IB Week: An alternative to Trip Week

Last spring, after a year of incubation, an idea was hatched: Specifically set aside days for IB students to have focused time on IB related mindset, skills, and activities. Our IB and CAS coordinators have persevered in making the idea a reality that came to fruition a week ago during our scheduled secondary school trip week.

Grade 6-10 students gathered with suitcases, daypacks, snacks, and much eagerness and departed on their anticipated trips to different locations in western Europe. The building quickly emptied out leaving the hallways of the secondary school empty and quiet.  However, staggering in for normal school hours were the Year 11 and Year 12 students.  Though they arrived for “school”, normal activities weren’t exactly what faced them.

Sounds of hammering, the aroma of soil, the discussions of learner profiles, coaching on life after high school, chopping knives, and Internal Assessment workshops emanated from the classrooms. Furthermore there were seniors working independently on extended essays and internal assessments, consulting with teachers, and participating in CAS activities.  There was vibrancy, productivity, and energy.

The internal assessment (IA) workshops centered on math, history and science, giving students a cohesive, focused overview of the IA process, expectations, and criteria. The post-high school work shop helped students to think about where they should be in the university application process and the considerations they should be pondering about what they want to do after graduation.

My duties included mentoring students participating in CAS activities that supported the Going Green Initiative at the school.  Specifically, students built mug racks, made a green wall pallet, and volunteered at an organic farm.

Students lined themselves up according to self-designated responsibilities.  Their heads bent with intensity and focused on their individual task.   They measured, cut, hammered, stapled, drilled and screwed.  Gradually the windowsill filled with beautiful mug racks for the staff room.  Their project will aid in reducing plastic waste in the teacher lounge.

Another group has prepared a recycled pallet (retrieved from the rubbish bin) with landscaping material to transform it into a green wall.  Giggling erupts as they press their hands into the dark aromatic soil and disperse it throughout the pallet.  They plan their planting and carefully set the selected flowers.  Slowly they raise their garden and are pleased that it holds and clearly adds beauty to the roof.

Our Going Green members were bussed to an organic farm to harvest carrots, weed tomatoes, clean hydroponic gear, sort chickens, and plant young lettuce seedlings.  Physical labor yielded exhausted but satisfied participants. As one student remarked, “It feels really good to help out a worthy business that relies so heavily on volunteers.  We did a good service here today”

Another projects conducted that week included a high tea with the elderly and a trip to the soup kitchen. 

A set of students met with a chef who guided them through the process of baking cupcakes, biscuits, and cookies.  They mastered skills of yolk separation, sifting flour, and allocating the right amount of dough for the perfectly sized cupcake. Theirs was definitely the tastiest of our week’s projects.  With completed delicacies they departed for a nearby Alzheimer’s center and shared a high tea with some of the residents there.

Students gathered late one afternoon to chop the vegetables and then assembled themselves early the next morning to cook the soup.  Through the steam they stirred and flavored their soup, patiently awaiting its readiness.  With carefully wrapped pots they departed for the Soup Kitchen.

All of these activities were balanced with a self defence class that taught some good skills and brought on laughter and a great release of energy.

Following their workshops and service projects, the students participated in a 2-day trip to Ypres, Belgium where they completed a guided bike tour through battlefields, cemeteries and monuments of the area.  They visited the Flanders Field Museum.  Together, these activities provided the students with physical exercise and greater historical insight not necessarily obtained through curriculum delivered in the classroom.

In all, our IB week was successful and definitely helped our students become more focused and mature as IB students. It clearly sent the message “This is serious. You are an IB student.”  It seems to have set the tone for the 11th and 12th graders this year and put them on a path of having greater understanding of the program, being better equipped to meet deadlines and being prepared to be successful IB students. I highly recommend an IB week for all IB students.

Letting Go: Allowing Students to be Independent

The illusive photosynthesis experiment.  This student has a good start but has a lot to figure out. 

“I want to do something with plants”

My heart sinks.

“How about the effect of acid on plant growth?”


“How does light intensity affect photosynthesis?”

Heavy Sigh.

What do these ideas for internal assessment ideas mean to me?  Often, failed experiments.

For whatever reason, students think setting up a plant experiment will be easy. They never factor in the time it takes to determine the best conditions to grow their plant or sprout the seeds. It often results in a neglected, unwatered project of withered specimens.

It's always a temptation to check: maybe this one will work. 

And I know this.  So why don’t I just say, “no plants”?  That approach would be notably simpler and it would spare me the pain of watching those pathetic seedlings atrophy and die at the back of my classroom.  However, it is my firm belief that students, especially 16-18 year old IB students should have their own choice. The choice fosters ownership in their work. And if they really want to do it, then they deserve a chance to try, right? So, after bequeathing warnings about how difficult plant experiments really are and that statistically there have been few true successes come from them, I allow my students to proceed. For some reason, they always think their situation will be different.

Though I noticed the deteriorated state days ago, a student came to me today and showed me his shrivelled seedlings as though they’d “just perished”.  He was running a pretrial to determine whether he would best conduct his experiment in cotton or soil and approached me with the observation, “ I think soil worked better than the cotton”.  He looked down at me with his big brown childish eyes hoping for confirmation and I’m thinking, “Seriously?  They’re ALL DEAD!”  but I just smile and ask him how many of the 5 seeds in each cup actually sprouted to which he responds, “One”.  “So what does that tell you?” Silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning.   “That I need to plant ten in each cup?”

