An illustration of a graduation cap setting sale into the future
Michael Morgenstern / theiSpot
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Designing a Meaningful Graduation Ritual in Quarantine

In-person high school commencement ceremonies are canceled—but seniors can still mark the transition in a meaningful way.

May 15, 2020

Schools across America, grappling with how to celebrate graduation in the midst of social distancing, are opting for online or drive-by graduations—or delaying face-to-face ceremonies until later in the year. But with the loss of in-person graduation, high school students are missing out on a time-honored tradition designed to help bridge the gap to young adulthood. There is a unique opportunity for educators, however, to help students close out the year in a meaningful way while providing a rich learning experience that may help them navigate future transitions.

Drawing on evidence-based practices from education, psychology, and ethnographic research, I spent the last three years researching, designing, and testing a framework to help people create a personal ritual—a special way to acknowledge a big transition and set their sights on attaining a goal. The framework, which can be used by teachers across many disciplines, happens to be uniquely suited to celebrating high school graduation.

The process of mindful goal setting is a critical part of how children and adolescents learn to become resourceful young adults, able to leverage their knowledge and experiences to solve problems and create the lives they want. Folding goal-setting into a coming-of-age ritual—a practice used since the beginning of recorded history by cultures around the world to prepare young people for adulthood—can be uniquely meaningful, providing a deep sense of identity and purpose. 

To prepare, students progress through a series of clearly defined steps to help them reflect upon and design their ritual. Rituals can be designed in pairs—group students with classmates they trust—or performed independently. They can be wildly elaborate, with costumes, music, and symbolic objects, or they can be quiet and internal. Rituals can be performed on Zoom in front of classmates, recorded solo in the privacy of a student’s home, or carried out privately with a reflection shared after the fact.

Step 1: Identify the Narrative

After introducing the idea of a self-designed ritual, ask students to answer four questions designed to get them thinking about where they’ve been, where they are now, and what they want to do in the future. It’s important to not overthink here—you want this to be intuitive and spontaneous. At the same time, encourage students to dig deep. The goal is not to create the most impressively produced ceremony in the world; it’s to create something which is personally meaningful.

1. Who are the three to five people who influenced you positively the most this year?

2. What are three to five strengths or passions that served you well when you encountered challenges in the past?

3. As you embark on life after graduation, what are three to five things about your past that you want to let go of?

4. Thinking about the future, what are three to five things—short- or long-term—you want to attract or bring into your life? Dreams, goals, and/or aspirations?

To wrap this part up and help students reflect on their answers, ask them to complete the following mad lib:

"I am leaving behind < things from my past >.

As I prepare for the next phase of my life, I know I have < strengths >.

Going forward, I will use these strengths to work towards < goals >."

Encourage them to experiment with their mad lib, plugging in different answers until it begins to feel personally meaningful. The intention is for students to craft an empowering, purposeful story to replace some of the disorienting narratives they may be focused on, such as “graduation is cancelled, I can’t see my friends, I don’t know what’s going on anymore.”

Step 2: Choose the Elements

There are several design elements for students to consider as they plan how they’ll enact the narrative they developed in the first step.

Setting: Encourage students to set their rituals in locations that are personally meaningful—while practicing appropriate physical distancing. A special location in nature, for instance, or near a favorite restaurant, or in their own bedrooms can evoke memories and create deeper, more meaningful experiences.

Artifacts: Some students might create an image of their past that they want to burn or otherwise destroy to symbolically let it go. Some might want to write a poem or create a collage of appreciation for someone special. Others might create a sculpture or compose a song that tells the story of their past and hopes for their future. After the ritual is over, artifacts can remind students of their commitment to attaining their goals.

Service: You can encourage students to add a service component to their project, perhaps by creating a fundraiser, or offering their services to a nonprofit, or helping an individual in the community. Historically, rites of passage were designed to help young people find their place within the larger community. Asking students to design rituals involving service encourages them to use their skills and goals to get involved in their community in a positive way.

Other participants: In some cases, students might want to incorporate other people. For instance, they may want to ask forgiveness of someone they hurt or honor someone who has changed them for the better. Perhaps two friends going to different colleges might co-create a ritual to mark the transition in their friendship.

Step 3: Enact the Ritual

Students may opt for private enactments. If there is an opportunity for a public ritual, whether students are performing independently or in a group, be sure to set time limits—three to five minutes per student or group—to ensure everyone has a chance to participate. 

Opening Gratitude Practice: Students can begin their ritual by offering special thanks—to teachers, coaches, counselors, peers, and anyone else who influenced them during their high school years.

Enactment: There are lots of options for the central part of the ritual. For example, students can perform an original song or poem, present a performance art piece, or create a video game. A student might write all of the things he needs to leave behind on a piece of paper and throw it into a burning fireplace, then place another list of his goals on a shelf or in a drawer alongside other precious objects.

Closing: Students can end their rituals by articulating their strengths and how they will use these to build toward a goal or dream. For example: “I will use my determination to make sure I stay focused as a college student so I can hold on to my financial aid package.”

By creating a personal ritual to mark a significant transition like high school graduation, students learn that—even in the midst of a pandemic—they can still find meaning in the moment, recognize their strengths, and set goals. It’s not only a meaningful SEL project to help them close out the year, it’s also a valuable life skill they can use to navigate future transitions. 

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Wellness
  • 9-12 High School

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