Learning framework has been in place for several years
By Marcy Stamper
After two years of teaching “How the World Works” by having kindergarteners explore how toys work and fifth-graders assemble their own science textbooks, the Methow Valley School District is ready to apply for formal authorization with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
The district has been incorporating the IB framework gradually for several years, starting with teacher training and visits to IB schools. Two years ago the district began incorporating IB’s interdisciplinary approach in classes for all students from preschool through 10th grade.
IB is described as a framework for teaching and learning, not a specific curriculum. The framework helps teachers organize lesson plans around a central idea, using a variety of subjects, like science, music and phys ed, to show how the same topic applies in different fields. The plans also structure a lesson so students understand how it relates to their lives, said Anne Andersen, the district’s director of teaching and learning and IB coordinator.
IB’s emphasis on inquiry is a key element. When they’re starting a unit, kids are encouraged to put their curiosity into questions, which are posted on a “wonder wall.” “They see their questions matter and that we take them seriously,” said Andersen.
“Kids are developing strategies for asking questions — they were used to being fed,” said sixth-grade teacher Kelly Wiest, who serves on the teaching and leadership team at Methow Valley Elementary School.
One of the most important things about IB is what educators call “horizontal and vertical coherence” — essentially, making sure that the skills and themes progress from year to year, without gaps or duplication, said Andersen. Large, color-coded charts help map the progression from year to year.
One grid shows the six general subject areas for IB’s primary years program — Who We Are, Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, and Sharing the Planet.
Reading across the grid, everyone can easily see how each grade approaches each topic. For example, as part of “Where We Are in Place and Time,” kindergarteners learn to think like scientists researching dinosaurs, while fifth-graders study encounters between native and non-native peoples.
The kindergarten toy unit has been particularly successful. “It’s all about the physics of how toys work, and they build their own toys,” said Andersen. “Kids love it.”
“The thing I love, that I really notice is different, is the shift toward project-based learning,” said Wiest. Students have a block of time to work on their own projects. “Kids love it — it’s their favorite time. They appreciate the independence,” she said.
The interdisciplinary nature of the program may incorporate math, art and music in a subject people traditionally think of as social studies. First graders are learning to read maps and are building painted dioramas of housing types around the world. Others are learning about music and instruments from different cultures. Music is also used in a science unit on sound and light waves. In health and fitness classes, kids experiment with balance and movement to learn about gravity.
Along with these integrated subjects, there are periods specifically devoted to reading and math, particularly in the early grades, said Andersen.
One aspect of IB that isn’t standard in all curriculums is an emphasis on a foreign language, starting in kindergarten.
Refining lesson plans
Teachers have been working with their grade-level partners to create new IB units. To apply for authorization, the schools need to show three units that have been fully planned, taught, and reflected on (what worked and what should be changed). The school will need another three units in the fall, said Andersen.
“We don’t need everything perfect or completed, but have to be at a certain point in the journey, and show we’re moving in the right direction and have the resources to keep going,” said Andersen. “You never really finish.”
Involving parents and families is a big part of IB. Families are invited when students — even the preschoolers in Head Start — present their work at the end of a unit.
Because students are more involved in setting the direction of their learning, some people have wondered whether IB would be hard for kids who benefit from more structure.
“The teacher’s job doesn’t change,” said Andersen. “There are always kids who need extra support — there’s nothing new about that in IB.”
Enthusiasm and concerns
There has been considerable enthusiasm from staff and families about IB, but some parents were vocal in their objections at community meetings two years ago. Because the IB framework asks students to look at topics from multiple perspectives, recognizing diverse ideas and values, some people were suspicious that the approach was “un-American,” said Andersen.
Some people were concerned that the emphasis on asking questions could make students unruly, said Andersen. While some still have the same concerns, others have found actual class time is really not so different, said Andersen. Overall, teachers have found that most students are more engaged, she said.
In recent interviews, parents who were concerned about IB two years ago described a range of impressions now that the program is in place. Some kids still attend public school, some are enrolled in the Master’s Christian School, and some are being home-schooled, but the parents said there were many reasons for these choices, not just IB. Others have stayed in the public school because of the art and music programs. Overall enrollment in the district is at its highest level in years, said Andersen.
The deadline to apply for IB authorization is April 1. The district is applying for authorization for both the primary- and middle-years programs. An IB team will visit the school in the fall. The authorization process also includes discussions with staff, families and community members to be sure there is widespread support for the IB program, said Andersen.
If granted, authorization would be a recognition that the school understands the IB framework and will continue to grow as it implements the program. There would be a follow-up visit in five years.
The annual fee is $9,000.