Anatomy of a workshop activity

I’d planned on blogging about what I gleaned from yesterday’s annual New Yorkers for Children Vocational Conference for Youth in Foster Care, but today a couple different folks have asked me about my approach to engaging youth in the classroom, so I thought it would be helpful to write instead about how I came up with my rites of passage activity.

Good teachers come in all stripes, and my particular talent is being able to make complex ideas accessible to young people, and to do so with a modest measure of creativity. In my rites of passage workshop I use an anthropological lens to understand coming of age ceremonies and tribal rites of passage. Now I myself did not study anthropology until I got to college, but I’ve seen that is entirely within reach for high-school aged students to make use of its tools. [Warning: Very long post, so I highlight the takeaway at the very end.]

In a lot of ways I view my role as an educator as something of a climbing guide (NB, I have never been a mountain guide, but I’ve been lucky to be in the very capable hands of a one while learning to ice climb). My job is not to herd students down a single path, but to point out the footholds—or suggest where they might make their own—so they can choose their own line up the mountain.

Learning is always incremental so it makes sense to begin where my young people are and to build up from there. To teach the concept of a rite of passage it’s best to start close to home: It’s much easier to identify with a significant birthday celebration such as a quinceañera or sweet sixteen party than it is to grasp the idea of a bloodletting ceremony, for example. Participants get to share their knowledge about these birthday parties, but I also bring in pictures and videos to give a fuller idea of what they involve for those who have never attended one.

One of the intellectual gestures of anthropological thought is to make the familiar unfamiliar. In other words, we can gain a fuller understanding of even the most everyday phenomena by bringing it under a critical lens. In the workshop we do this by looking at the symbolic meaning behind the artifacts and traditions of the quinceañera. We talk about the shoe ceremony, for instance, where the celebrant trades in a pair of flats for heels as an outward marker of her womanhood. After we discuss the ways in which a fifteen year old may be regarded as a woman (reproductively, for starters), I ask for participants’ opinions on what might be missing from this particular notion of womanhood.

This groundwork arms participants with the tools they will need to conceptualize tribal rites of passage. This is where I introduce the terms rites of completion/celebration and rites of initiation/transformation. We work off their understanding of the terms ‘completion,’ ‘celebration’ (words that have to do with the end of something) and ‘initiation,’ ‘transformation’ (words that point to a beginning, a process of change). So then I ask, Under which category do birthdays fall? When you celebrate your sixteenth birthday, for example, are you starting or ending your sixteenth year of life?

After they’ve determined that birthdays are rites of completion, I inform them that the rituals we’re about to examine are rites of initiation/transformation: ceremonies that are understood as actually turning celebrants into adults. We view different video clips of tribal rituals from around the world and determine the symbolism of their elements. We also try to find similarities across different ceremonies. Pain, for example, is a very common element.

Now it’s time to make use of anthropology’s ability to make the unfamiliar familiar. What this means is that it is possible to understand what at first glance strikes us as utterly incomprehensible. (I learned this most powerfully in a religious studies class where we were confronted with the task of making sense of the Jonestown massacre.) After viewing all the video clips I ask the group, Why would a community choose to put their young people through such grueling and dangerous rituals? To answer the question, they need a bit of historical perspective: These tribal communities were all warrior communities. And what qualities do warriors need to be successful? We return to the concept of initiation/transformation and how these rituals cultivate and test the qualities that these tribes needed in their adults.

In the follow-up workshop we review the major concepts from the previous session and then I present them with an activity of designing their own tribal rite of passage. I give them guidance in the form of questions:

  1. First ask yourself to what community or “tribe” do you (want to) belong?
  2. Then decide if your ritual will focus on boys and/or girls, and what age(s) it is for.
  3. Next consider the qualities you think are desirable in adults in your community.
  4. Now think of how you can cultivate and test those qualities in initiates.
  5. Finally, invent a ceremony that will turn young girls and/or boys into adults.
So that is the very long explanation of how I come up with an activity. In sum, I identify the major concepts I want young people to tackle and then figure out ways to bridge their current knowledge with those ideas. I try to hook their interest by presenting provocative material (often in the form of a paradox or a puzzle) and draw out their thought using the Socratic method. 
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