One of the hallmarks of this COVID-19 adventure has been the unchanging change. Every week has seemed to throw up something new. In the early days this was simply switching to online learning, then it was adding in the live lessons on Zoom. All this with changing location each week in hunt to find a home from home where we could live, work and parent.
We returned to the UK on March 25th as outlined previously and spent two weeks in isolation at a flat in London, before moving ourselves up to the east midlands, into the grandparents house. This move has given our two little ones a little bit more stability as finally as they are in a familiar environment with adults able to give them their full attention.
Others have written about the experiences of returning to school in China and I don’t want to write that here not least because I haven’t seen it first hand but I do want to provide an account of what it has been like to be one of the stranded teachers, in the last few weeks.
The hardest part in the beginning was keeping up with the constant changes. Every week seemed to bring something new, that required a new adjustment
Soon after returning, we got the announcement that our campus would be opening up again starting with year 13 and year 11. For this change we moved to synchronous live sessions from asynchronous and were asked to increase the number of live sessions we were running. This was initially refereed to as “blended learning” but seeing as it isn’t blended in the true sense of the word, it is probably best referred to as a “dual programme”
Initially this was a change that now required, in our case, being up in the early hours of the morning. And with kids at home too, its hard to catch up on that lost sleep.
Later, as more year groups came back this amount of lost sleep increased requiring more discussion and change of teaching schedules.
We were then told that the school day was extended and we all needed to do an extra lesson after school. In of itself this isn’t really a problem but taken in the wider weekly change it was another thing that needed to be adjusted to. In the end I was actually quite thankful for this as I got more time with my Y12 students work through the HL biochemistry we were doing.
And then came the announcement of redundancy. Never have I been more reminded of the line in Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen”
Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday
This has left us with weeks of negotiating, angst, anxiety and worry and a whole host of problems to sort out as not only have we lost our income, but also our home, potentially our possessions and also schools for our daughters. But slowly as the weeks pass we are finding solutions.
The hardest part of the last few weeks has been being one of the few who can’t get back to campus. With continued border closures we are still unable return and continue to live this half life, being home but not home.
While colleagues lives have returned to some normality back in China, we continue to juggle parenting at home while working from home while under lockdown. This can make the daily interactions a little bit more difficult as colleagues forget that your four year old might start screaming just outside the door when you are on a call. You may still be finding that your kids can’t understand why their parents are in a room working all day when, of course you should be playing and they will keep coming to interrupt you, even during the graduation ceremony to request this.
Parents whose children are back on campus also now expect that the number of live zoom classes be increased, because isn’t this over for everybody? What do you mean you can’t provide an online class at 3am everyday?
Somedays you feel like you have just been forgotten, and this is compounded by the knowledge that you are out the door. To the folks back on campus, you’ve already left, I guess, despite the fact that we continue to the best of our ability to mark, plan, teach.
This week, on Wednesday, the IB results were published and this marks the beginning of the end of my first cycle of working with students as a university adviser/guidance counselor. Here I aim to summarise the key points that I have learned about this work this year.
I blogged about this work last summer, aiming to reflect on my first 15 months in post.
As a summary I started in this work in April 2015. With very little real experience (although I guess I thought I had plenty at the time) and was tasked with founding the university and careers counseling program in a school that was still being set up.
Now our first graduates have got their first set of results and this is the culmination of the last four years of work, since we first opened our doors. When I refer to counseling, I am referring to academic/university guidance not social or emotional counseling. Here is what I have learned:
There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 1: emotional) and I am not convinced that it is good to have one member of staff doing both. As a DP Biology teacher, I am responsible for getting the best out of my students, whether they like it or not. Often that means holding kids to account for the quality of their work and work ethic. Obviously counselors do this too with their deadlines etc but the relationship with students is different. This can be a problem when students may then be annoyed at you (as teacher) for bringing them back at lunch, for awarding poor grades(!) or giving some other sanctions as a teacher, that then makes them perceive you negatively. At worst this can damage your relationship with a student and prevent a student from wanting to come and see you as a counselor, making it all but impossible in some cases to counsel them effectively. This may make them want to go elsewhere for advice. I still haven’t found a solution for this problem.
