Graduation is Cancelled, but We Can Still Throw Our Caps in the Air

(This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs EXPLO Elevate is doing, focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic) 

Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research & Content Development 

Students across the country are not only adapting to their new modality of virtual learning but also dealing with some harsh new realities: an inability to to see friends physically, play on their favorite sports teams, participate in the clubs that were a huge part of their day to day life, or act as the lead in their school play. For high school seniors, the challenges may feel even more significant as they experience intense emotions around senior events no longer unfolding in the way that they had imagined they would. 

As schools consider how to support their seniors in different ways, a helpful first step is to give students the time and space to talk about how they are feeling. Instead of rushing to a solution, hearing from students on what it means to be having their senior year events cancelled, postponed, or happening virtually. will go a long way in being both cathartic and community-building for the whole class. This New York Times article discusses the importance of grieving losses due to Coronavirus, whether they be big or small. This time to process likely applies doubly for seniors, who were readying themselves for a series of culminating activities and probably feel like they just had the rug pulled out from under them. It also serves as an opportunity to get input on what seniors themselves want. 

For students, not having these treasured traditions to turn to can hurt for many reasons: they are rites of passage, opportunities to celebrate, and a way to create lasting memories. They also help to maintain stability in the best of times. Given that everyone is living in such uncertainty, the need for normalcy may feel even greater and thus the loss even bigger. Given this backdrop, my colleagues and I at EXPLO Elevate have been pondering: what values do traditions fill? And if we know and understand those values, how can schools recreate that significance in other ways? 

This article from Psychology Today discusses how traditions can help individuals in achieving their four core inner senses, otherwise known as the “Four B’s”: Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence. Seen from this angle, I think we may be able to better understand what graduation, prom, and awards ceremonies fulfill for students. When we have a better sense of the needs they meet, we may also be able to think about other ways to help them achieve these senses, in the absence of the physical gathering. 

  1. Being: Appreciating ourselves and our strengths and feeling grounded in our core identity. For high school seniors, events like graduation and prom, to name only a few, are clearly an opportunity to appreciate individual achievements and their entire schooling journey, as well as a way for them to “try on” who they are and the adults they are becoming. Going to prom is an entire experience – down to the outfit the student bought, the person he or she went with, and the place it was held. Such a formative life experience can clearly become part of a person’s ongoing identity.
  1. Belonging: Being part of a larger group. Seniors identify as being, well, SENIORS. This is a huge part of the excitement surrounding senior-focused celebrations: that they are part of a group of people in their school, country, and around the world who are graduating at the same time. 
  1. Believing: A set of higher principles by which we lead our lives. If we think about the value of commencement speeches, they really are a call to action in “believing”. Speakers usually speak to the greater good of a student body and what they can aspirationally do and achieve in the future.  In general, senior events are an opportunity for students and the people who care about them to reflect on their high school career, their future, and the type of people they want to be. 
  1. Benevolence: Enhancing the lives of others and leaving a positive footprint. Senior activities usually involve community projects or opportunities for them to give back to the rest of the school. Seniors are also the class that are most looked up to and cherished by underclassmen. In fact, just their presence as a class can provide hope and anticipation about the future for younger students. 

Given these four B’s, we have gathered some ideas aimed at helping seniors achieve these inner senses in the absence of the traditional send-offs students would have experienced.  Below are some of these possible suggestions:  

  1. Creating a virtual school campus. College students across the country have recreated their entire college experience online via  a server within Minecraft. Students are creating graduation ceremonies using Minecraft as well. (Being, Belonging) 
  2. Virtual graduation cards or video cards for each senior. To make this a special experience and in lieu of the traditional yearbook signing, each senior could get a virtual e-card or video-card with messages from their friends, faculty, and administration. (Being) 
  3. Graduation (or “Prom”) in a Box. Each senior would get a box of physical items that they all open synchronously. The box could include celebratory items, a small project that students have to do individually and then share with one another, and a physical copy of their graduation ceremony brochure. (Belonging) 
  4. Individualized letters from Heads of School to each senior. Depending on the number of seniors in the class, if there is capacity for the Head of School to reach out to each of them individually either with an email or note, this gesture could go a long way in helping students feel a sense of achievement. (Being, Believing) 
  5. Broadcasting special events virtually. Many coffee houses are streaming concerts and other events virtually. Could a school organize a special seniors-only concert or other events? (Belonging) 
  6. Students writing letters to themselves. One senior project could include seniors writing a letter to themselves and mailing it to the school. It could then be sent back to them the following year as an opportunity to reflect on where they were a year ago.  (Being, Believing) 
  7. Making this change into a positive. For the first time in recent history, a graduating class has to be truly selfless and look out for broader humanity.  Playing up this messaging through weekly emails or blog posts to seniors can help them see how unique and special they truly are. (Believing, Benevolence) 
  8. Keeping them connected to the larger school community. Given that seniors are often a cohesive force for the entire school, connecting them with underclassmen via mentor/mentee opportunities and/or “virtual lunches” to celebrate seniors is a win for the entire school. (Benevolence) 
  9. Using social media to highlight seniors. Some schools are highlighting a different senior every day on Twitter and Instagram. With a quick highlight, they are celebrating each individual student publicly. (Being) 
  10. Involving the families. Schools are encouraging families of seniors to decorate their front door with a tribute to their child. This visual could be seen by everyone walking by in the neighborhood and could even be part of an organized “drive-through” to different seniors homes.  (Being, Belonging)

We know this list of ideas is just a start and would love to hear other ideas schools are thinking about and employing. Please share them with us by dropping us a note at skumar@explo.org. We will also post them up on our social media. 

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