I have taught at Michigan State University (MSU) for forty years, stepping back to part time recently. I continue to teach International Business Law and Sustainability, a senior (400-level) class that is also open to M.S. in Accounting and MBA students. But my methods could work at any level of education.
People often associate ritual with religious practices, but all humans use ritual, whether we are conscious of it or not. According to Casper Van Kuile, a ritual is a practice that crosses over from every day activity to something with deeper meaning. Ritual is created when we act with intention and we pay attention to what is happening. Some rituals, such as journal writing or the morning cup of coffee, may be individual, but many are shared and remind us that we are not alone. Activities such as dance, cooking, and singing give us a fast track to community, and ritual does that, too. (For further discussion of the nature of ritual, listen to “The Power of Ritual by Casper Ter Kuile,” at https/www.calm.com/ [paywall].) Rituals in the classroom help us connect with each other, and they help students know what to expect in our learning community. When they know what to expect, they relax, and learning is easier.
As we start class, I greet students with “a-ba-bar-ay” (phonetical spelling), and I ask that students repeat it in response. They do after a bit of prompting the first day, and it becomes our ritual in succeeding classes. The word is from the Tupi language of Southern Ecuador and Northern Brazil and means “good morning, good afternoon, welcome to my world” and even “I love you.” I learned it during a workshop on sustainability in Costa Rica nearly twenty years ago, and I have carried it to my classes since them. I give my students the translation on our first day and occasionally remind them of that translation during the semester. When I first used the word to start class, I felt shy about saying “I love you,” but I got past that feeling quickly. My greeting is sincere, and my students understand that.
Another ritual in my classes is use of the “talking stick.” Whoever holds the stick has the floor, and it is a reminder to everyone to focus on the words of the person who holds the stick. It promotes courtesy and respect for each other, and it helps students be better listeners and learners. My talking stick has been in the hands of thousands of people at Michigan State University as well as people who have attended my talks across the U.S. and in other countries including the UK, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. (See Entry #14 below: The Talking Stick in this blog at http://www.mariposapaulette.com/the-blog/the-talking-stick for further discussion.) Because of Covid-19, I do not pass the stick currently, but I carry it to class as a reminder of its significance, and I tell students about it. Meanwhile, I look forward to the day we can use it again.
A fourth ritual in my classes is the use of “take-aways” from the day’s discussion and readings. Near the end of class, I ask each student to write out two or three “take-aways” or questions, and then each student shares one of them aloud with the class.
Some of our rituals, such as music and the greeting, work in a class of any size. With forty students in a class in which I require discussion involving everyone, I can do all of what I describe in this essay. Discussion of take-aways and the talking stick would have to be modified in a large lecture setting.
At the end of the semester, I require that each student list and write about four practices, experiences, or insights from our class that they expect to remember in five years. “ A-ba-bar-ay,” the talking stick, music, and take-aways are on many of their lists. As life goes on, I am delighted when a former student greets me with “a-ba-bar-ay” or reminisces about using the talking stick. It means that we shared something special that is worth remembering.
Copyright ©2022, for photo and text by Paulette L. Stenzel, Professor Emerita of International Business Law and Sustainability, Michigan State University.
 The workshop was led by John Perkins, author of The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman. I cannot find the word online to confirm its origins. Nevertheless, the word unites us in the classroom.