Global Mom (and Dad) Hit Harvard

Pardon this interruption for a quick public service announcement.

What: Melissa (Global Mom, author, public speaker) and Randall (Global Dad, international global executive, best all around guy) address the topic:

GLOBALLY MOBILE CAREERS AND FAMILIES: HOW TO THRIVE

randge mel red rock

Where: Harvard Business School, (Aldrich 107), Boston, MA.

When:  Wednesday, April 27th, beginning at 8 pm … and lasting until they drag us away

What else? Question and Answer session

What kinds of questions?

  1. Does going on an international assignment help advance or progress your career faster? Or is “out of sight, out of mind” the rule at corporate headquarters?
  2. How did your four children respond to moving not only frequently, but far and always into foreign languages/cultures?
  3. Melissa, what did it feel like to be solo parenting four children in foreign cultures while your husband traveled internationally or even lived/worked in another country for many months on end?
  4. Randall,what was the hardest part about being separated from your wife and children, and what did you do wen you returned to help both the family and yourself rediscover balance?
  5. What specific things did you do as a family to hold together after the tragic death of  your eldest son in the middle of an international move and while living a foreign  country?
  6. What lessons have you learned from other cultures about balancing careers, marriage, and parenting?
  7. What warnings (or enticements) would you offer young professionals considering globally mobile careers?

And whatever else YOU want to ask. We’ve never met a question we didn’t like.

 

Admission is free. We hope to see you and your friends there!

 

 

 

2015 Review: Featuring an Italian Wedding, a British Mission, a Swiss Ceremony, a German Flood, an American Visa, a Syrian Exodus, and How They Intersect

Since 2007, the year that forever split my life into Before and After, it’s been impossible for me to write a year-end summary. Here we are again, March, and I realize I’ve still not lined up year 2015 and given an accounting.

That’s partially because I fear provincialism. I fear losing sight, even for a moment, of the global context in which my private story plays out. I’ve become aware this year more than any other in my life of how tidy, how survivable, even how irrelevant my personal dramas are in light of the immense complexities rolling out across our global panorama, across huge swaths of humanity. And so  anything I say about my life, I feel, has to be said with the big backdrop in mind.

But here, a quick and dirty recap of 2015. Consider it a preface to my next book.

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Il Matrimonio (The Wedding)

In this post I announced that our Claire got engaged to  be married to her amore, Alessandro. Their courtship had been unconventional; their engagement and wedding followed suit.

After a year of long-distance yearning and reams of letters in Italian while she was finishing her Uni studies in the US and he was finishing his full time service as a missionary for our church in southern Italy, the two were married in a big Italian farm wedding outside of Pavia, Italy. True to the Global Mom story line, it was a multicultural reunion around sumptuous tables (the food!!), with languages flying in as many directions as were friends, who came in from France, the US, all over Italy, and Singapore. I’m still verklempt as I reflect on everyone’s thereness, the way we actually pulled off an otherwise logistically impossible event.

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Swiss Zeremonie

Following the civil wedding, we trundled to Switzerland to join closest friends in a small, intimate ceremony referred to in our religion as  a temple sealing. In contrast to the party in Italy, this rite was simple, quiet, other-worldly. The couple dressed in head-to-toe white for the brief ceremony attended only by closest Italian friends of our faith, and were given profound promises regarding their future together, which we believe extends beyond death.11700901_10153505302157400_7725458925579834161_o

A horse farm reception followed later in Heber Valley, Utah, and we left immediately for a family honeymoon through southern Utah to the southern California coast.

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British Mission

Missing from all these festivities was Parker, of course. That absence doesn’t get easier, but we’re growing in gratitude and perspective and capacity to love life though broken and limping. Our Dalton, too, was far away, because in August of 2015, upon our arrival in Frankfurt, he’d turned right around to fly to England to launch his 2-year full time mission for our church in South London. He’s now been serving for over 19 months.

He’s serving now in an area known as Little Nigeria, working on that accent. He’s never been happier and bemoans that the end is in sight, wishing he could extend his service by a month or two, but is scheduled to enter Uni only shortly after relinquishing his badge.

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German Flood

Underneath (literally) the marriage, the ceremony, the mission,  was The Flood. For nearly nine months, our home was an oceanscape and construction site after an external water distribution system went amok during our absence and…We returned to a bayou that sloshed over our shoes. The entire ground floor of the home had to be decimated, and after jackhammers and turbo ventilators, it became a bombed-out concrete carcass.