Exasperation is threatening to settle in but I patiently continue, “Well, that might be a choice you make, however, what is the actual observation?”  More silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning. “Um, that not all the seeds sprouted?”  He receives the advice to consider these observations as he proceeds.  Of course I know he’s baffled in attempting to incorporate this information into subsequent planning.  He returns the blighted seedlings to the fluorescent lamps though I’m not sure why.  They should be tossed in the rubbish bin.

Then there's the photosynthesis experiment that's been sitting in my lab area for five days.  It's obvious to me that the set-up isn't optimized, however, the student keeps returning hoping to see a measurable amount of oxygen.  At what point will she realize that no more oxygen will appear in the tube?  Tomorrow I will tell her it's time to reconsider her design.

So, in the end, the students who were counting on an easy experiment with their plant idea often give up after the first attempted failure.  Others persist repeating over and over again until they get it to work.  They always spend so much more time than the students who design an experiment in which data can be collected within a day.

Regardless of the design choice, it’s the most difficult thing to resist telling them what to do. The path of “no choice” is decidedly more manageable!  But that would deny my students the purpose of this journey. 

Students work their way through the scientific process. They deal with frustration, glitches, and failed attempts but in the end, they all end up with two reasonably controlled experiments that they have designed and carried out. And they are always proud of their work.

To all of us out there struggling to let go of the control, just do it!  The students will be rewarded with a worthwhile journey that leaves them feeling accomplished and you will be profoundly happy for them.

An IB Learner is ....Caring.

How do we foster caring in our students?

They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others.  They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.    (from the IB Learner Profile)

“Is there anything else Dr. Markham?” 

“No, thank you so much, that was a huge help”

“I mean, can I help you with that?” He gestures towards my unplanted plant and the huge bag of soil.  “My hands are already dirty,” he continues.

He has already descended and climbed the three flights of stairs twice on this errand.  On the first journey down, he extracted the dead tree from the huge, heavy clay pot, returning with the soil still in the pot.  After hearing the explanation that the soil lacked necessary nutrients for my new plant, he repeated his steps in order to dump the dirt.  Small beads of sweat drip from his temples.  He smiles.  He genuinely wants to help, to finish the task.  He cares.

We tenderly transplant the small tree from its temporary container.  The earthy smell of the soil wafts into the room and it feels good to handle the dirt as we center the plant in the clay pot. My student asks me about the Going Green Group at the school.  He’s sincere in his desire to become part of it, including putting in extra time after school to work on setting up a non-for-profit foundation for the initiative.

Seriously, I’m touched.  It’s so great to see a young man sincerely caring about something.  He is clearly developing this attribute as an IB Learner.

This is in stark contrast to the student who earlier in the week sat on one of the tables in the classroom gazing at the turtle (as many students enjoy doing) and remarked,   “I figure I’ve done my part.  I’ve filled in all the blanks for applications.  I’m going to do the minimum now, you know?” 

How do we foster caring in our students?  How do we help them realize that our part in this world is never actually “done”? 

In an effort to expose our student population to the Going Green initiative of the school, we have begun showing students the short video clip on eco-schools of which our school is a member.  Some students have responded with a sense of caring.  My South Africa trip reached another segment of learners.  That trip fostered a burgeoning sense of caring for the world and environment.   Global Issues Network and Mini United Nations attract the “caring” characteristic in yet other groups of students.  CAS projects can put students into a situation of actually serving others, instilling a sense of care.  Our job as educators isn’t simply about teaching content and helping students acquire skills.  It is so much more.  Hopefully we can also provide exposure to different worthwhile “causes” so that students begin to develop this important learning characteristic, that of caring.  We want them to leave our institutions of learning eager and prepared to invest in truly making the world a better place through their social and environmental influences. How do you foster a sense of caring in teenagers?

Is the IB Worth it?

A parent's perspective

A follow up to a previous post in which I, as a parent, seriously questioned the value of the IB education: Click here for the first blog post

Working hard while others are still enjoying the care-free life of a summer break.

Glorious, sunny, cool, fall weather has settled in on the Netherlands.  Students officially return to school in a week and many are squeezing in the last summer activities before facing the routine of classes and homework.  However, one student arrives in my classroom every day this week at 11:30, working steadily until 3:30, 4:00, or even 4:30 p.m.  He is working on his extended essay for IB biology.

He has built his on electrophorese apparatus to compare genomic DNA of specific regional plants.


His project to me, as his teacher, is thrilling and his dedication to it impresses me.  The quiet one-on-one time he has with me in between my meetings and pre-school duties is a pleasure as he is a genuinely interested and curious student who has taken full ownership of his project. 

His gel - I love the use of legos to make the wells.

As a teacher I am a strong advocate of the IB, its curriculum, and its ability to prepare students for the university.

However, as a mother, I wonder what the mother of this IB student thinks.  Is she concerned about all of his responsibilities?  Of course, the real crunch hasn’t arrived.  I remember back on my own amazement at the time and energy required of IB students, from a mom’s perspective.  I remember my own questioning of whether the value of an IB education offsets the sacrifice required to obtain the IB diploma.

