I might need a bigger boat: when vertical programming just won’t do

If you read my last post, you might end up thinking this one sounds somewhat familiar. I suppose that’s right. You see, I haven’t found a solution yet to the things I discussed in that post. I don’t have the answers, so I haven’t stopped thinking about what our students did or didn’t learn this year and whether or how that might matter. Think of this as part two in a series that I may or may not continue, but that for now still remains heavily on my mind.

Being a school librarian in this moment is more interesting than ever. We have that 30,000-foot view of what’s happening in our schools. Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to look around at what’s going on and then insert myself into the action. Or sometimes I can see some kind of shift happening, tectonic or not, and again I have a chance to insert myself and help shape the change. I like the librarian’s high-elevation vantage point at lot. From here, I can be an observer and a participant, two roles I like equally. Even when things roll along perfectly pleasantly for a while, being a librarian is awesome. But now, now we’re on the precipice of big changes (at least at my school). Changes that might last a few years until we get back to “normal”, or changes that might stick and last forever. You better believe I want to be part of that, especially if it’s the latter.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about my previous post. I wrote about the instruction we didn’t get around to this year, both in our research program and in other areas of the school. Now my interest has shifted a little bit and I’ve been thinking about how the 11th/12th graders will get out of this with most of our programs remaining mostly intact for their overall 4-year experience, whereas the same cannot be said for our 9th/10th graders. I mean, most of our 9th-graders just set foot on campus for the very first time a couple of weeks ago! They will be the ones for whom the program looks really different for the next couple of years, even though I don’t really know what that means yet.

While our 9th and 10th graders didn’t get even 25% of the research instruction they normally would have, our seniors really had very little of what some are calling “learning loss” (ugh, I hate that term) when it comes to the research program. They were already pretty skilled when the pandemic hit, so they completed their senior research coursework with only slight modifications. Meaning, they are ready to present at one or both of our big year-end events about what they learned this year, which is awesome. So we’ve got graduating seniors who made it through the best version of our research program ever, and 9th and 10th graders who basically did not engage in research at all. Here is the image that keeps coming to mind when I try to hold both of these thoughts at the same time:

the Buccaneer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Do you know this ride? Basically, it swings back and forth, higher and higher (while everyone screams and hopes/fears that it will go all the way over) until it reaches this certain moment in which it begins to slow down. It begins to swing the other way, only a little less this time, and a little less the next time, until the ride steadily comes back to its starting point and everyone exits the ride saying things like, “I really thought it was going to go all the way!” This is exactly how I feel right now about all of this impending re-writing and re-imagining of things. I thought it was going to go all the way, people! I thought we had that program on lock! But that dang boat can’t resist gravity, so here we swing in the other direction again. And that’s fun, too, right? That’s why this ride is stuck in my mind. Going up, up, up is really fun and a little scary. Then coming down (and it’s really not down so much as the other way) is fun and also comforting, and it feels a little bit like a relief. Like it’s time for the next ride.

Nora, what IS your point? You are talking about amusement park rides, for goodness’ sake. This is a library!

Honestly, I’m not sure. As I write this, it’s Tuesday. On Wednesday we are staging one of two year-end senior research events via zoom. Our school really only has two big non-arts academic events, both at the culmination of our Research Program. The first is the Senior Research Fair, which usually operates much like a good old fashioned science fair, with students spread around the gym in front of their trifold boards. Some bring devices or models they’ve built, others have works of art or photography, some have tri-folds covered in charts and graphs. It’s a good time all around. The other event is the Senior Research Showcase, a more formal affair. At this event we usually have a keynote speaker, poster session from select students, and concurrent presentations from maybe 14-16 students who excelled in their research performance. It’s an evening event attended by ~250 students, teachers, parents, community members, etc.