Then it flooded again. And again. Workers found leaks inside walls…More than a few times, I hid in my car during the day to escape the deafening noise, and otherwise played hostess to a total of 80+ construction and insurance folks tramping through my door. Month after month. After month.

Yes, we survived it. Just fine. And we were happy that everything was completed the week the newlyweds arrived to live with us for a year. They’re doing this to save money while taking college/grad school entrance exams, working multiple jobs, and applying through the Frankfurt consulate for a US Green Card for Alessandro.

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American Visa

A major part of 2015 and now the prime focus of 2016 has been this US Visa for our Alessandro. For those of you out there who’ve ever navigated the bureaucracy, you have my reverence and respect. I hear you groaning and see you holding your shaking head in your hands right now. Thanks for commiserating.

Now try jumping those same multiple hoops in two foreign languages. Every interview (and form and phone call and interview and returned form and repeated phone call and follow-up interview) has had to be translated from English and Italian to German  and back in reverse. In all of this, Claire and Alessandro have been  good-natured  and unflappable. They’re learning about patience, work, consistency, and faith.

As I type this, they are sitting in Frankfurt’s US consulate in their final, all-determining, face-to-face interview. Claire flies to the US next week for her final face-to-face law school interview, and Alessandro is finishing his college entrance essays for admission to a US Uni in the fall.

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Syrian Exodus

And all this – floods, reconstruction, Visas, marriages, missions, work, everything – is tempered by the bigger context in which we live. Because while we’ve been marrying and missioning, while we’ve been bailing water and applying for universities, while we’ve been fighting for Visas and begging for work, Syria (and surrounding populations) have been under siege.  In desperation, hundreds of thousands of the distressed and traumatized have spilled into Europe, bringing in their wake a humanitarian nightmare unknown in modern history.

Here’s where our quaint family summary connects to the Big Picture. If 2015 began with a house flood, it ended with a world flood. The inconvenience of a  house under jackhammer reconstruction is practically charming compared with the real bombs obliterating Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Multicultural marriages and missions have their challenges, but are infused with hope and celebration because we have freedom, assets, peace, abundance, and every possible advantage life can offer.

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While helping Ale and Claire with their German residency, I’ve been sitting in government hallways, elbow to elbow with threadbare and disoriented refugees fresh from their harrowing journey, seeking asylum. While editing my daughter’s and son-in-law’s essays for US universities, I’ve also been sitting  in Frankfurt’s University for Applied Sciences, helping my Iranian and Afghani refugee friends apply for courses in mechanical engineering and intensive German language instruction.

These friends figure among the dozens with whom I’ve been working in local refugee camps since the floodgates broke in the early fall of 2015, and Germany welcomed an unprecedented 1 mill+ refugees (mostly Syrian, but also Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghani) across its borders.

The statistics and complexity are beyond staggering. The human stories are heart- rending and breathtaking. Because this is such a proximate and personal reality for me, you should expect to see more of my posts (and all my other social media platforms) weighted with these stories.

As I see it, 2015 and 2016 is where not just my tidy little family tale, but world history splits: Before and After.  The saga will not be the type we can share in a Year End Summary. It is destined to color the future of humanity, everywhere. And it might be where Global Mom and On Loss and Living Onward intersect, inviting both the next book of my career and a focused direction for the remaining chapters of my life.

 

Déjà Vu: Why Melissa Writes –– or Doesn’t–– of Passage

I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.

June 30, 2011, Singapore

You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.

At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.

What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.

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Screen Shot

That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.

Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time.  We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.

June 30, 2014, Switzerland

There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.

View out my office window

View out of my office window

My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account.  Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18,  is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.

You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.

Dalton

Dalton

June 30, 2007, Paris

A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.

Parker

Parker

Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude.  Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts.  My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together.  How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.

June 21, 2014, Paris

“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”

A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.

The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.

“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years.  One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”

The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.

I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.

Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.

How I have been here before. How everything is different.

How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.

How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.  

Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris, before the bridge became weighted with the love locks that distinguish it today.

 

 

 

 

Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

traction

For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

Book Touring & Home Again

Hello.

You’re back. So am I.

With friend Ellen while in Boston on book tour

With friend Ellen while in Boston on book tour

Two months of blankness here at Melissa Writes of Passage. Two months of blessedness in my off-line life.

