Stresses integrated learning, connections to real life
By Marcy Stamper
All students would be introduced to Spanish in kindergarten, learn about subjects such as English, science and social studies as part of a broader concept, and even help shape curriculum if the Methow Valley School District decides to pursue a program called the International Baccalaureate (IB).
As part of the district’s research into ways to make education relevant and meaningful, staff and administrators at Methow Valley Elementary School and Liberty Bell Junior/Senior High School have been looking into the IB program over the past year. Most teachers have attended workshops and some have completed the first level of IB training. In addition, teachers from IB schools have come to the district to share their experiences and answer questions.
IB may be best known for its diploma program, but it also offers a primary-years program for first through sixth grade and a middle-years program for seventh through 10th grade. Those are the two levels currently under consideration by the district.
At all IB levels, subject areas are integrated, combining reading, writing, art, science and social studies as connected concepts, said Methow Valley Elementary Principal Anne Andersen. Andersen was previously a principal at two IB schools, in Minnesota and in Norway. Andersen said she had not been familiar with the program until a teacher suggested it, but ended up overseeing the transition at both schools.
At the elementary level, IB units are organized around six themes, including who we are, how we express ourselves, and how the world works, said Andersen. For example, “who we are” could include lessons about families and friendships, world cultures, and genetics, which build in complexity as students become more sophisticated, said Andersen.
In addition, IB students propose their own questions about a subject from different points of view or based on what something is like or how it works. “There’s a much bigger emphasis on what kids want to learn,” said Andersen.
Methow Valley teachers are still trying to understand how the IB concept would translate to the classroom, said first-grade teacher Keri Miles, who completed an introductory training. “A lot of what IB is all about is already best practices in teaching — there’s a more explicit framework, but we’re already doing a lot of this,” she said.
The school would still have to meet state standards, such as an understanding of family, many of which are similar to the IB concepts, said Miles. Teachers work together so that each year builds on lessons from the previous level, said Andersen.
Kindergarten teacher Cara Christensen likes IB’s interdisciplinary aspect. “IB creates experts, which is how the real world is. You study something wider, not just one part of it,” she said.
The IB framework helps teachers organize lessons so that students understand how subject areas are connected and relevant to their life, said Liberty Bell math teacher Paul Gitchos, who attended an IB training this summer.
“It doesn’t tell you what or how to teach,” said Gitchos. The IB program provides examples, but teachers have the freedom to create their own lessons, he said.
“It’s exciting, just to see kids work for 45 minutes without a lot of direction,” said Andersen. “It’s a very high level of thinking for kids.”
“It’s a long-term process. The most powerful thing we’re hearing from other teachers [in IB schools] is the impact on teaching, the classroom and the school,” said Miles. Despite the additional work at the beginning, “they all said they wouldn’t go back,” she said Miles.
“It’s not necessarily something an individual teacher takes on — it has to be the whole school,” said Miles.
In addition to Spanish classes, language studies would be woven into everyday life, prominent in the library and on signs around the school. Students can study additional languages once they develop fluency in the first foreign language, said Andersen.
Candidacy would be first step
Becoming an IB school is a long process, beginning with an application to became a candidate school.
During the candidacy phase, teachers would begin to implement the program, work with an IB mentor, and receive monitoring visits from IB consultants. If qualified, schools typically receive their IB certification within three years, said Andersen.
During the candidacy process, the district could also decide not to pursue IB certification, said Christensen. “It’s important for people to ask critical questions and see if it it’s the right fit,” she said.
Gitchos said he was initially concerned about the amount of work and planning that would be involved in becoming an IB school. He was relieved to find that the process is viewed as a long-term vision and that schools are not expected to change overnight.
The district had an informal gathering for parents about the IB program last year and will hold other information sessions before deciding whether to apply for candidacy, said Andersen. The deadline for applying is April 1.
There are fees of $8,000 to $9,000 per year to be an IB school and during the candidacy phase.
Almost all the Liberty Bell faculty attended an IB workshop this summer, and several teachers at both schools have completed the first level of IB instruction. Another group of teachers and others from Methow Arts and Classroom in Bloom will visit an IB school in Bellingham later this week.
Most of the IB training costs are being paid for by a $30,000 grant from the Public School Funding Alliance, through an anonymous donation designated for the training.
International Baccalaureate is a nonprofit educational foundation with more than 3,700 schools in 147 countries. There are 29 IB schools in Washington, the majority of which offer just the diploma program. Only three are in the primary program and six in the middle years.
While many IB schools are small, few are rural, said Methow Valley Superintendent Tom Venable, who said the international connections could keep the district from becoming too isolated.