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.
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.
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!