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.


So you want to make a flowchart?

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At many of our schools, we are currently celebrating the Christmas season, aka the season of giving. This seems to be the time when many families purge through their homes to clear out items to make way for new presents that will be arriving shortly. A few weeks ago, on a morning when I had […]

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The All-Powerful Portfolio

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Someone recently referred to me as being “mid-career”. I did a double take and gave them my best With that said, I will admit that library schools have changed a bit since I graduated in ’03. In addition to a required thesis or a comprehensive exam, many schools insist that their students create a digital […]

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Overdues: Overdone?

December 12, 2014

Ah, the pesky overdue. Does the overdue notice, and its cousin, the fine, still have a place in a library? Matt Ball, from the Woodruff Library at Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, posed these questions (and his answers) on the AISL discussion list: Why do we have overdues? (To get books back.) Why do we […]

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on going to disneyland …

December 10, 2014

We’re going to Disneyland! Okay, just kidding! We’re not going to Disneyland, but libraries can do field trips and we’re going to … The Hamilton Library at the University of Hawaii at Manoa! Woohoo! That’s almost just as good as Disneyland! Okay, maybe not … but still, for librarians, a field trip to a university […]

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And the Award Goes to…

December 4, 2014

Book award season is upon us. I love this time of year. I’ve been following the award prediction lists for 2015 and making my own predictions with friends and colleagues. We make our predictions and then read more books and edit our lists. Then we read more books and our prediction lists change again. And […]

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Lessons learned by a change in location

November 26, 2014

While our library is being renovated, we are temporarily located in the student lounge, which is smaller than our old (soon to be new again) space, and different in design: Original library > one huge room with second-story height, surrounded by upper windows letting in loads of light; additional upper and lower levels; large teaching/meeting […]

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Nothing Propinks like Propinquity

November 25, 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first definition of ‘propinquity’ is “nearness or closeness in space; neighbourhood, proximity”, but there is more to it than that. P.G. Wodehouse depended on this very phenomenon when he created his world of genteel country estates and comedic romances engendered by the nearness of those staying under one roof for any […]

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Moving from Distracted to Discerning Minds

November 21, 2014

  “If you could control someone’s attention, what would you do with it?” Sleight-of-hand artist Apollo Robbins poses this question in a TED talk “The Art of Misdirection.”  In Robbins’ amusing stage demonstration, he “pickpockets” items from a willing volunteer by using a series of verbal cues and distracting hand manipulations to misdirect attention. In the […]

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Citation Theory – A recap

November 19, 2014

Thanks for all for your help last week as I prepared a block class on citation theory for our three AP Language classes. It was surprisingly the most fun that I have had with a class all year because it wasn’t just a crunch of time to answer panicked questions about individual sources. I think […]

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