Because it’s been so much, you’ll excuse me this one time if I’m dry and unimaginative. I dislike “dry and unimaginative” in writing as much as I do in eating. Who wants a 2″ cracker that sits on your tongue like an old cardboard bus ticket when you could have a deep ceramic dish of eggplant parmesan and a generous serving of tiramisu?  I mean, honestly.

But I can’t go for juicy, well-spiced and elaborate today. Unless I write another book. I’m doing catch-up here. So I hope you’ll pardon the cracker:

Jan 5 –Feb 5:

Crunch month. Many 16-hour days devoted to prepping for book tour.

Jan 5-Feb 5:

Crunch month also for final submissions of manuscript for my next book, Loss & Living Onward, releasing in May. (But you can already go ahead and preorder here.)

Book Tour: New England and the Rockies

The Global Mom New England/Rockies book tour grew from what originally was to have been 3 events to 21, spread over 12 days. There was one day with 6 back-to-back events. A lot. But it was invigorating and, on the deepest levels, nourishing for me.  So, with the huge support of many large-hearted folks, I managed it. I’ll give more details of individual experiences as I get back into posting here every week. Much to share.

Feb 6-12. Massachusetts and Utah: I saw and spoke about things that really matter, and with dozens ––even hundreds–– of people, most of whom I was meeting for the first time, some of whom have been lifelong friends, and even a couple of key people with whom I’ve been virtually incommunicado for several years.  The power of human connection and, above all, reconciliation was at times enough to make my spine melt. I found my self welling with tears many times over the 12 days.  I never cried from exhaustion or stress (even when my computer battery died in the middle of a presentation, or when I lost my voice from one minute to the next); I grew teary from joy, gratitude, and from the tenderness I felt many times as I communed with new and old friends. There seemed to be a palpable outpouring of goodness every place I was able to go. It was uplifting and fortifying for me.

With Maja, my lifelong friend

With Maja, cherished lifelong friend

Multiple times, I lectured on Global Mom and the nature of internationally nomadic living. But I also focused many of my engagements on addressing head-on the landscape of loss. This naturally dove-tailed Global Mom with a lecture on Loss & Living Onward. At one fireside in particular, arranged by Sharlee (a lifelong friend you’ll learn more about in future posts) the atmosphere was palpably resonant. I’m indebted to the many professionals and friends who facilitated gatherings like that.

Women of the Marriott Business School (Jacque second to right)

Women of the Marriott Business School (Jacque second to right)

I was fortunate to speak twice to groups at Harvard Business School (one time of the two was in tandem with my lifelong friend Jacque, who is a corporate business partner; you’ll also learn more about her in future posts), three times at Brigham Young University, including one keynote address with Jacque at the Marriott Business School. There were formal book signings and readings, six firesides, a Mormon Women Project event, four book groups, a grief roundtable, a fun radio interview (will post that link soon) , a quick morning TV spot, and filming of the trailer for my upcoming book with Michelle (you’ll learn more about her and our friendship, too, here and in future posts), and many valuable side conversations with audience members and readers. Every single day––every hour, it seemed–– was weighted with meaning.

With Michelle and her daughter, Mary

With Michelle and her daughter, Mary

Request

If by chance you attended any of these events either at Harvard, in Cambridge, in western Massachusetts, in Salt Lake City, at BYU or any other venue, maybe you can leave a brief comment here about what you attended and experienced. It’s nice to see these things from others’ points of view. I won’t be able to do the entire tour justice unless I have participants’ input.

Home Again

I landed­ at the Geneva airport on Monday, February 17th—exhausted, (sort of), but primarily exhilarated, bone-deep grateful, and soaked-through with memories of people’s kindness­. I felt I could have turned around and done the whole thing all over again. Except for the fact that. . .

Meeting our daughter at the Geneva airport. The eyes tell volumes.

Meeting our daughter at the Geneva airport. Her eyes tell volumes. It is bewildering and sometimes painful to leave the rich mission experience and reenter mundane life.

…only 24 hours later, on Tuesday, February 18th, through those same sliding airport doors walked our daughter Claire, finally home with us after 18 months as a volunteer for our church in southern Italy. We have not see her face-to-face this whole time. (We’ve only exchanged weekly emails and Skyped three times, one hour a shot.) My next post will focus exclusively on her experience.

