The Commencement Address I Never Gave

image via pixabay.com

image via pixabay.com

Dear Graduates,

You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!

In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?

I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to  recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.

I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places.  I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.

Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.

Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!

Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)

  • In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
  • Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding?
  • What are you proud of?
  • To whom are you grateful?

First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin.  (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)

(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1.  Thank you!

Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)

(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!

Continued buzz. Pause.

How did that feel?

Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.

You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?

As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you.  What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents?  How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?

Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?

I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener.  We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.

Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.

Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate  their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.

Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.

What questions will you pose to the world?

What is life asking of you?

These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.

I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class.  Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence.  Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.

This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.

Here’s the calm.

(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)

Pause.

Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!

Conversation Starters

I am somewhere else in my Twitter development now.

I used to lurk and now I engage.

I used to post links to other people’s words, now I regularly share my own.

I used to follow conversations already in progress but kept quiet, afraid to butt in.

Now I find that I can start conversations and others join in.

That is new. And edifying. And yet another reason to continue:

sharing my words.

welcoming dialogue.

opening the can (maybe it’s not only worms).

participating in community.

offering support.

daring to disagree.

keeping it short.

making it meaningful.

making friends.

gaining insights.

showing up.

being heard.

being seen.

having fun.

signing off.

 

Hat tip to my recent conversation partners who allow the term to live up to its most positive definition: @gowithjordan, @sarahdateechur, @RusulAlrubail, @Jennwillteach, @Sisyphus38, @adamphowell. Thank you, friends!

The conversation is happening

 

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Pixabay.com

Yesterday as I scrolled through my twitter feed one tweet led me to a blog post by Gino Bondi, “What Questions are You Asking?”  In this post he writes,”The real work, the elbows deep in learning stuff, is in leading the potentially difficult conversations around what learning should look like.”  This struck me as a truism I wanted to hold onto.  “Difficult conversations” is the piece that really resonated. Changing education ultimately is about each of us changing ourselves – our beliefs, our assumptions, our practices.  That is what makes the process so daunting, so slow, so dang hard. And yet, there’s hope. There’s action. There’s movement.

On the same evening, I began reading Pernille Ripp’s recent response to the huge reaction to her post suggesting that public behavior charts are not effective in the classroom and should be removed in favor of emphasizing strong relationship and community building.  If you follow her blog, you’ll know that she is a 5th grade classroom teacher who shares a whole spectrum of experiences – great, lousy, and in-between – of teaching, learning and being. Through her writing I have come to appreciate her as an honest, passionate and humble educator.  And brave.

With Pernille’s original post about getting rid of behavior charts she ignited a hefty debate and received some very emotionally charged responses to her suggestion. She included some of the negative responses in the more recent post. There are some strong feelings out there for sure which also demonstrate that the concrete stuff (i.e., behavior charts) often carries more weight in people’s minds than the abstractions of re-envisioning school (i.e., innovation).  In the comment section,  Angela Watson provides some excellent insights as to why some teachers may be reacting so fiercely.  She encourages those who can relate to some of the reasons she offers to read Pernille’s new book which explains the process behind the behavior chart suggestion and others.

The conversation is happening.  Thank you,  Pernille Ripp, for taking a stand and taking the heat after the fact.  I greatly admire your willingness to start and continue the conversation.  For those educators who felt offended and misunderstood, I appreciate the fact that 1) you are connected and reading views which do not mirror your own.  And 2) that you are  brave and engaged enough to let your dissenting opinion be known to a wider public.  Dissent is vitally important to doing this work of changing education and ourselves in the process.  Conflict is uncomfortable and difficult and often our feelings are at risk of getting hurt. And yet, when we are willing to listen, take others’ perspectives and look for the opportunity to learn – THAT is when the real change, the real transformation can begin.  It is when we bring our whole selves to the table – our beliefs, our assumptions, our practices – that we can make the changes within to bring about the needed changes in our classrooms, schools and systems.

Let’s have those conversations. We’ll all be better for it.

It’s you

When was the last time you entered a conversation with the deliberate intent to focus your attention on the interests, needs and desires of your partner?  Usually we are motivated to speech in order to meet our own immediate needs:  to gain someone’s attention or to get something done.  I tell my spouse about my work day because I need to vent.  My son reminds me that he’s due for a play date with his friend this week. My students ask me where we will be having class. 

What happens, however, when we take the opportunity to turn the norm on it’s head.  What if, we entered the conversation wanting to find out not just how our conversation partner is doing and we also took the time to listen fully to his response?  What would happen if, when my son reminds me about wanting to see his friend, that I took the time to acknowledge how important this is to him and perhaps asked him to tell me more about this friend? What if, instead of bowling over my husband with my incredible “news of the day” as soon as he has a chance to sit down, I instead, offer him something to drink and ask him about whatever is on his mind (or maybe just let him choose not to share…)?

I raise these questions because I recently ran across a text I wrote several years ago in which I describe this outlook: “It’s you” or “It’s about you.” The text surprised me with both its clarity and passion.  I offer it here as food for thought from which we can all benefit:

When we have a conversation and my attitude says, “it’s about you,” then my focus, my presence, my eyes even are centered on you and your feelings, thoughts, expressions.  “It’s you” involves putting our own judgments, sentiments and opinions on hold while we address our full attention to the other.  We not only listen, we take in, duplicate, and create space for our partner to express what is most important to him or her.  We not only make eye contact with our partner but show through our eyes, facial expression and body language that we are with him or her, present for whatever he or she needs to communicate. 

When we are sincere in our perspective of “it’s about you,” miracles can happen.  We open the floodgates of possibility by shifting the spotlight from ourselves to our partners.  We can create space for the other to feel valued, appreciated, understood.  We can open ourselves to the love, generosity, and warmth that reside in each of us and in turn offer it to those with whom we come in contact.  We can create a state of inner abundance by recognizing that our capacity to give increases as we assist, support and accompany others on their journeys.

A short fairy tale illustrates this beautifully:

A young prince sought to meet his beloved maiden and knocked on the door of her chamber.  “Who’s there?” asked a female voice from inside.  “It’s me,” the young prince replied.

“In this room there is not enough space for you and me,” came the response and the door remained quite closed.

The young prince went away and traveled for many months.  He contemplated the maiden’s answer and when he believed to have found the better response he returned to her door.  He knocked.

“Who’s there?” came the query from inside.  The prince responded: “It’s you,” and the door was opened and he entered.

Try working with this perspective.  Consider it an avenue on the way to full presence for others, a means to seek the best possible in people and situations.  Be prepared to find out how much more you can be when you focus your precious attention on others.  There is hardly a greater gift we have to offer the people we know and care about.