Using Celebration Innovations to Create a Vibrant Culture of Learning

I am writing this as the end of the traditional school year draws near. As such, there is much planning underway in many schools. Some are planning each detail of the graduation day events. Leading up to that, this is also the time when K-12 schools and Universities prepare to celebrate various accomplishments. Awards banquet planning is underway, with many winners already selected. Hearing educators talk about this led me to think more about the idea of celebrations, and more specifically what I am calling celebration innovations.

What we celebrate says something about who we are and what we value. As such, what will we celebrate in our schools and learning communities this year (this goes for pretty much any community, not just schools)? Consider a few of the more common ones.


If you are in a traditional school, there is probably a time to celebrate and acknowledge the valedictorian, often heavily weighted on the basis of the grade point average that one maintains throughout school.  This person is sometimes chosen to represent the student body, offering some sort of speech or public remarks during graduation.

Honor Roll

Scan the local newspapers, especially in smaller towns, and you will see honorees sorted by their grade point averages. Honor goes to those who earn the highest letter grades which translate into this overall numeric representation of academic performance.

Perfect Attendance

This is especially common in some elementary schools. Students are recognized for not getting sick (or coming to school even if they are sick), having family with no challenges that impact attendance, as well as family members who resist taking their kids on sometimes incredible travels and learning experiences.

The Trophy Case

In most schools, these are heavy on athletic achievements of teams and individuals. Individual records are celebrated. Team rankings and ratings are celebrated. Sometimes massive trophies are placed in glass cases within the hallway for all to see well into the future.

A Few Thoughts

There are, of course, many other things that we celebrate, but each of these examples and the many others say something about our culture and what we value. They speak to our priorities. They become part of our culture.

It is with this in mind that I often wonder about the role of revisiting our learning community celebrations. What do we value? If those are the things that we truly value, how do we celebrate in accordance with our values? In other words, what celebration innovations are useful to help nurture the culture that we want, and to amplify the values that are most important to us?

The answers will vary by school, because not every school shares the same values and culture. However, I am not convinced that all of our current celebrations support what is most important to many in the community. We unknowingly undermine our culture and then find ourselves frustrated when things do not seem to be the way that we want. Culture is powerful. It can undermine a mission and it can also be a key to achieving our mission.

Celebration is a part of culture, and it is something that we can influence. I have to wonder what would happen to a school that gathered teachers, leaders, parents, students, and other key stakeholders together to talk seriously and deeply about what they value. Then, based upon what they surface, they could intentionally seek out celebrations that align with those values. They commit to being critical about their celebration choices, recognizing that there are often hidden messages in a celebration. Nonetheless, this sort of intentional celebration innovation could be a powerful way to help build that rich culture of learning that so many of us want to see in our schools.

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