decided that we were lacking a ritual, a set of psychological cues that would help students shift into a different mindset. Putting them all in a room with peers and then asking them to change their mindset on a dime was a tall order, especially for adolescents whose social motivation usually trumps all else. So, we came up with a new ritual: the hang-out time while students arrived would take place in an atrium outside the doors of the gym, and students could talk as much as they wanted. While they were socializing, a teacher went into the gym, turned the big overhead lights off so that only natural light from the windows came in, and then sat down near the center and began to play music on a harmonium or guitar. When this was in place, we asked the students to enter the gym one at a time, in silence, and take a seat in a circle around the center of the gym. Once everyone was seated, the music wrapped up, we did a minute of meditation together, and then a student moderator led the rest of the meeting.
From the first time we did this little ritual, it completely changed our morning gathering and even the tone of the school day. Students and adults alike began the day feeling more centered, peaceful, and connected. Student moderators began leading not only the meeting but also the meditation, with great success. The shift from the purposefully loud, social environment outside the gym to the calm, peaceful one inside was so obvious and visceral that nearly all students understood that a different way of being was called for. As adults, we received a powerful reminder of what we theoretically knew but had forgotten in this case: that simple, consistent rituals have a profound effect on behavior and culture.
In that example, a well-designed ritual made it easy for students to participate and became an important part of the culture of the school. Rituals like these are the foundation stones of many school cultures. There is still a further level of development, though: as an aspirational goal at minimum, middle and high school students can learn to create their own rituals. This not only taps into the deep motivation provided by student voice and leadership; it develops a skill for meaning-making in life, one that can serve students well beyond their schooling years are over. It may seem surprising, but adolescents are quite capable ritual-makers if they have good modeling, a sincere invitation, and time to practice.
We know that ritual-making is a learnable skill, and indeed that great teachers and great parents know how to consciously craft a ritual. There is certainly an art to it. Rituals that are too complex or contrived will be rejected. Rituals have to be given time to grow. Take a ritual common to adults, for example: the art of making coffee in the morning. You might start off making coffee in one simple way, and two years later be surprised to realize there are seven steps you follow precisely every morning; had you started with that long of a process as the only way to make coffee, you might have rejected it right away! Rituals are like plants, growing gradually, needing regular water, branching sometimes quite unexpectedly. They have a mysterious life cycle and at some point they will die and make way for something else, as a bedtime routine may no longer be needed as a child gets older, but may be replaced by an evening walk or something else entirely.
Rituals During Remote Learning
Lately, we have received a new challenge to our community’s ritual-making skills in the form of the shift to distance learning. We wondered which rituals could be transported into the online world? Would they seem ridiculous? What new rituals were called for? We learned that some forms of ritual, like the use of silence during meditation, did not work as well online, as silence can be interpreted as a chance to check your phone or even a technical problem. But we adapted, learning that using music during mindfulness helped keep people’s attention.
Other rituals still worked, sometimes surprisingly well. Our ritual of a “threshold ceremony” to step up to the next grade, in which students prepare a statement on their growth and how they would like to contribute, and read it to the whole school as an audience, still carried real emotion and authenticity. In online advisory meetings, we found that our ritual of students checking-in with each other, asking open questions to invite authentic sharing, still worked well online. And new rituals began to sprout up, like the use of the chat function in Zoom or Google Meet to share gratitudes during the last few minutes of a community or all-school meeting, while music plays, closing on a note of kindness and closeness. In short, while it can be easy to place rituals at the bottom of the priority list during the stressful and rapid adjustment to online learning, our experience would say that they are more important than ever, and as alive as ever, in forming and strengthening school culture.
This importance is not only for the students, but also faculty and staff, who benefit from well-designed rituals just as much. The responsibility of an educator to be the anchor for students weighs heavily during times when educators themselves are struggling to cope with day-to-day life. As administrators, it’s important to consider the ways educators can connect with one another, express and negotiate emotions, and seek support. At Millennium, we benefit from Forum, which is a nationwide well-being community of practice aimed at helping educators feel less isolated, more engaged, and more connected. Utilizing Forum, and the rituals it includes, has helped our team authentically express thoughts and concerns, gather new strategies, and build resilience in a time of uncertainty.
