Sixth grade English teacher Alexandria Stewart said there are two ways teachers can think about being part of an International Baccalaureate program: It’s either one more thing to get through during the day, or a key step to helping students become well-rounded graduates one day.
Stewart, a Westlane Middle School teacher, is firmly in the second camp. Washington Township, which one year ago asked all schools to follow an IB program, expects all teachers to follow her example.
“With IB, you are teaching kids how to be better people and how to better the community around them,” Stewart said. “You are teaching kids to be intellectual.”
Last year, Washington Township became the only school district in Indiana, and just the sixth worldwide, to win approval to offer IB classes to all grade levels. Most school districts that offer IB offer it though premium high school classes, similar to Advanced Placement courses.
The district’s goal is to prepare students to be part of a global society by using critical thinking skills, conducting research, asking questions and participating in community service.
IB is a nonprofit group created in 1968 by educators at the International School of Geneva, Switzerland to serve students in international schools who wanted to prepare for college. The curriculum does not tell teachers exactly what to teach. Rather, it outlines important content in a specific framework and then expects teachers to use that to form lessons. The district has been offering the most rigorous high school IB program, known as the Diploma Program, since 1988.
But Superintendent Nikki Woodson said the district’s transition toward broader use of IB has more steps ahead.
“IB is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator … which may be easier and which may give you faster results,” Woodson said. “And it’s more work to take the stairs. But at the top when we are done and our kids graduate, they will be strengthened.”
IB has higher expectations for teachers, students
Stewart is not completely new to IB teaching.
She watched her own siblings go through the program while she was growing up in Indianapolis, learned even more about it through hands-on work while student teaching at school using IB in Milwaukee and now practices what she’s learned in her own classroom.
But that doesn’t mean she gets to take it easy.
IB is very specific about how it asks teachers to prepare lessons. Stewart said it can be a hard adjustment. She has to write reflections before, during and after each lesson as well as complete other paperwork and requirements to show she’s teaching IB’s core principles, which include risk-taking, questioning and communication.
Each lesson is about more than just teaching one skill, she said, such as identifying a verb. An IB teacher must take it one step further, she said: have students identify parts of speech and then put those words together to write something meaningful.
“You have more opportunity, I think, in an IB setting to really take that risk and go beyond the surface of a lesson,” Stewart said.
Stewart said her students learn through argument and discussion, but they also learn by exposing themselves to other cultures and ways of life.
For example, Stewart said one lesson last year asked the sixth-graders to write grant applications for community projects and submit them to the United Way. The kids proposed ideas such as putting together backpacks for homeless people or organizing a camp for students with special needs. Although it was just an assignment, one idea they proposed — creating a community garden — is now in the works at the school.
Those types of lessons, which often include projects that require the students to do research and work independently, also create a more mature classroom atmosphere, Stewart said.
Contrary to how some might view the enthusiasm and maturity of middle-schoolers, Stewart said her students are thoughtful and mostly enjoy the extra responsibility.
“They love it,” she said. “A big thing is that they get to choose what to talk about. I don’t think in sixth grade they are given an opportunity to have an opinion about something very important, more important than what are you going to wear today, or who has a crush on who.”
Not all gains seen in test scores
Even with the more rigorous coursework and complex teaching requirements, it can be difficult to see the value of an IB program in state test scores.
“The frustration is we know standardized test scores are not going to measure what we are doing, our work with IB,” Woodson said. “How can we show the world what we’re doing with IB and how it matters beyond just the Indiana standards, which are required of us?”
Washington Township is changing: The district has seen dramatic growth in poor families and students learning English. Although its ISTEP passing rate has hovered between 65 and 71 percent since 2006, the district moved to a B letter grade in 2013-14 from a C in 2012-13. Last year’s letter grades are expected later this year, or in early 2016.
In IB curriculum, state standards and preparing for standardized tests are just the foundation of what teachers and students are expected to accomplish, Woodson said. That makes for some difficulty when trying to broadcast the district’s progress to the wider community, especially since only 20 percent of Washington Township residents have kids in school, Woodson said.
A couple of examples show how differently IB works from traditional graded school assignments.
In 10th grade students must create a “personal project,” and as seniors they are required to write an “extended essay” to earn their IB diplomas, which often come with an opportunity to earn college credit.
For the personal project, students had their choice of any subject to study. Some chose music, dance, painting, pollution or animal activism, and they worked on their project presentations throughout the entire school year with the help of a faculty mentor. But unlike traditional school projects, this one won’t earn kids a letter grade, Woodson said.
“It’s not graded, it’s not something they can put on a transcript,” Woodson said. “But they are developing themselves in a personal way, in something they choose.”
Similarly, high school seniors in IB’s most challenging program must write an essay, but one more akin to a college thesis or research paper. An evaluation of the essay by IB graders helps decide whether students earn their IB diploma.
Woodson said her staff is putting immense time and energy into continuing its work as an IB district — training teachers, revamping its testing system and figuring out how to grow the program even further.
The best validation that they are performing well and making progress, she said, comes from IB’s oversight.
“Just because they give you approval under the authorization stamp and say now you can call yourself an IB school, they come and do quality checks,” Woodson said. “They can come and remove your authorization if you are not doing what you need to be doing. It means we have to stay on top of our game, which is good.”