A Senior Graduation Speech from Every Student: If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?

“If this isn’t nice, what is? –Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex 

“Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion—and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.” –David McCullough Jr. in his “You are not special” commencement speech 

These are concluding comments from two excellent commencement speeches. For this posting, I’ll briefly share my approach to a final activity for my senior English courses: A senior graduation speech from every member of my class. (This year, the activity is getting some streamlining due to our social distancing, but it’s still a good time to reflect on the full process of working with my students for future use during normal times.) 

Before sharing about my students and their preparation for their own commencement speeches, I should clarify that Vonnegut’s favorite quote from Uncle Alex reflects his uncle’s habit of spontaneously stopping in the midst of gatherings of family and friends to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Uncle Alex wisely thought that we don’t tend to think enough about how much we have to be happy about. Vonnegut used a reference to his Uncle Alex in just about every talk he ever gave. His uncle modeled a good habit of practicing little moments of appreciation that I know I can benefit from remembering and practicing as often as possible during difficult and non-difficult times.

Preparation:

Our work with commencement speeches comes alongside other assignments as we wrap up the year, ranging from Advanced Placement English exam preparation to research project work. Almost a month before the end of the course, I typically get students thinking a little bit about our final in-class ceremony speeches by having them view and reflect on Steve Jobs’ 2005 “How to live before you die”commencement speech. Jobs’ reflections on thoughtfully facing life and death have served my students well for over a decade. His own passing in 2011 added a mysterious and realistic weight to our discussions about the speech. Our transition to distance learning this year took away the opportunity to view and discuss his speech together, but several students have independently connected to the speech in more recent activities. 

With about three weeks to go before the senior students conclude their semester, I have them self-select and analyze commencement speeches given by famous speakers. This is an opportunity for students to revisit and extend their knowledge of rhetorical situations and rhetorical strategies. Several years ago, Time Magazine conveniently linked several great commencement speeches on a page below the transcript of David McCullough’s speech. Teachers might enjoy including having students search for additional addresses from comedians but some previewing discretion is advised. 

The week before our final week, I have students share their favorite quote from a famous graduation speech as a brief show and tell practice before the final speech. By this point, most students have basic speech skills well-established, but it’s good to give them some practice because the final speeches can get quite emotional. We’re at this stage with my current classes, and I’m having students share their favorite quotes via Flipgrid. Currently, the exercise is an enjoyable return to seeing and hearing from my students. 

In preparation for the final speech, I share an outline template for persuasive speeches that students may adapt for their speeches. I just shared a longer version of the following expectations with some further specifications for different levels of credit: 

  • Your speeches should be in your own words.
  • Your graduation speech should be positive and appropriate for the occasion.
  • Follow the structure of the attached outline for your speech. Use sentences and not merely keywords in your outline.
  • Include significant references to at least four different readings from the year. You may directly quote or paraphrase your references. 

I have students post digital copies of their speeches to Turnitin.com as part of the preparation and for my ongoing archives. 

Sharing Ceremony: 

We typically spend the last two days of class sharing these graduation speeches. I’ve seen some typically stoic students break into tears during the experience. This year, I’ll have students posting recordings of their speeches on Flipgrid, and I plan on providing a follow-up viewing ceremony together via Google Meet for students who are interested. 

Another feature of the in-person ceremony is a final pop-up toast that I adapted two years ago from Dave Stuart. I bring paper cups and soda drinks for the occasion. Individuals, pairs, or groups stand and toast each other as part of their final activity. Students love this as a follow-up to the speeches.

It took me awhile with the advanced senior courses, but with these farewell activities and a few other practices, eventually we moved to more tears about leaving my class than being in it. …And if that isn’t nice, what is?  

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. What’s your favorite commencement speech? What makes it so appealing?
  2. What cliches do you most often notice in commencement speeches? 

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

You Are Not Special: … And Other Encouragements, by David McCullough, Jr

If This isn’t Nice, What is?: Advice for the Young, by Kurt Vonnegut

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