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Graduations Require Reflection - Let's Reflect On What It's All About(It's For The Students Too)

     Recently, a local story was picked up nationally about a high school that was not going to allow a Native American student to wear a feather in her graduation cap. For more info, see the link here (
     Their rationale was that the district has to “maintain the integrity of the graduating class.” First of all, what does that mean? Is that gobbly gook edu speak or what?
      In the end, they may have decided to wisely reverse their decision.  However, there will be plenty of these kinds of rules at thousands of graduations at American high schools in the coming weeks.
   For better or worse, graduations serve as one of the foundational rites of passage in our culture.  These graduation ceremonies mean a great deal to parents, grandparents, families, educators and communities.  But they are also extremely important to the graduates themselves. They serve as their rite of passage to adulthood.
     I’m not here to discuss if these ceremonies should be so culturally significant.  Simply, they are.  As an educator, I have also spent a lifetime trying to help students create meaningful moments and experiences long before a graduation ceremony.  And we should continue to do that.
     However, they should also have the opportunity to publicly celebrate their accomplishments in a fun and appropriate manner.
    I have seen and been a part of dozens of graduation ceremonies.  I have seen the traditional ones where we have the grads on virtual lockdown and are desperately afraid that they are going to “spoil” the event for the adults with some prank or misstep. There are schools where administrators and staffs hold several meetings about making sure that the grads do not throw their caps after the ceremony, let alone what they do during the ceremony.
     Indeed, at many schools students cannot do anything but be quiet and look straight ahead. Things like laughing and smiling are even seen as inappropriate.  We worry about the beach balls, the noisemakers and other distractions.
      Don’t get me wrong. Graduations need to have decorum.  But they also need to have some fun.  If not,  I think school administrators and others are asking for “the fun” to seep out in the more inappropriate ways.
     I had the opportunity as a principal of a new school with its first several graduating classes to help students re-create the graduation ceremony. Could we create a graduation ceremony that was both serious and fun? Could we honor both adults and students? Could we celebrate and commemorate? We said yes and did just that.

(actual graduation caps from Minarets HS grads/alums who shared them upon request via social media)

     First, when it came to their caps, we said decorate away.  Naturally, they had to be appropriate, but they could make them personal.  Students adorned them with symbols of their high school activities - sports, FFA, music, drama, media and more.  They also acknowledged their heritage, families, friends and communities.  They used their nicknames, their graduating class year and more. 
     We did something very simple.  We struck a compromise.  We said leave your gowns alone for decorum sake, but feel free to personalize and customize your caps.  After all, the caps face the back of the stage and are one of their easiest and most portable graduation memory symbols or tokens.
     Additionally, we struck other middle ground.  Our mascot was Mustangs so we had our grads driven or taxied in convertible mustangs.  After they exited the mustangs, they entered the graduation arena to a personalized and customized song, albeit appropriate, of their choice. Our grads had to face the sun so we provided them sunglasses with their graduation year on them. Much of the rest of the ceremony included more standardized elements such as awards, speeches, music, slideshows, videos and diploma presentations.
    The point is that we struck that middle ground that all - students and the adults (staff, parents, community) - could both embrace.  We enjoyed serious moments. We had light moments. We had reverence, reflection, appreciation, honor and FUN. Imagine that.  We had fun.  This is often forgotten in education. 
     Yes, we could have it all.  High school seniors, despite what some adults or educators may believe, can comprehend compromise.  They understand we have jobs to do. They understand we have obligations to parents and community.  But they also want us to understand it’s their graduation too.  And they want to celebrate and commemorate in personal, appropriate and very rite of passage sort of ways.  They want it to be a big deal just like we do.  We need to work together to find that middle ground.
     I’m not here to say that our graduations were the best ever, although we thought they were really good.  However, I can tell you that many adults - parents, grandparents, staff members and community members - routinely told us that we did have the best graduations that they had ever attended.  And many, like me, have been to a lot of them.  They appreciated that they were both serious and fun.  They appreciated that the graduates got to celebrate in personal and customized ways - but all appropriate.  Most simply, they often said something similar to “your graduations are great - they are truly about and for the students.” Those words always meant a lot.
     So, as we prepare to wrap up another school year, let’s reflect on many things.  But make sure we step back and ask who these events are for?  Are the students’ voices heard? If we want graduations to not have beach balls, noisemakers or whatever, then we need to makes sure we work with our student grads and find that middle ground.  They will listen to us, but we have to listen to them.
      To all those school administrators and school district out there, remember that these ceremonies are about the students too.  Work with your students to meet you half way. In my experience, they will. 
(all photos courtesy of Minarets High School)


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