Coming Face to Face With IB

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Nichols

By Claire Walla

Over the summer, administrators at the Sag Harbor School District began discussing the possibility of implementing a new program, called the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Founded in Switzerland in 1968, IB was created as a global education initiative meant to bring writing, critical thinking and worldly perspectives to the forefront of elementary and high school education.

Currently, over 3,000 schools use the program worldwide, including six here on Long Island.

“For me, IB embodies the best current practices in education,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, noting its emphasis is project-based assessments rather than multiple-choice tests.

But as a program that seems to encourage more questions than answers, many are still wondering what it’s really all about.

Robin Caltri, an independent consultant who promotes what he sees as the benefits of IB, came to Pierson two weeks ago to talk with parents and staff about the program. For Calitri, former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, the value of IB is that it surpasses traditional ways of measuring intelligence.

“A gifted kid is one who reads well, thinks logically, does what the teacher wants and can do well on an exam,” Calitri said. “Others of us don’t have the gift of that intelligence. It takes us other ways to show what we know.”

IB draws from the teaching methods of Howard Gardner, a widely influential educator who proposed a method of education based on multiple intelligences: visual, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, logical, etc. And in an IB classroom, as many of these perspectives are drawn upon as possible. This may require teachers to assign more group assignments, skits and art projects, or even take more field trips.

“Students should not passively take notes and then regurgitate [that information] on a test,” Calitri added.

There may also be some change in content. But, while IB offers its own list of courses, it won’t exactly require teachers to reinvent the wheel.

For example, New York State requires eleventh graders to take U.S. history. In order to meet the state standards as well as IB requirements, diploma students would take an IB course called “History in America.” While it covers the United States, Calitri said this IB course also challenges students to think beyond their own borders, to consider a wider scope of American history that includes Mexico, Canada and Latin America.

“There may be some teachers who will have to redo their curriculum, and sometimes that’s a difficult thing for some teachers,” Calitri added. “They will have to broaden the scope of what they teach because a lecture course just doesn’t work.”

Representing the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH), Pierson math teacher Jim Kinnier addressed IB at last Monday’s education forum by reading from a statement drafted by TASH, essentially stating that teachers are open to exploring new ways of enhancing the curriculum.

“There’s some thought that teachers here are not open to improvement, and that’s absolutely not true,” he said later.

As for how IB would affect his classes, Kinnier was “intrigued” by learning about new ways to improve students’ abilities to think; but, he added, “I can’t make a decision myself as to whether or not IB is good until I go to the training.” Kinnier will be attending a seminar later this month in Houston, Texas.

Pierson history teacher Frank Atkinson-Barnes, who has already been through the three-day training program, said he still favors AP.

“I really like my AP World class,” he said. “I just wish we could tweak it a bit.”

Atkinson-Barnes did admit that there are some things IB does well.

“It’s not always a matter of apples and oranges,” he added.

The two-year IB format, for example, would allow teachers to teach more in-depth writing and research methods, which currently “I just don’t have time to do.”

However, he believes AP courses, which tend to survey a wider range of information, often better serve high school students. In his opinion, the school should keep AP classes, but spice them up with IB principles.

“Whether or not we go to IB, these [IB training] days weren’t wasted,” he said.

Even though the number of IB diploma and certificate students should roughly equate to the number of students currently taking AP courses, the idea — should the diploma program be a success — is for IB principles to trickle into many Pierson classes, and for the school to eventually grow the amount of IB participation.

And while many parents are enthusiastic for this change, some are still on the fence.

“You’re talking about changing the whole curriculum. This is going to be something that’s going to affect everyone in this school,” said Laura Matthers, whose twin daughters are currently freshmen at Pierson.

The school is considering implementing the program in fall 2012, so Matthers’ daughters will be among the first Pierson students eligible to receive IB diplomas. But, she added that as a parent of two children with different passions, she is concerned that IB might affect one child differently than the other.

For her daughter who is more artistically inclined, Matthers said IB pedagogy might suit her needs well. She welcomes the opportunity to enrich standard-level courses with more activities and to emphasize different ways of learning.

On the other hand, her other daughter is on-track to take Advanced Placement (AP) scholar courses, a track she worries might get bumpy should IB get in the way.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” she said, including whether or not IB credits will transfer over to university, or even whether IB would make it more difficult for her daughter to qualify for a merit-based scholarship. (Administrators have said that many schools do recognize and give credit for IB coursework.)

According to Nichols, should IB get introduced to the curriculum, AP options would not diminish, in fact AP courses might even be taught alongside IB. He also reiterated IB’s claim that any student who has completed IB coursework will do well on an AP exam in that same subject — the reverse is apparently not true.

Though it’s a hot topic at Pierson, elementary school parents have IB on their radars as well.

As her fifth-grade daughter nears her transition from Sag Harbor Elementary School to Pierson Middle School, Joan Dudley said she actually started considering moving back to Westchester County and sending her daughter to a private school in the city. She wondered whether a move to the private sector might give her children the more challenging curriculum she feels they need.

She’s since reconsidered.

“The thought of IB coming has made me stop thinking about other options,” she said.

Dudley is excited for the prospect of introducing IB to the curriculum not just for the opportunity students will have to receive an IB diploma, but for the work ethic that goes hand in hand with the program’s ideals.

“Whether they’re [teaching for] the diploma, the certificate, AP or regular courses, teachers will be teaching at a higher level,” she said.

Julie Hatfield, another fifth-grade parent at Sag Harbor Elementary School, also attributes her success to IB. Hatfield was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, and ultimately earned her masters degree in architecture from Harvard.

One of only two students who participated in the IB program in its inaugural year at South Side High School, Hatfield praises IB for bringing the idea of critical questioning to the forefront of her education.

“I don’t even think I knew that was an option before,” she said.

Hatfield is sometimes frustrated by her daughter’s assignments — like “mad-minute math,” meant to test her ability to recall information quickly — and hopes the district will continue to explore IB, which hinges on more critical thinking.

“I have noticed that there are some teachers who are comfortable differentiating between students’ abilities, and some who aren’t,” she said. “And the ones who are, do more project-based learning. They are the ones my children are most engaged by, and I think IB is an extension of that.”

Nothing is set in stone, but the district will continue to consider the IB program for fall 2012. Principal Jeff Nichols will give a presentation on IB at the next board of education meeting on Monday, February 7.

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