Photo by Marcy Stamper Fourth-grade teacher Tiffany Surface helped Vance Nielsen with his project about nuclear energy, part of an IB unit on “How the World Works.”

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Fourth-grade teacher Tiffany Surface helped Vance Nielsen with his project about nuclear energy, part of an IB unit on “How the World Works.”

Changes more subtle than dramatic so far

By Marcy Stamper

Last spring, as the Methow Valley School District pondered switching to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, many people envisioned a dramatic change and reactions ranged from enthusiastic to alarmed.

Now, six months into the incorporation of IB for kindergarten through 10th grade, parents and teachers aren’t seeing as substantial a difference as they had expected.

Some of the biggest changes are occurring behind the scenes, as teachers develop new units based on IB’s interdisciplinary approach. Teachers write the units with their grade-level colleagues, but even elementary school and high school classes have teamed up, sometimes spontaneously.

For example, the high school physics class helped Jonathan Stratman’s second-graders figure out why their rockets didn’t fly as expected. By working with the physics class, the young students refined their designs, said Stratman. “I was amazed — having done this with second-graders in the past — what they were able to accomplish,” he said. “Those rockets flew into the woods.”

Photo by Marcy Stamper Logan Allen chose to do his project on wind energy because he was curious about how wind turbines work.

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Logan Allen chose to do his project on wind energy because he was curious about how wind turbines work.

Katie Hover’s second-graders also worked with older students as they learned about Chinese New Year traditions. Hover’s students wanted to know how to write their names in Chinese, so students in the high school Chinese class will research it and come back to teach them, said Hover.

In some cases, one lesson leads into another. After they saw a Swedish sled in a film about cultural traditions, a student brought in a similar sled to show the class. The sled became part of a hands-on math lesson as students measured the runners and calculated how far they traveled in the snow, said Hover.

Washington requires second-graders to learn to add numbers up to 100, but using the numbers they got from the sled made students more focused than they would have been simply adding numbers on a worksheet, said Stratman. “This isn’t freeform. There’s a significant structure,” he said.

“These are real-world applications. There’s excitement because it’s not just pen-and-paper work,” said Leanne Lafferty, assistant special education director for the district. “Kids say they love the units because they’re about things that interest them more. For example, math is more fun.”

Liberty Bell High School principal Deborah DeKalb said students seem to like IB’s hands-on aspects, which makes learning more fun and relevant. “We were going in this direction anyway. It doesn’t feel like a big switch or anything that different,” she said.

One way kindergarteners are learning how the world works is by disassembling toys. Taking the toys apart was really absorbing for her daughter, said Jennifer Taylor, who said her son hadn’t gotten to do that when he was in kindergarten.

Taylor was vocal about her misgivings about the IB program in the spring — she circulated a petition expressing concerns about IB’s lack of structure, the cost, and the risks of tampering with successful schools.

Taylor began home-schooling her children right after the school board ratified the decision to apply for IB candidacy, but her kids are back in the district, one in kindergarten and one in third grade.

Home-schooling her children was a great experience but, after a stressful summer and the death of a family member, Taylor felt her children needed the normalcy of school. She reenrolled them in the fall, despite lingering questions about IB.

“I haven’t seen all the big, scary things that all the research we had done showed,” she said last week. “I’m not seeing too much different.” Taylor said she likes the opportunities IB offers for kids to delve deeper into subjects.

Devin Barnhart, whose has children in first and fourth grade this year, also had concerns when IB was being discussed last year. Barnhart’s concerns came not from what local school administrators told parents, which seemed fine to her, but from what people found when researching IB online.

A friend who is also a teacher at the school advised Barnhart to give the new approach some time. Now that she’s had half a year to see IB in action, Barnhart said she hasn’t noticed a big difference for her kids.

“Kids are doing the same level of work as before. It’s not a big improvement or a hindrance,” she said.

Blended subjects

By now, most teachers have had their first level of training in IB concepts. They started writing units this summer and have a day to develop each new unit before they start teaching it, said Anne Andersen, the district’s IB coordinator.

Although they are fine-tuning lessons to weave together subjects like science, social studies and art that are usually separate, the units incorporate a lot of the information teachers used in the past.

A fourth-grade unit on energy — part of the “How the World Works” theme — required students to research different types of energy. Students used computers to research topics like light bulbs, fireworks and nuclear energy, and created a presentation for the class and their parents.

Because every unit ends with a presentation to parents and families, parents will be more aware of what their children are learning, said Andersen.

Integrating special ed

Lafferty said her staff has been meeting with general-education teachers to make sure the IB units are accessible for all students. “It is more structured than it might feel if you’re watching it,” she said.

Teachers and administrators are also working on outlining the philosophy of special education at the district, said Lafferty. “It’s been really great work — how to lay out what’s important. This hasn’t been done before,” she said.

IB encourages students to pose their own questions about what they want to learn. That can be challenging for older students, who haven’t been encouraged to do that during their formal education, but it will be very natural for the youngest students, said Andersen. Preschoolers and kindergarteners are naturally inquisitive, and the IB process will keep that curiosity alive, she said.

With her background as a speech therapist, Lafferty said IB’s emphasis on posing questions is valuable. In a traditional framework, communication tends to be through listening and writing, so IB’s emphasis on speaking is really beneficial, she said.

“I like the part of being focused on having kids leave with real-world skills so they are job-ready or college-ready,” said Lafferty.

Taylor has become very involved with the school this year. She is president of the parent-teacher organization and worked with teachers to find more ways for parents to become involved. She is now in the school almost every day, she said.

“It’s a better sense of community at the school — that’s what IB’s about,” she said.

IB candidacy is a two- or three-year process. A formal application — which must show IB units as well as community support — must be approved by the IB organization when the school is ready.