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Beyond the Pie Chart: When Learning Can't Be Measured

Like many libraries around the world, mine holds a Food for Fines event each year.  In fact, I got the idea from my local public library which held one 3 years ago, but then stopped (I’m not really sure why).  For us, Food for Fines equates to a one week event in which students can pay off library fines by making non-perishable food donations. While lots of students take advantage of this opportunity to clear their accounts, the vast majority of the donations we receive, are from students who DON’T have library fines.  This is because the event is heavily promoted, integrated into the curriculum, and used as a conversation starter between kids and adults about poverty, social justice and how the purpose of knowledge is to inspire action. 

Overall, our donations were down this year.  Although I’m a little disappointed, I’m not really surprised.  In addition to the economic turmoil that we’re all facing, my school is experiencing the (often exciting and wonderful, but also sometimes messy) growing pains of redistricting.  And the fact is that our new population simply isn’t as affluent as those of years past.  Even so, there are plenty of other numbers indicating that this event was a success:

  • 100% - This is the number of classes that participated in the event this year.  No matter how small, every class gave something.

  • 84 - This is the number of boxes of food that will be donated to Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Wilmington, NC.

  • 55 - This is the number of fines that were paid.

  • 21 - This is the number of homeless students at my school who will benefit from donations given to our “back pack buddies” program.

  • 9 - This is the number of classes I worked with to discuss and discover information related to poverty in our area.

  • 2 - This is the number of school buses it will take to deliver our donation.

  • 1 - This is the number of students who were utterly shocked to learn that both peanut butter and tuna fish are considered protein (we have the students sort the food into food groups so that we can make a nutritious  donation).  Ok.  I admit this number may actually be much larger.

But the really important outcomes can’t be measured.  I don’t know about you, but at this time of year, when I’m trying to make sense of end of year data, I sometimes find it tempting to rethink projects that can’t be defended with a pie chart or a bar graph.  However, this is wrong and dangerous thinking. The conversations that grew out of this project, the seeds of empathy and philanthropy that were planted, and the understanding that once you know a thing, you can’t unknow it, (you can choose to ignore it or choose to act on it, but you must choose) – these outcomes cannot be measured – but that makes them no less important than those that can be.

As school librarians, we are in the business of impacting student learning.  And like all teachers, that means we have to be concerned with academic success, growth and proficiency.  However, this week has reminded me that knowledge is best cultivated in an environment of dialog and participation – of conversation and discovery.  And while those environments are often discordant and produce results that are difficult to quantify, they are the ones that are most likely to help our students grow into thinkers, questioners, innovators and (big, big social) problem solvers.

As I always am at the end of Food for Fines week, today I find myself both exhausted and grateful.  Not only am I pooped by the sheer effort it takes to pull the whole thing off (not that I do it alone, by any stretch of the imagination) but I am also utterly humbled to be a part of a profession whose very mission is rooted in making the world, and the people in it, better.


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