Along with the end of the school year, June also marks graduation season. I have seen posts and photos of Pre-Kindergarten/preschool and Kindergarten grads all over social media the last week or so, and it prompted me to examine my beliefs and views on graduation ceremonies in ECE.
First, I felt guilty for not having a formal graduation ceremony for my Pre-K class, especially because the two preschool programs in the community had beautiful and elaborate decorations and programs for their students and family members. Many of my friends and colleagues are also involved in early learning and they, too, were busy planning songs to perform, power points to show, and speeches to share. Was I cheating my students and their loved ones out of an important milestone and experience?
My viewpoint then shifted, in order to defend my lack of a Pre-K grad. I was ready with an arsenal of justifications for opting out. I thought things like…
- my students are already students within the school, only moving one classroom down within the same building (while the preschool programs’ students will be new to the school, so their graduation ceremony is marking the end of their time at their EY establishment)
- the Pre-K teacher before me didn’t have a grad ceremony, and neither does the K teacher at the school
- my cooperating teacher in internship (who taught Kindergarten) didn’t have a graduation ceremony
- I have some students who are moving to Kindergarten next year, and some who will be returning for a 2nd year of Pre-K
From there, I began to question and reflect on what exactly a ‘graduation’ meant to me. After some thought, I came to the conclusion that, to me, a graduation is intended to mark the end of a significant portion of one’s life in education; it is a finale.
Based on that definition, here is where I have some qualms with a Pre-K or Kindergarten graduation:
- I view Pre-K and K as the pivotal introduction to formal education in a child’s life; it is the beginning of their journey as a learner in our school system. It seems counterintuitive to have a ceremony that marks the end, when it is really only the start of their adventure in education. Donning the cap and gown in Grade 12 or the final year of university signifies the end of a student’s time in that establishment; it simply doesn’t make sense for Pre-K and K students to wear the same outfit when they are not leaving us quite yet.
- I assume that Pre-K and K graduations originally came about because these two programs are viewed in a different light than the ‘traditional’ school set up, especially because Pre-K and K were not originally part of the school system, an entity all their own. I think it is problematic if finishing Pre-K or K is viewed as entering the ‘real’ years of schooling. Certainly, Pre-K and K are, in and of themselves, set up and run much differently than the numbered grades beyond. However, this mindset minimizes the importance of early learning and the strategically designed environments and learning that takes place there.
- I can still remember one of my favourite university professors telling an anecdote of visiting a local elementary school in March and seeing bulletin boards covered in (you guessed it!) leprechauns. She went on to explain how disappointed she was in this, because the leprechaun creations had no meaningful tie into learning. They were created as merely a craft to fill time. That story has stuck with me ever since, and I vowed to avoid ‘crafts-for-craft’s-sake’ or ‘time-fillers’ at all costs in my practice. In the same vein, I see Pre-K/K grads to be an event for the sake of having an event to some extent. Similar to how teachers feel obligated have their students create Christmas, Valentine’s, Mother’s and Father’s Day trinkets simply because it is EXPECTED, early years teachers see posts of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” themed decorations, toddler-sized caps and gowns, and adorable graduation songs and feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses [Exhibit A: the second paragraph in this blog post]. While I wholeheartedly believe that the early years are a time of utmost importance and growth in a child’s life, and they should be documented in order to be remembered later on down the road, I feel that the commercialized, cookie cutter Pre-K/K graduations can be merely a photo opp to put into a picture frame with no authentic connections for the child and their loved ones.
Now, if you are a proponent of early years graduations, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far, because you surely have a few choice words, points of view, or arguments to share after I singlehandedly shredded EY grads to pieces. But stick with me just a little longer, because this is all coming to a culminating point, I promise.
My biggest takeaway from my inner reflection on this topic is that we have to, ultimately, ask ourselves:
Why am I REALLY having this ceremony/event? What is the purpose?
We have to take a critical look at if the ceremony we are planning authentically celebrates students and their learning, or if it is simply an opportunity to tout the cuteness of 3-5 year olds in caps and gowns (which I cannot argue IS, indeed, cute).
And so, here is my suggestion of a substitute to a “graduation” ceremony:
Celebrations of Learning
Hosting a ‘celebration of learning’ event ensures that the most important factor of ECE – the students and their journeys as learners – is sitting centre stage. This format also allows for so much flexibility and personal tailoring to truly fit the needs of your ‘clientele.’ In its most basic form, a celebration of learning is a time for students and their loved ones to come together to share pride in the learning that has taken place over the course of the year.
While I didn’t host a year-end “Celebration of Learning” this year (because this idea is brand-spankin’-new), we did have a final Family Day, where students and their family members hopped onto the school bus and drove 15 minutes to Ruby Lake, the local regional park. We enjoyed a day of exploring the playground and shoreline, eating fire-roasted hot dogs, and each other’s company.
I did make an impromptu thank you speech to the families for their support and involvement in their child’s learning in Pre-K and sent home a book of “Learning Stories” I had collected for each student over the course of the year, but I am already crafting plans for what I would like my ‘Celebration of Learning’ to look like next year…
Rather than sugar plum fairies, I have visions of a Memory Walk dancing in my head. While it would certainly require a lot of paper, ink, planning, and work, I would LOVE to print pictures from each month of the school year and then hang them up in chronological order on the walls of the school hallways (along with quotes, observations, student artwork, etc.) for students and their parents to walk through. Think self-guided tour/art installation/giant documentation panel! It’s a literal walk down memory lane!
Check in with me in a year’s time when, hopefully, I will post about what kind of “Celebration of Learning” actually transpires.
- What are your thoughts on graduation ceremonies for early years students?