It is now behind us, as a family.  Our two teenagers have completed and earned their IB diplomas.  They are happy with the results and I’m grateful the hard work paid off.  However, the question remains, is the IB worth it? 

From a mom’s perspective, I now have arrived at the conclusion that it IS worth it.  Not only is the curriculum rigorous and preparatory for college, but the process of learning how to manage time, prioritize, and yes, deal with long nights and challenges are also preparations for the life to come.  So many of my students have returned to me to report how well the IB prepared them for college.  My own children have already dealt with facing the real world post-high school experience with a mature and capable attitude partly due to their IB training.

There are some other things I advocate more strongly for now that I have both teacher and mom perspective.  One is that students (and parents) consider what the ideal IB student is.  The IB guide states that “IB learners strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective”.  The first day of class my new IB students review these and actually write a paragraph on what it means to be an IB learner. This is part of my plan because the idea of a complete and well-rounded learner is so important to me.

A student who approaches learning with the IB learner attributes will enjoy most fully the benefits of an IB diploma.  My daughter took IB Dutch despite not having the proper background for this journey.  To compensate, she attended a Dutch camp and really worked hard to learn the language.  As a risk-taker she discovered her ability to stretch herself beyond her limits and in the end, learned what she was ultimately capable of.  Both of my children continued to play sports through their second year of IB, a choice I now fully advocate as it provided them with much needed balance. The Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and Extended Essay (EE) provided them with an in-depth opportunity to be inquirers, thinkers, and communicators. CAS fostered caring.  IB teachers and the program overall encouraged them to be knowledgeable, principled, reflective, and open-minded.  Additionally, my children have had a globally minded education that enables them to embark on life's journey as world citizens prepared to collaborate with and work with a multitude of cultures.  Finally, they have the satisfaction of having extended themselves and achieved something worthwhile.

Yes, the IB is worth it.  

Formative Assessment Turns into Review

“Can we do the white board thing again?” asks one.

“Seriously?”  Typically they’re so reticent about committing their answers to the whiteboard and I’m surprised they’re actually requesting the activity.

“Yes, it’s really helpful” bursts out the entire class in unison.

My favorite formative assessment has just been requested as a form of review by my IB students. For my purposes, during the course of a unit such an activity determines how well students understand concepts.  A series of well-prepared questions that are informative regardless the answer given are posted on the Smart Board and students commit to answers on individual “white boards” (clipboards with a sheet of paper covered with left-over laminating material).  They record their answer, without letting their peers see (and boy are they protective of their answers) and then they hold up the boards high so I can see all the answers and know at a glance where the entire class stands.  If I formulate the questions properly, misconceptions are exposed, understandings are revealed, and weaknesses are identified. I immediately attend to the gaps or I plan the next lesson according to the needs.

What was revealed before was confirmed once again, that this process also helps the students. It gives them confidence in what they know and it helps them to realize what they need to further work on. 

The trouble is coming up with good questions on the spot.  But they are begging me.  So, I pull out the textbook and look at assessment statements. The questions start coming and the students start writing. “Can you ask some more on Topic 5.4 because there are things I’m still unsure of?”  “Sure!”  Within an hour we’ve covered the entire chapter.  “Was that helpful?” I query.  “Yes. Definitely” comes back the response.  Echoes of  “Thank you so much” filter towards me as they all depart the classroom.

It’s so interesting how we as teachers assess in order to know where to take the class next.  However, it seems the assessment can also aid the students in deciding the direction of the class: move ahead or review some more.  It is exciting to see the students take these assessments as opportunities for self-reflection.  I continue my advocacy of formative assessment but I am changing my tune on its purpose.  It clearly serves both teachers and students.  Any other good formative assessment techniques or experiences out there?

Balance as students, teachers, people

My 6th grade class is currently completing a unit within the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC) titled “Balance”.  The big idea of the unit is  “Things are more stable when different elements are in the correct of best possible proportions” (1).

Coupled to our global-warming themed Science Fair, these students are investigating an animal that is threatened by global warming and analyzing the ramifications of the given animal disappearing from the food chain.  In preparation for this task, they viewed a short video (see below) on the impact of wolves in Yellow Stone National Park (2).

After watching the film I opened up a general discussion with “So what did you think?”  Immediately, a student responded with “It’s like the wolves provide balance to the entire ecosystem”.  As always, my 6th graders were duly impressed and expressed appropriate wonderment.  I love that about them.  In any case, it jump started them in their own research about their threatened species.

Furthermore, it gave them perspective on the exit point they are doing for the IMYC unit: Working individually, they are to create a “person web” (kind-of like a food web), with themselves at the center.  Branching out from themselves will be all of their classmates.  They are to identify a characteristic of each classmate that brings balance to their learning environment. It will be a surprise to the group when each presents.

This idea of balance is such an important concept.  We also teach it at the IB level claiming that IB learners are “Balanced” and that “we understand the importance of balancing different aspects of our lives – intellectual, physical, and emotional- to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.  We recognize our interdependence with other people and with the world in which we live” (3).

