Rituals by Donalyn Miller

This weekend, we moved our youngest daughter, Sarah, into her college dorm room. Moving someone’s belongings 170 miles carries built-in challenges, but the physical transition was relatively smooth. The past few weeks of planning, shopping, cleaning, and packing paid off. Sarah had almost everything she needed for her classes and her living space. We unpacked and set-up her room in less than an afternoon.


Don and I have been adults for a long time. We have routines for transitions like packing and moving. We have a time-tested plan. We know what to do. The emotional transition of sending Sarah to college is unknown territory for us, though. No one on my side of the family went away to college. All of us attended community college first or took other “nontraditional” paths to earn degrees. We don’t have rituals or a checklist for sending a child off to live on campus. Honestly, we are relying a lot on Sarah and the communication we receive from her school at this point. We don’t know how to do this. We are making it up as we go.


What we do know is that everything is changing. For Sarah, her sister, their dad, and me—our lives are all changing because Sarah is leaving home. We have tried to carve out extra family time for playing board games, cooking dinners, floating in the pool, and watching movies together this summer. We’ve revisited a lot of family stories and memories. Sarah has spent one-on-one time with as many relatives and friends as she could. It’s a hundred little goodbyes before the big one.


As Sarah toured her sister and boyfriend around the campus this weekend, we could see her growing in confidence as she successfully navigated us around the grounds. Each moment she moves farther away from us and into the next chapter of her story. We will miss seeing her every day, but we cannot wait to see what she will do next.


All the preparations, and we were still reluctant to take the final step—leaving her and going home. Waiting to meet Sarah’s roommate and her family yesterday, Celeste, Sarah, and I flipped through photos on our phones, looking for a few favorites to print off and hang on Sarah’s new bulletin board. We cried a little and laughed a lot. Maybe, sharing and printing photos will become a yearly tradition. Only time will tell.


the kissing hand


Just before we left, I slipped Sarah a copy of The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth Harper and Nancy Leak. Reading it before the first day of school was a childhood tradition with our girls.


I whispered, “This is for you. Daddy and I wrote something in it for you.”


Sarah smiled and tears welled, “Aww, is this the same copy you read to me when I was little?”


I said, “No, this is a copy for you. You need one of your own now. Maybe, you will read it with your kids someday.”


We are supposed to send her out in the world. That’s how it works. We love Sarah and we believe in her. She is ready. Our customary ways of doing things will only take her so far. Sarah will create her own traditions now.


Rituals, the actions or behaviors we traditionally or habitually follow, can provide support, comfort, guidance, and ways of connecting with others. Rituals reflect our cultural and personal beliefs and priorities. At the beginning of the school year, teachers create learning rituals and routines in an effort to build successful learning communities. We structure routines that reinforce our beliefs about literacy. We set the tone. We communicate the value system at work.


At a literacy summit this summer, panelists discussed important rituals and routines for launching and sustaining a reading culture. Dr. Ernest Morrell described rituals through “temporal, spatial, and status” lenses. What do we make time for? What do we make space for? What do we give status to? In language arts classrooms, what temporal, spatial, and status needs might we consider as we develop our rituals and routines?



How do students spend their time in language arts class?

What is the balance between teacher-directed instruction and student-directed inquiry and practice?

Do children spend meaningful time every day reading, writing, and talking about topics of their own choice?

Is there regular time for reading aloud?

How much time do we invest in family literacy education?



How do we construct our physical and intellectual spaces?

Do we create spaces for students to share and discuss with each other what they read and write?

Does reading play a prominent visual role across our school?

What do we prioritize in our curriculum?

How do social justice, service learning, information literacy, critical thinking, and collaboration run through every course?

Do we create welcoming spaces for all families?



How do we decide what to emphasize or elevate?

Do we budget for enough books and resources in libraries and classrooms?

How do our institutional and instructional structures and behaviors perpetuate stereotypes and social/cultural inequities or seek to dismantle them?

How do we bestow privileges on certain students while withholding this status from others?

Do we celebrate and incorporate diversity throughout the school year or only emphasize it during holidays and designated months?

Do we value students’ test scores more than their reading lives?

Do we appreciate home literacy as much as school literacy?


Reflecting on our understanding of best practices, what do we seem unable to prioritize in spite of our beliefs? What is the gap between knowing and doing?


No matter our professed pedagogy, our consistent actions and behaviors reveal what we truly value. What do our rituals and routines communicate to students that we value about reading? What reading identities do our rituals and routines reinforce? Do we believe that lifelong reading habits, intellectual curiosity, and empathy are within our responsibilities to model and encourage?


Just like parenting, the purpose of teaching is independence. The knowledge, skills, and habits of mind we teach today should support students’ independent reading lives or there’s not much value to it. Twenty years from now, our students will not remember the worksheets and packets we assigned them—no matter how cute or fun they are. It is unlikely such work will have long-term impact on their reading skills or motivation, either. Children deserve lots of relevant, inclusive, and expansive reading experiences. They deserve instruction that builds reading confidence and competence. They deserve safe spaces to share their voices.


What we do is who we are. The value systems we construct and communicate to our children shape their identities and how they see the world long after they leave us. We have to decide what reading identities we want children to adopt and design rituals and routines that support their positive development.


To every educator, family member, and student starting a new school year, celebrate your milestones and enjoy your new beginnings. I hope you have a wonderful year.


**I am thinking a lot about these questions and others as I work in schools this year. Please share your reflections and ideas in the comments. I look forward to learning from all of you.


Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.