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Commencement and The Quest for Learning Treasure

"A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney" was one of my favorite segments on television. Much like Jerry Seinfeld, Rooney would close out  6o Minutes by sharing his unique commentary, complaining really, with all of us. So, in the spirit of Andy and Jerry, I am taking a turn at sharing my thoughts, or complaints, regarding the timing and some of the common themes of this commencement season.

During the past two weeks, I attended four commencement ceremonies, two for middle school, and two for high school. These celebrations amounted to roughly 8 hours of sitting and listening to a dozen speeches, nine songs, and the full names of 1853 graduates. Four hours stuck in traffic, six poorly written greeting cards, and a few hundred selfies later, I am still reflecting on the messages and meanings of these events.

Where is the learning?


As an educator, I am declaring what should be obvious, we are in the business of learning. Learning is what we are about, or at least it should be. As I was listening to these several student and faculty speeches, I was struck by fact that I heard the word learning a mere three times. One, shared by a school board president, was a quote from a favorite Chinese proverb;

"Learning is a treasure that will follow it's owner anywhere."

("Who Owns the Learning?" - Alan November)


While I certainly appreciate this message, it was wrapped in a context of these other milestone themes, "we have come so far, we have achieved so much, we are the future, we can do anything, we need to follow our dreams." I tend to be an optimistic skeptic by nature, and while I am sure that these assertions are true for some of the graduating students, I kept wondering; where's the evidence of these great achievements? How many of these students were impacted by meaningful, memorable learning experiences? Remaining hopeful, but still questioning, which of these thousands of students have left a legacy of learning at their respective schools? How will they be remembered? What treasures will follow these students as they move on to the next chapters in their lives?

My doubts were reinforced a few days ago when my step son, Billy, fresh from his 8th grade graduation, was clearing out his book bags. He had left several large stacks of papers, notebooks, and folders on our kitchen table. My wife asked him to sort through this mound of material, and find a more suitable place to store the items that he wanted to keep. He immediately took what amounted to two or three reams of worksheets, reports, and reading material, and tossed the giant mass into our recycle bin.

I was happy that he chose the recycle bin over the garbage can, but I was also disappointed. I asked, "There isn't anything worth saving among these stacks of paper?"

Billy said, "Nope."

I anticipated the answer, but I asked anyway, "What did you learn from all of these papers?"

"Nothing", he said.

This same scene was replayed in similar fashion two more times in our household by two more of our graduating children. I asked my wife, Natalie, a 2nd grade teacher, how she would feel if she knew all of her students were immediately recycling all of the work they accumulated during the school year. At first she didn't answer, but finally she said, "I would be very disappointed and hurt to know that my students did not find any of their schoolwork to be meaningful, or worth saving." Exactly!


This is why I believe commencement and the related messages, most of them creative and insightful, should be highlighted on the first day of school, not the last.


At least the students and faculty could be provided some direction in their upcoming treasure hunt. Our mission, to create a legacy of learning that is vividly apparent at journey's end, and to create treasures of learning that are worthy of more than a trip to the nearest recycle bin.

Congratulations graduating students of 2014. I hope that these celebrations mark the beginning of a long quest to seek your learning treasure!

Teachers, how do you promote relevance, meaning, and value to the learning that takes place in your classrooms? What treasure will follow you and your students beyond the walls of the classroom?

Related Reading


Greater Possibilities - Will Richardson

Rethinking Homework - Alfie Kohn

Even Geniuses Work Hard - Educational Leadership, Carol Dweck



photo credit: Marcin Wichary via photopin cc

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