What Now, What Next?

When you finish a research project, what’s your next step? Anyone share mine?

Hi PW, So glad to see your students at the printer this morning with their final drafts in hand! Let me know when you have a few minutes in the next day or so to debrief about this year’s project and how we might improve it next year. Thanks, Christina

To complement my digital files online, I also keep a folder per class with research projects. At the top of each assignment, I put the year, what I did, how it was received, and a note with titles of any files linked to the assignment. After meeting with the teacher, I add a Post It with notes about how to make it better next year. These add up over time for a neat evolution of research and also work as a reference for new teachers looking for examples of the variety of ways the library can collaborate with classes.

In this, however, and in much of my life, there’s an unintended side effect. I don’t let things go. It’s never enough. Did I make enough brownies for the potluck? Is the recipe unique? Should I bring brownies to the teacher on lunch duty who can’t attend? Or offer to cover her lunch duty?  I remember my college used to host free movie previews, and I’d go with my roommates and sit next to them to movies none of us had heard of. And I’d think, “What if they think this is a waste of time?” Note that I didn’t need to suggest the movie to feel a sense of responsibility for their reactions. (So if you are reading this thinking, why am I not more thorough, know that thoroughness is not a recipe for contentment. When asked to set an intention at the beginning of a yoga class, I default to “Be here now.” And yet…)

Two years ago, when there was a lot more time for long hikes, I learned that memorizing poems during long hikes does bring me quite a bit of contentment. And roots me in the moment at hand. One such poem was Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

And when I get overwhelmed, these are the lines that echo through my head:

And thick and fast
They came at last
And more and more and more

While technically about the naïve and hapless oysters hurrying to their own feast, to me the lines represent my thoughts, my goals, my expectations for myself.

As many of you know, I also coordinate the school’s Capstone program. It’s not the AP program but an advanced independent interdisciplinary research program intended for a few students each year. Two of their seven periods are devoted to their Capstone. The application process is purposefully cumbersome, weeding out students who might not have the background or the drive to motivate themselves over an entire school year. And during the application interview, students – who can speak knowledgeably about their annotated bibliographies and research goals – get stumped by some variant of this question.

“What will make you feel like you have met your goals on this project?”

Because it’s not the easy answers: “learning about this topic I love,” “when it’s finished after RISE,” or “publishing.”

In the fall, I have the students write or video weekly reflections about what they’ve done, short-term goals, coping with setbacks, and similar topics. They are much harder on themselves than their professional mentors. But, they also don’t have a lot of experience creating their own goals, meeting them, not meeting them and thus refining those expectations, and learning from all of the above. Throughout their lives, they’ve looked towards parents, teachers, and coaches for tasks and for validation that these tasks were completed successfully. And while my students seem to have a simplified view that “life skills” are changing tires, doing taxes, and sewing buttons, I’d say that making progress on your goals — and either being satisfied with their progress or creating more realistic goals — is something I encounter much more frequently as an adult.

Just as with many others’ more contemplative recent posts, I’m still figuring it out. Learning doesn’t stop at the classroom doors, and my students, especially the top students, need to learn to be kind to themselves when their plans don’t match their reality. Rather than tell them how to do this, can I sit with them and their thoughts as we all figure out our paths?

Because I had up to this point drafted far ahead of time, during a crunch period last week, I sat with one and shared what I had written up to this paragraph. To which she responded by saying that she had assumed her stress was about this project, not something she would carry as part of her into whatever projects she has in college and beyond. We bring ourselves and our energies wherever we go; and we need to remember there are times to push forward and times to pull back. Or paraphrasing the offbeat yet wise poetry of Shel Silverstein, remember Melinda Mae and the whale.

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