A couple of weeks ago, we had the chance to take part in a collaboration between the Vermont Agency of Education and Vermont Public Radio (VPR), celebrating the strange and wonderful ways this year’s graduation differs from those in years past. What do graduations look like in the time of COVID-19? The hourlong program featured students and educators from around the state, performing music, giving speeches and simply musing on the ways in which the class of 2020 made. It. Work.
So as an excerpt, and leading us towards the end of the podcast’s fourth season, here’s the piece we produced for the show. We spoke with students, educators and families from two schools who approached graduation very differently: The Warren School, in Warren VT, and Poultney Elementary School, down in Poultney VT.
This is a tale of two sixth grades.
The Warren School, in Warren VT, opted to host their sixth-grade graduation at a drive-in in Waitsfield, called The Big Picture, known locally as “The Big Pic”. Warren School librarian Heidi Ringer says she got the idea from an NPR story, then called up principal Tom Drake with the suggestion.
Heidi Ringer: So about a month or so ago, on NPR, they had said something about a school in New York that was doing a drive-in graduation. And then I was scrolling through Instagram that same night. There was a headline from The Valley Reporter that said The Big Pic was doing drive-in. And so I emailed Tom Drake, our principal, and asked Tom: “Drive-in at The Big Pic for graduation?”
He wrote back that he thought I was kidding.
And then he said he realized that was a great idea.
So then one day some of the graduation team met at The Big Picture parking lot and kind of, you know, mapped it all out. We visualized: “Okay. If they’re going to drive this way, then they’re going to enter this way. And then they’ll exit this way. And where are we getting the cakes? Nobody in town makes cupcakes, they only make mini-cakes. And how big are mini cakes? And are they too big? How many people are going to be in a car? Can we fit more than four mini cakes in a box?”
You know, it was crazy details, but it all worked.
So it took probably three, four weeks of planning and thinking about it. Walking through and visualizing it and just being willing to be flexible and just say:
“Okay, so what are we going to do for the kids here?”
The planning team remixed a Warren graduation tradition — the graduation essay — by having students record their favorite memory of The Warren School in Voice Memo and send it to the teachers, then the teachers put it all together into one long (48-minute) movie.
Heidi: Ringer: So in the past, Warren school’s graduation has been the same thing forever and ever. The kids write an essay. So the first paragraph is how long you’ve been at The Warren School. Second paragraph is what are two memories of the school that you have? And what’s the big global idea that you learned from those. And then the thank you. So we’ve always done that. They usually sing a song or something like that. And because we’re in a rural place, some of these kids haven’t seen each other, you know, we see each other on the screens, but that’s it.
The town of Warren is about five miles from Waitsfield, so all the families met in their cars at the school and drove in convoy over to The Big Pic with a fire truck escort (one of the Warren teachers is a volunteer firefighter). At the drive-in, the teachers showed the students’ movie up on the big screens, piping the audio into everyone’s car speakers.
Susan Hennessey’s ex-husband had a megaphone at Barre we borrowed. We got the megaphone and Tom Drake brought a ladder and stood on the ladder and did the welcome through the megaphone. Then the kids all got their certificates, and the teachers ran to their cars to give them to them, and cheered and did all that. By the, it was dark. So we watched the movie. And then at the end of the movie, I had gone to North Star Fireworks and got huge sparklers. And so the teachers made like, the honor guard kind of thing. We lined the road and then the cars exited that way, with all kinds of beeping and cheering.
They went through the sparklers… and that was it.
That was graduation.
For Heidi Ringer and the rest of the Warren School teachers, all the planning, the Zoom meetings, sourcing mini-cakes and sparklers (and reminding everyone to bring a lighter), was worth it for one simple reason.
Heidi Ringer: It’s all about the kids. I think that’s the biggie to remember. That it’s about them. So sometimes you just have to let go of things. This is a different time. It’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to be what it might’ve been if you were standing right next to them. So it’s, it’s kind of… let go. It’s all about the kids.
Eliza Krotinger is one of those graduating Warren School students. What did she and her mom, Nicole, think of the unusual celebration?
Eliza Krotinger: Yeah, it was… think it was much better than the regular one. We should do this one more often because the formal one… it just seemed very different. And I liked this one much more. The most memorable part was hearing all the speeches. Even though we didn’t get to see everyone, we could all like, hear each other in some way. And the speeches were all so different and like… I remembered memories I forgot about. Yeah.
