Why I like the IB Diploma

A few years ago, I got an email from a friend. He's American, and after teaching in California and New York, had ended up in the UK, teaching A-level English. His school had announced that they would adopt the IB Diploma Programme, and knowing that I had been teaching in the Diploma for several years, wanted to know what I thought about it. I found an archived copy of my response the other day, and I thought it might be interesting for others. I have made a few changes to reflect some shifts in my thinking.

I will confess to being a big fan of the Diploma, to the point that I would make teaching in the programme one of my highest priorities in choosing another teaching job. I have been teaching A1, A2 and B English, but I'll assume you'd be teaching A1 (mother tongue) English. Here's what I like:

  • The course is designed by teachers. The IB solicits advice and questions from teachers as they design the courses, and although they also may be considering other factors as well, I feel like they are reasonably responsive (as compared to the College Board and the AP exams, for instance). After every exam, they ask teachers to evaluate the exam questions and texts. It is still easy to see the IB as a monolithic exam preparation board (especially if you choose not to participate in the feedback), and they could do better at being connected to the programme's teachers, but compared to the other systems I've interacted with they are relatively transparent and interactive.

  • The content is flexible. Rather than prescribing a set list of texts for all students, the IB prescribes a large selection of authors from whose works a teacher can choose; teachers at the same school need not even select the same texts. While the list may not always be as comprehensive as one would want, it has allowed me to select texts based on my own expertise and the interests and skills of my students. In addition, 3-4 of the texts need not be on the prescribed list at all, which has allowed me to teach detective novels and a popular Finnish novel in translation, for instance. Many teachers allow students some choice in the works they study.

  • The assessments are strong. The exam papers, oral assessments and assignments challenge students to develop higher level reading, thinking and response skills. In other words, when I am 'teaching the test' I am usually teaching skills that I want students to learn rather than nonsense they'll never use beyond the assessment. There is no multiple choice. 50% of the assessment is done before the exam papers. 30% is oral. One of the oral assessments and one of the exam papers require close readings, the paper being a previously unseen text. The Individual Oral Commentary is an amazing experience through which every literature teacher should put themselves. Both exam papers allow some choice of question and generally require students to make their own choices and develop their own readings rather than conform to an established reading. As a result, the external assessment and moderation of internal assessment are sometimes not as consistent as one would like, but that's the price to be paid for more authentic assessment.

  • The criteria for assessment allow for a range of styles and responses. The criteria do demand organization and structure, but they do not define what that might look like, so the traditional thesis-driven essay is one choice but not required. While most students will want formulas to work with for their assessments, they will not be penalized for developing their own strategies -- in fact, if it's effective, they will be rewarded. There are no checklists or a need for the student to memorize or guess at the content of the criteria: they are qualitative, and again, they focus on what most English teachers would find important for a college-preparatory English course.

  • The IB Diploma has a philosophy to it that encourages life-long learning, not just success on an exam. Some schools ignore the learner profile and the other philosophical aims of the IBO, but in doing so I think they cheat their students, running them through a points factory rather than helping them develop the skills and attributes that they will be able to use within their academic career and beyond.

I have criticisms of the programme as well: the focus on the formalist approach is outdated, there is too much focus on comparison and the number of works in the Higher Level is excessive. My biggest criticism is the limited amount of creative responses possible. And many people point out that the IB seems elitist, focusing only on university-bound students and the skills they will need. (Working in a country where only university-bound students attend 'high school,' this is not so much a concern for me.)

Those concerns aside, I really like teaching the Diploma courses. Aside from anything else, the rigor of the course challenges me as a learner and a teacher, and I enjoy that.

Anything to add? Any disagreements?


bookpost: Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is best known for children's books, but he wrote for adults as well. I happened to find this and another collection (Someone Like You) second-hand in London some years ago.

The stories are mostly of the weird and mysterious type, many of them involving crimes, several of them straying into the horror genre. Most of the stories feature upper middle class folks who are more venal or unhinged than one would expect. They remind me of John Cheever stories, but less subtle, which is sometimes fun and sometimes off-putting. They have those surprise endings that were the hallmark of popular short stories for a century. (Does that sort of writer exist anymore? Is there a professional medium for publishing non-literary, entertaining short stories?)

I enjoyed the characterization; he seems to put  more into the characters than is needed just to get the punchy dénouement. As a result, they are more psychological and personalized. But the psychology of the stories is also a weakness because several of the stories, especially toward the end of the collection, are ham-fistedly Freudian, which gives them a misogynist hue. He is also more detailed about the science of the mad-science fiction than I care for, but I guess it is a hazard of the genre.