I hope that we, as teachers and adults, also teach this principle of balance by our examples.  It is an area that I have personally struggled with but am improving in.  Here are ways I seek balance in my own life:

  1. I prioritize time with my family.  We eat together and we do things together. 1:1 time with each person in the family involves date-nights with my husband, roller-blading with my 12-year old, dog walks and market visits with my daughter, and watching the “Walking Dead” series with my teenage son. 
  2. I exercise.  I run, especially when school isn’t in session.  Biking to and from work is my main mode of commuting.
  3. I write!  A few times a year I attend the Amsterdam Writer's Workshop (4) and I've committed myself to writing everyday.  I’ve started this blog.
  4. I read.  I find time to read novels and literature pertaining to education.

If I don’t do these things, I spend all my time on lesson planning, grading, and trying to make things better for the next time.  Since every lesson can always be better in some way, this could become a completely obsessive habit.  There have been times when I have worked from 19:00 – 24:00 every night.  And that is not balanced.  

My 2014 resolution was to break that habit and I have! 

How do you keep balance in your life?  Add your comments below.


(1) http://www.greatlearning.com/imyc/the-imyc/units-of-work

(2) http://youtu.be/ysa5OBhXz-Q

(3)  http://www.ibo.org/myib/digitaltoolkit/files/pdfs/learner-profile-en.pdf

(4) http://amsterdamwriting.com/



Meeting IB Deadlines: Will example alone help teach students?

It was 3:30 a.m. before my head finally hit the pillow last night.  After I maneuvered my way through that PSOW form (I posted about that yesterday) I wanted to read through all of the IAs one more time just to make sure I was as accurate as possible with my marking. 

The seniors walked in to my classroom at 10:55.  We only needed to compile the paper work.  It’s simple.  The two internal assessments (IAs) each with their respective document outlining the awarded marks, the teacher guidelines for all practical work and the PSOW form signed by the respective student and me.  Yet, it took an hour.  I think I had to reprint a couple of the documents five times before they were correct.  Some of the students needed an IA printed in color.  One PSOW required dates to be changed.  It seems that no matter how well one prepares these documents the need for changes always arise.  However, finally all of the forms were neatly ordered in cover slips and stacked sleekly awaiting shipment.  The IB Coordinator and I made sure the marks were uploaded online and then we were done.

There is such relief in having a deadline met.  I think I'll be glad that I stayed up late last night so that I could meet the deadline ahead of time with a quality product.  Some of my posts have generated a discussion on the fact that we need to teach students to meet their deadlines.  So do you think they’ll take notice of the fact that all of their IA deadlines in all of their subjects were met in advance of the actual shipment deadline? Can they see that even though we ran into several glitches it was relatively stress free because we had allotted ourselves the time?  Is that enough to motivate them? What do you think?  How do we actually teach students to meet deadlines?

What makes a great colleague?

“I do not have the button that you have to add another page!” 

Panic is settling in as I look at the Adobe reader pdf document before me.  It is the PSOW (What does that even stand for?---OK, I just googled it: Practical Scheme of Work) form.  I am required to record every lab I have done in the two-year IB Biology course including the date conducted, the hours required, the topic associated, and the criteria assessed.  An old PSOW form has been diligently attended to over the years, labs being recorded as we completed them.  However, there is a new form and I can’t just simply cut and paste.  Oh no.  I have to download the form from the IB site, using Safari (I’m a Chrome user), open it with Adobe Reader and then cut and paste each cell (date, titled of lab, topic, hours, etc.) separately – no, it’s not possible to cut and paste the entire line.  Cell by cell I must work.  Now I’m trying to figure out how to add an additional page to record all the labs we’ve done.  An all-nighter is surely before me. 

Lilting laughter soothes me, “Everything will be fine”.  My colleague patiently describes where the magic "add-a-page" box is and waits for me to attempt locating it.  I position my mobile phone between my shoulder and ear and with tilted head, scroll down to the location she is referring to in the document.  Sure enough, there it is, plain as day.  How did I miss that?  My heart rate slows again.  Maybe I won’t need all night after all.  My colleague assures me it’ll be OK and shares a couple more pointers that she struggled with but figured out, hoping to save me some time.

I end up calling her two more times.  Each time she alleviates my frustration and aids me in quickly interpreting the form.

Right now I’m genuinely grateful for my valuable comrade who is actually an ideal individual with which to work.  Then, in my imagination, I walk down the hallway at the school (my room is at the end) and I realize that exceptional colleagues surround me.  I am considering what identifies someone as a superb co-worker.

Here is my list of 10 Great Qualities in a Colleague:

1)   Collaborative in getting things done and sharing ideas

2)   Hard-working, carries own weight

3)   Trustworthy

4)   Intelligent

5)   Helpful

6)   Embracing of differences

7)   Open to new ideas

8)   Caring

9)   Enjoyable to have a chat with

Will you help me complete the list?   What should be #10?  Please share in the comment box below!

Changes to the PSOW form

As I mentioned yesterday, I finished the grading of the internal assessments (IAs) for the biology students.  I still need to fill out the PSOW sheet for each candidate.  This sheet involved documenting every lab we did during the two year course including the hours spent on the lab, a brief description of the activity, and the assessments performed.