Nicole Krotinger: It was just special to see all the teachers and do you know, we hadn’t seen each other in so long, so that was really special. And yeah, the, the speeches were wonderful. The kids put a lot of time and energy into the speeches and you can really, you could really tell because their personalities came through through the pictures and what they had to say about themselves. I think this year, that for some reason the students, their speeches were more unique. Like a lot of years you’ll go and it’ll be, they’ll, they’ll all talk about the same memories. I don’t know if that’s because they’re all in the same classroom talking to each other and this time they were separated out more. Um, so they each had more unique memories this time, which was nice.
Amelia Brooks also graduated from The Warren School, and attended the graduation with her mom, Marie.
Amelia Brooks: I really liked the sparkler sendoff at the end. Because you got to see all of the teachers and it was really fun to see all of them.
Marie Schmukal: I was amazed at how many of the traditions they were able to keep, even though we were all in our cars, in a parking lot. I really appreciated the effort and thought that the teachers put into maintaining those traditions.
For educators like Heidi Ringer, blending old traditions and new, while a little more effort, is entirely worth it for the students and families they’ve known, in some cases for nine full years.
Heidi Ringer: These kids have been together, for good or for the bad,since most of them were three, four, five years old. They’ve been at The Warren school for *nine years* and suddenly they’re going to a new place.
Meanwhile, down in Poultney VT, Poultney Elementary School opted for sticking closer to home for their graduation, by organizing a car parade through town, and then having each family drive through the school bus circle, one by one. As each family drove, the graduating student got out and walked along next to the car. And Poultney’s teachers and administrators cheered their final journey, waving and hollering — in a socially distanced way. They were joined in cheering by students from Poultney’s local high school — who all themselves happened to be alumni of the elementary school.
The three-member Poultney 5th and 6th grade teaching team — Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes and Keith Harrington — all brought different strengths to pulling off this event under challenging circumstances.
Maureen Kahill Brown: My name is Maureen Kahill Brown. I live in Poultney. And I’ve been in Poultney teaching, for 27 years.
We all started about eight weeks ago planning. And, uh, one of my roommates from college is a science teacher out on Long Island, and they had done something similar. And Kristin Caligiuri, our principal, requested that we do a drive-through. So we kind of searched the country for what other schools were doing. And we tried to pull the best of what we could learn from them, in order to make it a reality for our students.
Every day we met virtually at 11 o’clock and we started tossing around ideas and kind of hammering it out. And the three of us all have different strengths.
We did create a class Facebook page, a parent helped us out with that, but not all our parents check that. Not all of our parents check their email and not all of our parents check their phones. So it became a challenge to remember which parents did what to try and get them the information, um, that they needed.
Tia was the first teacher you met as you entered the town. She came to help kind of guide them through the path. (It reminded me of a driver’s ed course, to be honest with you.) And she collected Chromebooks from them and any other things that they had, maybe some musical instruments, and welcomed them and celebrated them. It kind of got that moment because we really haven’t seen students in quite some time.
Then the next person they would drive up to is Keith, who was at the podium with the microphone. So he got that moment with them, and then I was directing the traffic and taking pictures and making sure they got their diploma.
And one of the students said,
‘You know, Ms. Kahill, this is so strange.’
And I was like, ‘What’s so strange?’
‘Well, you’re not buffering or jerking out. You’re alive, you’re in person.’
And I said, ‘Yes, because my wifi is typically quite weak when you put 33 kids on it.’
So that was kind of one of those shocker moments for me. I was like: That’s right. They haven’t seen me live since March.
And my hair is a whole lot longer and for whatever reason, a lot grayer than it ever was before.
The teachers also put together a photo booth for the occasion, staffed by a local professional photographer who also is an alumna of Poultney Elementary School. But because of social distancing, teachers weren’t able to stand with their students for the photos. So, secretly, the teachers all ordered lifesize cardboard cutouts of themselves, which they placed in the photo booths.
The cardboard cutouts were so convincing that, well, they led to a few confusing moments.