It has been a difficult year, and we are all grieving. We are facing the consequences of a global pandemic, experiencing tensions regarding race and privilege unseen since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and economic insecurity reminiscent of the Great Depression. Loved ones have died, all of us have witnessed brutality in its purest sense, and anxiety over the future looms heavily above us. However, if there is a result of all this calamity, it’s the reminder that community is vitally important. And that communities with powerful rituals are more able to stay united, to invite honest speaking from all, and to weather storms together. Rituals, like stories, are some of the oldest and most powerful tools humans have created. Let’s not forget to use these tools during this most challenging time.
Chris Balme is the co-founder and outgoing head of school at the Millennium School, San Francisco, California.
Roberto d'Erizans is the incoming head of school at the Millennium School, San Francisco, California.
Published in AMLE Newsletter
, September 2020.
Christine H. Toth joined the Academy of the Sacred Heart as the Middle School Dean of Students in August 2015. The Academy of the Sacred Heart is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for girls offering education and instructional services from pre-k through grade 12. Little Hearts, the Early Learning Program for ages 1 through 3 year-old girls, is also a division of the school.
Christine holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, with a Public Relations emphasis, from Loyola University New Orleans. Prior to joining Sacred Heart, Christine served as the Director of Student Programs at Tulane University where she had oversight and accountability for over 200 student organizations, student government, leadership programs, student media, and major campus programming. Prior to that, she was at the University of West Florida for eight years. Having worked in Student Affairs for over 11 years, she learned the importance of working with others, relationship building, and defining her leadership style. She believes that one of the most important functions of a Dean of Students is to build and maintain relationships with your constituents: students, administration, faculty, parents, and the community. She strives to inspire colleagues, peers, and the students she serves to realize their full potential.
Bring Christine Toth to your school!
Dr. Denver J. Fowler is currently the chair of the EdD program and professor of PK-12 Educational Leadership at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. Prior to his appointment at Franklin University, he served as a program coordinator and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS). In addition to this role, Dr. Fowler served as an elected senator on the faculty senate at CSUS. Dr. Fowler is starting his eleventh year in higher education (six years part-time and four years full-time). Prior to his appointment at CSUS, Dr. Fowler served as an assistant professor of educational leadership at The University of Mississippi (UM) where he taught within the PhD, EdD, EdS, Master of Education, and Principal Corps programs as well as served on several dissertation committees. In addition, he served as the elected president of the Mississippi Association of Professors of Educational Leadership (2015-2017), a state affiliate of the International Council of Professors of Educational Leadership. Prior to his appointment at UM, Dr. Fowler served as an adjunct faculty member for more than six years at The Ohio State University, Bowling Green State University, and University of West Florida, where he was responsible for teaching courses (online, hybrid, and face-to-face) in educational leadership, educational technology, and teacher education, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to his experience in the higher education setting, Dr. Fowler served as a coach, teacher, athletic director, technology coordinator, and school administrator for more than a decade in the PreK-12 educational setting in both the private and public school sectors in the state of Ohio. During this tenure, he was named the Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators (OASSA) and National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) State Assistant Principal of the Year in the State of Ohio and was nominated for the NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year in the United States. A strong supporter of education and policy reform, Dr. Fowler has spoken on Capitol Hill to advocate for educators and school leaders nationwide. He is the author of numerous books and other publications on educational leadership. His research interests include ethics, leadership, educational leadership, and research on the superintendency and principalship. Dr. Fowler has presented his research and served as a keynote speaker both nationally and internationally, including presentations in China, Italy, Greece, Cuba, Africa, Turkey, England, Japan, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Dr. Fowler received his Doctor of Education in Educational Administration from Ohio University, Master of Arts in Education from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and Bachelor of Science in Education from The Ohio State University. In addition to his degrees, Dr. Fowler completed a School Leadership Institute at Harvard University. Dr. Fowler is a licensed superintendent, principal, teacher, and holds a private school administrative and teaching license.
Bring Denver Fowler to your school!
