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?

2 thoughts on “I might need a bigger boat: when vertical programming just won’t do

  1. I’m thinking more Amoebic! 😀
    This past year, though we have been face2face all year, has still been a major challenge for the library program, since I had almost no contact with the majority of the school. I tried, amoeba-like, to flex with the situation, but I, too, have been wondering how this past year will shape the library program going forward. I lost my other (part-time) librarian last year when she retired (just in time!), and I have not yet been given the green light for a replacement. So what does it look like if I end up being the only librarian for 750 students ages 2-18? What will programming look like when we are allowed to have library classes again? As our school re-evaluates yet again at the end of this school year, I hope I will have the opportunity to weigh in.

  2. I love the Buccaneer metaphor, but what I remember about that ride is not that I ever thought it’d go up and over. I remember that feeling of momentary weightlessness at the end of each swing and that made you feel like you were going to fly out of the boat and die as the boat changed directions–which, well, maybe works as a research instruction curriculum metaphor, too! LOL!

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