An important rite of passage: the third-grade binder

Sep 20 2019

An important rite of passage: the third-grade binder

“To me, rites of passage through life, that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.”
–Lance Henriksen

Rites of passage really are beautiful things. Whether it’s a first communion, a quinceañera, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a vision quest, a walkabout, or sanskaras, these rituals signify the movement from one stage of life to another. Very often, they denote a child’s taking on a greater level of responsibility as she enters adulthood. In essence, these ritualistic events show that we expect more from a child; more often than not, the child rises to the occasion and begins to take himself and his world more seriously. In addition, these moments of transition teach children that they have a role in a larger community with communal obligations as opposed to their being an individual who exists in isolation from others.

Academic rites of passage play a similar role in the lives of children. Whether these traditions exist in certain classes or grade levels, they teach children that because we believe in them, we expect more from them. Implicit in these increasing expectations is a faith in children that they are ready for the next step in their life journey. Children understand that it’s time to step up; teachers know that the work may be challenging, but we know they can do it.

Two weeks ago at a parent coffee, we listened to lower school students advise parents on ways to help their children manage transitions and succeed in school and in life. They counseled parents on what questions to ask when they picked their children up after school, how to guide them toward greater independence, and how to be there for their children in times of need. Students discussed the increasing workload from grade to grade, but also the excitement of growing up and gaining both more independence and responsibility. In the course of the conversation, the children in third grade repeatedly pointed to the binder as a symbol of the increasing demands and expectations they experience that year. They said that “the binder is everything,” and “never allow your children to forget their binders!”

Following their sagely advice, I decided to ask the third grade teachers about the binder; this is what Mrs. Steward said, “Getting their binder is a pretty big deal! It holds all their class work and homework and it’s the key to staying organized. We’ve tried several different types of binders and the accordion zippered binder has worked the best. There’s a section for the 4 core subjects, homework, and work that is graded and can be taken home. For the first months of school, students need a lot of reminders on what section something needs to go in and where they can find it tomorrow when we will get it back out. This takes practice, but they start to do it without much help from us quickly. Third grade is the first year students switch classes, which is also a signal that they’re growing up. The binder allows them to keep work we are doing and move between the classrooms. Students take their binders to and from school each night and it really reinforces responsibility and creates good habits that they will need throughout their school journey. It’s a rite of passage to forget your binder either at school (which means you can’t do your homework) or at home (which means schoolwork that day will be a challenge). While we don’t make a huge deal out of this, kids definitely learn it’s better to have your binder with you at all times.”

Note the role, both physically and psychologically, that the binder plays. Yes, it provides a way for children to organize and carry their work back and forth and meet the rising demands of third grade. The binder offers a schema for organization and knowing where things are. Putting papers in a binder, and taking them out, also provides a sense of security and success. It’s a ritual that, like so many others, offers comfort and a sense of control.

More than the tangible function that a binder plays in the life of a child, it also speaks to her on a deeper level. It says, “You’re growing up, and we know you are capable of accomplishing more than when you were in second grade.” A simple organizational tool has become a physical manifestation of the faith we have in our children; as such, it speaks volumes to her. It reassures him during those moments of doubt when he may question his readiness, and it elevates him to a greater degree of maturity. He digs deep and says to himself, “I can do this.” Self esteem develops when children encounter challenges and overcome them.

This is what rites of passage, academic or otherwise, do. They enable children to move to a higher level of performance and self-confidence. Once children have achieved this newfound sophistication, they cannot go back to how they were before; consequently, these changes can be both profound and permanent. It’s as if children are on a staircase, and each time they ascend a new stair, they move to a new stage in their development. Of course, there will be ups and downs, and at times, they will regress, but their new default position moves higher and higher.

So, whether it’s starting the first day of school, receiving a binder, passing a driving test, or leaving for college, let’s revel in our children growing up, while being sad that they’ve leaving their former selves, as well as us, behind.

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