Sunday, June 17, 2007

Graduation Dichotomy

... is hot. In both the meteorological and Paris Hilton elocution sense of the term. Thermometers in the East 408 spike above 90, and I pretty much destroy a decent white dress shirt, worn under my suit, which I don't take off because only the front section of the shirt is ironed and otherwise presentable. Turn-out is huge, balloons are in effect, air horns, those weird candy necklaces, a nice vibe in the air, and if things are a little my-family-first and otherwise rowdy, this is how our community celebrates that which is important, and no judgements need be rendered.

Students speak, and these are sometimes disastrous, but O., a member of my basketball team and recent recipient of the Most Outstanding Male Athlete award, speaks about inspiration. His brother attended our school when you had to choose to join a gang or be endlessly bullied by them. His brother made the former choice, O. tells us, only to recant during high school, work hard, and graduate. He speaks of his sister, who subsequently had to overcome the gang-reputation his brother engendered, and of her success in doing so, and her desire to go to college. O. tells us how they have inspired him, and caused him to see in himself a person who is thus capable of inspiring others. It's a powerful moment, and not immune from the constant dichotomy of this place, of this work. I listen to O.'s words, and see behind him, on the other side of the fence that separates our campus from the city's drainage canal, one of my students, C., hiding in the bushes, laying in the mud and the muck, peering through the fence, separated, apart, in dire need of someone to inspire him.

Dichotomy: O. speaking of inspiration as C. hides in the dank and the dirt.

After the names are called, the POY presents the graduates, his voice getting that high, pinched sound, breaking a little on the word fantastic, and the kids come walking out of the tight rows, passing the teacher section. Without prior discussion, spontaneously, we stand, and form a line for the kids to pass, congratulating each in turn. There are tears and hugs and complicated handshake-fist pound greetings. There is E., my guy, the one I teach for. M., former point guard and the nicest kid around. A., D., and M., a fantastic group of girls, and T., who is far more talented than he knows. And then comes W., a newcomer last year, who started so far behind, barely able to speak English, but always the first one to volunteer to read, someone who has never missed a homework assignment, never missed an opportunity to ask for help, for guidance, for challenge and thus became one of the most successful students I've ever taught. We hug, and I'm getting tearful when I say how proud I am. How proud.

It's a complicated thing, dichotomous, because this is a great moment, powerful, and it's important for us to provide it. But it's not really graduation. It's leaving. Yes, there are diplomas, but this paper carries all the life-outcome power of the Big Goal Mastery certificates I handed out last Thursday. But still we celebrate.

We are the only middle school in the District that holds its ceremony on campus. Half of the others do so at high schools, and half at San Jose State University. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that their motivations in doing so are pure, and not emerging from a fear or desire to avoid or limit community access, but the decision-making is nonetheless poor. By holding an 8th grade promotion ceremony at a high school or college, and calling it graduation you are elevating the importance and value of the educational achievement to date -- namely, the acquisition of a 1.75 GPA -- beyond all recognizable of defendable worth, and demeaning the subsequent challenges to come. Kids don't need to graduate high school because they already had a graduation ceremony at one. On some level we run the risk of sending a message of exit and accomplishment that bears no relationship to how real achievement is defined in other communities. Here is the stink of low expectations.

There's been much talk. Next year we won't call it graduation, but promotion. In keeping with all prevailing policies, kids with the vaunted 1.75 will received the piece of paper, but to actually participate in the ceremony, to actually walk, we may require a 2.5, or higher. Perhaps there will be no cap'n'gown-stroll-across-the stage ceremony at all. Maybe an open-school party, in keeping with the idea of recognition and celebration, but let's not pretend that this accomplishment, such as it is, conveys a sense of finality or completion.

I walk around after it's over, and there is more hugging, and parents ask me to pose with their children for pictures. "How's my hair?" I ask in two languages, and the shutters click. "How many more graduations will you have?" I ask every kid. At least one they tell me. Two, others say. One of my favorite kids ever, S., with starting roles in three sports and a 3.83 GPA, says two very quickly, but his mom shakes her head slightly, "Tres," she says. And as he looks over at her with a question forming on his mouth, she says it more firmly, "Tres."

I smile, and nod, and look past her toward the fence, and the bushes, where C. crouched and hid on the dirty, slippery ground.

6 Comments:

Blogger happychyck said...

Very touching! I like S's mom.

I used to work in a low achieving community, and I really had mixed feelings about the message that 8th grade graduation sent. (And even better--what's the point of kindergarten graduation?!) There was a time when an 8th grade education could get you somewhere, but that hasn't been in a very long time.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Ms. V said...

My school has a 3rd grade promotion. It's a huge turn out, very exciting. Still, we have to really emphasize that it's not a graduation, but a promotion (because the kids go to another school).
8th grade is more traditionally a graduation year in most communities in the US, low achieving or not, so it's not as big of a stretch as a 3rd grade ceremony. Raising the bar for walking is a good idea though.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams. Congratulations to you, TMAO, and the students who "caught fire".

Personally, I think graduation /promotion should be low-key until high school.

At the Girls' Middle School, it really is graduation (school is only 6-8th grade), but no caps & gowns and no commencement speaker. The whole school has an end-of-year "Academic Fair"; the commencement exercises are a more super-duper version of the same. Graduation is accomplished by a teacher important to the student saying a few words recognizing that student's achievement.

I like the idea you presented:

There's been much talk. Next year we won't call it graduation, but promotion. In keeping with all prevailing policies, kids with the vaunted 1.75 will received the piece of paper, but to actually participate in the ceremony, to actually walk, we may require a 2.5, or higher. Perhaps there will be no cap'n'gown-stroll-across-the stage ceremony at all. Maybe an open-school party, in keeping with the idea of recognition and celebration, but let's not pretend that this accomplishment, such as it is, conveys a sense of finality or completion.

I'd say that accomplishing steps along the way are important, too, and need to be recognized.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you for what you give. Thank you for having made me better.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous a.a said...

We held our promotion at SJSU, and I have to agree with you.

As the students were preparing to file in, a few of us were discussing the outrageous pageantry, the hype, the excessive excitement of this day. We discussed the possibility that, by the time students prepare to graduate high school and college, they'll have a "been there, done that" mentality.

The guest speaker, an excellent mentor and consultant who has guided our school from the beginning, made a similar point. He said to the kids and their parents that this isn't graduation. The important graduation comes 8 years from now when they get their college degree.

Your observation on graduating at other facilities made me think. We held our promotion at State because we don't have adequate facilities at the school, but we didn't spend much time considering the effect of the location. Some would argue that getting kids onto the campus makes college more real for them, and I strongly agree, but perhaps promotion isn't the time for it.

Your proposal for limiting the promotion ceremony sounds logical, but will the district support you? I can easily imagine a situation in which a 2.0 student feels that they have a right to participate; what will you put in place so that you aren't overruled by the district office?

My compliments on an excellent post.

11:21 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

a.a.,

Thanks for the kind words. The District has a policy on receiving the piece of paper, but not on attending the ceremony, which clearly looks different from site to site. We already prohibit poor behaving students from attending, independent of grades, so I don't see why we can't set this expectation, communicate it clearly, and follow through.

4:17 PM  

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