Christmas dismantled. On March 3rd.

Christmas dismantled. On March 3rd.

Fulfilling a promise we’d made to Claire many months ago, we celebrated Christmas Eve (The Sequel) on the 19th, and Christmas Day (The Sequel) on the 20th, on what would have been our Parker’s 25th birthday. It is difficult to share what these landmarks mean to me, to us, to our ongoing sense of family.  There has been a lot of smiling, crying, silence, laughter and embracing. And while it’s been thrilling to all be together, it’s also been sobering to not all be together.

Claire and Dalton

Claire and little brother Dalton

Claire and Luc

Claire and baby brother Luc

The day after the Christmas Day Sequel (and fulfilling another  promise we’d made earlier to Claire), we drove off for northern Italy, to Milan, with our Claire as translator, where we stumbled into Women Fashion Week, but quickly escaped in order to spend Sunday with the Di Caros, friends our Claire made during her missionary service. This visit (and the seven-course dinner served in their charming farm home surrounded by vineyards and beehives) deserves its own post, also coming. (With some great photos).

The Bradford and DiCaro women

The Bradford and Di Caro women

 

The whole family

Bradfords and Di Caros in Stradella, Lombardy

Not a single cracker here...

Not a single cracker anywhere here…

...but a perfect tiramisu.

…but a perfect tiramisu.

International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.

Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.

drumming

The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film.  Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.

Luc, thumbs up

Luc, thumbs up

Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay.  On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too.  They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.

Dalton, extended essay

Dalton, extended essay

Extended ecstacy

extended ecstasy

There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.

basketball champions

basketball champions

I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten.  Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .

For what?

volleyball buddies

volleyball buddies

For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it.  Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”

“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”

Hands were shooting up everywhere.

“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”

More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.

“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”

Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered:  Is she happy?

drumming at trocadéro

drumming at Trocadéro

And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.

“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”

for the school's cabaret

for the school’s cabaret

The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”

“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”

“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”

“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.

The men were quiet.

“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”

seniors

seniors

To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta.  Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.”  And I so want to weep.

Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball.  He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.

parker, age 9, his school stage

parker, age 9, his school stage

Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency.  They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.

The last week of Parker's life; shot taken at site of accident

The last week of Parker’s life; shot taken at site of accident

Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those  “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.

fam

And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its

1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,

2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,

3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,

4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and

5) its global grading practices …

And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth.  Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.

volleyball near the Eiffel tower

volleyball near the Eiffel Tower

portrait

International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 7; Extracurriculars

ib

“Your high school had what? ” Dalton asks me, “A band that. . . marched?!”

My teenaged boys, schooled only outside of the US, are finishing off their cannelloni for dinner. As is often the case, Dalton our IB student is venting about the pressures of his program and the gravitas of his educational trajectory.  So I am diffusing things by telling him what an advantage he and his brother have when entering college and a globally complex world and. . . Let’s fact it: I also want my hear my boys laugh. Mom’s high school experience, paleolithic as it was, should be hilarious enough to get us hooting.  At least I think so.

“Marched? But. . .why?” Luc asks, fork hovering midair, suspicion flattening then raising his brow.

“And with that band –– get this!” I paint the full picture, still hoping for humor, “There was a marching squad.”

“A squ–odd? Like police? Military?” Dalton drags the edge of a napkin around his gaping mouth. He then plants both hands on his forehead, and slumps. Stumped. Not a whole lot of laughter yet.

nashuatelegraph.com

nashuatelegraph.com

“Marching squad! Marching band! Flag twirlers! People who did serial back flips across the whole gymnasium! A mascot in a fuzzy dog costume. We had theme days, homecoming royalty, best dressed contests, most preferred couples. We had girl’s choice dances, modern dance club, clubs and clubs and more clubs.  A whole parade of what we called extra-curriculars.”

Our cannelloni is going cold and crusty.  “Extra-curriculars?” one of them stutters.

“Extras. Um . . . Non-academics. Did you know Dad was in sports practice every single day after school and sometimes before school, too? And he went on ‘away trips’ with those teams? I was on the debate and public speaking team.  I had a lot of music and theater. We had a full-blown theater department and an award-winning choir.  As a high school senior with lots of time on my hands, I was recruited to make life-sized caricatures of what we called the ‘varsity basketball team’ for something we called ‘pep assemblies.’ Assemblies were needed to boost ‘school spirit,’ a big deal in most American high schools. I also decorated the gym for dances, which we had, it seemed, every other month or so. High school was –” (why does this feel illicit as it leave my lips?)  “– fun.

