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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Grad Time: What Makes a Commencement Speech Memorable?

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Whether you are an educator or a parent of a high school student, or both, you will be involved in graduations. Most commencement speeches are not memorable. Some, though, contain a good message that gets lost because the speaker goes on for too long. I have been asking people, "Looking back, what would you have wanted someone to say to you at your commencement? What advice would have been good to hear at that point, and on that occasion?"

The consensus answer: "I would like someone to have asked me that question. I would like to have had to think about the advice I would give myself."

And so, this graduation season, I suggest you do exactly that. Ask prospective graduates to give themselves a commencement address, or at least a memorable commencement phrase. Ask them to write that advice on an index card and keep it, looking back on it over time. Certainly, they should put it into their smart phones, save it on their computers, and otherwise record their wisdom electronically. But they also should write it on an old-fashioned index card.

Bill Moyers, noted journalist and author, has given hundreds of speeches and in his book, Moyers on Democracy, shared words he spoke at a commencement address at Hamilton College in 2006. He told students, "Life is where you get your questions answered." But the key point is, you have to have questions. You have to wonder, be inquisitive, not be satisfied, and not be self-centered.

So that would be my second piece of advice: Ask prospective graduates, "What questions about life matter to you? After you graduate, when you go to college or to work, what questions to you hope to find answers to?" Don't be surprised if they don't have a reply ready. Your question is designed to get them to realize Moyers' wisdom -- that life is most fulfilling when we have aspirations and challenges.

There are many messages we would like to give to young people at the time of graduation. But our understanding of their social-emotional and character development tells us that the emotional context of the graduation situation is not the time to deliver serious extensive messages. Best to save the deeper contemplations and inspirational insights for other occasions. Relief and celebration -- with a little reflection -- seems like a good recipe for this graduation season.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

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