Everything you need to know to give the wrong commencement address

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Over the next few months, Robert Ahdoot, a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, will be sharing singular, bite-sized morsels of inspired education strategies. These aim to be juicy, yet easily digestible pieces of teaching wisdom. Enjoy.

“Graduates: just know that if you work hard enough, and follow your passions, then you can do anything that you sent your mind to. Congratulations.”

Quick, pass me the program so I can pretend to read it while zoning out until this guy’s done talking.

Can you spot the main problem with this person’s well-intended message? Read through it again and see if something about it misses the mark for the modern graduate.

The profound problem with this message is that it uses a version of the word “you” five times within that single sentence. Paraphrasing the message, it reads, “Graduates, you you you, you you. Congratulations.”

The preeminent challenge facing this modern generation is their decreased ability to connect with other people, which stems from the imbalanced use of technology in their lives. Such is their struggle to overcome. So to charge them with “you this” and “you that” and cast each one off to “you island” perpetuates that cycle. It’s isolating.

What utterly fascinates me is this: deep down, they all know it. They all know that members of their flock bear significant lapses in socio-emotional IQ. They’re so desperate to connect -- that is the root impetus for their tech in the first place. But that very technology has stripped them of countless opportunities to develop skills we can’t take for granted anymore, skills such as striking up conversation, maintaining conversation, active listening, empathy, and basic body language manners like not looking at phones while engaged with someone before you.

Thus at graduation, if it is your wish to have attendees glaze over, feed them another one-size-fits-none “American Dream” cliché. If on the other hand, you have the audacity to deviate from the politically safe, politely applauded graduation charge, then read on.

Technically speaking, since they don’t have their diplomas in hand, school is still in session. Turn it into a teachable moment. Teach them how to connect, plain and simple. When is a better time? They’re going places, and they stand to benefit from some direction.

Connection is what they all seek. Think about this: lurking beneath their devices and apps are the very sentiments they wish they had in their physical lives. Take for instance, terms such as “like” and “share.” Aren’t they better in person? Or how about emoticons of hearts and hugs and kisses which abound these days; they pale in comparison to the time in middle school when a girl drew a heart on my hand for no particular romantic reason, yet I actually considered holding my hand out of the shower to protect the ink.

Stories of how people similar to them successfully connected with others go particularly well. One of the more coveted aspirations they seek are exciting business collaborations, which they refer to so often that the term has been abbreviated to “collab.” They’ll say, “Melissa just put her music on SoundCloud and played at coffee shops, and just kept promoting it to different artists, and now she’s in a collab with Ellie Goulding’s team.”

I had a student last year who enlisted computer programmers to write him what are called “bots.” These bots basically input a willing customer’s payment information into an e-commerce page within lightning speed, so that a purchase can be made for exclusive items that sell out less than a minute after launch. He paid $40 for the bot program itself, and used the bot to purchase vintage, mint condition athletic fashion swag for $80 a piece, then turned around and sold each item for $300+ dollars on eBay to wealthy collectors here and abroad. At one point, he had the same bot working on his computer, his uncle’s, and his dad’s, to maximize the effort.

I love this kid, even though he’s a cut up in class. He didn’t work much in school, choosing instead to focus on his other endeavors. Nevertheless, I have a ton of respect for people who enterprise like that. The takeaway that any graduate can benefit from is that he couldn’t do this project alone. He needed to engage the programmers, members of his family, customers and anyone else in his path necessary to breathe life into his unique endeavor. Plus the lessons he learns at this early age far exceed the value of the cash he’s making. For the time being though, cha-ching away, young boss.

This type of creativity and connectivity is what our graduates need exposure to. They need visions they can easily imagine, tangible examples, stories, blueprints, roadmaps, and a bit of controversy to keep things interesting. That’s what inspires. If you intend to offer a graduation charge, I challenge you to avoid the following words. It may be harder than you think: milestone, only the beginning, future, bittersweet, memories, lessons learned here, and any version of “next,” such as “next chapter, next step,” or “next phase.” Barf.

If the aim of your charge is to teach them how to connect, then your primary goal must be to connect to them. Now go forth and collab.

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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