“The more I worked, the more I knew I could have less boundaries.”- Grauer School Senior Graduation Candidate
Interesting lives are lived by people who can weave interesting things into interesting stories. Schools who can teach and encourage students to produce such stories can create masterpieces.
At a growing number of leading schools, senior candidates for graduation create, present, and defend a concluding “portfolio” before their peers. At The Grauer School, this “capstone” experience is somewhat based upon the classical “thesis defense,” wherein the doctorate, academia’s highest degree, is awarded only after the candidate’s work is given a real hearing. At Grauer, graduation candidates attempt to “prove,” or at least “defend” the idea that they have come to embody the core values the school conveys and, in this way, deserve to receive the school’s highest honor, the high school graduation diploma.
The specific Grauer assignment, completed over a period of two, intense weeks during the last month of the senior year, reads as such:
For this last Portfolio, we would like you to defend yourself before a panel, which may include teachers, parents, and administrators, and to petition to graduate with distinction in one of the following major school program areas:
- The Arts (Music, Studio Art, Photography, Theater, or Film)
- Global and Humanitarian Studies
- Science and Technology (STEM)
- Ecological Studies
- Expeditionary Education
- Liberal Arts
- Other, by petition to our Leadership Team.
Students develop a portfolio and public presentation in concert with a trusted, faculty advisor/mentor. In presenting, seniors are expected to narrate persuasively how they have grown into resourceful, compassionate, perseverant, self-advocating, accountable, and intrinsically curious individuals and group members (in accordance with the stated school values), prepared for independence and the challenges ahead. At the conclusion of their presentation, panel members challenge our candidates with critical questions.
The amazing, Nobel winning psychologist Danny Kahneman showed the world how what we remember of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: “How the experiences felt when we were at our peak (or trough), and how we felt when they ended.” The Senior Graduation Portfolio Defense often includes both. Since the completion of high school signifies the completion of one of life’s most powerfully meaningful phases, the coming of age, the capstone project at Grauer has become an unforgettable rite of passage.
This year, class of 2017 seniors tackled this potentially daunting assignment of presenting their case for graduation with grace, wit, and confidence. One senior noted, “I surpassed myself in my ability to give public presentations.” Below, I have knit some of their best, actual quotes into a tapestry that I find beautiful, as I hope you will, too.
As one parent detailed, “To sit in an auditorium of people and hear your son say that he feels like a man filled with confidence can be overwhelming, and you will have an experience something like this.” I offer this coverage of these “defenses” in the interest of advancing the scope and depth of evidenced-based, best practice education everywhere. Enjoy the following narrative, excerpted and woven together directly from the 25 senior graduation portfolio presentations delivered this May of 2017:
- I wanted a loving, open environment and I found The Grauer School. I fell in love with the school the first day I was here. At Grauer you develop friends across all grades. The most important value I have developed is compassion.
- The Grauer school allows me to discover myself as I become confident: To discover who you are not who they want you to be. What separates the good from the great is the burning desire to improve. The more I worked, the more I knew I could have less boundaries at Grauer. You don’t have to define any limits. You are capable of doing things you can’t let your brain tell you that you can’t. I learned the true meaning of perseverance.
- Something special about Grauer that can’t be found anywhere else is the general sense of kindness and happiness and it makes me want to be my better self. Teachers bring their students into their own lives. [They] challenged me when I deserved it and encouraged me when I needed it.
- I have enjoyed every day here. Grauer gave me the latitude to balance my passions with the core curriculum. I’ve learned it takes passion to persevere—I can achieve everything I set my mind to.
If you are a school leader, may these words guide your efforts to create meaningful closure to any educational experience. If you are a Grauer School parent, be assured that your children will not only have a rigorous challenge to pass through before graduation day, but that they will be equipped with universal and personally actionable values to guide them further in life and in the development of their character.
And if you are a Grauer senior, may your unique courage and inspiration stay with you always. Together, your words make up a moving life narrative. This is the narrative driving us all into the future.
Endings matter. Grauer School Principal Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, whose leadership knit the senior presentations into a unified whole, noted, “It’s amazing to reflect upon how much growth each of these seniors have made during their 4-7 years.” Now they are ready for the future. And as for our school, we become even more a school for the future with every graduation.
Themes of perseverance and compassion recurred consistently during the two weeks of student presentations, but the theme that recurred most of all was that of gratitude. No surprise, as Grauer teachers walk the walk: they maintain amongst themselves, behind the scenes, almost constant discussions on the topic of gratitude. At the conclusion of our two weeks, English teacher Christina Burress echoed the sentiment and observations of our whole faculty in an online discussion thread, the most recent of 72 (and counting) contiguous posts on the topic: “I’m sending gratitude to all the teachers and staff who, together, form a web of love for each of our students.” I’m told often that most teachers can hardly even imagine a school where conversations like this thrive, and I feel fortunate. The only thing we talk even more about as a faculty is how to serve better and improve each and every program. There is no organizational value more powerful than optimism, and with that we are huge. Year after year, we ask, “What if?”
Our seniors showered parents, teachers and friends with appreciations. They feel a part of a reliable, connected network of support, the best thing a school can be. Seniors honored staff, from front office to maintenance and groundskeeping (e.g., “Thank you, Simon, for making this campus beautiful.”)
It was a grand two weeks. Parent and communications officer Peggy Gardner may have summed it up best in her note to our faculty:
I hope you were all feeling the love as student after student thanked the wonderful Grauer teachers who made such a difference in their lives! These Senior Portfolios are such a great gift to the students, allowing them to look back on their years at Grauer to see what they accomplished and who helped them accomplish it. They’re also a great gift to all of us in the Grauer community, because they reinforce how special and unique The Grauer School is. I’m so impressed with how mature the students are at the end of their Senior year, and it’s always interesting to see how most of them have honed in on the special disciplines they want to continue during their college years and beyond.
Time races for us—so we need not race to our endings or hasten our finishing touches. If the education is great, the end is always the beginning of the future. Like a grand finale or a great painting, the value and meaning of a school career is unknowable while it is still underway, and it is captured in a powerful way by it’s ending, signifying newfound independence. A great school cultivates endings with love, deliberation, and intentionality, not just final exams. Taken as a whole, this year’s Senior Class capstone “Portfolio Graduation Defense Presentations” formed a masterpiece that will have generations of impact.
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