Mere Philosophy for Thoughtful End-of-the-Year Speeches with Juniors and Seniors

Our school is doing a quarter block schedule that I’ve got mixed feelings about. The strangest part of the experience is having some of my seniors do their end-of-the-year graduation speeches at the end of the third quarter, which was last week. This year, I also had my juniors do a reflective speech on how their personal philosophies developed through a year of dealing with COVID. Despite the quarter block scheduling’s weird timing, I was delighted with my juniors and seniors’ content, thoughtfulness, and delivery this year. Here, I follow up with a few reflections.

For my junior speeches about how COVID developed their personal philosophy, I had students work with the branches of philosophy and some basic questions as heuristics. I’ve shared my mere philosophy scheme with students as my “Updated Philosophy Framework for Critical Thinking about Literature, History, and Rhetoric.” Here are five sets of basic categories and related questions of philosophy to know for learning and long-term flourishing (opposites, increments, and mixes may apply):

  • 1. Metaphysics: What is real? What is the context of our focus on reality?
  • 2. Epistemology: What is true? How do we know?
  • 3. Anthropology: What makes us human? How do humans flourish?
  • 4. Aesthetics: What is beautiful? How do we respond?
  • 5. Ethics: What is good? What should we do?

I asked students to make their speeches short and focus on the most meaningful connections they can think of. (If they run a little longer, we can still fit the speeches in.) I asked students to cover three or more of the branches in their speeches. I found that the philosophy focus helped them develop a clear organizational structure that was also personal and organic in its development.

I also encouraged students to review and apply Erik Palmer’s PVLEGS standards in preparing for their presentations. The only clarification that I’ve found for students is to coach them about more clearly signally the beginning and end of their speeches, including a well-placed “Thank you” to the audience at the end.

The junior presentations were delightful, thoughtful, and inspiring. I wish that an administrator or two would have made a surprise visit to hear the mature reflections that these young people had about a year of growing through the COVID challenges.

Likewise, my seniors presented their graduation speeches well, and I wrote about these speeches elsewhere in my post last year about “A Senior Graduation Speech from Every Student…” I plan to weave the philosophy branches into the setup for the 4th quarter graduation speeches after hearing how well the juniors did with these.

For all the difficulties with scheduling, teaching, and COVID concerns, I’m once again reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation speech, in which he quotes his Uncle Alex, who always said, “If this isn’t nice, what is.”

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