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The Rite Journey – School Based Rites of Passage

Adelaide, South Australia, AU

Over the last decade of teaching it became more and more clear to me that I was working with students who were grappling with a world that was significantly different from the one that I had grown up in.

One of the most significant issues was technology: the massive amount of information these young people had exposure to, students spending far more time in front of screens than in front of teachers, the shift from a ‘question rich, answer poor’ society to a ‘question poor, answer rich’ one, the plethora of young men playing video games awash with ‘virtual violence’, their relationships being conducted via a screen rather than in person and the subsequent lack of human connection.

The boys I taught displayed a number of problem areas including bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia and anger management. It also seemed that their lives were becoming ‘bubble-wrapped’ and they were missing out on challenge and risk in preference for safety and predictability. The opportunities for building resilience were passing them by.

Many had family problems and perhaps the most striking of these was under-fathering: many lacked an adult male in their lives whom they trusted and who was able to provide a good, strong, gentle and positive model of manhood. The sports stars and musicians these young men admired exhibited an inappropriate treatment of women, excessive drug use and other socially destructive actions.

The girls were struggling with issues of their own. An increase in the prevalence in eating disorders amongst junior high school students reflected the increased pressure these girls were feeling regarding their appearance. Non-uniform days presented staff with challenges regarding the nature of girls’ skimpy and sexually-oriented attire, and the statistics regarding increased risk behaviours including drug use and sexual activity were alarming.

Steve Biddulph (2007) hit the nail on the head in a Sydney Morning Herald article and whilst speaking about girls his comment rang true for the experience of boys too:

“A successful and happy adolescence entails hundreds of conversations about what matters, who you are and what you stand for. Yet many girls are basically abandoned by distracted parents and the impersonal melee of large secondary schools.”

It became clear to me that I had the opportunity, as a teacher, to create a subject which was all about having these absent conversations with male students, specifically exploring issues around developing into what Steve Biddulph calls a ‘good strong man’, one with both ‘heart and backbone’, topics about being a respectful, responsible and resilient adult male. My aim was to develop a low cost program which would have minimal impact on school curriculum but maximum impact on the students. I targeted Year 9, that traditional year of disengagement.

Initially the program ran for one term but I became aware of the lack of time I had.

“The best (school-wide boys’ development) programs are integrated into the school curriculum and involve substantial and weekly contact over a year or two. Shorter programs than this appear to have little effect.” (Currie, 2008).

I chose to create a curriculum, using three lessons a week, which was a journey for the student representing their unfolding adulthood:

Term 1 – Relationship with self – Who am I, really?

Term 2 – Relationship with others – How do I get along with others?

Term 3 – Relationship with spirit – Is there something more?

Term 4 – Relationship with the world – What do I have to give?

The final step of the process, and potentially the most unique and important, came about with the acknowledgment that there could be a deepening of a student’s experience of this program by incorporating some form of ceremony and celebration around this program and hence The Rite Journey was born.

The importance of providing a form of rite of passage / initiation for young people in our society is being strongly recognised by many experts in education and psychology. Peter Ellyard, Leonard Sax, Ian Grant, Michael Ungar and Steve Biddulph all clearly extol the virtues of rediscovering such a process in contemporary society.

The use of the seven steps of the hero’s journey was initiated as a template for forming the rites of passage. These seven steps (Calling, Departure, Following, Challenges, Getting Lost, Return and Homecoming) include a variety of celebrations some of which involve just students and teachers and others which include parents/ caregivers and mentors. The students are taken on a powerful journey throughout the year which not only nurtures, guides and affirms, but also extends and challenges.

So in its final form The Rite Journey appears in the school setting as a ‘subject’ which typically consists of three lessons per week (approximately 120 – 150 mins) for the duration of the year. Along with this curriculum time there are seven ‘ceremonies’ which occur at various points throughout the year to celebrate the young person’s passage on this journey.

The overwhelming interest in the program has resulted in a training package being created and now schools around Australia and New Zealand have the opportunity to provide the program for their students. In 2015 over 7000 students in 75 schools in Australia and NZ will undergo their own, personal Rite Journey.

The success of The Rite Journey in schools has been overwhelming with students, parents, teachers and principals noting the changes in students. Perhaps the most important learning has come in realising that such a program can lead to cultural change in schools and families. The Rite Journey is used as a punctuation point between childhood and beginning adulthood. Students progress from Year 9 into Year 10 with an expectation from the school and parents that things will change, that the young adult will step up in responsibility.

Another pleasing aspect of the program has been how widely it has been adopted. The Rite Journey is being implemented in public and private schools, urban and rural schools, large and small schools, Catholic, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Jewish, Lutheran, Uniting Church and Non-Denominational Christian Schools.

It has been important to ensure that staff who are passionate about such a process are the ones guiding students through the program and that there is strong support from the leadership of the school.

As the number of Rite Journey schools builds we hope to create a community of teachers who share their ideas and we hope that slowly we can reverse the societal trend of adolescence expanding (some suggest the current range to be from 9 to 30 years of age) and begin to transform young people into a responsible, resilient and respectful beginning adulthood at a much earlier age.

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