I keep a log of the labs in a sample PSOW form as we do them.  I simply add the data to the sheet and at the end of the two year course I just need to copy it for each student and fill out the final information (that student’s individual IA scores as well as the personal skills and manipulative skills assessments).  I usually do a quick look through my blog and double check that I haven’t missed anything.  I’ll need to especially go through my unit plans and make sure I have all of the ICT activities listed.  My system has worked quite well and usually saves me some time at this time of year.

However, this year there is a new form.  The thought of copying and pasting all that information over to the new form is overwhelming me.  I was going to do it tonight but, in the end, couldn’t face it.  I perused the IBO web site to see if there was any advice.  Nothing.   I did notice in the shared teachers resource site that someone has created an Excel file that, when filled in, will generate the new PSOW form for each candidate.  That took a lot of work!  I couldn’t determine if it will help me.

I recognize the need for progress and improvement.  However, because I don’t understand yet how these forms work (apparently they can be saved while you’re working on them but I couldn’t reopen and saved attempts) it is exceedingly frustrating.  Before expecting teachers to make changes I think trouble shooting should have taken place and clear instructions should be offered.  Is that too much to ask?

Improve teaching with formative assessment for IB Students

Last week I gave my IB students a series of activities to complete in order to gain understanding of concepts in our genetic engineering topic.  They viewed videos, performed interactive tutorials, pasted tables and diagrams that they had to assemble, and completed some sequencing tasks.  With each activity they had to demonstrate knowledge in a written form.  Today I had to make the decision to continue with the topic of cloning or to review some of the topics from last week.

I put together a set of questions in a PowerPoint document (one question per slide) that would help me identify what percent of the students had mastered each concept.  As Dylan Wiliam counseled us in that workshop I went to a week and a half ago, I built each multiple choice question by identifying and including incorrect answers that would result from misconceptions.  I made sure there was more than one correct answer such that if a student picked both correct answers, it would be a demonstration of understanding.  There was no way to just guess a correct answer.  Any non-multiple choice questions were answerable with less than three words.  

Today at 14:00:

The students enter the classroom and I give them 10-minutes to review their notes from the previous activities challenging them to quiz each other on the concepts in an effort to confirm and seek understanding. 


The “whiteboards” (a clipboard with a piece of white paper overlaid with leftover laminate from the lamination machine) and markers come out of the box.  Interests peak as the students eagerly await receiving their marker, whiteboard, and “eraser” (a ¼ of a paper towel).  A bit of nervousness emanates from the students as they process that they will be individually responsible for writing down something pertaining to the content.  They recognize that this clearly is not a pair or group activity.


A barrage of questions comes my way: “Are we being tested?” “Oh no, this is going to be hard” “What types of questions are you going to ask?”

“Should I start with an easy one?” I query.  An emphatic host of “yes” responses reply so I quickly insert a multiple question that I am 99.99% confident everyone will correctly answer. 


We begin.  Thankfully everyone is on board with question #1 so I can proceed. 

The responses are instantly so informative, yielding not only misconceptions but deep thought processes and a clear indication that some students had sought for deeper understanding while completing the activities I had assigned them. Following the exposure of each misconception, I engage in discussion and additional formative assessment questions to ensure that I can move forward. 


We are on question #4.  I make the decision to put the cloning topic on hold until tomorrow. 

The students are engaged.  They are intense.  They are thoughtful as they choose their responses.  I can imagine the neurons firing in their brains as some of them recognize more than one correct answer but struggle with actually writing down TWO answers. 


We make it through the questions before class is over and I recall the whiteboards and markers.  The students place the supplies in the box and comment on how productive they feel.


One students states, “That was really good” and I respond, “Yes, it really helps me see what level the students have achieved in their understanding” to which she replies, “And it helps me see where I am at”. 

Another unexpected outcome of formative assessments has revealed itself.


I excitedly share the success with my colleague that attended the workshop with me.  She describes the achievements she has experienced with the “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, “E” cards with her classes.  We revel in the power of formative assessment and brainstorm additional ways of maintaining the practice in our classrooms.


I feel elated.  I’m grateful to be a teacher.  I rejoice at the prospect of improving myself as an educator.   I’m pleased that I have a whole list of improvements to make in my classroom after I’ve mastered the techniques of formative assessment that I’m currently working on.  I find it strangely comforting to know that there is a plethora of untapped ideas that I can try in my classroom that will assist me in developing into an exceptional teacher. 






Viva Voce for the Extended Essay: A Great component of IB

“Are we being graded on this?” a student timidly queried as he entered the room with his lab report supported tenderly in his hands.  Apparently our response was reassuring and he and the other two sat down with relaxed smiles on their faces.

Today my colleague and I administered the viva voce for three seniors who completed an Extended Essay (EE) in Science.   We had a chemistry and two biology EEs.  They shared with each other the results of their experiments and then answered our questions.  They were very open and reflective about the EE process.  All of them felt proud of the work they had done. They commented on how this was the largest project they had ever participated in and how satisfying it was to have completed a research experiment that spanned nearly a year.  There was definite relief in the room as they carefully slid their hard work into the bright yellow cover sheets.  I told them the current 11th graders were selecting their advisors and topics this week.  What was their advice for these students?  Start early!  Get the data collected THIS YEAR (as opposed to in the fall of the new school year).  Keep track of sources from the beginning, maintaining a running bibliography throughout the process.  Good advice.