“But that sounds like . . . And . . .you. . .” Dalton’s voice, usually resonant, grows thin, “You both got into college?

“Kind of a good college?” Luc asks, pushing his plate away and staring me up and down. Shame singes up and through me from my shoulders right to the last hair follicle on my head. My eyebrows are even smoking.

“Dad had. . .a 3.99 GPA, right?”

Ah, that legend, yes.  But a true one.

“Hold it,” Dalton blurts, things clicking maybe too quickly in his eyes.”This means that there might be kids out there applying to get into the colleges I’m applying to.” He speaks slowly, while his dimples go from peachy to raspberry,  “And these kids, they’ve had time to learn how to do backflips? And they’ve gotten to wear . . . dog costumes? They’ve had time to go. . . to a dance? To dances? They’ve had time. . . to dance?”

Pause.

And they all have 3.99 GPAs.

No amount of home-stuffed cannelloni is going to soften this blow.

ib profile

What my kids are grappling with is far bigger than a simple comparison of school systems; one kind that values bands, squads, mascots, dances, fun and pep, and another kind that doesn’t.  It’s also more than a comparison of IB vs. AP, of American vs. International schools, of supposed “fun” versus supposed “seriousness.”

Those comparisons are abstract. Concrete and even trickier will be applying to US universities, a process we are undergoing right now with Dalton.  Not surprisingly, besides GPAs, test scores, letters of recommendation and application essays, most US universities are highly interested in an applicant’s extra curricular involvement. Swim team. Concert master. Soccer goalie. Model UN. Thespian. Equestrian. Rodeo queen. Mascot. Back flips. You get the picture.

If you have followed a traditional US high school education, you will  have had not only a broad choice of extra curricular offerings embedded in your educational culture, but you will have had time and encouragement to do these things. The system, a reflection of the culture’s values, makes concessions for “fun.”

(Here I won’t bother delving into the millions upon millions of tax and private dollars that go each year to supporting US high school sports programs alone. But if that interests you, you might check here or here.)

highschoolsports.nj.com

highschoolsports.nj.com

So what happens if you are pursuing a program as rigorous as the full IB diploma in a bilingual international school, which academic demands don’t allow you to engage in many (if any) extra-curricular activities?  As crass as it sounds, you won’t have those strengths to pack your college application. Your “profile” as they say, will be weak.

Much more pernicious, in my opinion, is the threat on young minds, bodies and spirits when there is a blatant lack of bandwidth. They need to scream, cheer, run, make music, sing at the top of their lungs, run the court, do back flips or flip out, all in healthy ways. If not, they flip out in unhealthy ways.

And they need, oh do they need, adequate sleep.

Additionally and even more importantly, it is in these crucially developmental teen years that one learns about the value and satisfaction in service, about the profoundly binding language of music and theater and the building blocks of character, which begin with cooperation and camaraderie over competition.  All of these things can serve to develop compassion.

In response to a perceived imbalance of academics over non-academics, the IB developed what is called CAS (Creative Activity and Service) hours. CAS hours, which the IB website calls “a refreshing counterbalance to academic studies”, are a required element of the full IB.  What counts for CAS? You can tutor younger students, organize regional sports activities, direct a student production of Romeo & Juliet or play the accordion every weekend at a soup kitchen.  Or, as we’re learning, you’ll probably have to do all four to fulfill the CAS requirement.

high scool musical

The weakness I note here is that such activities are not built into the extant educational IB program as are extracurricular activities in a conventional US system. Perhaps CAS hours are more easily completed in US schools offering the IB because there is already in the US a cultural infrastructure that not only provides for but insists on sport, music, charitable engagement, entrepreneurial projects, student leadership.  My sense –– and it’s no more than a sense –– is that extracurricular involvement is more readily accessible, more robustly supported, more culturally self-evident within the American value system and therefore as part of the US educational approach than elsewhere in the world.

