Catholic schools implement International Baccalaureate learning

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | April 22, 2015

Holy Family School is latest to incorporate program

GREEN BAY — Students in the eighth grade literature class at Holy Family School are learning about the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Teacher Cheryl Smet has visited Sandburg’s boyhood home in Galesburg, Ill., and can provide plenty of facts about the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, but first, the students must do research of their own.

Ava Vande Corput, an eighth grade student at Holy Family School in Green Bay, searches online for information about American writer Carl Sandburg for a literature class unit. This school year, Holy Family became the first Catholic school in the diocese to offer an International Baccaulareate (IB) program for grades 6-8. IB features a skills-based approach to learning.  (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)
Ava Vande Corput, an eighth grade student at Holy Family School in Green Bay, searches online for information about American writer Carl Sandburg for a literature class unit. This school year, Holy Family became the first Catholic school in the diocese to offer an International Baccaulareate (IB) program for grades 6-8. IB features a skills-based approach to learning. (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)

Equipped with Chromebooks (laptop computers), they seek information about the writer’s birth, family, jobs, death and other pertinent events that may have shaped his work.

Skills, such as research capability, are the base of International Baccalaureate (IB) learning.

The International Baccalaureate is an international educational foundation started in 1968 and headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It offers four educational programs for children aged 3–19.

This school year, Holy Family began its IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) for all students in grades 6-8.

“You use the curriculum to teach the skills, which makes students become more self-learning,” said Smet, IB coordinator in addition to her teaching duties. “They can apply that skill to whatever they study.”

Holy Family is third school with IB

Holy Family is the third Catholic school in the Diocese of Green Bay to implement an IB program. Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay was authorized for a Diploma Programme (DP) in 2007 for students in grades 11 and 12. St. Peter the Fisherman School in Two Rivers offers a Primary Years Programme (PYP) to students in grades 3K-5.

Holy Family was granted IB candidate status before the end of the 2013-2014 school year. The school seeks to be fully engaged in 2017.

In preparation for the start of the school year last fall, Smet and Pamela Otto, Holy Family principal, attended training in Detroit. The school works with a consultant from Michigan and six Holy Family teachers have completed Category 1 training, which covers the history of IB and unit planning.

“Everything is done in units. The teachers start out by selecting four or five units for the year,” explained Smet. “Each unit has a plan. It was previously called ‘backward design.’ You start out by asking, ‘What skills do I want them to acquire in this unit?’ Then, ‘How am I going to get there?’ That’s where your curriculum comes in.”

A high percentage of Holy Family students attend Notre Dame Academy so, while the hope is that IB in grades 6-8 will promote involvement in the Diploma Programme, IB learning provides benefits for students no matter what path they take in high school.

“It’s for all students,” said Smet. “It’s more than memorizing material. It’s learning the skills. No matter what classes they take, they can apply those skills.”

Notre Dame Academy IB

IB offers an option for a 9-10 MYP, but Matt Schultz, IB coordinator at Notre Dame, said that the school will continue with its offering only for juniors and seniors.

“The issue with grades nine and 10 is that it includes every student,” he said. “Here, we are self-selected. For everyone’s own reason, they choose to do or not to do IB. We don’t want to force that on everybody.”

A full IB diploma at Notre Dame requires taking six IB courses, a theory of knowledge essay and a service component. The Diploma Programme averages 12 to 20 graduates a year, said Schultz, who serves as president of the Wisconsin Association of IB World Schools. In addition, more than 150 Notre Dame students take IB classes without participating in DP.

“IB English, the study of language and literature, is the most popular,” said Schultz. “I would like to see each student take at least one IB course while at Notre Dame.

The belief that IB courses are for advanced students is a common misconception.

“We don’t set a GPA requirement,” explained Schultz. “People have done a lot of research on it. In some of the traditional settings of school, students don’t always do well in the memorizing and spit back out, but they can strive in a different style of learning. With IB, you get a lot of different varieties. You are still going to have to memorize some facts, sure, but it’s more about telling us what you know and how you are applying it overall. Students tend to be a little more engaged in that environment.”

There is a fee for DP. For example, one exam costs $285. Benefits of the full IB diploma may include college entry, scholarship money or college credits.

“It’s not always intended to get you college credit,” said Schultz. “The idea is to create the mindset. It’s the experience of a college-style course. It’s centered on student-motivated learning where the teacher acts as more of a facilitator.”

He added that IB courses are a good fit with Catholic education.

“We choose what resources, what textbooks we use,” he said. “We can still be as Catholic as we want to be here. We have a lot of autonomy.”

Elementary school program

St. Peter the Fisherman School received its IB candidacy for the Primary Years Programme in May of 2013. Terri Waack, IB coordinator at the school, echoed that the IB curriculum fits well with Catholic identity.

“There are key attributes stressed in all IB schools,” she said. “They are broken into two categories: learner profiles and IB attitudes. The learner profile words are:  balanced, caring, communicator, inquirer, knowledgeable, open-minded, principled, reflective, risk-taker and thinker. The IB attitudes are:  appreciative, creative, commitment, confident, cooperation, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, independent, integrity, respect and tolerance.

“Since ‘catholic’ means universal or global, the IB curriculum lends itself to learning about others around the world. Each of our transdisciplinary themes requires us to not only think of ourselves, but more importantly to stretch our learning to include learning about others around the world. In our gymnasium, we have 11 flags hanging on the walls that show where our students and staff were born. This is global representation just in our small school community.”

Spanish is taught to all students preschool through eighth grade. Another important aspect of an IB school is that students are inquirers, said Waack.

“They ask the questions and find the answers to a variety of wonderings within each transdisciplinary theme,” she said. “’I wonder …’ is spoken often in our building. Students are learning skills to be used throughout their lives as lifelong learners.”

All of the St. Peter the Fisherman teachers have completed the first level of training, except for one new faculty member. The training is a two-and-a-half day conference entitled “Making PYP Happen in the Classroom.” Teachers are also encouraged to attend round tables at other IB schools in the state and the IB of the Americas Conference, which will be held in Chicago this summer.

“At round tables, teachers meet with each other by grade level or subject to share ideas,” said Waack. “They may also hear a speaker at the round tables.

“At the conference, attendees meet people from around the world who are teaching IB. Networking and sharing ideas are important. Meeting people from all over the world helps the teachers bring knowledge back to the students.”

The goal for St. Peter the Fisherman is to become an authorized IB school in May of 2016.

Self-motivated learners

Students at Holy Family School enjoy the focus on developing skills. Eight grader Drew Gunville said that he retained more knowledge doing his own research on American writer and poet Joyce Kilmer and from the class discussion. Smet is following a similar approach in teaching Sandburg.

“We are trying to make them self-motivated learners,” said Smet. “When they are given a problem, they know about how to go about finding the answer.”

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