Tag Archives: Social Emotional Learning

The Power of Class Rituals

Me finishing concrete on an addition to our high school. Also crazy hair day!

The Covid 19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, changing life as we know in ways never dreamed possible. The only comparison that I have is dystopian or disaster movies. In all of the craziness that is now life, we need to find patterns to stabilize us. I was recently reading The Restorative Power of Ritual in the Harvard Business Review about how rituals help humans respond to change and loss. I got to thinking about how important rituals are in the classroom so here is a combination of quotes from the article and applications to the classroom (including online classes).

First of all, what are classroom rituals? They are not the same as routines and procedures such as where to turn in work and what to do if you missed class yesterday. The purpose of routines and procedures is to help class flow smoothly. Class rituals are different; they create community. Effective rituals build an inclusive culture of safety and belonging.

In PBL, the processes become rituals in the classroom: entry events, Need to Know lists, and feedback protocols such as the Tuning Protocol or Gallery Walk. These structures create the safety to explore and experiment through out the inquiry phases of a project. But the most important rituals are personal. They are inside jokes and personalized handshakes. In my classroom, our “warmups” were a vital ritual that established the culture of family.

Rituals give a sense of control and help reduce anxiety and stress.

Mike Norton, Harvard Business School

Rituals are particularly powerful for helping deal with uncertain times. They allow people to regulate circumstances that feel overwhelming. One of the most important rituals at our school was ping pong. It started organically with a board leftover from a summer catapult project and a couple of paddles. It turned into a community game of round robin played before and after school and during every break.

What was amazing about ping pong is that it united students from various backgrounds and created friendships between students who never interacted before. Some of our students that struggled most to “fit in” in high school became friends with the “popular” students. I watched students gain confidence and grow SEL skills through our silly games of ping pong (teachers played too).

Another ritual was “teacher hug Thursday.” This was the personal ritual of one student, Jacob. He went around every Thursday and gave all of the teachers and staff in the entire school a hug.

Gift from Kris who understands me

I am definitely not a hugger. I greatly believe in personal space. I was self distancing, before it was cool! So Jacob and I had our own ritual on Thursday mornings of me running and hiding when I saw him. He would chase me around or ambush me from behind. I always lost and eventually got hugged.

One day I asked Jacob, “Why? Why do you insist on this strange ritual?” He said, ” I want every teacher to never forget me.” Mission accomplished!

 “Absurd rituals can have high utility. If it helps you create that sense of control, if it calms your anxiety, that’s what matters.”

Mike Norton, Harvard Business School

Class rituals can be fun. One colleague of mine ended class with “Throwback Thursdays” by playing music and having all the students participate in a line dance. They can be silly. Our students started making memes of my co-teacher, Mr. Holly, by pasting his face onto internet pics, printing them, and pasting them in random places around the school. My personal favorite was H. Swift (Holly + Taylor Swift).

Yes, I get the irony of not being a hugger. But notice the joy of the student in the background

My personal ritual revolved around my previous career in concrete construction. One day I started complaining to my class that it was morally wrong that they painted the concrete columns when they redesigned our building to launch our school. Concrete should be natural.

Students thought it was strange and funny how I talked about concrete with such passion. So that egged me on to talk about it more. Pretty soon they knew they could get me off on a rabbit trail talking about the difference between concrete and cement.

The truth is that I don’t love concrete as much as students thought I did (although I did write a poem about it once). Our inside joke about concrete was me being weird about my hobby that gave students the right to be weird about whatever they were into: anime, coding, sports, art. We were all different flavors of nerds.

“They don’t have to happen organically; you can artificially insert them into your life. “

Mike Norton, Harvard Business School

This is the best part. Rituals can happen naturally or be intentionally designed at any time and have the same effect as spontaneous rituals. This is important as millions of teachers and students shift to online learning. Students are stressed and being at home is not a “vacation” for many kids, no matter what their home life is like. So reflect on these questions on how you might use rituals to support students online (now) and in-person (next year).

  • What rituals existed in your face-to-face classroom?
  • How could you adapt them to distance learning?
  • What new rituals might you and your students invent to maintain control and community in uncertain times?

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

PBL Service Learning = Authentic SEL Experience

Art created by Heartside patrons


Darius was a struggling student. In fact, he had not completed a project all year. To top it off, he had been arguing with his mom a ton at home and the extended December break meant a further strain on their relationship. When school started back up in the new year, he learned that the class would be taking a trip to Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. He was not thrilled. As an introvert, he was nervous about meeting new people and having to talk. Afterwards he admitted that he enjoyed the experience and wanted to make something to help the patrons.