Last spring both of these events were flat out cancelled. We shut our doors just a few weeks before the fair, and none of us had a clue about running a zoom event at that time. Many of the students’ projects were necessarily truncated by loss of access to survey respondents, focus group members, labs, supplies, and frankly, stamina. So we cancelled the showcase as well, since we all really just needed to get through the end of the year. Here we are a year later, and while we only just opened for hybrid, it’s been clear for some time that we have the know-how to hold these events via zoom and so we were eager to bring them back. The fair allows all seniors, even those who may have stumbled during their research this year, to show off what they learned. It allows younger students to see what seniors are doing, what courses they might want to take senior year, and what level of work they might aspire to produce. The showcase spotlights exemplary work and brings in an audience that may not see, on a daily basis, what these students are capable of. I love these events.

This year both will be on zoom. That’s really ok, and in some ways there are advantages to becoming free of attachments to physical spaces that bring their own limitations. I’ve planned the fair to within an inch of its life (and mine), and while I’m sure there will be mixups and errors, it’s probably going to go pretty well, perhaps even swimmingly. It’s just that darn Buccaneer that I cannot get out of my head! Tomorrow we are swinging all the way up, and in May when we have our showcase, we’ll be screaming “It’s going over! We’re so high up, it’s going to go over!” After that will begin the inexorable sliding back in the other direction, the deep breath, the squeeze on the shoulder, the gratifying clunk when the boat comes to a stop and locks into place. We’ll be firmly on the ground again. I’ll undoubtedly hop off the ride with a “what’s next?” wriggling around in my brain.

It’s clear that we’re no longer operating in the vertical, as is most comfortable when planning progressive skills-based programming like our research program has always been. I’ll need the boat to swing up for the current juniors as they begin senior year with their version of the research program more or less intact, and then back to catch the younger students whose research “gap year” will cause a ripple effect of some considerable size. It’s a bit dizzying, but in the fun way?

If this kind of thing is on your mind too, then we should be friends if we aren’t already. I’m ready to think outside the vertical. Maybe it’s time for spherical thinking? Pyramidic? Cylindrical? What do you think?

Is my research program a house of cards? How the pandemic will lead to re-building, and that’s maybe not a bad thing.

As some of you know, I’ve been working to build a research program at my school for the past ten years with some really positive results. What started as a grassroots effort among ninth-grade teachers and myself grew into a hugely collaborative program that every student experiences across four years and a number of disciplines. Today, every senior takes a full year research seminar in one of the following disciplines: Statistics, Engineering for Social Good, Women’s and Gender Studies, Religious Studies, Psychology, and Biochemistry. Every junior completes a year-long research paper/project in a required Social Justice course. And every sophomore…..hmmmm, what do they do again? And the freshmen? Here is where the house of cards begins to teeter a bit, especially during a global pandemic.

The basic gist of the program is that 9th and 10th grade students complete a wide variety of research experiences in order to build skills, expose them to a variety of source types and research methods, and help them learn to communicate effectively. They do this in health, biology, religion, English, world history, and a few other places. We structure these experiences to happen on a staggered calendar so they are not completing multiple research projects simultaneously. Every teacher and discipline plays their part, everyone takes their turn, and by the time they get to junior year they have the chops to tackle the first really sustained project in the Social Justice course. This is the model, and it is a fragile one. Very, very fragile.

Why? Well, things change. Since I started this process we have had three health teachers, all of whom needed to be brought up to speed, trained, and convinced this work has a place in their class. We’ve had five biology teachers. Same goes. Rotations in each department happen, people retire or leave, new people come in, teachers switch up grade levels they are teaching, content changes, pacing changes, and so on. The 9th and 10th grade portions of this program have therefore always been incredibly dynamic. We don’t care what the topics are, right? As long as we can teach the skills. Source literacy in biology research is great, and that knowledge can transfer to source literacy in religious studies. The skills are the important part and the projects or experiences can change from year to year, teacher to teacher. That has worked both theoretically and practically since 2011. We constantly re-imagine, re-invent, and try new things. We adjust to the needs of the day. Yay for flexibility.

Now, let’s throw in a global pandemic, a school that has been closed for a year, a bell schedule with fewer instructional minutes to guard against screen fatigue and to protect the emotional health of our community. Throw in teachers being asked to cut, cut, cut! Cut homework, cut screen time, cut the fat. I am in agreement with all of this because zoom school is really, really hard. I am in agreement with all of this, and I am still kind of freaked out about what it has meant or will mean for this program I have nurtured for so long.

