In the Classroom

A year after Washington Township went all-IB, teaching is changing

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Bill 1004 would allow districts the freedom to determine where on the pay scale teachers in hard-to-fill positions should fall.

Sixth grade English teacher Alexandria Stewart said there are two ways teachers can think about being part of an International Baccalaureate program: It’s either one more thing to get through during the day, or a key step to helping students become well-rounded graduates one day.

Stewart, a Westlane Middle School teacher, is firmly in the second camp. Washington Township, which one year ago asked all schools to follow an IB program, expects all teachers to follow her example.

“With IB, you are teaching kids how to be better people and how to better the community around them,” Stewart said. “You are teaching kids to be intellectual.”

Last year, Washington Township became the only school district in Indiana, and just the sixth worldwide, to win approval to offer IB classes to all grade levels. Most school districts that offer IB offer it though premium high school classes, similar to Advanced Placement courses.

The district’s goal is to prepare students to be part of a global society by using critical thinking skills, conducting research, asking questions and participating in community service.

IB is a nonprofit group created in 1968 by educators at the International School of Geneva, Switzerland to serve students in international schools who wanted to prepare for college. The curriculum does not tell teachers exactly what to teach. Rather, it outlines important content in a specific framework and then expects teachers to use that to form lessons. The district has been offering the most rigorous high school IB program, known as the Diploma Program, since 1988.

But Superintendent Nikki Woodson said the district’s transition toward broader use of IB has more steps ahead.

“IB is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator … which may be easier and which may give you faster results,” Woodson said. “And it’s more work to take the stairs. But at the top when we are done and our kids graduate, they will be strengthened.”

IB has higher expectations for teachers, students

Stewart is not completely new to IB teaching.

She watched her own siblings go through the program while she was growing up in Indianapolis, learned even more about it through hands-on work while student teaching at school using IB in Milwaukee and now practices what she’s learned in her own classroom.

But that doesn’t mean she gets to take it easy.

IB is very specific about how it asks teachers to prepare lessons. Stewart said it can be a hard adjustment. She has to write reflections before, during and after each lesson as well as complete other paperwork and requirements to show she’s teaching IB’s core principles, which include risk-taking, questioning and communication.

Each lesson is about more than just teaching one skill, she said, such as identifying a verb. An IB teacher must take it one step further, she said: have students identify parts of speech and then put those words together to write something meaningful.

“You have more opportunity, I think, in an IB setting to really take that risk and go beyond the surface of a lesson,” Stewart said.

Stewart said her students learn through argument and discussion, but they also learn by exposing themselves to other cultures and ways of life.

For example, Stewart said one lesson last year asked the sixth-graders to write grant applications for community projects and submit them to the United Way. The kids proposed ideas such as putting together backpacks for homeless people or organizing a camp for students with special needs. Although it was just an assignment, one idea they proposed — creating a community garden — is now in the works at the school.

Those types of lessons, which often include projects that require the students to do research and work independently, also create a more mature classroom atmosphere, Stewart said.

Contrary to how some might view the enthusiasm and maturity of middle-schoolers, Stewart said her students are thoughtful and mostly enjoy the extra responsibility.

“They love it,” she said. “A big thing is that they get to choose what to talk about. I don’t think in sixth grade they are given an opportunity to have an opinion about something very important, more important than what are you going to wear today, or who has a crush on who.”

Not all gains seen in test scores

Even with the more rigorous coursework and complex teaching requirements, it can be difficult to see the value of an IB program in state test scores.

“The frustration is we know standardized test scores are not going to measure what we are doing, our work with IB,” Woodson said. “How can we show the world what we’re doing with IB and how it matters beyond just the Indiana standards, which are required of us?”

Washington Township is changing: The district has seen dramatic growth in poor families and students learning English. Although its ISTEP passing rate has hovered between 65 and 71 percent since 2006, the district moved to a B letter grade in 2013-14 from a C in 2012-13. Last year’s letter grades are expected later this year, or in early 2016.

In IB curriculum, state standards and preparing for standardized tests are just the foundation of what teachers and students are expected to accomplish, Woodson said. That makes for some difficulty when trying to broadcast the district’s progress to the wider community, especially since only 20 percent of Washington Township residents have kids in school, Woodson said.

A couple of examples show how differently IB works from traditional graded school assignments.

In 10th grade students must create a “personal project,” and as seniors they are required to write an “extended essay” to earn their IB diplomas, which often come with an opportunity to earn college credit.

For the personal project, students had their choice of any subject to study. Some chose music, dance, painting, pollution or animal activism, and they worked on their project presentations throughout the entire school year with the help of a faculty mentor. But unlike traditional school projects, this one won’t earn kids a letter grade, Woodson said.

“It’s not graded, it’s not something they can put on a transcript,” Woodson said. “But they are developing themselves in a personal way, in something they choose.”

Similarly, high school seniors in IB’s most challenging program must write an essay, but one more akin to a college thesis or research paper. An evaluation of the essay by IB graders helps decide whether students earn their IB diploma.

Woodson said her staff is putting immense time and energy into continuing its work as an IB district — training teachers, revamping its testing system and figuring out how to grow the program even further.

The best validation that they are performing well and making progress, she said, comes from IB’s oversight.

“Just because they give you approval under the authorization stamp and say now you can call yourself an IB school, they come and do quality checks,” Woodson said. “They can come and remove your authorization if you are not doing what you need to be doing. It means we have to stay on top of our game, which is good.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”