There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 2: practical). This year I have been teaching 17 hours a week (G9-12 Biology & G11-12 TOK). To say the least my working weeks this academic year have been rather full. This has made it very difficult to make my non-teaching periods match up with the student’s private study periods. My Head’s argument (whose aim for our school is to be the best day school in our country) is that the school cannot afford a full-time guidance counselor. But unfortunately I am only able to work with students and families when I am not teaching and if these times don’t line up with when a student is not in class then it can make for very poor provision. Of course I offer times outside of class, and after school, but with all the other non-academic demands on students this isn’t always a solution. I am hoping that timetabling will take into consideration my request to have two days of non-teaching time to give me the dedicated space to meet with students and their families. Another side of this coin is that when no one else in your team has experience of your job and then at best can only imagine what your job is like (see Dunning-Kruger effect), it can make for difficult relationships with colleagues. I am convinced that my departing VP views me as a cover-dodger because I always have to respectfully decline their last-minute requests that I cover a lesson normally because I was in a pre-arranged meeting with students. My teaching colleagues often wonder my I have so little teaching.
Clear boundaries and communication with students and their families matter. In my first set of feedback for the schools University Guidance program (clue is in the name) one student commented that they gave me 3/5 because, despite helping them identify a course they would love and match their academic interests, in the country they were interested in studying, (the student told me that they were not interested in applying elsewhere), I wasn’t able to give “global apprenticeship advice”. Basically I wasn’t able to spew out results to the families various and diverse requests like google can. All that, despite my flexibility in responding to the mother’s requests for info to the best of my abilities for over two years. Clearly this family thought that “University guidance” meant “post-18 life advice”. I now send a letter to all rising grade 11 families making it clear that I “only” provide advice on university applications to North America, UK, NL and CH.
Being a team player is really important and doesn’t come naturally to some teachers. Lots of teachers think that they know how to counsel students. I am guilty of this one. In past lives I have thought that I was well placed to advise students where to apply to the chagrin of my counseling colleagues. I do understand that teachers are on the whole giving of their time and advice. It is what they do; they want to be helpful and have a healthy interest in young people and their outcome. Unfortunately, from the counselors perspective it isn’t helpful, especially when advice is given without even at the minimum informing the counselor of the advice that has been given to a student. I am not saying teachers shouldn’t give their students advice but this advice needs to coordinated (I may expand on this theme in a future blog post). To combat this, I need to get more time in front of staff, explaining the need for good solid guidance in our context and the benefit for the students. This needs to happen alongside going through policies with staff.
Working with colleagues from a whole school perspective can be really, really challenging, especially when you are not empowered with any actual authority. Taking time out the day to have conversations is really quite important in changing mindsets.
With the above in mind, it is also necessary to have time with the whole staff to be able to lay out your vision for counseling at the school to get buy in from your team.
Predicted grades seem to some people (parents particularly) to be a form of black magic. In addition there are cultural differences in what predicted grades are, notably between North Americans and Europeans. This year we changed our policy on this and I will blog about this elsewhere.
It is important that transcripts make it clear what the numbers mean. Timing of mock exams and their results should be clearly marked up.
Counseling is a formative process and encourages meta-cognition in students, which brings school wide benefits as students set goals and become motivated. Programs need individual and group time during the school week.
Don’t feel you need to give time to people trying to sell you something.
Routines are just as important in counseling as they are in teaching and parenting.
Having a clearly defined structure and plan to your guidance program (within whatever constrains you may have to work with). In the first year of this cycle I was teaching 12 hours a week out of a maximum of 24 teaching periods. I only had 12 grade 11 students and so it was quite easy from that perspective. However, at the time I was still learning the ropes (I still am) and was hugely inexperienced at sitting down with students “counseling” them. I had no idea really of how the cycle progresses from the end of grade 10 to the end of grade 12 and despite not teaching all that much I had no official curriculum time with my students. In addition to that, apart from my time, I was denied any other resources to work with. I was consistently denied funding for any sort of database that would help me generate course/university lists for my students for example. This year I had 17 hours of classroom teaching time, but due to changes my line manager brought into the structure of the school day I suddenly had times in the week where I could get in front of all the students together. In addition I was allowed access to some resources that required money and so my current grade 11 students have benefited from more focused time and tasks to support their own search.This has been picked up in my feedback at the end of the year and I have planned changes for next year to improve this further which I will blog about.