Working backwards, 

The current seniors were slightly less prepared for their senior research seminars because they went home mid-March of 2020 and we truncated their junior project to some extent to preserve everyone’s ability to make it through the crisis teaching and learning phase.

The current juniors did not complete their spring project in 10th grade for the same reason.

The current sophomores completed a scaled-back version of their 9th grade spring project for the same reason.

So, all the classes and projects this year needed to be modified to accommodate the missed opportunities for research instruction last spring. Totally fine, totally doable. Of course, that’s if this thing ends quickly and those projects go back to pre-pandemic times for spring of 2021, right? But of course that didn’t happen. The stopgap measures that one year ago we thought would be just minor inconveniences for one school year have grown into what I think will be a big ‘ol need for adjustment for the next several years.

Looking forward, 

This year’s freshmen did only one of the usual four research projects in which we teach critical skills like source evaluation, image citation, anything citation really, and so on. We might be squeezing in one more thing after spring break, but honestly, everyone is just SO tired I don’t know how.

This year’s sophomores are doing one of three usual research projects.

This year’s juniors are completing their junior project (hooray) and so are the seniors (double-hooray).

But do you see the house of cards? Next year’s juniors won’t be ready. Next year’s sophomores won’t be ready. And will we get those lost projects back, or are they gone forever? As I think more and more about this, I remember so clearly what it was like to build this program in the first place. It was really hard. I got a lot of pushback. Some people didn’t see the value. But (and this is a big but), it was also super exciting. I would find a teacher who was willing to listen and say “Hey, I have this really cool idea. Want to try it with me?” Some would say no, but others said yes and we would collaborate, co-teach, evaluate, iterate, and build. And then another teacher would see us doing that and say “Hey, what’re you doing over there. Can I try?” 

So maybe this pandemic has a silver lining when it comes to my beautiful house of cards? Maybe it’s a little like a healthy forest fire, and the undergrowth just needs to get cleared out periodically to make some space. Maybe it’s time to look again at the 9th and 10th grade model and see if it needs a little tune-up, or even a total overhaul. The 11th and 12th grade pieces are so strong now, so well-formed. Am I afraid everything could come crashing down? Yes and no. Yes, because I’m that kind of person and I have anxiety. No, because I’m deciding to spin this as an opportunity to innovate, which is what I think this program has always been. Think big, I say! How can I turn this house of cards into something better, stronger, more stable than before? I don’t have the answer yet, but the more I turn away from the fear and towards the excitement of building something new, the more confident I feel that we can figure this out. 

Do you have a house of cards? Has the pandemic caused you to re-imagine, re-invent, or totally overhaul research projects at your school? What did this year force you to change that turned out to be a positive? I’d love to hear how you are all coping with “lost” instruction, “lost” projects, and what you think next year might look like when it comes to student research. Thanks for reading!

Low Stakes Book Club: serving my faculty and staff

We do plenty in our library that is not academic. We try to make space for students to unwind, to commune, to take a little break, as well as a space for study. When our campus is open we have events like many of you do: board game days, trivia contests, crafting days, and so on. We have jigsaw puzzles, bean bags, magnetic poetry boards, and all the fixings for a great community space. Now that we are all on zoom (we’ve been home since 3/13/20 with no end in sight), those events have transformed into new things. We have book and movie fan parties, for example, with trivia and sticker prizes sent to students’ homes via snail mail. Our zoom events that are just for fun are a bit more sparsely attended, which isn’t a surprise. Who wants to go to another zoom after a long day of school?

But what about the adults on our campus? How can I serve them better in a non-academic way? The academic support, I’ve got down. I think we’ve done a pretty decent job reformatting our instruction, collaboration, and research projects for this moment. We have new services and digital resources to replace what teachers cannot access in the physical space. And while I guest-teach in classes all the time, my teaching load is nothing compared to our faculty. We have teachers with overloads, teachers with three different preps, not to mention grading, parenting, planning, being a club moderator, and wearing all the many hats one often does at a small, independent school. While we have been home, not only have I been looking for new ways to serve our student patrons, I’ve also been trying to keep present in my mind that our teachers and staff are also our library patrons. 

