Today’s post comes from Education Speaks editorial board member Christine Geraci.
Since what feels like the dawn of time, it’s always been the valedictorian and salutatorian of the class that speak at a high school graduation. But for more than 15 years, Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam has been turning this tradition on its ear with its own take on who gets the honor of addressing their peers at commencement.
Instead of letting grade point averages decide, Mohonasen holds an annual graduation speaker contest that chooses high school seniors by their ability to conceptualize, write, and deliver a compelling speech that captures the significance of graduation day.
“No other district we know of does it the way we do it,” said Mohonasen English Teacher Tara Shellard, who coordinates the contest.
The contest is open to all graduating seniors. Those who wish to compete must fill out an application, choose a faculty mentor, write a rough draft of the speech – then work with their mentor to practice, re-write, fine-tune, and practice some more in preparation for competition day.
The contest, held in the high school auditorium, is an event in itself. Members of the local media and area business owners serve as guest judges. Honor students in grades 9 to 11 round out the contest audience. Competitors are identified only by a number, not their name. The judges award points to each competitor based on his or her performance. Those points are then tabulated by the guidance department staff, who await the judges’ point tallies in a separate room.
The top four highest scorers speak at graduation. The highest scorer gets to choose whether he or she speaks first or second. The third and fourth highest scorers get the option of delivering the introduction or the closing at commencement.
This year, the winners were Lexi Godliewski and Christian Gunn.
On a personal note, I’d like to congratulate this year’s winners, because I know firsthand the work that goes into achieving this honor: I won the contest in 1998.
I don’t remember too many details from my speech (it’s no doubt buried somewhere in the basement of my mother’s house), but I remember re-writing it what felt like 15 or 20 times. I still remember my faculty mentor, Dr. Lin Severence (now the assistant superintendent for human resources for the Guilderland Central School District), and how excited I was to work with her, because she’d mentored every winner for at least two years prior. I stayed after school to practice in the auditorium, and received a lot of encouragement from our theater director, Dr. Margaret R. Gray.
One of the best parts about the graduation speaker contest isn’t just that it gives every graduating senior a chance to speak, regardless of GPA — it’s that it inspires faculty, students and mentors to lobby around each other and work together to achieve something great. And although it doesn’t feel like this when you’re in the thick of preparation, this contest really isn’t about winning. Even those who don’t win still get a valuable, memorable learning experience. And that’s what education should be all about.
If you have a photo or video of you or someone you know speaking at any recent graduations, feel free to post it on our Facebook page!