My favorite from the collection is 'The Champion of the World,' about two hapless poachers trying to pull off the greatest poaching of pheasants ever. It has less of a 'Takes of the Weird' vibe to it, celebrating the bravado of the marginalized with the balance of a skeptical narrator. I believe it was the genesis for Dahl's novel Danny, The Champion of the World.

Overall, I was a little disappointed. I have read some of his stories-for-adults before, and they seemed more clever and less goofy than these, and I look forward to looking at the other volume that has those earlier stories.


Much Ado About Nothing & The Love Quiz

Today I started our unit on Shakespearean comedy with grade 10. When I was a newish teacher, I used to start the Shakespeare units with loads of social and cultural context. I killed it. Basically I was saying that Shakespeare is technical and difficult and you need to know oh-so-much to appreciate it. These days I take a more affective approach.

We read Much Ado About Nothing, and I start by giving the this Love Quiz:

I  have them choose 2-3 responses in which they are especially interested, and they prepare to defend their answer. The class discussion that comes out of this is fascinating; in past years, the conversation continues between students for days afterward outside of class and on Facebook. The range of ideas about love and marriage is amazing, from the very idealistic to the very cynical.

My goal is to engage them emotionally so they have a personal interest in the content of the play, and it works. I follow it up with a very quick presentation (about 20 minutes) to give a little context and technical vocabulary. We watch the Branagh version, read it and do quick performance activities an act at a time.

One of my goals is to help them see that they can understand the language in short doses, so this year I've stuck A4 pages with these questions on the wall, and when we come across passages that relate we'll print them off and put them up.


school trips

I spent the last week on a school trip in London with 20 grade 9 and 10 students and two other teachers. It's my third time doing the trip and the second time with the same team of teachers.

The entire middle years programme has a trip week. Grades 6-8 have fixed trips every year, and 9-10 have language trips, alternating between trips to England and France/Spain every other year. It's a good system. This year, about 2/3 of the students went on the trips, and the ones who didn't had a week of School Without Walls, doing things in Helsinki.

I really enjoy these trips, and not just for the chance to return to one of the great cities in the world, a place where my wife and I lived just after getting married and where two of our sons were born. I also love the chance for students to see and experience a new culture, not just the attractions I take them to. I love allowing students to see the school stuff we do in a totally authentic environment. I love the chance for students to try out being on their own . I love the camaraderie that comes out between students and staff.

Here's a Google Map I made for the trip. In planning, I wanted us to be busy but have lots of free time, where students could choose what to do within a limited space. The  museums work very well for that, as well as specific spaces like Covent Garden. I also made sure that we were out in the evenings rather than sitting around the hostel getting all wired up. We also walked a lot.

I saw lots of student groups taking notes and working on handouts, but we did none of that. Instead, we set them loose and had quick debriefs afterward. This was especially important after the more emotionally intense activities, like the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and the plays (War Horse and Billy Elliot).

Some quick thoughts about what I picked up as a teacher on this trip:
  • Spending five days in the presence of teaching colleagues told me how little time we spend together during the year. Both of my fellow travellers are excellent teachers, and we had excellent conversations about teaching, learning and our world views generally.
  • Kids were genuinely interested to see the connections made between their curriculum and the stuff we saw. For instance, in the Tate Modern, we saw some examples of surreal art, which personally does nothing for me. However, the kids got very excited because they studied that in grade 9 art. Same with the Varieties of English exhibit at the British Library: we did a unit on the history and development of the language earlier this year and the grade 10s showed real enthusiasm for what they saw, feeling like experts.
  • At the hostel, there were many student groups, and it was interesting to watch teachers try to manage their kids in the dining hall. Basically, sitting at a table away from students and shouting at them is less effective, being organized and interacting with the kids works better. Huh.
  • We had no  discipline issues. There are several reasons for this, starting with clearly defined rules with specific consequences of not following those rules and staff members with a reputation for following through. But more significantly, I take the tack of being honest with them about the sacrifice I make to organize the trip and be away from my family for a week. I also explain to them the risks I am taking by taking them to London and giving them a high degree of freedom, and the stress involved in certain activities, mostly moving through the Underground. I find that they respond well to this. I have taught almost all of these students, and so we have a personal relationship.
  • There is something exciting about seeing how kids are on their own. Some stuck with the herd; others tried new things. I had a pair of boys who insisted on walking around the block and exploring at every stop. It was great to hear their observations. Another set of boys decided not to go shopping at all, instead wandering around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park for two hours. Again, they had a minor adventure and the more mercantile students were somewhat jealous.