This topic might be on my mind at the moment because this is one of my heavy teaching weeks. I am teaching twelve classes this week, so the same number of blocks as a teacher with an overload. I am currently writing this in the last part of my lunch break after having taught the first three blocks of the day and getting ready to hop into the last. I haven’t returned emails, looked at my to-do list, or come up for air more than to get a glass of water and pass snacks to my third-grade child. When I have weeks like this, I can’t stop thinking “How are they doing this week after week?” For me, and perhaps for you, some weeks are heavy teaching weeks and others are not. They are all busy weeks, but this is next-level. 

If I believe that the library is meant to serve the students’ academic as well as non-academic needs, then I also want to consider the same for our faculty and staff. If I believe that the library is a learning space and a community space, how am I helping our teachers maintain community while we are all at home? 

Many of you probably have faculty and staff book clubs, right? Well, we didn’t. Years ago we did, but the teacher who ran it retired and I wasn’t in a position at the time to take it on. As the 2019-2020 school year came to a screeching halt (and somehow also took forever to end), I spoke with several friends and colleagues about how little we’d all been reading for pleasure since the pandemic hit. People were watching Tiger King and making shared movie/tv show lists, but our brains were fried. Yet, we all missed reading. It felt unnatural not to have one, two, or three books going at the same time. People seemed to feel that they should be reading, but also that they should be reading certain books. To that I say phooey! Well, not entirely.

I do think that informed people who intend to grow as humans should read certain books or certain authors or at least read on certain topics and about certain experiences. I do not, however, think that any reader should reject a book they want to read because it’s not on someone’s should list. I also know that sometimes, to kickstart reading after a slump, I need a particular kind of book to get me going again. Once I’m out of the slump I can tackle something more serious or challenging, but the kickstart book can be really hard to find. I wanted to end my own slump, and I knew some of my colleagues did too. To that end, I created the Low Stakes Book Club for faculty and staff. What does low stakes mean? For us, it means a few things.

  1. The book selection will not necessarily be a great work of literature, though it may be. It will often be a popular mystery, a page-turner, or a celebrity’s book club selection. We often choose books on the fly, though sometimes I send out a poll.
  2. The book club meeting is itself low stakes. Didn’t read the book? Who cares? You can show up anyway and hear about it from those who did. Maybe you read three chapters, hated it, and put it down. That’s cool! We hope to see you there.
  3. The purpose and administration of the club is low stakes. There is no theme, no pattern, no goal except to come together (on zoom) and keep our wonderful community going in a totally low stakes way. I might plan a game or trivia or discussion questions, but I really might not.

It’s been great. We have teachers and staff who faithfully read the book and show up every time, and people who never show up even though they always say they will. We’ve read some serious things and some less serious things. It’s been a nice way to connect with colleagues that I have no other chance to see since we’ve left the hallways and the dining hall (and the library!) to collect dust in our absence. And when we return to a new normal, the library will have played a role in bringing some happiness to a few teachers and staff along the way, which feels pretty good. 

The Low Stakes Book Club has read:

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Stamped by Jason Reynolds

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Talking politics with students

Public libraries are well-known for their role in promoting and facilitating civic engagement. But school libraries? Talking about civic engagement can lead to talking about politics, and talking about politics with students can be tricky, even taboo in some schools. I’ve been thinking about the role of the school library in encouraging students to lead active, healthy, informed civic lives. As school librarians, what value can we add to our students’ civic and political identity development? What happens if we take on this work?

In the fall of 2018, I asked a group of seniors to consider root causes for low youth turnout in the 2014 midterm elections. They resoundingly gave answers like “we don’t know about elections,” “our parents don’t talk to us about this,” and “we wish the school would teach us about politics.” While our students all take US History and US Government, those courses aren’t necessarily designed to teach the kind of political identity development and participation that informed elections require. These kids weren’t getting what they needed.

