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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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The Rite of Passage Project: A Transformative Learning Experience

As an educator, I’ve always been interested in learning experiences that have a transformative power. I believe that to be authentic, learning—along with gaining content—should encourage a paradigm shift, a change in perspective, within the learner.             After 15 years of teaching, I stumbled across what might be most powerful method for accomplishing this intention. I call if the “Rite of Passage” project. I read about this idea in a academic book series on contemplative education by Kathryn Byrnes, Jane Dalton, and Elizabeth Hope Dorman. Since then, I’ve experimented with the idea and tweaked the project during the past academic year with undergraduate students at Wesleyan College, where I teach.

A rite of passage is a ceremony or event that marks a change in social status (“Rite of Passage,” 2019). A rite can be associated with stages of life, such as childbirth, coming of age, marriage, or even death. Examples of rites in society are communions, bar and bat mitzvahs, and quinceañera ceremonies, however, teenagers have created their own initiations such as getting a driver’s license proms, or even dangerous ones such as binge drinking or a first jail sentence.  

The purpose of a rite is to separate an individual from a current group, prepare or transition a new phase in life, and re-enter them into society.  According to Van Gennep (1909), a rite of passage has three stages:1) separation or breaking away from the group or society, 2) the liminal phase or the transitioning space between the new group or identity and the old, and 3) incorporation, which involves re-entering the group or society after completing the rite.

Implementation        

I required students to complete the Rite of Passage Project as culminating assignment for the semester. I reviewed directions for the assignment during the first week of the course then students were required to complete the project outside of class by the end of the semester. Candidates had to incorporate the three stages but had discretion to carry out the project as they desired in terms of topic, design, and resources. Students enrolled in the foundational education course were also required to connect the topic to an educational experience, for example, something that happened to them in elementary, middle or high school. Students in the education and technology course had to connect their topic to the use of digital technology.

To illustrate the project and its steps, I presented my own attempt at a rite of passage, which involved connecting with a middle school classmate using LinkedIn. I explained to the class that I felt I had bullied this classmate with others, falling for group think, and that, if I could do it again, I would have befriended this person and been kinder to him. I shared the messages that I exchanged with the former classmate, who consequently, wrote back surprised that I recalled the events and shared his acceptance of my apology.

Examples

Students chose a variety of topics their projects, including:

  • Contacting former elementary, middle, or high school teachers, who had a positive impact.
  • Confronting shyness and insecurities as young people.
  • Reconsidering use of social media
  • Facing school-related challenges as students, such as test anxiety and difficult teachers.
  • Time spent on computer screens and cell phones.
  • Social media posts, presence, and impact.
  • Meditating and reducing stress using Apps.

One student decided to tear up a copy of Great Expectations, which she had to read in a high school class led by a less-then-encouraging teacher, to solidify her promise to be a kind, supportive teacher to her students in the future. Another decided to walk in nature while listening to music, rather than stay in her dorm room all day.

Results

While some students struggled to implement the project or make a change in their behavior or perspective, many commented that the project had a strong impact on them. One student wrote in her assignment reflection:

I found this experience enlightening. It truly opened my eyes to the benefits of a quiet mind, especially before bed. I have always had trouble falling asleep as my mind continues to race, but my body is tired. Using “Calm”, I could see a difference in the amount of time it took me to fall asleep. I also woke less during the night. While it was not perfect, I do feel it helped me rest better and gain more energy.

Another student, whose project involved posting what she referred to as more inspiring, uplifting posts on social media, remarked:

My New Identity is one of love, confidence, and grace. Not only did I change my social media presence, I also changed my outlook on life.

Next Steps

Based on my experience, I do believe this project has transformative power, which why I wanted to share it. The procedures I outlined in this blog worked for me and my particular students. Teachers must decide how to implement such a project in their own classes, in a way that serves the needs of the course content, curriculum, and most importantly, students. Also, what grade level should this project be used? That’s up for debate and I think experimentation is needed. Personally, I think high school and college students are more than ready to tackle this project; it also aligns with the naturally occurring rites and stages of life they are experiencing, such as getting a driver’s license, moving away to college, etc. Perhaps pieces of this project could be introduced to younger students, for instance, could middle school students or upper elementary students be challenged to “change something about themselves” during the semester or school year? Could that become a project? Possibly.

References

Rites of Passage” (2019). New World Encyclopedia.

Van Gennep, Arnold. [1909] 2004. The Rites of Passage. Routledge.