We didn’t read names. No one waited for their kid to be called up to the stage, or shifted uncomfortably, longing for the program to be over. Instead, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five played quietly in the background as teachers and students and parents ate pizza, leaned in, and talked.
At San Dieguito we have a long tradition of doing things differently (our forum, an artistic approach to almost everything, and our kids’ status as future alumni are all a part of who we are). We’re also willing to try new ideas, and this week’s award un-ceremony was just that.
In lieu of a typical acknowledgment of great grades or subject specific prowess, we invited teachers to each nominate a student for an end of the year award. We didn’t put restrictions on the selection, opting to call our awards “a celebration recognizing awesomeness.” It was.
So everyone could feel a part of the process and to keep things transparent, we created a shared Google presentation and invited teachers to put together a slide with their student’s name, a photo, and some words to describe why the student was so special. The results were as wildly diverse as our teachers and students.
One Math teacher created an animated extravaganza, with pop up highlights of his student’s “very cool briefcase” and status as a “mathematical genius.”
An English teacher celebrated one of her students for “his great wonder about the world, his kind heart, and the joy he brings to his learning. He is a positive addition to SDA and makes our school a great place for dreamers and thinkers.”
And for our AP Psychology teacher, a reference to Sigmund Freud was too tempting to pass up.
The photographs of the students and teachers, often laughing together, were an inspiring mélange of wit and sincerity. Slide by slide, this celebration of kids summed up who we are as a school.
And the slide show wasn’t the best part of the afternoon, that came after I had the privilege of welcoming more than forty kids, teachers, and families and explaining the idea behind our event.
This was, I told them, a chance not simply to politely applaud, but to connect. It’s part of our school’s DNA that we see each other as people first and students and teachers second. What that meant in this situation was a chance for us not to be separated by a podium or a stage, but to sit together, look each other in the eyes, and talk.
Teachers sat next to their students and not only handed them a certificate with the words they’d written on it, but also had time to talk with, not at, the kids and their families.
We hadn’t tried something exactly like this before, and to a certain extent we were working without a net; if conversation stalled, we didn’t have a filler. The concept of our event was predicated on the belief that everyone would show up and everyone would want to connect.
And as people talked, and ate, and laughed together, we ran the slideshow on a big screen at the front of the room. Occasionally folks cheered or clapped, and the humorous slides got their due guffaws, but what I noticed as I walked around the room was just how much eye contact was going on. Teachers, students, and parents were really listening to each other.
A parent told me afterward that she loved that she had an opportunity to get to know her son’s teacher. “At high school it’s easy to feel pushed away,” she said. “This was being welcomed in.”
We ran the slideshow twice, so parents could snap a photo of their student’s slide for Facebook, and I noticed that people kept talking until a bell rang to tell us it was time to start afternoon classes.
If I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t always leave award ceremonies as inspired as I was by this. It’s always neat to hear the accolades earned by gifted and hardworking students, but I’m still shaking my head at the astounding feeling of community I saw in media center during our un-ceremony.
I’m convinced that healthy relationships between the adults who help raise and educate students are the bedrock of a strong school. In those quiet conversations that filled our media center I saw those connections first hand, an inspiring reminder of what can happen when we create the opportunity to talk.