Missing the Point?

It seems there was an Unfortunate Incident at a high-school graduation in These Parts the other day.  “He ruined it for everybody” is a common response, but so is “He made it really memorable.”  As I read the comments this morning (and started to imagine what Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y will be saying in a few hours), I thought of Debbie’s Google+ comment about my post from yesterday:

… in all of that I’m sure the students feel valued and respected. … oh wait, it’s about the policies and processes, not the students. Silly me.That is one of the biggest challenges we face, I think, is to not get carried away with policies and get so embedded in them or committed to them or whatever that we forget to remember the reason they were initiated in the first place.

When you get caught up in policies and processes, whether you’re trying to enforce them or creatively violate them, it’s easy to miss the point, with sad and predictable results.  Graduations in These Parts are “supposed to be” solemn occasions, but they’re also “supposed to be” an assembly-line process. There’s a tempo at which graduates’ names should be called, a tempo at which they cross The Stage and receive their diplomas … or, at some schools, their diploma covers, because the diplomas themselves are “held” until after the ceremony in case a parent or other guest “does something inappropriate” and disturbs the rhythm.  There are dress-code compliance checks for the graduates, which may well increase both in number and intensity in the future (and for the remaining graduations later this week) due to This Incident.  In the name of “making it fair for everyone” and “making it easier on Us,” teachers and administrators can end up missing the point … giving the ceremony an almost mystical importance on the one hand, while rendering it unbearable or unpleasant for participants on the other.  And in the name of “having some fun” or “celebrating,” graduates and their families probably can end up missing the point as well, ruining the experience for others and bringing down pain-punishment cycles on future groups of graduates.

But as I thought about This Particular Incident this morning, I realized I might be missing the point too.  Who owns the graduation ceremony?  Does it belong to the graduates collectively, to each individual graduate, to the audience as a whole?  Does it belong to the school that stages it, to the Local School District that rents the venue and makes the arrangements?  Ownership is important because most people take better care of things they own than of things that get done for them or, worse, get done to them.  Did the Kid In Question feel an ownership stake in the ceremony?  Or was he having some fun and passing the time the way Many A Kid does when Ms. X is “too uptight” or “too serious” in class?

“You’re so serious about everything; it’s just class,” one group of students said to me once, a few years ago, when I had spoken to them about using time productively and about the effect of their loud conversation on others around them.  They’d learned the factory-model lesson well: it was all about standardized individuals and test scores to them, and they had long since embraced a fixed-mindset label in which the good kids get the high scores, which fall from heaven without work or effort because that’s what the good kids deserve.  It’s not far from that attitude to “It’s my graduation, so I should get to celebrate my way” … or “It’s my child’s graduation, so I should get to do what I want.”  But it’s also not far from that attitude to “It’s my school’s graduation, so I get to control the process and punish you, all of you, for not following My Rules.”

And sadly, those factory-mindset attitudes keep missing the point and perpetuating the problems.  Armed with fresh ammunition from The Incident, Many a Local Power may decide to develop Strong New Procedures and More Severe Consequences to keep “those kids” and “those parents” in line.  Understandably angry at the suspicion and labels raining down from Those Local Powers, Many A Parent and Many A Child may respond in kind, with the predictable cycle continuing.

How do you stop the madness?

The most effective way, I think, is to get to the heart of the problem … to the factory-model paradigm of education as a thing that’s done to young people (and their families) by well-meaning, but “clearly superior” experts.  If you build a learning community, that community can set its own shared standards for important milestone ceremonies.  Do we want a 20th-century-style graduation at all?  If so, should the graduates wear expensive robes they’ll never touch again?  Should there be a set tempo for calling names?  Are cheers and other celebrations appropriate?  If you take time to have the conversation first, those questions shouldn’t be difficult to answer; if you just assume that everybody should know The Rules, you’re probably doomed to an endless round of escalating pain-punishment cycles instead.

Missing the point is a problem, but it’s also an opportunity.  Nancy Flanagan’s recent Education Week Teacher post about “dog and pony shows” didn’t seem connected to The Incident when I read it the first time, but the more I thought about it, the more connections I saw.  As the school year winds down, as summer vacation grows ever closer in These Parts and elsewhere, it’s important to focus on the main thing … and the main thing is building and sustaining those joyful learning communities, isn’t it?

I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await!

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Published in: on June 12, 2014 at 10:42 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] surprised by my colleagues’ response to the Graduation Incident that partly inspired my post yesterday.  As I thought about it, I realized that perhaps the young man was struggling with issues of […]


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