A New Take on Developing Millennials

Joanne 150In this time when millennials continue to be scrutinized and criticized in the media, at Agnes Irwin, we seem to have an antidote to the negative claims that this generation is self-absorbed, individualistic and non-empathic. Pessimists see this generation as politically, emotionally, and socially disengaged — uninterested in creating community.

Our ethos, however, consistently has been defined by promoting leadership in its many forms, developing confident, connected, resilient, and responsive graduates — women who create community by forging connections and understanding their responsibility to make a difference in this world. In fact, much of the current educational literature agrees that an exceptional learning environment ensures that each student is emotionally secure and that the culture is defined by trust.

One of the ways in which we achieve these goals is through the senior assembly, a month-long process of brainstorming a topic, researching and honing an argument, and crafting a 10-minute speech that is pithy, entertaining, and informative.

One of our seniors … sees her generation as much more creative than past generations, describing its members as technologically savvy, rebellious, passionate, and hopeful.

I fully agree with one of our seniors who, in her senior assembly, debunked this negative lore about millennials. She sees her generation as much more creative than past generations, describing its members as technologically savvy, rebellious, passionate, and hopeful.

According to her, they more clearly see the world from a global perspective, while being keenly attuned to issues of social justice; they more easily find their place and voice and are more boldly creative. I share her belief, a reframed version of the story in which millennials are characterized as children of technology — innovatively adept at forging connections and ingenious in their problem solving.

The senior assembly, a tradition that has sustained itself through many generations as the capstone moment in our students’ secondary school years, is a culminating presentation that demands a synthesis of our students’ learning. In this context, each student is known, respected, and embraced, becoming an active participant in burnishing the community’s values.

These multidimensional talks demonstrate facility with technology, verbal and written acuity, keen research skills, creative problem solving, careful time management, organizational precision, and analytical acumen. Poise, humor, intellectual integrity, and adaptability are some of the many outcomes within this performance-based framework, which emphasizes intellectual freedom and vigorous inquiry.

While this required talk by our seniors serves as a final “performance,” the process actually begins in ninth grade — as our entire Upper School community listens to these presentations twice a week throughout the academic year. In this way, our youngest high school students not only witness models of excellence, they also begin to consider how they will approach this important rite of passage when they finally take their place behind the podium in twelfth grade. Throughout the three years leading to their presentations, they may imagine many topics, until their final selection — one that captures their attention and illuminates one of the passions that they have developed.

With the senior assembly program centering all, each student is known, acknowledged, and trusted as she seeks to create community, while finding her own voice. Through this program, for generations, there has been a clear and steady emphasis on developing graduates who know that their peers and the faculty have respected them and who feel secure within the sustaining values that define our school environment. As a result, there is an emblematic fearlessness in their bones.

With the senior assembly program centering all, each student is known, acknowledged, and trusted as she seeks to create community, while finding her own voice.

Our students consistently have been defined by confidence, competence, and resilience — invariably rising above the glib, trendy definitions that constrain so many others. At AIS, we develop distinctive students who defy easy epithets that promote stereotypes such as baby boomer, gen Xer and now, the millennial. At the intersection of respect and trust, intelligence and substance in a community, one often finds this kind of central, grounding experience, which produces a special brand of resilience.

This adaptability is often seen in our senior assemblies, as happened one morning when one of our students strode onto the stage, took her ritual place behind the podium, and began to deliver her carefully crafted talk, complete with Powerpoint slides, about the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team Olympic victory over the Russians. As it turned out, this topic was certainly fitting, given the drama that unfolded. In the familiar place of the assistant below the stage, her sister sat crouched in front of the computer, following every word of the senior’s script with a laser-like attention and advancing the accompanying slides on the big screen with precision.

Then, the speaker — who was talking about the U. S. team’s determination, undaunted spirit, spunk, and belief in itself — stopped, realizing and unflappably noting for her audience of 350 or so people that the next several pages of her speech were missing and were not to be found anywhere on the podium. Without skipping a beat, although the audience inhaled with a collective, sympathetic anxiety that was audible, our speaker gracefully and confidently strode across the stage and collected the second copy of her speech, which her sister’s hand immediately thrust into the air. Their ballet was lovely and absolutely no time seemed to pass before our senior was back in her place, assuredly delivering the rest of her talk — to thunderous applause at its end.

Trust, respect, and our community’s embrace provided her compass in that moment and are our daily touchstones, which create a learning atmosphere that sustains us all. In the process, leadership is fostered, and the seeds of caring for humankind are sown.

Joanne Hoffman, Upper School Director

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