Darius and his group decided to make “Greaterade,” a new sports drink. They squeezed out juice from real lemons and oranges. They read that a little heat would help an upset stomach so they put some red pepper flakes in it. They added a salt, calcium magnesium, to help with recovery. The first batch was a disaster. It had pulp and seeds in it and tasted horrible from the pepper and calcium magnesium. They shifted to using lemon and lime juice, decreased the salt, and skipped the peppers. The second batch still tasted nasty from the calcium magnesium. Other students wouldn’t even try these first attempts in a taste test. On the third try, they decreased the calcium magnesium, and their drink tasted delicious. Now everyone wanted to try some. Darius was proud to bring his drink to share with Heartside visitors. As a bonus, his science teacher, Nate Langel, called his mother to share his success and discovered that Darius was talking with his mother again and mending that relationship. 

Failing Forward

Luciana was stressed. She was struggling to create bath bombs. In her latest trial, she had forgotten to add cornstarch to her recipe and instead of hardening, the mixture stayed slimy again. She knew better. From previous trials, she knew that she needed cornstarch for thickening, but it looked so much like baking soda that she accidentally neglected it. Now she had wasted a trial and ran out of citric acid, one of the active ingredients that creates the fizz in water. Maybe she should give up and just buy some at the store. But Luciana persevered, bought more citric acid, and successfully made her bath bombs. They were diamond shaped from forms that she had designed and 3D printed. 

Luciana was not alone in struggling with her experiments. Every student at the Grand Rapids Museum School that I talked to had generated multiple attempts in the Poverty Project. Students were creating products in response to the Driving Question, “How can we use material science to develop food, care, and art products to share with our Heartside neighbors?” while studying the polar and nonpolar properties of molecules. Tad and Gamon ran fourteen trials attempting to make a healthier toothpaste without the many chemicals in commercially sold ones. Their sticking point was the nasty flavor of their main, active ingredient, baking soda. In the end, they were unsuccessful, but appreciated the freedom to try and fail. 

Community Partner

Motivation during the Poverty Project came from the school partnership with Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. Heartside describes itself as a “living room” for underprivileged people. They don’t offer regular meals or overnight lodging, but a warm, safe space in the daytime to rest and get a cup of coffee. Heartside offers GED classes, church and counseling services, and a service dog. They have a spacious art studio where people produce beautiful pieces, expressing their creativity. 

This service project had an authentic audience of homeless people and the Heartside staff. The project launched with a visit to Heartside to meet people and investigate needs. It culminated with a return visit for students to demonstrate their products and explain the science behind them. Students were surprised when the patrons asked lots of science questions. One patron, who called herself Precise, asked very specific questions and shared life lessons with them. It was eye opening for the students to meet James, who although homeless himself, was trying to help other homeless people. Students became passionate about finding a solution to homelessness.

The Poverty Project integrated social studies, ELA, and science curriculum. In social studies, students researched the twenties and thirties looking at the government’s role in affecting poverty and homelessness during the Great Depression. For the humanities part of the project, students read Of Mice and Men then visited other homeless organizations in town to interview people. Students considered the DQs, “When does helping help? When does helping hurt?” The final product was a blog based on the interviews.


Luciana had another problem to solve. Homeless people did not have access to bathtubs so although her product met science standards, it was not practical. She decided to wrap the bath bombs in decorative bags and sell them. When her supply exceeded the demand from friends and family, she sold them at her public library. Luciana used the money to purchase art from Heartside patrons, supporting the people in a dignified way.

Science teacher, Nate Langel, who designed the project shared the following SEL goals: empathy, gratefulness, service, compassion, and social justice. During reflection at the end of the project, students articulated the analogy of the science concepts of polar and nonpolar properties to our society. 

“People are sometimes like oil and water, but they don’t have to be. People that have homes are the oil and people who don’t are like water. Our school is the soap, an emulsifier that breaks down the separation between them.”

In the Poverty Project, students practiced Responsible Decision Making through the tests and trials of their experiments. While students created products to help homeless people, they were learning core content in ways that not only benefited the community, but create a generation of students who have strong Social Awareness to take on the local and global issues with empathy and compassion.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.