Faculty Club / Course Design / Rituals to Start and End Class—and Unlock Learning

Rituals to Start and End Class—and Unlock Learning

Theatre professor Katie Dawson, MFA, has found ways that students can use sticky notes, simple props, and their own thumbs to connect more deeply with course content.

Theatre professor Katie Dawson, MFA, has found ways that students can use sticky notes, simple props, and their own thumbs to connect more deeply with course content.

Katie Dawson, MFA


Associate Professor of Theatre,
The University of Texas at Austin

MFA and BS in Theatre

Katie Dawson, MFA, who began her career as a professional actor and theatre director, knows the power of rituals in calming the nerves of a cast prior to curtain call. Now, as an associate professor of theatre at the University of Texas at Austin, she brings the practice into the classroom, bookending each session with rituals designed to unlock meaning and learning.

“Rituals set a tone that fosters a deeper understanding and personal investment in learning,” explains Dawson. “Humans are hardwired to like consistency. When a group knows and practices a ritual regularly, it makes them feel comfortable, so they can take on a new stretch.” She adds that research supports the idea that ritual creates a “procedural safe zone” in which an instructor can increase rigor and complexity over time because students are familiar with the task.

Rituals also can help students feel like a team or a community—both in the classroom and, hopefully, in the wider world. As an advocate of social justice, Dawson uses rituals to “build interpersonal connections across the class” so that each student cares as deeply about the next person’s learning as they do about their own. Finally, the rituals she shares below are designed to stimulate creative thinking and the embracing of a wide array of perspectives and opinions. Says Dawson, “I believe deeply that if we are going to change the world and make it a better place, we have to be able to imagine and appreciate a different experience and possibility from our own.

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“Rituals help students to feel seen and heard. They can illustrate the idea that how we work together matters. To do meaningful work, we must all be present—together—co-constructing the class.”
-Katie Dawson, MFA

Course: FA 308 Arts Integration for Multidisciplinary Connections

Course description: Through readings, videos, in-class activities, discussion, field trips, micro-teaching, and written reflection, designed to develop a practical understanding of the techniques and skills associated with integrating the arts into various contexts. Provides experience in each art content area (dance, music, theatre arts, and visual arts) to develop an introductory understanding of each of these disciplines.

3 start-of-class rituals

Dawson uses the power of ritual to break the ice and spark engagement. “It’s important to make an authentic connection with as many people as possible in those three to five opening minutes,” she says. Here are a few of her favorite strategies:

Honor That Feeling

This is a low-stress ritual because students enjoy being social. Dawson’s directions to the class: Turn to your neighbor, say hello, and introduce yourself. Then ask the neighbor, “How are you feeling?” After they respond (with whatever comes to mind), the “asker” is told to “honor that feeling.” Rather than share an opinion about how their colleague is feeling, Dawson encourages students to try and be affirmative in their responses. She invites students to explore what happens when they respond with, “I appreciate why you feel that way” or “I hear you. I feel/I’ve felt that way too.” Afterward, the students switch roles.

Finally, Dawson asks them to reflect on how the room has changed after the exchanges. How are people sitting differently? How has their mood been affected? Dawson’s objective is to put students in touch with their feelings and help them see themselves as part of a classroom community.

Dissect the Quote

Dawson shows the class a quote and asks that students select a phrase within it that means something to them. “Then I call on people and ask them why they chose that particular phrase,” she says. She repeats the process until a range of ideas have been represented.

This exercise demonstrates that there are multiple ways to interpret words and, on a deeper level, that there may be no single, “correct” answer. She also sees it as a pre-assessment. “I can see what interests a student and where I might need to address misconceptions,’” she says. “I also try to demonstrate that each student opinion has worth.”

The Thumbs-Up Game

Dawson’s directions: Ask everyone to stand in a circle and give a “thumbs down” with their right hand, then move that right hand a little bit to the right, in front of the person next to them. Next, ask everyone to place their left hand, palm-up, beneath the upside-down thumb of the person to their left.

After the instructor says, “1, 2, 3, go,” each person tries to grab their neighbor’s thumb while simultaneously raising their own thumb to avoid getting “caught.” Repeat the exercise with the left hand in the thumbs-down position and the right hand doing the grabbing.