It was a great trip (partially because of the great weather) and I look forward to doing it again in 2013.


In which a teacher makes a self-assessment

It's getting to the end of the trimester, and so it's time for student self-assessments. I'm required to provide a short narrative report on the student's progress along with the grade, but for the past few years I have had the students write a self-assessment which I then comment upon. Usually, after they have been crafted and edited, I can just write, 'I agree,' but it requires some work to get to that point, and I have been looking for ways to improve the process.

This is the prompt I give them:
You need to write a short description (50-100 words) of how things have gone for you in English A this trimester. Look back at the work you've done since November  and our assessment criteria to help you think about these questions:

  • What am I good at?

  • In what ways have I improved?

  • What work have I been proud of?

  • In what areas do I need to work on still?

  • What kinds of Approaches to Learning (study and learning skills) have served me well, and what needs improvement?

You cannot answer all of these questions in less than 100 words, so focus on what is most important to you in your situation.

The problem has been getting students to be honest -- not to write what they think I want them to write, but to honestly describe their own strengths, challenges and areas for future growth. Last year, I made a note that perhaps I ought to write my own: not as a model of content but of the honesty and vulnerability required to do a meaningful self-assessment.

Thanks to the MYP, my students have a set of criteria and course-specific Approaches to Learning to help them with this, but I needed something as a teacher to help me do this. Today I asked my grade 10 students to identify 3-4 criteria against which teachers could be assessed. After some discussion about the difference between personality and practices, we developed three criteria:

  • Course design. How does the teacher plan the units and activities? Does the class go fast enough and slow enough? Are the units and activities interesting and designed to help students learn effectively?

  • Class management. How is the class run? Is class time used effectively? Is discipline fair? Is there a balance between the teacher talking and the students doing interesting things? Are lectures interesting? Is the teacher organized? Does the teacher have a sense of humor?

  • Assessment. Are grades fair? Are we prepared for the assignments? Are assignments given back quickly? Do we get useful feedback?

I helped them with some of the language, but the ideas were all theirs. It was an interesting conversation.

I had a break between my grade 10 class and my grade 7 class, so I sat down and wrote out my self-assessment. Here it is:
I have had a good trimester. I’ve put together a range of units and assignments, allowing for the use of technology, creativity and public performance. I have shown my enthusiasm and humor in class discussions and presentations. Class is not always as organized as I’d like, but I don’t want to give up on the spontaneity of class. I also sometimes get off topic or distract students. The biggest thing I want to do next trimester is to get student work back faster. I also need to find better ways to help students with their formal writing and proofreading skills.

I showed the grade 7s the criteria and then my self-assessment. Then I said they had five minutes to talk about my self-assessment and make any changes they wanted, putting th assessment on the SmartBoard, giving them the wireless mouse and keyboard and leaving the room. I wanted them to feel that they could make the changes anonymously. After five minutes they wanted more time, so after another five here's what I found :
I have had a good trimester. I’ve put together a range of units and assignments, allowing for the use of technology, creativity and public performance. I have shown my enthusiasm and humor in class discussions and presentations. Class is not always as organized as I’d like, but I don’t want to give up on the spontaneity of class. The biggest thing I want to do next trimester is to get student work back faster. I also need to find better ways to help students with their formal writing and proofreading skills. I could help students choose books to read on their own more.

I asked if anyone would want to share, and they said I was a little hard on myself. They like the digressions in class. Organization isn't as important as creativity. Nobody wanted to say anything about the new last sentence, but I realize this is a weakness for me. I have almost no experience with YA literature, and I have been referring them to the school librarian. I should at least maintain my list of online referral sources.

Then the 7s sat down and put together their self-assessments, and they are quite good. I noticed that none of them address their class behavior, signaling that they don't see it as relevant to their learning: I think that's a significant insight, that either it's really not or that I need to help them see the connection. Probably both.

Anyway, I'll do the same with the 10s when I see them again, and then I'll print it and stick it on my wall. Then they can do an evaluation of how I've done at the end of the year.


