I wrote this lesson to support a Fifth-grade Social Studies unit on early man. But I now use it at various other times during their world history survey as well. It is based on an activity I learned from Sharon Grady at the University of Texas.
We begin by discussing the concept of ritual. What is it? What is it for? How do ritual and magic inter-relate? Can we list some things that early humans might have feared, and that they might have created rituals to ward off? Can we list some things that early humans might have needed or desired, and that they might have created rituals to attract? Why was the Shaman or magic person so often a figure of great respect in early tribal cultures? What are some rituals we use today? Using these and other questions I coach my students to consider the way ritual functions in their own lives and the way it might have functioned in the lives of ancient man. Today's rituals (in most familiar religions and cultures) tend to be somewhat nebulous in purpose--becoming a man, or becoming a Christian, for example, are not really cut-and-dried events. But some rituals have very specific purposes. A rain dance, for example, was intended to cause the specific result of rain. Early people may have had rituals intended to ward off evil spirits or to placate the dead, but they probably also had rituals intended to achieve quite specific physical goals--success in a particular hunt or battle, for example.
In this project each student works independently. After the discussion, each student comes up with his or her own original ritual. This may be a ritual that applies to the life of early humans, or one that applies to the life of a contemporary student. It may be intended to cause a specific event--success in the buffalo hunt; an "A" on the math test--or to achieve a more nebulous goal such as "becoming a man." However, there must be a clear, easily expressed purpose for the ritual. Each student rehearses his or her ritual until it is clear and consistent.
With the rest of the class serving as audience, each person in turn "performs" his or her ritual. The class must try to figure out what the specific purpose of the ritual is. In my classroom this means they raise their hand and I--not the person performing--call on people one at a time to guess. Probably in some groups, especially older ones, this would not be necessary. I usually only take four or five guesses. If it takes more than that, the chances are that no one will ever come up with the answer except by chance--a wild guess. In that case I have the performer explain the ritual. If someone gets the answer, I coach them to explain how they knew. If no one guesses, we discuss what was unclear. I am careful, however, to stress that not all rituals display their intended functions clearly. If you didn't already know, could you tell from watching a baptism what the purpose was? When everyone has had a chance to "perform," the lesson is over. (Often it takes me more than one class period to finish. With older students, such as my high school acting students, I'll often assign the "rehearsal" part of the lesson as homework.)