But it is all hard for me to judge how this plays itself out in today’s US schools. Hard to judge, at least, from where I sit. Fiddling with my now-brittle cannelloni.  Forcing some spurts of laughter with my boys. Making deliberate fun of my “fun” high school years.  Here, in the shadow of the wintery Swiss alps.

alpinist

alpinist

International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas

***

I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

The International Baccalaureate, Notes From Trenches Part 4: Grades

KotterRight about when the ’70’s were warping into the ’80’s, when TV shows like “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Happy Days” made up the popularized school template, and when, according to observers of the US educational system, grade inflation was just puffing its bellows, sending the hot air balloon of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” into the clouds, I graduated from a US public high school. I’d just turned 16. I had solid enough grades. And, hello world? I was done. 

happy days

But was I educated?

On paper I was. I had a GPA that merited entrance into a solid university. But what did that GPA mean? From the broad palette of course offerings in my school, I’d chosen classes in which I knew I could get an “A.”  Symphony orchestra. Student government. String ensemble. Debate and competitive speech. Theater Arts. And a favorite: Driver’s Education. In these classes, an “A” was doled out to all the squarely solid students, folks who showed up and did the course requirements. A “C” was the same as failing.  A “B” was saggy.  Given that I showed up, I didn’t sag too much.

I passed high school without much sweat. I could have taken more challenging classes, but one AP English course was enough for me. The system didn’t demand that I be extra academically inclined or even terribly hard-working. It was designed, I’ve come to conclude, to give me choices, including the choice to pass. As such, it meant I could pick courses that matched my natural gifts, and I’m quite sure I rode the crest of grade inflation. Part of the logic of that early grade inflation, as I have come to understand it, is that the US had lots of babies from our post WWII Baby Boom, and we had to get them through the system. Scholastic standards softened then sunk. People like 16-year-old me waltzed through the diploma line, but not necessarily with the world’s most rigorous education under our belts.

grad

I knew kids in high school who, when they didn’t get an “A,” (the top grade in the US system) plea-bargained. They would actually approach an instructor. With cookies. And negotiate.  I didn’t do this as a high school student (I lacked the nerve, not to mention the baking skills) but I experienced this on the other side of the equation when I taught on the university level and later instructed at a college on the eastern seaboard of the US.  Students came to me every week, it seemed, contesting grades. Their pluck (and illogic) struck me. In European universities, as I’d witnessed it, professors rarely if ever even spoke privately with students. Contesting grades? There were none to contest: you received exactly one for the course, and that was for the final exam. Negotiations, like addressing a professor without her or his full title (Herr Doktor Professor Spinkelfürstenmeyer)? Never.

istockphoto

istockphoto

Now the US finds itself in a different phase from that of Vinnie Barbarino and Richie Cunningham. With the “globalization” of the world (the speed and ubiquity of technology and concurrent political shifts) and with the precipitous economic rise of the four Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea) plus the emergence of the fifth Tiger (India), the worldwide market is a far more competitive place. US high school students are not only competing for slots in college, they are in a race against the whole developed world for jobs.

What’s happening now in the US high school system in terms of rigor/ease? In terms of grading procedures and weighting of performance? In terms of that (darned almighty) GPA? In a 21st century which has some kids white-knuckling it through high school, others groveling for college admissions, many fearful that there will not be employment at the end of the tunnel of formal education, is there another kind of grade inflation going on?

Two recent conversations come to mind.

The first, was last week’s lunch with Irina and one of Irina’s three adult sons, Nicolas. Irina is Bulgarian-Czech-Russian-Swiss, and all her sons are a handsome composite of the same, with a big dose of English and Italian thrown in. The younger two boys attended, for some time, an American international school in Paris, which is where I first met them all. Having known a broad variety of educational approaches, they are able to make comparisons.  Irina, for instance, at 18 and freshly arrived from eastern Europe, enrolled at the Sorbonne.  Later in life, both she and her oldest son instructed in international schools.

ib diploma

“This full IB track is so intense,” I launched in, hoping for sympathy, “and it feels more intense here, I’m finding, in a Swiss context than it has been elsewhere like France and Germany. There’s no breathing room at all. And not quite as much support as I’ve seen elsewhere.”

“But that makes total sense,” Nico said, “It’s Swiss. You’re supposed to manage solo. But you want to see really ruthless? Try the Swiss Maturité,” Nico went on. “Twelve killer classes. High level proficiency in three languages. Loads and loads of memorization. That’s why it takes a whole extra year beyond the IB to even finish the basic coursework of the infamous Maturité.”

