In 2008 I signed on to to work as a project-based educator at a small charter high school in St. Paul. I knew that I would be taking on far more than the role of "teacher", as most educators do, but I had no idea when I started this job that I would end up being the events coordinator, which included the high school graduation ceremony. I went on to plan a commencement ceremony for 20ish students every year for 9 years.
As some of you can relate, as a newbie, I rarely said "no" to a request. So when my director asked that I take on the graduation planning, I enthusiastically agreed because I wanted to prove myself. As nervous and ill-prepared as I was to take on the responsibility of organizing one of the most important events in a person's life, I did it, figured it out, and am grateful that I did. I got to be a part of something incredible.
Many of my students were first generation high school graduates. Others were told for much of their lives that they would never graduate or amount to anything. I got to be a part of proving their doubters wrong, proving my students wrong about themselves, making them feel special, valued, and worthy, for at least one day. A small graduation ceremony, one with few graduates such as a charter school, alternative program, homeschool co-op, etc., should be intimate, special, and personalized to EACH student. Over the course of 10 years I think I've figured it out, and I'm here to share some of what we did to honor each student and celebrate their unique achievements that brought them to this profound and unforgettable moment in their lives.
Before getting into ceremony ideas for a small and intimate high school graduation, I should note that I was the graduation ceremony coordinator. I did plan it or run it by myself. I organized a student graduation committee that helped plan and execute the ceremony. Students have awesome ideas. I highly recommend putting together a committee.
How to Plan a Small Group Graduation Ceremony
1. Student-Selected Personal Speaker: Each student invites one special person in their lives - a parent, mentor, friend, teacher, sibling, etc. - to speak about that student and introduce the student to the stage to receive their diploma.
2. Senior Theme: At the beginning of the year start making observations about your seniors, and take note. By the end of the year pull seniors together to settle on a theme that represents the group. It could be an adjective that describes the group as a whole, a word that describes an experience that they all shared, or a theme that represents their graduation year. Every ceremony idea that follows below could follow the theme determined by graduates.
3. Personalized Gift Bags: Put together gift bags for each graduate with a few items that represent each unique individual. For example, if a graduate loves to bake you might add a customized spatula, some spices, a cookbook, etc. All of the items do not have to follow a theme, but should reflect the interests, passions, personalities, goals, etc. of each graduate.
4. Personalized Videos: The students in my graduation committee produce a customized video for EACH graduate with photos and videos of students learning, as well as interviews with friends, family, teachers, and more. Those videos are played at the graduation ceremony and are shared with students to keep as momentos.
5. Relevant and Personal Keynote Speaker: Small learning environments organically foster relationship-building, camaraderie, mentorships, and more, because students go through significant life and learning experiences with each other. With that said, an important figure or community collaborator that has been present in the lives of the graduates and have been supportive in their high school journey, make the best keynote speakers. Choose someone that has personal significance to graduates rather than someone random spouting off their idea of "success".
6. Graduate Performance: This is a tricky one to coordinate, but if you have a really small group of graduates, have them create and organize a performance. They can write and perform a song, a skit, a dance, poetry, and so on and so on. This is a group effort that includes all graduates. If this is a logistical nightmare, try to get a graduate or two to perform on their own instead of the entire graduating class. If you can pull off a full-group performance, however, do it. It makes students feel included and important.
7. Student Bios: Write student bios into the ceremony script. At the beginning of our graduation ceremony, the MC's introduce each graduate one-by-one by reading a written bio. The introduction includes graduates' hobbies, interests, shining achievements, and where they're headed or goals for the future.
8. Senior Shirts: Every year our underclassmen design and make senior t-shirts for graduates. Again, this could follow the theme that seniors decide on earlier in the year. Other students in the school, staff members, family, friends, community members, etc. sign the back of the t-shirts, sort of like a yearbook, and those shirts are added to graduates' gift bags.
9. Personalized Graduation Day Frames: In the past, the graduation committee has ordered basic frames and customizes them for each student. Every year one of our staff members organizes a senior photo shoot offsite. We add the photos from that shoot to each frame and give them to graduates at the ceremony.
10. Playlist: Create an album, like a "mixed tape", for each student and share it with them. Each playlist could be customized for each student or the playlist could consist of popular or significant songs from the graduation year.
11. Senior Field Trip: In the past our seniors have organized and hosted fundraisers to raise money for an offsite experience just for graduates . This is not technically a ceremony idea, but could be a field trip that they go on right from the ceremony. My students usually choose to go to our local amusement park.
12. Senior Dinner: Underclassmen plan a dinner for graduates and their parents. Graduates often have family plans post-ceremony, so this dinner doesn't need to take place on the night of the ceremony. It's just another way for graduates to feel special and soon-to-be seniors pumped up for the coming year.
13. Graduate Philosophy Statements: The director of my school started this tradition before I began teaching there, but it was a special experience for everyone involved, so we kept the tradition going for a while. Each senior writes a philosophy statement; a statement that highlights who they are, their dreams, their goals, what life is about for them, and how their high school experience helped shape that philosophy.
14. Photos Exhibit: The graduation committee spends the year collecting photos of seniors in action; on field trips, giving presentations, working on projects, working within the community, etc. The committee organizes these photos onto boards and puts them on display at the graduation ceremony. Friends and family can view the exhibit before and after the ceremony.
15. Graduating Class Slideshow: One ceremony idea already mentioned was making personalized videos of each graduate to play at the ceremony. This is labor intensive, especially if you do not have a graduation committee to take on some of the load. If it's too much, consider putting together a slideshow with videos and photos of the entire graduating class. Play the slideshow during the ceremony or have it displayed while guests take their seats.
There are so many neat ways to make graduates in a small graduating class feel special on their big day. The ones mentioned above are a few that have lasted the test of time. We have tried many other little touches, and have kept some going and have ditched others. Trial and error, right?! I would love to hear any graduation ceremony traditions that you have seen or experienced.
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Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.