If you have no guidance from above don’t be frightened to make your own decisions. My line manager is fairly absentee because they are pulled in so many directions themselves. This has hugely frustrated me this year because I am a rookie and I need to bounce ideas off of someone. I have also been really unsure as to how to proceed at times. However the best thing to do is make a decision and run with it. This summer I decided to make it really clear to families what they can expect and can’t expect from my program, to avoid any further confusion.
In addition to the subject guides for language A and B, The IB has produced a range of publications surrounding the issues of language learning that support discussions of language placement. These, in addition to DP Programme: From Principles into Practice (PP), include:
Developing academic literacy in IB programmes
Language and Learning in IB programmes
Learning in a language other than mother tongue in IB programmes
Benchmarking selected International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme language courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
These can all be found on the PRC at the time of writing.
It is important to note that the IB makes no definitive prescriptions about which language level placement is appropriate for which students. This is evidenced by the following quotes from the language guides:
Students enter language acquisition courses with varying degrees of exposure to the target language(s). It is, therefore, important that students are placed into a course that is most suited to their language development needs and that will provide them with an appropriate academic challenge [my emphasis]. …. Further placement guidance can be drawn from the study Benchmarking Selected IB Diploma Programme Language Courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This study suggests that students already at CEFR A2 or B1 in the target language can comfortably take language B SL. Students already at CEFR B1 or B2 can comfortably take language B HL.
Excerpt from the Language B guide (first exams 2020)
Language ab initio is a language acquisition course designed for students with no prior experience of the target language, or for those students with very limited previous exposure. …. Because of the inherent difficulty of defining what constitutes “very limited exposure” to a language, it is not possible to list specific conditions such as the number of hours or the nature of previous language instruction [my emphasis]; however, it is important to note that any student who is already able to understand and respond to spoken and written language on a range of common topics is not to be placed in language ab initio as this would not provide an appropriate academic challenge [my emphasis], nor is it fair for those students who are genuine beginners of the language.
Excerpt from the ab initio guide (first exams 2020)
This is a matter that schools need to decide internally, and the IB provides guidance on how to approach. Indeed, PP makes this clear:
Because language demographics vary widely, each school is required to develop a language policy to address these issues…
Access can be broadened when a school fully understands and supports the needs of students for whom the language of instruction in the school is not their best or first language. Teachers of all subjects need to understand their role in supporting student language development…..
Many DP students complete their Diploma in a language that is not their best language for academic work. A powerful feature of the DP is the policy of mother-tongue entitlement that promotes respect for the literary heritage of the language a student uses at home.
IB Diploma Programme: From Principles to Practice (2015)
Clearly there are logistical and financing implications for schools and the families impacted but what seems to unconsidered by the IB, is that it may well be the case that a student who has not formally studied in their mother tongue, and only used this language at home, may not be equipped to take the SSST course.
If the school is small and perhaps doesn’t offer their mother tongue language in group 2, then what can this student do?
In their video “Language domains in the continuum” (on the PRC), the IB references the following graphic to explain ways to think about language use in educational programmes.
This model builds on the work of Jim Cummins, which I have addressed elsewhere on this blog, and provides a clear bridge between that work and the problems of placement.
I would argue that it is possible for a mother tongue language learner to not have the language skills much beyond the BICS category and perhaps not fully CALPS. For example a student could be mother tongue in, say Spanish with Mexican heritage but raised in China for much of their life. If they attend a small school that doesn’t offer Spanish from the primary years up, they will have a problem when they come to the Diploma.
They are going to have a real struggle to undertake literary criticism and analysis in their mother tongue. This will make the SSST course unsuitable but without the facility to self study Language B HL they will, most likely be forced to not taking up their mother tongue.
Currently, the IB doesn’t explicitly allow self study of Language B. This is a shame. To rub the salt in, the only online provider of IB courses, Pamoja education, doesn’t provide a vast range of languages either.
