Guest post by Derek Pierce

What are the annual events at your school that get your students the most excited? Does your faculty feel the same way? What do your school’s biggest traditions say about what your school most values? 

The best rituals are what alumni still talk about, what brings them back to campus. Too often school rituals can become unmoored from their original purpose or outlive their usefulness. Too often the most important school rituals center around what happens outside the classroom or after the school day is over.

At Casco Bay High School in Portland, ME, we want students to feel the same adrenaline rush and intense engagement about academic accomplishments as is normally reserved for a big game, performance, or concert.

We are a small, diverse urban school, a lead school in the EL Education network, and we strive for school rituals that students and faculty look forward to with equal passion—and which reflect our community’s noblest aspirations for students. Here are four of our favorites.

The Clap Out 

Several times a year, each grade level engages in a long-term, interdisciplinary project that addresses a social justice issue. We call these learning expeditions. After a grade level has successfully shared and defended their learning, we celebrate them with a “clap out.” After the culmination of their projects, the rest of the school—students and staff—lines the hallway, and the triumphant students are applauded wildly as they exit the building.

CBHS value: Expect—and celebrate—academic excellence for all.

Winter Solstice Assembly 

In our last hour before December break, our entire school community sits in a circle on the floor of our “Great Space.” At the core of the Solstice Assembly is a 30-minute open forum that allows any student or staff member to rise and speak to the following prompt for one minute: “What gift have you received from this community for which you would like to express gratitude?” What transpires next has consistently been magical as a cross-section of students and staff rise to give authentic thanks. Last year, about 50 alums chose to join the circle as well, adding even more depth and poignancy. This year’s Solstice Assembly began with a fifth-year senior giving thanks to all of the teachers and peers who had believed in him when he had not believed in himself and helped him persevere toward the diploma he would be receiving in January.

CBHS value: Build community and deeper learning will follow.

Movin’ On Up at the End of School Meetings

We end almost every one of our weekly school meetings between November and June with a “Movin’ On Up” ceremony. Any time one of our seniors has been accepted to college, they have the option to “Move On Up.” We crank the (classic) theme to “The Jeffersons” and call out the student’s name and his or her college options. Then the student basks in the standing ovation, wades through a sea of hugs, and climbs a ladder to place a personal pennant on the Movin’ On Up wall. This amateur video gives you a sense of the delightful madness.

CBHS value: Every CBHS student is college material. 

The Final Word

The Final Word challenges each senior to craft and deliver a brief speech to an audience that consists of fellow seniors as well as staff, family, and other loved ones. Students answer questions such as “What is most important for me to say to the world about who I am, where I’ve been, and where I am going?” After each speech, a peer and mentor are invited to add their perspectives about why the speaker is ready to graduate. The school community is treated to about 10 Final Words a day for the last two weeks of senior classes. During the graduation ceremony, each senior proclaims his or her favorite Final Word sentence in a gorgeous performance collage.

CBHS value: Each student matters and has something important to say, for themselves and their world.

School rituals are a powerful means to both create and perpetuate school culture. They can help distinguish your community from others and imprint students for years to come. School leaders are well-served to shape rituals that not only energize students and faculty but also reinforce their best selves.

What are your school’s most important rituals? What do they say about your school values?

Derek Pierce serves as the principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, ME. He is the 2016 Maine Secondary Principal of the Year. 

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