It was wise to combine the three students as it created a relaxed yet formal environment where they could sincerely share their experience in the presence peer support.  The conversation was much more natural and flowing as compared to the viva voce I had completed last year with a single student.  The meeting provided needed closure for both advisor and student.  This is a critical and valuable piece of the EE experience in the IB and I encourage all teachers to give appropriate time for this process.

It also confirmed a value of the IB program.  As I've posted about before, I am evaluating the IB experience from perspective of parent this year.  On February 22 I posted about the EE being a definite element of the IB that is worth it.  Today, it was clear to me that this EE experience provided growth and development for these students.  Additionally it was an opportunity to complete a long-term, in-depth project that left them with a huge feeling of accomplishment.  It is an experience I am glad that both of my teenagers are participating in. 

Deep Approach to Learning: Derive it yourself!

I just read two articles on deep versus surface approaches to learning: “Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning” by Jenni Case and “Deep, surface, and strategic approaches to Learning” by Jack Lublin.

Jack Lublin gives a list of characteristics of a deep approach to learning that includes “interact vigorously with the content”.  To me this actually means having the students engaged with the content.  Today, in IB Biology I was supposed to cover the Hardy-Weinberg principle.  The IB students need to be able to “explain how the Hardy–Weinberg equation is derived” (Assessment statement D.4.1).  Well, is there a better way to learn how to explain it than to actually derive it oneself?  So, I put together a series of guiding questions and problems to help them derive the Hardy-Weinberg equation themselves, additionally determining, on their own, the assumptions that needed to be made in order for the equation to work (assessment statement D.4.3).  Their response?  “This is so cool.”  Additionally, as they then moved into using the equation to tackle questions regarding allele frequencies (assessment statement D.4.2), they manipulated the equation with ease.  The equation, its use, and the assumptions were not just a formula and material to memorize; but rather combatively it all became a principle they truly understood.  

Extended Essay: An element of the IB that IS worth it!

This holiday, in addition to grading IAs, I also graded a couple of biology extended essays (EE) that students at our school are submitting for their IB diploma.  I took a similar approach to that approach of grading the IAs in carefully combing the assessment criteria for the EE.  I read through the examiner statements from last year and applied that guidance towards evaluating these essays.  I like the freedom of being able to provide more feedback on an EE, as compared to the IA. In some ways that makes the EE a more meaningful learning experience than the IA, at least in the Group IV Sciences.  I am happy to realize that even if these students make no changes to their EEs, they will “pass” this portion of their diploma.  However, I hope they take the suggestions to push themselves to submit excellent rather than good/mediocre work.

I sit again with the perspective of both parent and teacher as I read through the EEs.   My daughter is submitting an EE in English while my son is one of the two students submitting a biology EE.  As a teacher I am convinced of the “worthiness” of the EE endeavor.  The process of completing the EE does, indeed, as the IB suggests, “promote high-level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity” (IB Extended Essay Guide).  I am truly impressed by the creativity and intellectual discovery that both biology EEs generated.  As projects they were both outright interesting and engaging to guide and follow as the students progressed.  Reading the final products was truly enjoyable.  The students have something to be proud of. 

As a parent, I’m grateful that my own children are part of this experience.  Already, having had a vacation week for my children to catch up on the IB diploma obligations, things in our household have settled down a bit.  The stress levels are residing.  Additional crunch times lie ahead to I continue to withhold final judgment until the last exam in May has been written. 

Tonight, however, my yo-yo experience with the IB has swung up again and I am enjoying the great aspects that this program has to offer.  Namely, tonight I am appreciating the process of the extended essay.

Assessing Internal Assessments

I have spent several hours this Crocus holiday grading internal assessments (IA) from both my Year 1 and my Year 2 students.  I am somewhat comforted in seeing that the Year 2 students do, indeed, have more depth in their reports than the Year 1 students.  So I know improvement is eminent with the first year students.  However, there is still so much lacking with the senior reports that I’m concerned whether they’ll pull it together by our final March 6th deadline.  Some of them simply need to redo an experiment or, at a minimum, rework their Data Collection and Processing (DCP) and Conclusions and Evaluations (CE). 

I spent some time on the ibo.org site looking at the subject reports from last year, with a focus on IA.  This proved exceedingly valuable.  I recommend this practice to all new teachers.  There are some concrete suggestions for things teachers should be looking out for in the IAs their students are preparing.  I even copied the list of reasons why papers were marked down in 2013 and sent the list to my Year 2 students.  I advised them to look at each item on the list against their own write-ups before submitting it to me.  We’ll see if it helps.

With the year one students I completed essentially a joint construction with them on the Effect of hydrogen peroxide substrate concentration on leaf extract catalase activity.  Even with all the joint work, there are a lot of misconceptions and omissions.  I’ve used the IB rubric to assess their work.  They’ll have an opportunity to fix their mistakes, hopefully leading to stronger experimental process next time.

