The International Baccaluareate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 2

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Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries.  These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public.  In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public.  This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats.  And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.

That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins.  I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives.  In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.

You might say we have come to the mount.

Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)

thesun.uk.com.

thesun.uk.com.

My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts.  I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size,  I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.

In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or  Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third  of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.

ib diploma

Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe.  But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.

In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.

Time and Stress Management

Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc,  often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.

Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time.  They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.

But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.

ib profile

I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?

 

(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)

My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?

(I’ll let you know in a few months.  In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)

wordsmash

Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?

Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?

Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?

Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but  wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?

 

The International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 1

ib

A typical scene in our home lately:

Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed.  His eyes are gloopy and glazed.  He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00.  Courses started near 8:00.  One 30-minute lunch break.

“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”

“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”

He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.

students

Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.

“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”

“You’ll have to do whatever you can,”  another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”

ib banner

Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)

students 2

It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that.  Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you.  So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”

“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.

(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)

ib globe

What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic.  There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB Survival.com.”  But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.

Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.

In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.

So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.

 

 

Unpacking From Prague: Women’s International Network

Let’s hear it for Reality/Dream Mashups.

Our last post anticipated leaving for and taking part in a global conference called W.I.N. (Women’s International Network) held this year in Prague. Back on that page, I dreamt myself into the hours and days ahead as I would arrive in my hotel room, unpack gear and gown for that conference, and line up my photos of family and special ones of our son, Parker. All of this was supposed to prefigure a personal dream-fulfillment of speaking publicly on my research and writing about both global living and living after loss.

So, just to return and report: Things didn’t go exactly as I’d dreamt.

They went better.

Everyone beat their own Sewa Beats djembe.  "Sewa": unity, service, joy.

Everyone beat their own Sewa Beats djembe. “Sewa”: unity, service, joy.

Quickly, let me tell you about the women, the ideas, the spirit, the music, the presentations, and the splendid city of Prague. What a week. . .

Kristin Engwig, social entrepreneur and founder of W.I.N., presents awards to women from Norway, Turkey and Nigeria.

Kristin Engwig, social entrepreneur and founder of W.I.N., presents special awards

. . .A week that began (small detail) without the aforementioned luggage. . .

Special award winners

Special award winners from Norway, Turkey and Nigeria

. . .And continued when Dieter-with-the-silky-customer-service-voice spoke from my hotel phone: “We regret to tell you, Mrs. Bradford, that we somehow have no record. . .at all. . . of your luggage.”

Which is when Maya Angelou’s even silkier voice slid into mind:

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

(See entire quote here)

So I gathered my few adrenalin-swollen, anxiety-twitching wits, channeled Angelou, and reframed both my expectations and the outlines for my two presentations. (Because in addition to my clothing for the week, I happen to have packed all my lecture notes, additional literature, and important talisman family photos in that one missing bag.)

Besides Angelou, I also channeled two generations of pioneer stock. And by darn, I found that one can squeeze a lot out of a bar of hotel soap the size of an Oreo.

Here’s what’s interesting. As soon as I got my mind and spirit settled and my Dreams compressed to Reality (i.e., this opportunity was not going to fulfill my high-pitched dreams; my presentations would be spotty and unpolished and I’d too closely resemble those pioneer forbears of mine after five days in recycled jeans and stinky boots), then it seemed everything trundled right along, sort of obliviously. Seamlessly. Like an empty luggage carousel.

The W.I.N. conference got rolling and I got swept up in it. Everywhere there were interesting, energetic conversations with leaders from backgrounds as numerous and diverse as their 75 nationalities: An entrepreneur from Kosovo; A girls’ school founder from India, another from Bhutan; a leading politician from Iceland, another from the Czech Republic; a researcher from Mongolia, another from Nigeria; corporate heads from all over Europe, mothers who are mentors, consultants, physicians, and writers; daughters who are film makers, painters, vocalists; sisters who are environmentalists, economists, pianists; and everyday marvels who are mountaineers and ultra-athletes (which title, in case you wondered, is given to those who run 315 km in 50 hours with neither sleep nor rest. And live to speak about it.)

Prague's old city

Prague’s old city

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By the end of our second day of plenary sessions and break-out courses, I’d already sped by foot throughout Prague’s old city, scouting out sumptuous architecture and random sales (for a couple of pieces of basic replacement clothing.)

When I returned to my hotel room, wouldn’t you know it? There stood my lost suitcase, rescued and delivered, as it had been, from the Bermuda Triangle of transiting luggage: the bowels of Charles de Gaulle airport.

Quickly, I changed clothes, hung the rest including that gala gown, organized my lecture notes and stacks of literature, and lined up my family photos. I washed my face, straightened my spine, and raced off to my session where I spoke to people about my writing. And they listened intently. They were extremely gracious toward me.

New friends over lunch

With Lisa and Sherry, new friends sharing lunch

Indian, Bhutanese, Nigerian, French Swiss, Canadian, American of Iranian/Indian descent, English

Indian, Bhutanese, Nigerian, French Swiss, Canadian, American of Iranian/Indian descent, English

The last evening, at midnight, while other conference participants crowded onto the dance floor of this, the Zofin  palace. . .

Zofin palace, Prague

Zofin palace, Prague

Over my head: Zofin palace

Over my head: ornate coffered ceilings of the Zofin palace

Irish, Turkish, Indian. . .

Irish, Romanian, Indian. . .

Majbritt, a beautiful soprano and, as we discovered, Swiss neighbor

Majbritt, a beautiful soprano and financial analyst, and, as we discovered, my Swiss nearly-next-door neighbor

. . .I stepped out onto a veranda with a couple of other women. We needed to catch some air. In the crisp blackness in front of me, my breath swam like liquefied cotton batting, and vanished – dreamily – as I looked out over the Vltava (Moldau) river.

“Changing moon,” the German next to me sighed, throwing her head back, peering upwards at the porthole of speckled white caught in the tangle of chestnut tree branches. “Exceptionally auspicious,” the redhead on the other side of me added. “A very powerful moon. It has pull.”

“And what does that mean? Pull?” I asked, searching for what the others were seeing. Was it pulling, pulsing, that moon? Or was that just the bass from the dance band inside? (And excuse me, but was I hearing a Czech translation of “Shake, Rattle and Roll”? No, but close. It was a Czech translation of “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” A proud moment, to be sure, for my native country.)

“It means,” continued the redhead, wrapping an Indian shawl up over her shoulders, “there could be change coming.”

Change? Like?”

“Like. . .well, you know. You’d better pay attention to your dreams. They can pull you to a new reality.”

More award recipients from all around the world

More award recipients from all around the world

The ribboned river swallowed the moon in pieces as I turned to go back to my hotel. There, I repacked my suitcase (boots, jeans, gown, lecture notes, my sacred family gallery) for the early morning flight and for whatever dreams and realities will rise under the pulse and pull of the next moon.

Landing in Geneva

Landing in Geneva