Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hope for the future of schools

Our sons' school is an International Baccalaureate (IB) candidate school. I've written about that previously here.

Last night I went to the PTO meeting at school. Rather than dry business meetings, the PTO changed format this year to discussions about topics of interest to parents. We've had a panel on technology use in the classroom, an update on plans and fundraising for the new playground equipment, and a conversation with the literacy coach. This month's meeting was a panel on IB at the school.

There are three schools in our school corporation applying for IB status. They are in the 2nd year of what is generally a 3 year process. An article appeared in our local newspaper a few days ago about one of the cool things at our school: fifth grade students were learning about endangered languages. They were specifically learning about vanishing Native American languages since that is the experience of the Lakota/Anishinabe gentleman who spoke with the students.

Of course someone had to comment on the article online, complaining about the cost of these three schools applying for IB status and the money the school board is asking for in an upcoming referendum (to reauthorize the referendum that was passed several years ago). My philosophy is to support money for schools not because I have kids in those schools but because I want a well-educated populous. So the sour grapes made me cringe in that regard, but also because it is so short-sighted!

There is so much pressure on schools, on teachers and students, to pass tests. So many schools, including some in our school corporation, that teach to the test. They spend all their time on math and literacy at the expense of everything else, just so their students will pass the mandated tests so the school will not lose funding. It's a terrible downward spiral.

I could write a lot about the testing and the loss of everything else in schools, but so much has already been written on that topic. What I want to talk about is what the librarian, who is also the IB coordinator for the school, and the two teachers who spoke had to say. Because this is what we all want for our kids. What IB brings to a school is what schools should be. And I truly hope that after these three schools successfully become IB schools other schools in the corporation will apply as well, including the middle and high schools.

So, IB. To start, the librarian explained that teachers are used to thinking about standards: what state standards do we need to teach? With IB, they are linking those standards (content) to concepts, which can be applied more broadly.

There are 6 IB transdisciplinary themes that are explored throughout the year: Who We Are, Where We Are In Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, Sharing the Planet. Unit ideas within those need to open the door to inquiry. The topics can't use proper nouns, so they looked at state standards and then broadened the themes to apply anywhere in the world.

For example, the American Revolution is one of the state standards and a unit every school in the district does in 5th grade. The teachers thought this would be a good unit for the theme of How We Express Ourselves. So, what is the American Revolution about? What connections does it have? Revolution--> change--> "throughout time, people have expressed differing beliefs, values, and ideas which have caused change". Hmm... That really gets me thinking--Arab Spring, Russian Revolution, Tiananmen Square, dozens of other uprisings and revolutions.

In Kindergarten, there is a fall unit, Harvest Time, where they learn about where foods come from, how foods are produced and distributed, and seasonal harvests, local and global. In Kindergarten. They are touching on science, social studies, art, math, literacy... a lot of different subjects are being informed by the theme.

Steps to building the units include introducing the central idea, developing possible engagements (all teachers don't have to teach exactly the same way, so they can follow the lead of what their students are most engaged in; the teachers come up with different ways to teach the same material and can 'switch it up'), and then assessing the unit. And, part of assessing the unit afterward, the teachers look at how the students engaged in inquiry. Did students ask questions that led to new knowledge? Did they share their knowledge (maybe mom emailed the teacher to comment that their child was telling them all about where pizza ingredients came from)?

With IB, the teachers work as a grade-level team to create these units of inquiry, but they also work vertically within the school so what students learn at one grade level might get built on in the next.

In sixth grade, students learn about Ancient Greece. They've always learned about the Greeks. With IB, the unit has become "What's Old is New Again", under the transdisciplinary theme of "Where We Are in Place and Time". Greeks--> broad scope of politics, art, commerce, culture, philosophy, education, etc. Ancient civilizations--> how do they connect to today?

The students learn about a topic with the Greeks, then they apply that same idea to another ancient civilization and to modern American society. The 6th grade teacher talking about the unit shared a lot of the neat activities the students have been doing; I didn't write them all down. One in particular was types of government: monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies, republics, democracies. They were astounded to learn that we have a representative democracy and really thought about why a true democracy would not work in a nation of several hundred million people. The point was that instead of just learning about the Ancient Greeks, they look at why the kids need to learn about them.

A second grade teacher shared a few of the units they have developed. They used to learn about the life cycle of an insect. Now, that has been expanded to all sorts of cycles: life cycles of bats, chickens, trees, phases of the moon. The kids are seeing cycles in everything!

They also did a unit on elections. Voting, issues, solutions, platforms: these are all concepts 2nd graders were talking about. They did a voting train, where they learned about the history of the right to vote in our country. The students were given a card describing a type of voter. At the start, only certain voters (white, male, landowners) could get on the voting train. Then different amendments were passed to the Constitution, so more and more people could vote. Each time an amendment was passed, as they went around the room (representing time), new voters could get on the train. At the end, there were a couple students who still couldn't vote. Think about the power of that lesson.

Second graders are already learning a little about the Constitution. And voting and elections. Think about when they get to sixth grade and learn about different political systems! That is part of the vertical synthesis of IB.

Something else that the teachers brought up is that they model as a teacher that they don't always have the answers and how to find them. When students ask questions, they can say they don't know and work with the students to discover the answer. They are teaching kids as young as preschool (because even the preschools have IB units) how to be learners. The kids are learning that it isn't just that some kids are smart and some aren't. They are learning what a good learner looks like. The learner profile and attitudes that encourage learning are always present in the classrooms.

The teachers are engaged in curriculum design. Yes, they still have to teach the state standards and take state tests, but there is real learning going on. The kids are not just learning enough to pass a test; they are being educated. This, the emphasis on learning to think, on social studies and science, on integrating curriculum across subjects, this is what I think all parents want for their kids. From what I have seen, IB is incredibly powerful for students and for teachers. And I truly, truly hope that more and more schools, here and elsewhere, can go on this same journey.

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