Ad pitches

The advertising unit I've been doing with my grade 10s (MYP5) had three assignments:

I set up the ad pitch as a presentation where the form and the delivery are dictated by the context. As a result, the assignment is presented in the form of a business letter. The basic concept is to develop an idea for an ad, do a quick sketch of the ad concept and pitch it to me as the president of Kilmertron. We choose the product by having them make a short list of generic products and I choose off of the list. This year, we had toilet paper, forks, tin foil, scissors, dental floss, pillows, saws, usb devices, pencils, water taps, sticky notes and shoe polish.

I gave out the assignment and set them to work. Some of them searched around for images related to their products to get ideas for associations that already exist; others conducted informal research by asking various people what they thought of when they thought about a product. Many used the simple model from my initial presentation (consumer => desire => product), proving once again the power of a strong visual.

On Monday, the day we have class before the presentations, they had their ideas in place and basic outlines for the pitches. They asked me about how to do the pitch. In the past, I've had somebody from industry come in and give a quick tutorial, but it fell through this year so they looked at YouTube and found loads of ideas. They were practicing in the hallway, and one group went to the business office to get some feedback from the staff there.

Today was pitch day, and I put the Kilmertron logo on the door. They all came in and presented in a random order. Three-quarters were dressed up, and the presentations went well. Some were more confident than others, and a few of of the ads fell fairly flat. But more than half were ideas that I could imagine being real ads, and most were completely original. The questions they asked each other were challenging, coming from other experts in the field as it were.

After they finished, we had a little debrief. I asked them what they had liked in some of the presentations, and they were able to identify the importance of confidence and preparedness. Someone mentioned having notes was a good idea, and someone else said how much it helped to have practiced.

The most interesting part of the conversation was about how some kids loved doing that and others hated it. We talked about the kinds of careers and activities that allowed that kind of public speaking and the rewards of doing it well.

I've done the same activity for the last seven years, and it has become a highly anticipated part of grade 10 in the school; I have few plans to change the assignment in the future. However, I will probably beef up the debrief a little. I have thought about taping them, but it would interfere with the 'authenticity' of the pitch meeting.


We need an Ithaca

'Ithaca' by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for distant Ithaca,
fervently wish your journey may be long, —
full of adventures and with much to learn.
Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes,
of the angry god Poseidon, have no fear:
these you shall not encounter, if your thought
remains at all times lofty, — if select
emotion touches you in body and spirit.
Not the Laestrygones, not the Cyclopes,
nor yet the fierce Poseidon, shall you meet,
unless you carry them within your soul, —
unless your soul should raise them to confront you.

Fervently wish your journey may be long.
May they be numerous — the summer mornings
when, pleased and joyous, you will be anchoring
in harbours you have never seen before.
Stay at the populous Phoenician marts,
and make provision of good merchandise;
coral and mother of pearl; and ebony
and amber; and voluptuous perfumes
of every kind, in lavish quantity.
Sojourn in many a city of the Nile,
and from the learned learn and learn amain.

At every stage bear Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your appointed lot.
But hurry not the voyage in the least:
’twere better if you travelled many years
and reached your island home in your old age,
being rich in riches gathered on the way,
and not expecting more from Ithaca.

Ithaca gave you the delightful voyage:
without her you would never have set out:
and she has nothing else to give you now.

And though you should find her wanting, Ithaca
will not surprise you; for you will arrive
wise and experienced, having long since perceived
the unapparent sense in Ithacas.

We want learning to be an open experience with all of the serendipity and unforeseen moments -- but we need an Ithaca. There needs to be a goal, and objective, even if the most important stuff that happens isn't the objective, but the stuff that happens along the way. We need to be headed somewhere, moving toward something, and then we need to have the chance to pick up what happens because of that progress, however slow, expecting little from the actual completion of the objective.

One thing I like a lot about the IB MYP is the way it understands the value of an Ithaca for a course. The objectives are central to the program, and at least in the courses I teach, they are broad and varied enough to allow lots of sojourns, lots of good merchandise. But they are specific and challenging enough to keep us moving.

This is the poem with which I start my IB Diploma classes. I say, yes, we have big exams and formal assessments, and those exams and assessments will produce scores that will allow you to go to university somewhere. But that's not really the point. The point is the stuff that happens as you produce the work and prepare for exams. The final product is not a score -- it's a student.

My role as a teacher is to keep us moving but also know when to linger, keep eyes on the prize but also encourage reflection on the process. And I do fervently wish that our journey will be long -- not in actual time, but in the opportunities for wisdom and experience that are the real stuff of learning.