Finding our School Groove

Gabriel & Lily on the first day of school this year

Like many American parents, I spent a great deal of time the past two years completely freaking out worrying about sending my children to school. Public school? Broken, underfunded, full of bullies, a little scary. Private school? Long commute, overpriced, not feasible, full of rich kids & drugs, a little scary. Home school? Holy shit. Lots of fear there too (Am I good enough/patient enough to do it? How will I get them social interaction? How will I have a life?!).

At the time I had no idea that I’d be taking the easy way out of this debate by moving to Finland two months into Gabriel’s first year of school. The school was already chosen (most of Nokia’s expat families send their children to the International School of Helsinki, Nokia foots the bill, it’s one of the few options for English-speaking children, and they had a spot for Gabriel.). Whew!

I literally didn’t have more time to dwell on it, so a week after we arrived, off he went. I’m not usually a person who can just let go of a decision like that, but I did out of necessity. And over the past four months, we’ve been fairly happy with the school. Gabriel’s teacher is an angel sent from heaven with abundant patience, an amazing ability to keep 11 rather spirited little boys (and 2 lovely girls) engaged, and a real understanding of the age and its challenges. Although with that ratio alone the class is better staffed than Gabriel’s elementary school back home, his teacher here has a full-time aid who is equally as wonderful.

But other than these warm-fuzzy feelings, I didn’t have much to go on in terms of what was different about this school. Until today. This morning I attended a presentation on the International Baccalaureate approach to assessment in the Primary Years Programme (elementary school). My high school had an IB diploma, but my primary memory of the program was that I’d have to give up my music classes to complete it, so I passed. I knew relatively little about what the program meant for young children or how it was different from other systems.

Today I learned that instead of being graded on academic achievement (can you count from 1-100, do your times tables, recognize X number of site words, diagram a sentence, all while sitting criss-cross applesauce and not causing trouble), a child in an IB program is evaluated based on a more holistic list of qualities that they cultivate on an individual basis:

  • inquirers
  • knowledgeable
  • thinkers
  • communicators
  • principled
  • open-minded
  • caring
  • risk-takers
  • balanced
  • reflective

Although there is standardized testing in grades 3, 5, 7, & 9, it is not the emphasis of the curriculum in quite the same way that it has become in the United States. Instead, IB schools put the emphasis on learning by doing, letting the children participate in defining the rubrics used to evaluate their work, and finding ways of engaging each child in the learning process.

This resonates so much with me that I could hardly contain myself during the talk. Not only does the above list include just about everything I want for my children (except unconditional love & boundless happiness, of course), but to achieve evaluation at this level of depth, the teacher has to actually know and understand each individual child in a way that was sadly impossible at our public school in Colorado, where class size alone would inhibit the process.

Next week, I have my first parent-teacher conference with a twist. Instead of the teacher talking to me about Gabriel, Gabriel is going to present his work to me. We’ve set aside 60-90 minutes for the talk, which should give us plenty of time to reflect on his last four months. It’s easy for me to see that he is thriving, but it will be nice for him to be able to show off his work, and I find myself looking very much forward to it, and to his continued participation in this school and others like it when we move on from Helsinki.

3 thoughts on “Finding our School Groove

  1. There’s a new school in Indianapolis, The International School of Indiana. There was an article in the paper about it this morning. It is one of only a few in the country like it. It sounds interest, Tricia, you should check it out.

  2. Our solution may be to stay in Europe for a while! But I am definitely hoping to find an IB school that really embraces this philosophy when we do come home. There has to be one somewhere!

  3. we had the same experience in NZ, though it wasn’t laid out quite so directly for us. Why is it that other countries seem able to grasp what’s important about teaching children, yet the US is stuck with old ideas? What is our obsession with testing? Alex and Nate both flourished in their little rural school there. Nate’s kindergarten teacher there had him reading on day 2. This was a kid with absolutely no interest in reading prior to starting school. She was able to instill such a love of learning. And she was able to do this without placement testing or standardized exams. In fact, very little formal testing was done, yet the teachers knew each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Alex always ran his teacher-parent-student conferences and it was great to hear his insights. Since we’ve been back, it seems that all that the schools do is test. Why do we always need a number to show how smart kids are? Nate stopped reading and until recently really resisted our efforts to get him to get going again. What’s the answer?

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