The Liberation of Not Knowing All the Answers

This post was written by Jill O’Connor who was a school librarian for 12 years before making the switch to a public library and, as the Youth Services Librarian at the Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, Maine, she is  loving the freedom to craft programs for a willing audience. She is an avid reader of YA and middle grade books and a book reviewer with the Maine State Library Book Review group. When not thinking up glorious new STEM programming, she can be found driving to her son’s hockey games or her daughter’s dance classes, routing for the local baseball team, or cooking up new foods to tantalize her family.

As a former school librarian, I am new to the public library world. In the public library setting, programming looks very different than it did in school where you are a teacher, on par with all other educators in the school with learning objectives and curricula in hand. A school offers an audience of a knowable set of bodies in your class every day. You plan classes (programs) that hit your objectives and you present information. You don’t have to know everything, and it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, let’s look it up,” but for the most part, I always felt that I had to be the one in the know and in the position of teaching my audience something.

Fast forward to this past fall, I am the shiny new Youth Services Librarian at a public library, excited to try new things in a completely different setting, no longer hostage to the multiple classes-per-day grind. My domain is 3rd through 12th grade, and I am in charge of collection development, reader’s advisory, and all programming for the patrons within my assigned demographic. I know that I have to offer some STEM programming; it’s being asked for by parents and it’s a sensible and sought-after topic for all kids to be participating in, but what to do?!

Then, in one day, two separate professional development (PD) opportunities cross my inbox.  YES! I love library PD. One, a STEM-themed day at the Maine State Library focusing on easy ways to bring programs to public libraries, and the other is a three-session web course offered by the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA).  The course is part of MMSA’s ACRES (After School Coaching for Reflective Educators in STEM) project. I got approval to attend both. The STEM day was inspiring, giving me some hands-on practice with a few easy STEM activities involving LEGOs, circuits, and DASH robots. When I got back to my library, gushing about the DASH robots, my director approves the purchase of two of them. I am officially in the STEM saddle and feeling excited, but apprehensive, about my new program that I’ve titled, Got Science?.

Then I attend my first ACRES session. It is a web-based course conducted by a facilitator using ZOOM. There are five of us in our cohort, four from my state and one from another state across the country. We attend our first Zoom and learn about Purposeful Questions (Click2Science defines Purposeful Questions as well-placed questions that drive science experiences and design questions, while helping learners understand what they should focus on, and where they should go next). Our ACRES facilitator was excited to meet our cohort, knowledgeable in her field, and very committed to helping us be better purveyors of programming using Purposeful Questions. I wonder, “What does this mean in my setting?” “How can I ask Purposeful Questions in a 50 minute library program where I am supporting youth learning in an informal environment?”

Our second ACRES session was one in which cohort members came prepared with:

  • The supplies needed to perform an experiment on water filtration
  • A video of either ourselves teaching a class using Purposeful Questions or of the library space where STEM programming does/can happen.

As we ZOOMed together, we were given a very broad goal, “Using the materials you brought to this session, filter the water.” We were given time to construct and then, once the time was up and each of us had some form of water filter in front of us, we each walked through our steps in building the filter and the outcome of that process.

Our facilitator didn’t tell us whether or not we had done it correctly or how to do it better, she merely asked questions and made us ask more questions about how we could do it differently, what we had learned, why we had constructed the filter the way that we had. She is not an expert on water filtration systems nor did she have or offer all of the answers. We were all working together to understand what we had done and how and why we could change things. It was exploratory and a little scary for me. I am used to being in the position of “teacher” and “expert” – when a question is asked of me, I like to know the answer. That was NOT the point here. I didn’t have to have all of the answers. I just had to push my fellow cohort members (stand-ins for my program participants) to wonder and to question and to try different tactics to achieve an outcome.

Our last session focused solely on videos that each of us had taken of ourselves running a program using Purposeful Questions. I’d held the first of my Got Science? sessions at the library and had filmed kids constructing pom-pom runs from cardboard tubes and tape. The participants were put in teams of 3, given at least 6 tubes, none of which could touch one another when placed on the wall, handed a roll of tape, and given the objective of getting a pom-pom to land in a certain square on the floor. Here is your objective, here are your parameters and supplies, GO! I walked around and questioned each group, asking why they were doing what they were doing, getting them to share with one another and listen to one another about tactics for placing tubing and celebrating their failures and their victories. I did not have to know everything about gravity or force; I had to give them materials and an objective and then I had to encourage and question and listen. They did the work. It was marvelous to let go of my need to mold and coddle and direct.

Our next Got Science? session involved circuits. Participants were given the following supplies, a length of copper tape, a 3V battery, and an LED light bulb. We talked about what circuits were, how they worked, about conductors and paths for conduction. Then I instructed the participants to use all of the supplies in front of them to make a working circuit that would light up their bulb. Some kids really floundered at not being shown HOW to do it so they could successfully meet my demand, but others rose to the challenge. What did they have to do to get that bulb to light up? At one point, I was helping a girl and we were laying down copper tape in a particular pattern. She asked me if I thought it would work and I answered, “I don’t know.” It did not work and she looked at me, wonderingly, and said, “you really didn’t know.” I really didn’t know. And it was okay. We were allowed to fail at our attempt and try something different. I wasn’t the expert that knew the one and only right way to make a circuit. It was glorious. I leaned on my new confidence acquired through the ACRES course to cede my need for perfection. A perfect circuit was not just one that worked, it was one that failed first, and then again, and then worked. I learned the beauty of an honest “I don’t know,” and the connection that can come when we let our students/participants be active participants in their learning.

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