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Graduations Need a Make Over

Establish a culture of belonging.

That is the first priority listed in the province’s education plan, released at the beginning of the school year.

I wrote then that the government is doing itself and our province a disservice by not championing the vision behind this statement, and others in the plan. I stand by that, and would love to see more discussion from the leadership as to what establishing a culture of belonging looks like and how we achieve it. So I thought I’d start the conversation today with one idea – giving high school graduations a make-over.

I’m not an advocate of abolishing grades or teaching kids sports without keeping score. I believe students should be encouraged to excel and their achievements should be celebrated. But a friend recently attended a high school graduation in Sweden and I was intrigued by her description of the celebration.

Let’s first reflect on a traditional North American graduation ceremony, such as those happening this week around the Greater Moncton Area and across our province and country. Remarks from school administrators. A guest speaker or two. A valedictorian speech, which may or may not be painful for everyone involved. Awards announced for athletics and academics. Then the one-by-one walk across the stage. As my friend stated: where is the fun? the joy?

There are similarities to Swedish graduation celebrations – they still have a traditional ‘uniform’ and final marks – but they put a focus on celebrating the class as a whole and inviting the community to be a part of the event. Graduates leave the school as a group, greeted by family and friends holding signs with childhood photos and celebrating the transition to adulthood. There’s a fun tradition of giving small gifts that are placed around a graduate’s neck – flowers, stuffed animals, whistles, and other trinkets. Students perform celebratory songs and silly dances, then pile into trucks, the sides decorated by the grads, and parade through the town.

My friend says she and her husband “experienced such joy, such warmth, a true spirit of jubilation, of pride in accomplishment in these graduates. No pretentious speeches. No diploma-handing-out … Instead of being the objects of a few more tedious lectures, on being advised one last time by those in authority, how to live their lives, students in Sweden are handed the reigns of their own spirit and allowed to fly.”

That sounds like something I’d love to be part of – as a student, as a parent, and as a community member. Let’s bring the celebration of accomplishment out of the high school gymnasium and into the community. Let’s do all we can to focus on that priority of establishing a culture of belonging. We are all a part of each student’s journey. Their success is our success. If a student doesn’t feel supported at home, knowing that the entire community is waiting to celebrate your graduation might just make a difference.

I still want cap and gown photos for my kids and high school transcripts with individual rankings. But I don’t need hours-long ‘look how well my kid succeeded’ ceremonies dripping with pomp and circumstance. If we make the leap from focusing solely on individual academic and athletic achievements to celebrating the transition from childhood that graduation represents, then we teach our children that they are valued for their commitment – to learning, to themselves, to each other, to community. Our youth will know that supporting each other is more important than competing with each other. That sense of belonging if powerful. It breeds success, individually and communally. And it might just convince more New Brunswick youth to remain in or return to our communities.

This post originally appeared in Jenna Morton’s She Said column, which ran each Saturday for three years in The Times & Transcript.

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