Pam Millikan served on the AMLE Board of Trustees and is a past president of the AMLE Board. She is proud to have taught language arts, served as an assistant principal and as principal in the same middle school for more than 25 years. She is a past Indiana Principal of the Year and an AMLE Distinguished Educator. She has worked with affiliates and schools throughout the association, and she is passionate to help educators create middle schools where all students can experience an exciting and meaningful school environment. She believes that the best results are achieved by working together and by willingly learning new strategies to achieve success.
Bring Pam Millikan to your school!
Mandy Stalets is an author, presenter, and Middle School math teacher at Thomas Metcalf Laboratory School in Normal, IL. In 2010, Mandy helped to introduce standards-based learning and grading to her K–8 school through a one-year trial in her classroom. The success of the trial led to a school wide initiative the following year and the elimination of letter grades three years later. Through her consulting work, Mandy has worked with teachers, undergraduate students, and school districts to improve assessment and grading practices to maximize communication and student success. She is passionate not only about healthy assessment and grading practices, but changing the culture of the classroom from one of compliance to one of rich learning.
Bring Mandy Stalets to your school!
Known for his dynamic and motivating presentations, Mark McLeod is a rare speaker who can speak to the heart of an educator. He knows what it is like to "be in the trenches." Recognized as one of Mississippi's top school administrators, Mark has shared his expertise at state and national conferences and conducted many workshops and keynotes for schools and districts throughout North America.
As a lifelong educator, his educational experience includes teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal. He was twice selected as Teacher of the Year for Lumberton Public School District. In 2002, he was selected as Covington County School District's Administrator of the Year and Mississippi's Region Four Administrator of the Year. He is currently a full-time motivational speaker, professional development instructor, and educational consultant.
His enthusiastic and encouraging presentations leave participants inspired to plant seeds of success. He currently resides in Purvis, Mississippi with his wife, Kelli, and a daughter, Erin.
Bring Mark McLeod to your school!
Marlena Gross-Taylor is the founder of #EduGladiators as well as a district EdLeader for Maury County Schools, Tennessee, with a proven track record of improving educational and operational performance through vision, strategic planning, leadership, and team building. A Nashville transplant originally from southern Louisiana, Marlena's educational experience spans several states allowing her to have served K-12 students in both rural and urban districts. She has been recognized as a middle school master teacher and innovative administrator at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Because of her sound knowledge of both elementary and secondary education, Marlena has broad-based experience creating and implementing dynamic interactive programs to attain district goals while leveraging her flexibility, resourcefulness, and organizational and interpersonal skills to foster learning through a positive, encouraging environment.
Marlena's professional development expertise has garnered both state and national attention. She has also leveraged her past experience in corporate management to include corporate training and leadership coaching in her repertoire of consulting services focused on culture, engagement, and increased productivity. Marlena is a seasoned presenter keynoting conferences and delivering dynamic professional development sessions.
As a proud Louisiana State University alumni, she is committed to excellence and believes all students can achieve. Follow Marlena on Twitter @mgrosstaylor or visit her websites marlenagrosstaylor.com & edugladiators.com.
Bring Marlena Gross-Taylor to your school!
Making students who move from school to school feel welcome.
A Florida newspaper reporter asked me what life is like for the student who moves three or more times a year. So I gave him this scenario, and the conversation developed from there:
A Typical Scenario
You are a fifth grade student. Your mom wakes you up in the middle of the night and says, "Hurry up. We're going to move. Here's a trash bag. Put in what you want to take with you. My sister is here to get us."
Reporter: Why the middle of the night? Why a trash bag?
Most courts won't evict you until you are 90 days late with a rent payment. So you leave the night before you get evicted. The trash bag? It's you, your mother, three younger siblings, and your aunt—all getting into one car. There isn't much room, and trash bags are "squishable."
Reporter: What will the fifth grade boy take with him?
He will take his shoes or flip-flops, his jacket/hoodie, GameBoy and/or cell phone, the dog (if there is one), and maybe a stuffed animal.
Reporter: What will his mother take with her?
She will take paper records (if she can find them), the children, a few mementos (if there are any), and some clothes.
Reporter: What will be left behind?