This is my 3rd year teaching IB.  The students are definitely becoming progressively more prepared as they experience the science program at our school from MS and HS that has IB standards as a goal.  Additionally, I am becoming a stronger teacher as I do more PD in the IB area and as I become more familiar, through experience, with the IB criteria.  I remain an advocate of the IB Science standards and am happy to see that with the changes in Group IV for 2016, these standards will be more clearly defined for new teachers.

The Biology Bus, Holiday Labs, and the Emergency Fire Blanket

It is the Crocus Vacation but several students have requested that we have a lab day so they can work on their internal assessments.  Two of the six students happen to be my own so, of course, I drive them in with me.  Another student is from our neighborhood and another lives on the way.  So, because we are part of a very small school with a family environment, we pick everyone up and I’m feeling very much like I’m driving “The Biology Bus” on the way to the school. Two other students meet us at the school.

We all enter the chilled classroom and within minutes there is a buzz of activity as everyone sets up his or her lab.  I am happy to be there with them and once again feed on their energy and enthusiasm.  The environment is considerably more relaxed considering that it’s a holiday week.  At one point the students whip out some marshmallows and roast them over a Bunsen burner while they are waiting on their experiments.  OK.  It’s a bit “on the edge” but I let it slide as they are so responsible and they’re working hard on their experiments.  I turn back to my work.

Suddenly, I hear an urgent, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom, what do we do about this fire” from behind me.   I swivel around in my chair to view my son with his outstretched hands motioning to a gigantic flame on the lab bench. The flame is spreading across the bench, enveloping the gas and electrical outlets.  I have the immediate thought, “This is a huge fire that we might not be able to contain”.  I push the thoughts of requiring the fire department aside as I do what initially needs to happen.  The students have, wisely, already turned off the gas.  It is an alcohol fire (spontaneous combustion of ethanol) and we opt for the fire blanket rather than the CO2 fire extinguisher.  Together we unfold the blanket and drape it over the monstrous flames.  We press down on the blanket and feel the heat beneath.  My son lifts a corner and observes flames licking at the blankets’ edge.  “Don’t lift it.  Don’t lift it,” he advises.  So, we let the blanket do its work of smothering the fire.  An awful stench fills the room, the result of the melted rubber tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas outlet.  Near the blanket, a bottle of methylene blue sits strangely deformed from the heat it’s been exposed to.  It’s a surreal moment as I look at the aftermath of the event and the relief replacing the shocked looks on my students’ faces.

I learn that a student had taken his experiment from the fume hood (!-what !) to the Bunsen Burner, attempted to pour the alcohol into a larger beaker, experienced the spontaneous combustion of the alcohol as it was being poured, and proceeded to drop the beaker.  The result was the rapid spreading and growth of the flame.

Fortunately, all are safe, no major damage has occurred, and we are able to easily erupt into laughter as the students reenact the near disaster, my son’s persistent summoning of me, and my apparent slow-motion response. 

The students finish up their experiments and clean up the lab while I collect the turtle and his supplies to come home with me for the school break.  We work together to place the chairs on the tabletops with hopes that the cleaners will do a more thorough cleaning of the floor. The students perform a final check on ongoing experiments.  I turn off the lights and we exit the Biology room, the 3rd floor, and the school itself.  The magic school bus then begins its ride home, dropping students off at their destinations and wishing them a happy holiday.

IB Internal Assessment (IA) - The positive

“It’s rising!  It’s rising!”  The gleeful shouts come from the chemical room.  Students in my classroom start laughing as they realize that Carl’s experiment is finally working for him.  He’s been trouble shooting this for days.  He’s made catalase beads with cucumber, with the intent of measuring the effect of pH on cucumber catalase activity on hydrogen peroxide.  Gail has set up a unique gas collecting system to measure the effect of salt on CO2 production by yeast.  She also has been struggling for days with her experiment.  Shortly she exclaims with glee, “It’s working!  It’s working!”.  Then, a loud “Oh NO!” followed by a crash and the overflowing of liquid at another lab bench.  Students hustle to help clean up the mess.  Simultaneous to this action, Barb checks on the growth of her wheat, “This is perfect….look at this!” as she reaches for the ruler.  Another student has just put her Daphnia under the microscope to determine how to measure the heartbeat. She summons the other students over and exclamations of “That is SO COOL” echo as each student intently peers through the optical lens on the microscope.  The energy in the classroom is palpable.  Despite darkness pressing against the lab windows, within the classroom there is warmth, comradery, and excitement.  It is a Friday evening but students are finding pleasure in their work.  I, personally, am energized by their enthusiasm and their hope for reasonable results. They are working independently on self-designed experiments.  They all have five values for their independent variables.  They all have unique designs.  The first step is underway.  Let’s hope excellent data collection /processing and thorough conclusions/evaluations follow. This is internal assessment at its best.  

Valentine's Day

Roses by the dozens sit in buckets on my classroom tables.  The student counsel sold roses all week and I ended up buying a ridiculous amount.  Initially, I purchased for my family members, some close friends, and my fellow science colleagues.  However, the student counsel had so many roses left over that I ended up buying even more just to support “the cause”.   After all, I have two children on the counsel and all the remaining student counsel members are my students.  I just couldn’t resist them.  So now I can spread Valentine’s Day cheer to my neighbors when I go home tonight.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on Friday evening.  My classroom is finally emptying itself of students who have been here all afternoon working on their self-designed experiments, internal assessments (IAs), for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.  While many test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, the foaming yeast, the elodea and other supplies have been carefully cleaned or disposed of, other ongoing experiments remain.  There are two plant projects under the fluorescent lights, a sprout project on the lab bench, Daphnia awaiting their caffeine experiment, and a cucumber prepared for an osmosis experiment.