Subsequently, a few politically conscientious students asked me to help them make sense of the 2018 midterm election. They were going to vote for the first time, but they didn’t know where to begin. I planned three informational sessions in the library called Students Vote! We covered voter registration and rights, state ballot measures, the importance of the youth vote. To my surprise, it was a hit! The students asked me if we could keep going with this type of programming, and what could I say? Yes, of course! Let’s keep going!

We formed a leadership committee. They called the effort Teaching Youth Political Engagement, or TYPE. The committee was made of two students who identified as liberal, one conservative, and one moderate. It’s worth mentioning that this part was (and is) a challenge. Our school has a moderate-to-left leaning student population and many of our more conservative students have expressed discomfort at being politically vocal. One of the goals of TYPE is to be inclusive, though we still don’t have much representation from the right side of the political spectrum. That, however, is another blog post altogether.

In 2019, we held more voter pre/registration efforts, had a few informal discussions on political current events, and chugged along happily doing what we could when we could. There was some student interest, but as it is with many new efforts, I wasn’t sure this one would ever take. Our students are over-scheduled to the extreme, and TYPE is very much an extra that is easily dropped from to-do lists when life gets busy. Then, the pandemic hit, everyone went home, and my TYPE leaders graduated. I was pretty sure TYPE was done for. No one has the time or energy for something extra anymore, right? Still, in a moment of righteous optimism, I put out a call for new leadership in June of this year, and suddenly we were up and running again. Much to my surprise, delight, and mild nervous anxiety, six younger students raised their hands to lead TYPE into the 2020 election season.

What qualifies me to do this work? Good question. Back to school librarianship. In many ways, I feel the essence of my professional existence is to help people parse information. Politics is no different than any other topic when it comes to this. I don’t express my opinion, and I’m lucky not to have had anything too contentious come up. The format of our sessions is “here are the facts” followed by “what do you think about those facts?” and “how do these facts impact your life and what you care about or do?” Librarianship puts me on very firm ground when it comes to facts, and that helps because the students already know that about me. They know I care about sources and citing them. They know I don’t mess around with information.

Our discussions intersect with so many other areas of school librarianship. I really didn’t plan for that, but it turns out to be true every time. Each political discussion we have includes a nod to media literacy, news literacy, and information literacy topics. We talk about verifying information that circulates on social media in the context of images from protests, rallies, and riots. We talk about vetting news sources, reading news from multiple sources, and the consequences of irresponsible news consumption. We talk about information production and sharing. We talk about unpacking media messages and resolving contradictions. We talk about free speech and censorship, what it is and what it isn’t. In fact, this is maybe one of the most school librarian-y things that I do!

So how does it work? The leadership team decides what topic feels most pressing, we set a date to invite the student body to a discussion session, and then they collaborate to research and create a short presentation with discussion questions. The goal is to give some background information on topics students care about and that are not necessarily covered anywhere in the curriculum, and then to open the forum for discussion. We invite everyone, and usually somewhere between sixteen and twenty students show up— after school on a Friday— for yet another zoom meeting. I call that a raging success.

I begin each session by reviewing our community norms, the leadership team gives their brief presentation, and then we discuss. The meeting lasts an hour. We have some regulars that always show up, and we have new faces each time. Sometimes students talk about what happens in their classrooms or in their homes when it comes to political discussions. Sometimes the discussions are emotional. I frequently don’t have answers to all their questions, or their questions are ones that have no clear answers, but I try to follow up the best I can.

TYPE is definitely one of my favorite things. None of it is attached to a grade or a class or a research project, yet these kiddos show up, time after time, looking for space to develop their political and civic identities. They show up on a Friday after school to talk about the news they consume and the research they do on their own, to compare notes, to compare source material. I think school libraries are great spaces for this work. The public libraries of my youth certainly were. I’m glad my school library is growing its reputation as one of those spaces, and most of all, I’m so grateful that school librarianship provides a trusted and trustworthy context for this work .

Do you talk politics with your students, or promote civic engagement? I’d love to hear what you’re doing!