The most wonderful time of the year?

by Alyssa Mandel on December 19, 2014

I’ve been the librarian here at ODA for the past six years, and one of the things we prize here is maintaining a nimble quality that allows us to be flexible and responsive. We have a constituency that assumes we will fulfill certain expectations of our brand, but part of that brand is being small and friendly enough to try new things once in a while.

Traditionally in the upper school we have had exams in December just before the winter holidays and again in late May. I know there are variations on this theme: some schools hold exams immediately after a winter break, presumably to relieve teachers of the burden of grading over what is supposed to be a vacation. This method seems to shift the burden instead to the students, who must now spend part of their time off studying for looming exams that cast a pall over a festive season.

Our usual method has its challenges too, because it cuts out a few weeks of precious instructional time. The last week or two of the term is spent in review and preparation rather than teaching and assessment; and subsequent to that we have an entire week of exams, one per day, scheduled for three hours at a time, on a rotating docket. After each exam, students are released, presumably to recover and study for the next one. Grades are due quickly, so most teachers breathe a quick sigh of relief, and then put their heads right back down to get them all read and marked before traveling, staycationing, welcoming visitors (or putting their houses back in order after a whirlwind first semester.)

In the middle school it was not much different: the sixth grade has always had end-of-semester projects, but the seventh and eighth grades sat for shorter, but still pretty monumental, exams just like the upper school.

This year we are trying something different in the hopes of reclaiming instructional time; lowering stress levels on both students and faculty; and asking for work that is more collaborative and allows students to prove what they have learned more holistically. To that end, all grades are working on end-of-semester projects. As an example, I offer the ninth grade history assignment. Students were allowed to choose one historical question to ask, and then attempt to answer. Questions were vetted by the history teachers for appropriateness, and then students were paired up to make movie trailers with iMovie that answered their historical questions. Guidelines stated that each student had to help with at least one other pair’s assignment as an actor, cameraperson, narrator, art director, etc. Movie trailers will be presented to the class, and each pair has to submit a one-page abstract of the answer with a bibliography. Other classes or disciplines have assigned oral presentations, traditional papers, mock trials by jury, web page creation, infographic posters and so forth.

I should add here that in either case the library’s role has mostly been supportive: during the traditional exam sessions we provided a good place to study and bottomless office supplies for crafting flash cards, study packets and the like (the idea of library as “makerspace” at times like these being rather more established than we often recognize); in the new approach I conducted research-skills workshops four to six times a day across all grade levels throughout the fall, and also created LibGuides by discipline or project to support these collaborative projects. By now most of the research work has been done and it’s presentation and movie trailer time. So, for the last week or two I have been concentrating on things like weeding, budgeting and planning for my new space. It almost feels like a parallel to agriculturalism: a flurry of frenzied activity at harvest time, then a measured readying for a season of inward-looking hearthside solitude.

Reviews have been surprisingly mixed on both sides. All that extra instructional time teachers were hoping for? Well, they got it. And now they have to fill it. The students who were wishing for a way to obviate the pressure of proving everything they knew in a single three-hour exam? That cataclysm is over, but instead they’re accountable for proving their knowledge to each other and their teachers in projects that take two or three weeks and require collaboration and creativity.

So, naturally there has been some water-cooler discussion burbling here and there: teachers are exhausted by two or three more weeks of instruction, students preferred “getting it over with” and enjoying a week of half-days, et cetera. At one point I said this aloud:

Just because we don’t like it as much doesn’t mean it isn’t better for us. I do not enjoy broccoli as much as I like ice cream, but I recognize that one is clearly more beneficial to me than the other. As neither current classroom teacher nor student I don’t feel like I have a right to weigh in on which approach is ultimately better, but as a citizen of the world with more than four decades’ experience I know that “liking” a thing is not always based on its actual merit. This was an experiment, and I have no insight into whether we will return to our usual arrangement or not. If your institution has variations on this theme or has similarly experimented and come to a conclusion, please feel free to share in the comments below.

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