Clothes, dishes/pans (if there are any), TV (can't fit it in the car and probably is a rent-to-own), any books or things from school (food is gone and DVDs are often pawned), furniture (often rent-to-own), cats/fish/hamsters/exotic pets (snakes, hedgehogs, lizards).
Reporter: What happens next?
You go to your aunt's house. It's 3 a.m. Your aunt has three children, so now there are nine people in the apartment. You lie down on the floor next to your 5-year-old cousin because there aren't enough mattresses. You cover your head with your hoodie. Your mother wakes you at 7 a.m. and tells you to get ready. You will go to your new school today.
Your clothes are damp because your cousin wet himself during the night, and some urine got on you. There isn't time for a shower; you barely get to use the bathroom. You go to your new school in the clothes you have on.
You aren't happy to go to your new school. You know it will take at least one fight to establish that you aren't a wimp. Is your teacher happy to see you? Well, you're the fourth new student she has added this week.
You just want to be left alone. You're tired, hungry, and miserable. You don't know where anything in the school is. And you think you will have to move again pretty soon because it won't be long before your mom and her sister get into a fight.
How Can Educators Help?
Educators can help highly mobile students transition into the school. Here are some ideas:
1. Have your PTO/PTA make "new student" folders that include:
Pad of paper.
Pencil and pen.
Layout of the school.
Coupon for free lunches for a couple of days.
A magnet that has the school name, address, phone number, school hours, principal's name, school webpage address, holidays and vacations, and days report cards come out.
A DVD that shows adults how to get into the building, where to sign in, what each wing of the building looks like, where the cafeteria and gym are, and where to park if they come to visit.
2. Make sure each new student has a student "ambassador" who helps the student find his or her way around the building and eats with that student every day for a week, making sure the newcomer feels included.
3. Assign an adult to talk to the new student for 3–5 minutes every day on a one-to-one basis. Make sure the student has a relationship with at least one adult in the school.
4. Ask the school counselor to call the parent or guardian after the first week (if possible) to talk about the child and discover whether additional support is needed.
Why would you do this if the student will probably move again in three months?
No responsible educator would, in effect, punish students for coming from an unstable, unpredictable environment by ignoring them and seeing them as a burden.
Research indicates that all learning is double-coded—both cognitively and emotionally—so educators should strive to make the school feel safe and welcoming. When students believe there is an adult who cares for them, that they are important enough to be given support, they are less likely to become "social isolates" who cause problems.
A principal of a high-poverty neighborhood school between Dallas and Fort Worth works so hard to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for her students that parents often come to her and say, "We have to move, but we want to stay in your school. How can we do that? My children are so happy here."
Gifts Without Rewards
A fifth grade teacher tells of a boy who came into her class mid-year. He had tattoos, body piercings, and wore multiple chains. The principal had begged her to take the student.
The teacher first built a relationship with him. She put sticky notes in his desk to let him know when he did something right. She helped him learn to read. She explained that he didn't need to be tough every minute he was in her class because he was safe there.
It finally became known that his dad was using him in neighborhood apartment "cock fights" as a human "cock." His dad was taking bets on him.
The boy left abruptly before the year was out, and the teacher ended up cleaning out his locker. She discovered that he had saved every sticky note she had written to him. I am certain this boy will never forget the teacher who cared about him.
Such are the gifts we can give without ever knowing the outcome.
Ruby K. Payne is an educator, author, and founder of aha! Process, Inc. She is the author of Achievement for All: Keys to Educating Middle Grades Students in Poverty
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2016.
Rick Herrig is a tireless advocate for quality educational practices. An educator for more than 33 years, Rick has served education as a teacher, principal, college adjunct instructor, and now as an educational consultant. His educational career includes both US and international experience. He has served as the Executive Director for the Iowa Association for Middle Level Education (IAMLE) and as North Region Trustee (2 terms) for the National Middle School Association and has spoken at numerous state, regional, provincial, and national conferences and forums. A certified national trainer with the Center for Teacher Effectiveness, he has led workshops and/or served as a school consultant in 14 US states, Canada, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His message about the importance of helping each student reach academic success through the development of effective teaching practices has transformed schools.
Bring Rick Herrig to your school!