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!

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

  1. OMG, Nora, yes! Thank you for articulating this so beautifully — the challenges and the opportunities. I’m trying to track in my head what classes I can say: “Remember in 8th grade when we….” and who I’ll have to start with from the beginning, and having to think through what I really value and what is outdated. Grateful for this thoughtful and affirming post.

  2. OMG, Nora, I hear you! We have even fewer research projects per year and 75% of our junior class who take AP US History (which is the only “major” research project of their Upper School career and even that is only 7-10 pages) aren’t doing it and last year’s spring severely cramped the sophomore and freshmen projects. Thankfully my regular US teacher is still assigning the paper, but I’m going to have a large senior class without the “how to write a paper over four months with clear milestones” experience. Oy.

    Truthfully, I think the decision was made more for the teachers than for the students (and I completely understand not overwhelming overburdened teachers), but I think the point you’ve made regarding “what is the long-term effect?” is key. Our curriculum committee discussed that we need to actually survey teachers about what is not getting taught this year, since I’ve heard several Middle School colleagues mention that, with decreased instructional time in our in-person schedule, they are teaching only 50 to 75% of their curriculum. That caused widening eyes for Upper School teachers because it posed the question, when is a course not that course anymore? Is Algebra II still Algebra II if the student only did 70% of the work described in that course description? For foundational classes (and which ones aren’t foundational?), this reality resets the bar.

    I’m utterly exhausted and can’t think of a colleague who isn’t the same, but what gives me energy is actually thinking about major changes we could enact as a school that would offer a needed shift in perspective. Our school doesn’t have a “portrait of a graduate” but would a focus on skills a student graduates with allow us to look at this pared-down curriculum and hone in on bolstering those skills rather than obsess and mourn content knowledge loss? Is a skill-focus the platform we need to have a cross-division discussion about the real experience of our students over the last year and a third and would taking a moment to truly reflect on our student’s experience allow us to peel back the layer of what we say we teach to honestly examine what we really teach under these usual circumstances?

    Thank you so much for writing this post and making your frustrations visible. It’s extremely validating to see the thoughts in other librarians’ heads that match my own! 🙂

    • I would love to know how your research framework looks. We are building out ours for 6th -12th grades, and honestly, I don’t know where to start! Any and all feedback is appreciated.

      • Hi, Tracy! I don’t know if this will help, but we mapped out a Library Scope and Sequence Age 3 to Grade 12 ( showing student progression in the areas of Recreational Reading, Information Seeking Behavior, Information Synthesis, Ethical Use of Information, Product Creation, and Community of Scholars. It gives a sense of our framework (we’re working on tagging all our lesson plans with AASL and ACRL standards right now) so maybe it will generate some ideas for you. We match it up with a spreadsheet that lists individual teachers and classes and their research projects throughout the year to verify we are hitting all our markers (and there are years we don’t). 😉

  3. I would love to know how your research framework looks. We are building out ours for 6th -12th grades, and honestly, I don’t know where to start! Any and all feedback is appreciated.

  4. Thank you for thinking through and articulating what so many of us are thinking. I still remember a BAAIS Zoom call last April when another librarian said she was already tracking what was being lost and how that would impact coming years. Because there are definite long-term impacts! I love the forest fire analogy and I know you’ll continue thinking how to best modernize it post pandemic.

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