Flexibility: A gift from the pandemic

The 2020-2021 school year: what a time to be a first-year department chair. When I applied for the library director position in December 2019 and accepted in February 2020, little did I know what drastic and sudden changes were on the horizon and the ride we were in for.

While I am still processing what changes to keep in our library and what routines should return to the way they were before the pandemic, I’m struck by the capacity of our library team to adapt to the new circumstances. I will not bore you with an exhaustive list of the changes we made (many I’m sure you had to make in your own libraries) but I am so proud of our department and what we achieved.

One demonstrative example occurred in May. Pre-pandemic, we would host Book Buffets (very similar to Reba Gordon’s speed dating) for our 7th and 8th graders to taste the books on their respective summer reading lists. English teachers would reserve a class period to bring their students to one of our library classrooms which was reset with tall, round-top tables dressed with colorful tablecloths, each with a short stack of books, several paper “buffet menus” for each student, and pencils. Students would divide among the tables, then have five minutes to start reading a book they selected from the table and complete the menu for their chosen title (which included questions such as “What genre do you think this book fits into?” and “Why or why not would you want to continue reading this book?”). At the end of the five minutes, the students rotated tables to repeat the process with a new book. Students could then check out books for the summer if they wished.

Last winter with May on the horizon, a growing sense of doubt bubbled inside me–how were we going to do Book Buffet? While we had by then a majority of students back on campus every day, we still had to keep a 6 ft. distance. All year our library classrooms were housing teachers from other departments with too-small rooms. How were we going to introduce the students to their summer reading options if we couldn’t do Book Buffet?

First lines quiz

After realizing that there wasn’t a feasible way we could simply adapt our Book Buffet program to be held safely, I was able to release much of the anxiety I didn’t know I had been holding. I had been trying to keep as close to the original event as possible with just a few necessary tweaks, but that was not a useful option for us in this case. So instead of trying to reimagine, we created an entirely new program: Summer Reading Maze. Loosely inspired by The Maze Runner with the challenge of “survive the maze by learning about the summer reading titles”, we brainstormed possibilities for several activity stations. The maze itself would be spread out on our main floor and weave between the waist-high fiction shelves. Classes would be divided into groups to start at different points around the space, so students could stay distanced. We set up two “laser” mazes with red crepe paper taped to the bookshelves for the students to maneuver through (it was hilarious to see older students trying these between classes!). Students would hear book talks about certain titles at one station and at another, they had the opportunity to download the Sora app and learn how to access digital copies of their summer reading titles. I typed out the first line from each book on their grade’s list and created a quiz of sorts–students would read through the lines on their sheet, rate them from best to worst, then use a key to see which titles corresponded to the lines they identified as most interesting. The surprise hit of the event was the handmade, laminated book cover memory game made by a colleague.

Book covers memory game

When I contacted our English teachers to share our plan for this new program, I was a bit hesitant. What would they think about this untested event? Would they be disappointed we couldn’t do the Book Buffet they were familiar with? Would they feel the maze was a waste of time and choose not to work it into their schedule? I should not have been concerned as many teachers eagerly reserved periods to bring in their classes. We had a very busy last week of school when we hosted 12 classes in four days for Summer Reading Maze, but the enthusiasm of the students and the positive feedback from the teachers was completely worth it. Faculty shared how delighted they were that their classes had the opportunity to get out of their regular rooms and take part in an active program. Students were still exposed to the summer reading options and many checked out additional material to read over break.

Reflecting on the last school year, I was consistently in awe of the flexibility everyone in AISL showed to change things on a dime when necessary. Perhaps when we look back at the pandemic, amid the memories of working from our kitchen tables and waving to show the smiles behind our masks, we will be grateful for the capacity this time built in us for flexibility, to be adaptable in new, uncharted situations, to break away from the comfortable way we’ve always done it. Amidst all the changes this season has brought, I will be thankful for this gift.

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