At which point I didn’t bother describing to them my own high school days.

Another talk was just this morning with Valérie.  Raised and schooled in central Europe (Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland) and in Vermont, she is now a teacher at the international bilingual school where my two youngest are enrolled.

“I got to Vermont,” said Valérie as we strolled with her daughters around a local lake,  “and it looked just like here. Gorgeous. Pines. Mountains. All that nature. I thought, ‘No brainer, I can slip right in here.’ But I struggled at figuring out how things worked with grades in high school. Where I’d come from, a ‘C’ was a totally respectable grade. It meant you were faring well, meeting course expectations. Where I’d just been in central Europe, a B or an A [or their European equivalents] were rare, reserved for ‘extreme’ students. When I got a ‘C’ in one of my classes and didn’t totally flip out, it was my American classmates who flipped out. ‘You mean you’re okay with that?! A. . .a  ‘C’?'”

students

Irina, Nico and Valérie know that what merits a top grade in one system, country, or course won’t necessarily do the same in another. On the other hand, they also know that “hard” or “ruthless” or “overload” doesn’t always equate with a healthy education.  All of them, having experienced it, appreciated the sports, arts and leadership opportunities afforded by a system which, one could perhaps argue, can be comparatively “soft” on the “hard” subjects.

But let’s pretend we take identically “hard” courses and administer them as equally as possible. When it comes to grading procedures, they are subject to cultural influences as well. Here is another conversation, this time with my husband, based on research gleaned from the business world:

One measurement of corporate effectiveness relies on country-wide employee engagement surveys. You take the managers from individual countries (let’s say Mexico, Japan, the UK and the US) and ask them to “grade” a recent corporate initiative. From purely quantitative scoring (let’s say a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the high end) which country do you think tends to score highest on such surveys? Which lowest? Which in the top quartile? Which always toward the bottom?

History has shown that in these surveys, respondents from Mexico nearly always give the highest numerical scores. Qué bueno!

saposradio

saposradio

Japan nearly always rates at the very bottom. A 44% for the Japanese might be considered, in their eyes, generous, even complimentary.

In contrast, a 78% in Mexico would be considered a low or unsatisfactory score.

The UK is quite exigent, as is Japan. Interpreted, the British like the Japanese are not easily impressed, are temperate in their judgment, slow to score something off the charts. Reserved.

And the US always scores (wait for it) in the uppermost quartile. What could that mean? Does something in the water feed an inflated expression of satisfaction? Or do Americans by nature lean towards optimism, cheerleading, exuberance. Even faith?

ib globe

I’m not saying that either mentality is inherently bad or good. What I’m saying, (with caution, because I hate to paint in sweeping strokes) is that when you get a panel of  Japanese, British, Mexican and American teachers together, they might very well grade according to certain cultural norms. Some will give you a well-deserved C. Some, for the same work, will give you a well-deserved A.

And now. . . for my final “conversation” with Heather, one of my readers who has commented in a pervious thread here on the blog.  In her 7th year raising children as expatriates, and going through the IB, she notes some basic concerns I have felt:

One frustration we have is that my daughter is competing, on paper, with US students who might have the same GPA as she has, but don’t nearly have the same academic intensity. Some universities weight the more rigorous classes, some don’t. Yes, they want to see core classes on report cards, but comparing an IB SL* class with a US AP can be tricky. I have a niece in an AP English class in Utah. Her teacher sends her out for donuts at least once a week. Whenever she feels like it, she asks her teacher if she can skip to work on her student government job or to go home to nap. She gets an “A” in that class. How do you weigh that “A” against my IB HL* English daughter’s “A” with all the IA’s*, orals and World Lit papers? Some university admissions are sensitive to the differences between schools, but some are just looking at the numbers. What’s ironic is that she qualifies for the best universities in the UK, including Oxford, St. Andrews and Kings College University of London because of her predicted IB scores, but US universities don’t care about her predicted test scores! These are tricky things about the IB that international school students deal with that US based students don’t. 

***

What have your experiences been, if any, moving from school system to school system?

What does it take to be well-educated in today’s world? And what does a “hard” education have that a “soft” does not?

How has your own education differed from the education you are providing for your children?

What is your personal philosophy regarding “intelligence”? What is it? How does one gain/increase/apply it? What is its value?

 

The International Baccaluareate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 2

ib

 

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?