Maureen Kahill Brown: Traditionally parents and children like to get photos with us. And we didn’t know what we could do because we had to wear masks, and we just didn’t want their pictures to have masks in it. So another parent who’s very talented with photography, Tracy Simons, we made her promise to keep a secret. She took our pictures and we had lifesize cut outs made. And we put them in the photo booth.
It was hysterical. The day we were setting up, we put the three of us in the photo booth and we ran inside to get something. And I guess the head of maintenance, Rich, drove by just, you know, to check in with us. And he waved at the three cutouts. He didn’t realize that it wasn’t us.
Poultney Elementary School pulled together a graduation ceremony that was just as much about the parents and the alumni as it was the graduating sixth graders. They kind of wanted a ceremony that celebrated how small and close-knit Poultney is, and how many parents stick around and send their own kids through the same schools they themselves attended. This year, 21% of the parents of Poultney Elementary School graduates once attended the school themselves.
Maureen Kahill Brown: Many of the former students that were parents came through. One was teary-eyed and said that she was so grateful that we had taken the time to do the in-person moment because, she just wanted her child to experience what she had. And so gosh, for an old teacher that made me quite happy that she appreciated it.
My other most favorite part was to see how parents took the time to decorate the cars with such amazing signs, and decorations, and balloons, and streamers. And at one point a parent said, “Go ahead, hit the button on the trunk.”
And out came balloons! They popped out and there was a big sign that said, you know,
“Thank you teachers, we appreciate you.” So that was just amazing. We were really quite fortunate with the amazing parents we had helping and supporting us as we went through, uh, this journey with them.
We felt they deserved it.
Everyone, um, has certainly been affected by COVID in many different ways. And everyone can tell you where they lost out. My own son graduated college this year — or, well, he has his diploma, you know. The ceremony didn’t occur. And so I guess I understand how those parents may have been feeling. In our world we held a graduation ceremony here at the house for my son. He said it was probably better than the real one, a lot shorter way more comfortable. Um, so he was, he was thrilled that we did that. We kind of surprised him with that. So I guess that’s kind of where we all were coming from. We were just thinking, you know, if it was our children, what would we want?
What do the students and their parents think of all this? Here’s Ashley Converse, mom to graduating sixth grader Collea Mullholland, and herself an alum of Poultney Elementary.
Ashley Converse: I remember her telling me when her friends in sixth grade graduated last year, everybody cried basically for a few days. Right. Everybody was together, everybody to the end of the last day of school. For some reason, everybody was crying and we don’t know why. And all the sixth graders were like, Oh no, is that going to happen with this this year? But apparently not because they wasn’t quite same.
It’s a small, um, it’s a small close knit community and we all kind of raise each other’s kids.
Pam Chellis is mom to graduating 6th grader Will Hathaway.
Pam Chellis: It would have been nice to have the whole class together, but man, those teachers did a heck of a job. They couldn’t ask for better teachers and staff that they are probably the most amazing people. And with all this COVID stuff, they have been right there for the kids, even though they haven’t been in the classrooms, they can call on those teachers at any given time.
And Marissa Boudreau’s daughter Gabby also graduated from Poultney Elementary this year. Gabby is the second of Marissa’s six kids to do so. And while the family only moved here from Massachusetts four years ago, Marissa appreciates Poultney’s strong, close-knit community.
The heart of which is their schools. And teachers like Maureen Kahill Brown.
Marissa Boudreau: I thought the ceremony was awesome. The teachers were good. And um, today we actually did a parade. The teachers went around town and so we were able to like wave from, you know, wave to them and stuff. And so that was fun.
I just really like, have to praise all of her teachers because we live in such a smaller town and the teacher’s just, just so good about communication, you know, if your kid needs extra help or if your kid is doing great or, or whatever, they’re right there, you know, whether it’s a phone call or an email. I mean, it’s just the, the closeness of the community here is just fantastic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for her and for everyone else.
It’s kind of like that’s saying, you know, it takes a village. And so our school is that village and they will help us.
The 21st Century Classroom is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Special thanks for this episode go to all the students and families who spoke with us for the piece, as well as educators Heidi Ringer, Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes, and Keith Harrington. Extra special thanks to Kari Anderson at VPR, as well as Sigrid Olson and Greg Young at the Vermont Agency of Education. This episode was produced by series producer Audrey Homan.