I check my email as I’m waiting for the students to finish up.  There is an email from the IB with the announcement that I have been appointed to be an IB examiner.  That’s a nice piece of news at the end of the day.

My students claim to be “almost done” so I water my plants and tend to my turtle and the fish.  I tidy up around my desk and pack up my bag.  I notify my husband and youngest son that we’re finally about ready to go.  We gather up our coats and bags and all those roses.  It takes three of us to lug the flowers downstairs.  We wave to the cleaners who are the last ones in the building and exit out into the dark and rainy night.

Today was an 11-hour day at the school.  IB Meetings, an Open House, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Basket Ball Games, and IA’s meant I spent between ten and fourteen hours each day at the school this week. Needless to say, it’s been a long week.  How will I celebrate Valentine’s Day?  With a quiet movie night at home.  However, tomorrow I’ll have a Sushi Dinner with my husband.

Is the IB worth it: A perspective from one who is both IB teacher and mom of two IB students.

Is the IB worth it: A perspective from one who is both IB teacher and mom of two IB students.

I currently have two children who are in their final year of the IB program.  We are 3 months away from the IB exams.  They are actively working on Internal Assessments (IA) for History, English, Science, as well as their Extended Essays and Theory of Knowledge essays.  The math IA is, thankfully, complete.  There has been so much stress and anxiety in my house for the last five months that it has become almost unbearable.  And, it leads me to actively question, “Is the IB worth it?”

I currently am an IB Biology teacher and an advocate of the IB program.  I believe in and endeavor to guide my students in the IB learner profile (IB learners strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, reflective).  I think it is a globally minded, well rounded, and balanced curriculum.  It is also rigorous and truly prepares students for academic university life.  I have had countless students return to tell me how grateful they are for their IB education and how prepared they were for college.  As a teacher I’ve never really questioned the IB program.

However, now I stand in different shoes and am reflecting on what the IB means to our family:

The IB program dictates family vacations or rather, NOT taking family vacations.

The IB program directs social events and weekend activities or rather NOT having social events or fun activities on the weekend.

If your children are relatively intelligent and willing to work hard, they’ll still struggle in the IB program causing stress that reverberates throughout the family structure.

If your children decide to “have a life” – or “be balanced”, as heralded important in the IB learner profile – by joining a sports team, they will become unmanageably swamped by juggling the sports schedule and the work load generated by the IB program. 

Because the workload is so intense, there will be times when they simply must choose to miss a deadline or two resulting in concerned teachers and the building up of the workload.

They spend hours and hours each on homework, limiting themselves to about 5 hours (sometimes less) of sleep a night, including weekends as well.  As a parent I straggle into bed late at night fully aware that my children are toiling away on a math assignment in one room and a history assignment in another room.

I feel guilty about the Biology work they have been assigned by me; however, I know there is no other way.

They show me their progress with blood-shot eyes and carry on.

Then starts the cycle of teachers constantly being on their case about deadlines.   The teachers begin to question your children’s dedication to schoolwork; unaware of how much time the students are actually putting in.  I know, because I’m one of those teachers!

Oh, and then there are the meaningful service hours they need to complete, document, and reflect on.

Then, ultimate deadlines with threats of "no diploma" appear and loom overhead.  Teachers have no choice, I know, because IAs must be mailed in to the IB by certain deadlines and teachers need time to assess them first.  I’m currently worried I won’t have enough time with the Biology IAs to fairly assess them before the mailing date.

More sleep deprivation.

High stress levels.

Tears.  Anger. Fear of failure.

Is it worth it?  I’m not sure.  I’ll have to see this through and revaluate next fall when it is behind us and my children are fully immersed in college life with the anxieties and stresses of IB in the distant past.

Garbage Audit: Crunching Data

Twelve IB students gather in the Biology classroom as part of their Group IV project .  Anticipation hangs in the air as they look at the data from the previous evening’s garbage audit.  At first they are unsure how to proceed but then they power up their computers and open up Excel.  Keyboards are clicking, expressions are concentrated.  I circle around and begin to see pie and bar graphs appearing all over the room on the computer screens

“Can you believe we throw away over 1 kg of paper and plastic cups every day?” exclaims one student.  “Whoa, look at this, 35% of our garbage is recyclables!”, cries out another.  “That’s a lot of food waste”  “I think we can reduce our weight by at least 1/3 this year”.  And so it went.  For two hours the students crunched numbers, manipulated Excel data, created graphs, and analyzed their results. 

The final conclusions haven’t been reached but everyone is quite excited about what they’ve uncovered.  Over the next few weeks the students will share their results to the Going Green group at the school for that committee to submit a recommendation on how to reduce waste at the school.  The IB students will also formulate a proposal for next year’s Group IV project in the area of Going Green.

I’m quite happy with this initial event that the Going Green group has completed.  It will definitely generate awareness and hopefully be an impetus for change at the school.