One of my favorite seasons of the year began yesterday. Gateway season. It’s the four days at the end of the year when our regular school schedule stops for students to present their independent projects and work portfolios to be considered for promotion into the higher grades. This work is presented to friends and family members in public demonstrations of mastery.
For teachers it is one of the best times of the year for all of the reasons that we became educators; students rise to the occasion and show their best work, over the course of the six years they are with us their presentations show their growth in confidence and skill in public presentation, an atmosphere of excitement for learning infuses the school, and students glow with pride for their accomplishments. For me, above everything else, the best part of every presentation is the last 10 minutes of the 30-60 minute exhibitions.
At our school the last ten minutes is traditionally reserved for congratulatory remarks. Over the course of 4 days, between the 3 levels of our school, there are over 150 different presentations, or put another way a total of 1500 minutes (25 hours!) of kindness, warmth, and thoughtfulness that our students share with each other. Every student in the school, during each of their 7 major public exhibitions before graduating, has the opportunity to hear their friends, peers, teachers and families express their congratulations, love, respect, and admiration, upon the completion of the Gateway. What a truly amazing opportunity!
It was four Gateway seasons ago that I first realized how important a contribution those 10 minutes were to our school culture. I had been working with a student, Mark, in my 9th and 10th grade integrated math/science class for 2 years. He had come to me with the label “an angry kid”, and he had entered my Division a year late. He was a junior trying to finish off his portfolio, so that his date of graduation would not change. Over his two years with me Mark struggled in my class, as math and science were not his academic strengths. I found him more stubborn and paralyzed by embarrassment than angry.
However, he filled his work portfolio slowly, and he ultimately entered the month long Gateway season ready for his independent project. Being very sports oriented, Mark wanted his project to have something to do with steroids. We agreed that he would look at the affects steroids had on the heart, since the project required some form of hands-on scientific investigation. The focus of his investigation would be heart anatomy, and the associated cow heart dissection. This project was one of his best! Despite his low confidence with science, Mark pushed himself to understand some difficult physiological concepts. He even found a couple of very relevant professional journal articles that he thought might be useful, but that he needed help mining meaning from. Months before he would have looked at the complexity of the text and thrown the articles away.
Mark was a popular student, part of the school’s jock culture and his Gateway was packed. He presented for 25 minutes, answered questions about the project and then I prompted the audience for their 10 minutes of congratulatory remarks. His peers’ comments brought tears to my eyes then, and still do every time I describe the moment to others (I just felt the first one flow down my cheek). In a group of 14-15 year old, mostly jockish boys known for ragging on each other every possible moment, the respect, admiration and love that these kids have for each other came out. The most memorable comment was, “Mark, I know how hard this class has been for you over the last two years. You were ready to give up many times. But this presentation just shows how smart you are and the good work you can do. Congratulations! I’m proud of you, man!”
Every year these Gateways make me realize that asking our students to be kind and respectful of each other is maybe not enough. Maybe we also have to help our students craft those moments where respect and kindness are allowed, and where our kids know that their true feelings will not be mocked. Positive school culture flows from the structures we put in place to help students interact with each other in ways that they may want to, but are often afraid to due to the tough adolescent culture they live in.
In my school’s Gateway process, those last 10 minutes are sacred, and repeated in every Gateway presentation. They are expected and wanted by our students. For me, as far as school culture is concerned, it is the most important 10 minutes of the year.