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Moving Up: Graduation Is Just The Beginning

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    Anne Vilen

“I’m going to bring what I know and who I am from Polaris, and I’m going to give it all I’ve got” – Daniel, 8th grader, Polaris Charter Academy 

In schools across the Expeditionary Learning network, May and June are marked by passage traditions and graduation ceremonies. Everyone is moving up! Crossing the bridge to the next grade, the next school, or the next adventure is a time for reflection as well as celebration. When students know and can name the skills they’ve mastered and the character traits they’ve acquired along the learning journey, they level up to the next grade ready for a new challenge.

Reflection takes courage. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students learn more than content and skills. The hallmark of deeper learning is that students reflect on how they learn, adapt to new experience, and apply their learning in new environments. It takes courage for students to hover honestly over their mistakes and their failures long enough to learn from them. But that’s what it takes to set actionable goals for a better future.

 “Polaris has taught me to achieve my goals, to get past my fears, and to try new things” – D’Angelo, 8th grader, Polaris Charter Academy

This time of year, reflection takes many forms. At student led conferences, students focus on their growth and mastery of knowledge and skills. They walk their parents through the work they have produced in school to demonstrate both what and how they have learned.

For celebrations of learning, where the audience includes community members, students practice and polish their presentation skills so that they can share their best work with others. All that practice will pay off in the arena of life. Desire and Ameerah, graduates of Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago have blogged about about their experience taking their Peacekeeper Project to the public. “You realize that people are going to be looking at us,” says Desire. Ameerah adds, “That makes you want to be the person you want to see in the world.” 

Passage turns into promise. In Expeditionary Learning schools what students know and can do matters. But our definition of achievement also spotlights character as an essential marker of moving up. Character includes the academic mindsets that students bring to learning (perseverance, inquiry, organization) and the way students treat and work with others (respect, tolerance, collaboration). At Polaris Charter Academy, the character traits are called Points of Light, and they guide students throughout and beyond their years at school. 

Passage presentations are an opportunity for students to reflect on who they’ve become as people, and to envision the shape of their own future. When students pay attention to how they have become citizens and scholars, they are more likely to realize their intentions for becoming successful adults beyond graduation. Listen to these Polaris Charter Academy middle school students discuss the value of reflection, presentation, and passage portfolios at their school. 

Community connection and celebration. Most importantly, a moving up celebration at any grade level shines a spotlight on students’ important place as leaders and contributors’ to a larger community.  It’s a chance for parents, teachers, and the community to recognize that a connected and compassionate crew keeps the whole ship of learning afloat. In Polaris Charter Academy’s inspiring graduation video, one student says it this way: “We grew up at this school ... Polaris being here tied the community together.” 

Moving up makes space for those who care deeply about their children to honor students’ achievements and welcome them into a world of new choices and opportunities.  It’s also a chance for students to appreciate the sacrifices and generosity others have given to help them succeed.  “In my old school, I would have to fight to get my teacher’s attention. But here at Polaris, the teachers challenged me. They pushed us to think deeper. It’s helped me get prepared for high school, and I know I’ll be a step ahead,” says D’Angelo. The gratitude students, families, and other members of the community show during graduation spills over into inspiration—a warm wave that carries both student and the wider community joyfully forward onto the next shore.