Additionally, as outlined last week, there can be cases where a student doesn’t make the progress we would expect in their mother tongue after being placed erroneously into an acquisition course. Of course this type of thing shouldn’t happen but when it does, teachers views of student can become entrenched which makes it harder to make the case for a child to switch into the correct stream. Of course, their language skills haven’t developed and kept up with other native speakers, they haven’t been challenged appropriately.
Whats the problem with these scenarios? Why not just swap onto the right course in the DP? To understand I think it is important to understand the different demands of the language courses.
A good way, I submit, to look at the demands of the language courses is in terms of the complex conceptual demands of analysing a text. I am well aware that I am a novice here, and discussing issues outside of my subject specialism, but I am eager to learn and discuss.
I suggest that the more novels a course contains then the higher degree of abstract analysis and discussion of texts will need to take place, drawing on deeper cultural understanding. I don’t write this to knock language acquisition – learning a language is a challenge in its own right and for different reasons – but just to provide a metric when thinking about the different courses.
The IB appears to have aligned its language courses so that now there is a continuum of exceptions from language ab initio all the way to language A: literature HL and we can see this in the literature requirements of each of the courses.
ab initio courses have no literature component and neither does language B SL.
Language B HL requires students to study 2 novels:
The use of literary works to develop students’ receptive and productive skills is encouraged at all levels of language acquisition in the DP; however, in terms of formal requirements of the syllabus and assessment outline, the study of two literary works originally written in the target language is a requirement at HL in language B. HL students are expected to understand fundamental elements of the literary works studied, such as themes, plot and characters. It must be emphasized that literary criticism is not an objective
Excerpt from the Language B guide (first exams 2020)
In group 1 or Language A we have two routes: Language & Literature or Literature.
So what is involved with the two different Language A courses:
Language A: literature—in this course, the focus is directed towards developing an understanding of the techniques involved in literary criticism and promoting the ability to form independent literary judgments.
Language A: language and literature—in this course, the focus is directed towards developing an understanding of the constructed nature of meanings generated by language, and the function of context in this process.
Excerpt from the IB DP Assessment procedures 2020 document found on the PRC
The tables below show us that L&L SL requires student students to study 4 works of literature, while HL requires you to study 6 works of literature. Lit SL requires 9 works of literature and HL requires 13 works of literature.But all group 1 SL course and HL course should be the same difficulty.
What does all this mean for language placement for students who have complex language profiles?
First there needs to be a clear policy that articulates the progression of mother tongue learning and acquisition language learning in school, that ensures that students are not left in the position that the teachers of the only two languages they could study in the Diploma are all recommending that they only take language B. All students need to have an A language and if this can’t be their mother tongue then the school has a duty to prepare them as best possible in another language to enable them to take one of those languages in group A, where possible.
Secondly mother tongue needs to be provided for where possible so that students and their families understand the options and the routes available to them as they move through the school. Where the school cannot provide for the teaching of the mother tongue directly, conversations need to take place with the parents about how provision can be made for a student to keep up to some extent with their home language.
Thirdly, when working out placements, it is important to provide testing of the students level and ability in all their languages, not just the ones that the school provides for. A school can provide the means for a language test to be taken by an external assessor if necessary, to help the school and families work out what pathway may be in the best interests of the student.
Testing can allow a quick comparison between the CEFR and IB programmes as outlined in the 2016 report “Benchmarking selected International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme language courses to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages” available on the PRC. The summary of that report contains this graphic which shows how the grades for each course map onto the CEFR.
Fourthly, where possible the school should work with the IB and the family to enable access to a language where possible. This may include getting permission from the IB to deliver group 2 language with an external teacher, if possible or providing financial support to families who need to hire in an additional tutor, either through fee reductions or bursaries.
What do you think? How can schools work to get language level placement right for students? Please comment below.
It is currently (to the best of my knowledge) not possible to put error bars onto data points in scatter graphs in google sheets (although you can for bar graphs oddly) and I therefore recommend that students use Excel to carry out data processing and presentation.
The problem arises in schools with BYOD policies that don’t take into account that students need to have the same version of these programs to ensure a flow of learning in classrooms where teachers are trying to instruct their students on this stuff.