Next ask the group to name the strategies they used to try to be successful. Most groups will offer phrases such as, “prioritizing one task over another” or “identifying that both tasks require the same type of movement—lifting hands up” or “improving over multiple tries.” Then, ask the group to think of the exercise as a metaphor for something they face in everyday life and provide a few minutes for discussion. Doing this may lead to conversations about things like prioritizing, strategizing, and focus. Finally, ask individual students to share what they learned with the whole class. “The more ideas the individuals in the group share, the deeper the dialogue becomes,” she says.

(This video shows Dawson doing the exercise with a group at Course Hero’s Bay Area headquarters; the demonstration starts at 3:54.)

3 end-of-class rituals

The concluding exercises give students a chance to reflect on what they have learned before they dash out the door.

The 3 Touchpoints

While students have a desire to see their ideas reflected in the classroom, they may hesitate to bring up sensitive topics such as unfairness or social injustices. They also may hesitate to ask questions, especially if they feel that “everyone else” understands the material. To help them share their thoughts in a safe way, Dawson recommends this end-of-class ritual, which works best with a small group.

Her directions: Provide students with three touchpoints to write about. They could be:

  • What is the one thing you will take away from the class today?
  • What is one question you still have?
  • What is one thing you can apply from today’s class to … (e.g., approach an upcoming assignment, their life, their field of study)?

“By asking students to write things out, I sometimes get a more honest or personal response than if we spoke about the issue as a class,” says Dawson. “I check for understanding. I also learn whether I need to engage in a particular discussion during the next class. But I don’t point out the person and make them uncomfortable.”

She sometimes uses a similar exercise at the start of class to boost engagement if students seem stressed or distracted. She might ask them to use a metaphor for how they are feeling, such as “If I were a map, the journey I’m on is.…” or “If I were a vending machine, I’d contain….” “Students’ answers are often very creative and require critical thinking to work in metaphor,” she says. “Most importantly, we often laugh, which helps everyone relax.”

Sticky Thoughts

For larger classes, Dawson offers this simpler approach: Ask students to write their name on a sticky note with a few words about how they are feeling. “I explain clearly that I want to know what’s sitting with them—what is making an impression and why,” says Dawson. “Did an idea or argument come up that they didn’t want to or get to talk about?” As they leave, they post their note on a designated spot on the wall signed with their name.

“This lets me know who showed up for class, but it also lets me know something students may want me to speak about to the group,” says Dawson. Because this is a written assessment of their feelings, students may find it easier to disclose more on paper than in a verbal response, she says.

Four Chairs and a Bottle

The following game comes from a Brazilian theatrical director Augusto Boal, who uses drama to explore social justice and systems of power. Dubbed by Boal the Great Game of Power, it requires five props: four chairs and a water bottle.

To start, Dawson asks a student volunteer to trade places with her, going to the front of the classroom as she takes a seat. She then gives the volunteer about a minute to arrange the four chairs and water bottle in a way they believe shows that one chair “holds more power” than the others. Now the class has a great image to study, interpret, and discuss.

Next, Dawson calls on several people in the class to describe what they observe (e.g., “I see one chair with a water bottle on the seat and three without”). When the class has offered several different descriptions, they can begin to interpret the scene. (For example, one may say, “The bottle on the chair makes it appear that it belongs to someone and is therefore more important.”) In another scenario, perhaps three chairs stand by a water bottle, while the other is shoved to the back and turned around, making it seem less powerful. Or maybe three are upside down (thus useless), while the other is at the front, seen as standing tall and proud.

“One central idea to keep returning to during the activity is: What is an observation versus an interpretation?” says Dawson. “I explain to the class that it’s important to be able to practice separating and linking our observations to interpretations. We need to take time to see and analyze what’s before us before we make meaning. This strategy also enables students to understand that a single observation may have multiple interpretations based on an individual’s lived experience or the lens through which the observation is being viewed. Power comes in many forms and relationships; the chairs allow us multiple ways to see and imagine how power can be enacted.”

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