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Bedford graduate credits her college success to IB

Union Leader Correspondent

May 15. 2012 11:21PM

BEDFORD - Genevieve Spagnuolo has followed the town's debate on the International Baccalaureate, an honors program offered at Bedford High.

Spagnuolo, a pre-med student who just finished her first year in the honors program at Boston College, graduated from Bedford High last year with an IB diploma. She credits IB with helping her develop the intellectual muscle that's allowing her to pursue her goal of a career as a pediatric oncologist.

'I learned a lot of different skills that exemplify higher thinking,' she said. 'In IB we learned how to analyze literature and to formulate our own opinions.'

Spagnuolo thinks IB goes beyond what other honors programs, including Advanced Placement classes and tests, offer students.

'I just think what IB expects is a little more encompassing,' she said.

Spagnuolo is part of a broad-based group of students, parents, educators and policy makers who passionately believe that the IB model of a demanding interdisciplinary curriculum approached through a multi-cultural perspective is one of the best ways to prepare for college, and for an eventual role in a global society.

Not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Some parents and residents have questioned IB's curriculum and requirements, while others feel the United Nations-backed program that's based in Geneva, Switzerland, has an anti-American agenda. And those critics of IB have caught the ear of state representatives who have passed a bill that would eliminate IB from New Hampshire public schools.

The state Senate is expected to vote on that bill today.

Last month, Bedford resident Mark Marai launched an online petition to ask the state Senate to vote down that bill, and he attracted hundreds of signatures and comments from IB students, parents and supporters.

IB student Katelyn Donahue wrote she was signing 'because being an IB diploma student has taught me a lot about myself and helped me to grow both intellectually and as a person.'

Annaleis Soldau, a parent with one child who has completed the program and another who is currently enrolled, added her support to the petition because she feels IB helps students become independent thinkers who approach problems in a sophisticated manner.

'I have personally witnessed the benefits of the IB curriculum as my kids have been challenged to think broadly and without bounds,' she wrote.

Peter Gagnon, the IB coordinator at Bedford High, has spent the past three years trying to explain what IB is about and how it works.

'If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would say IB focuses on skill building,' said Gagnon. 'IB tries to seek a greater balance between skill building and knowledge.'

The IB program offers courses for juniors and seniors in six subjects: English, foreign languages, history, science, math and arts. Students can take a few courses, or they can opt to enroll in the IB diploma program, which requires them to complete six courses as well as Theory of Knowledge that explores different aspects of information and learning. To earn an IB diploma, students must also complete a 4,000-word essay and 150 hours of community service.

Overall, IB courses move at a faster pace through deeper and more challenging academic material, supporters say.

Anna Arico's daughter decided to take IB Latin along with several other AP courses.

'The reason I support IB is because a lot of the course work is college-level work,' said Arico. 'I see the work she's doing and the things she's reading and translating, and it's the same thing I did in college.'

Gagnon said that in IB French and Spanish classes, students do more than review grammar and read basic texts.

'The kids in Spanish read Spanish literature,' he said, adding that they also talk about what they read in a cultural and historical context.

And the assessment and grading for IB Spanish is different. IB students are graded by IB educators around the world according to an international set of academic standards.

One of the requirements for the IB foreign language program is a 20-minute taped conversation in French or Spanish between a student and teacher.

'The teacher puts out three photos you've never seen before and you are expected to talk about them for 20 minutes,' said Gagnon. 'You just can't fake your way through these things.'

One of the main goals of IB is to help students become self-directed thinkers. Students look at different topics, issues and problems and decide on their own which questions to ask, and which ideas to test and analyze.

For example, in IB science classes, students design original research projects.

Gagnon said one IB student, who was determined to bust the don't-drink-the-water-in-Mexico adage, collected water samples from Mexico and the United States and analyzed and compared water quality in the two countries.

Gagnon said that IB is designed to help students develop and satisfy their own intellectual curiosity. But it's that self-driven, problem-solving approach to learning that concerns some parents.

One mom, who did not want to be identified because of the heated public discussion that has surrounded IB in the past, said the self-directed or constructivist approach to education doesn't work well for all kids. She feels that students who aren't prepared to develop their own ideas and questions tend to flounder and ultimately fall behind in that type of setting.

A 2011 study from Harvard University offers some data to back up that view. Researchers looked at educational programs and test scores of more than 6,300 eighth-graders and found that those in traditional lecture-style classes scored 10 percent higher on standardized tests.

Bedford School Superintendent Timothy Mayes said that several parents have expressed similar concerns about constructivist learning.

'I've tried to explain that constructivist learning is just one component of the program,' Mayes said, adding that students are given plenty of factual information and help forming questions before they are asked to devise their own inquiries.

Arico said she appreciates the IB approach to learning.

'The message is to make children be analytical and critical thinkers,' she said, acknowledging the IB isn't a program for every student.

Still, students who are in the IB program seem to thrive, although they admit it's a lot of work.

'I would say our IB diploma students are stretched,' said Mayes.

But not too stretched. Spagnuolo still had time to be on Bedford High's varsity softball and track teams.

'When you sign up for the IB program, you are expecting a challenge,' said Spagnuolo. 'You go in knowing you'll experience things in high school that you haven't experienced before.'

In traditional high school subjects, part of the challenge is the broad interdisciplinary approach.

In the Global Studies honor class, a team-taught history and English course, students studied Germany during World War II by looking at Hitler's domestic policies and preparing class presentations about life in the Third Reich. They also examined the historical circumstances that led to Hitler rise to power. Student's also read 'Night,' Elie Wiesel's famous account of life in a German concentration camp.

However, rather than a traditional assignment such as writing a five-page paper on some aspect of Wiesel's narrative, the IB assignment for 'Night' required students to write five different thesis statements for five different papers that focused on Wiesel's stylistic choices. Each thesis statement was worth three points: one point for clarity, one point for being argumentative and one point for presenting a topic that was defensible.

Spagnuolo said that class IB discussions and assignments often ask students to explore the same topic through different texts, opinions and vantage points.

'In AP classes you get into a certain mode, but in IB you look for more than one way of doing things,' she said.

Spagnuolo found that AP and traditional honors classes may delve into how a particular author presents a point of view while students in IB classes will look at multiple texts and synthesize ideas.

'It's really beneficial,' she said. 'It's a skill you really need to use in college.'

Gagnon said the goal of IB history courses is to have students recognize that events took place, but that the same events can look different depending on what side of an issue a person might be on.

Sharing and working though those differing opinions is a major piece of IB. One of the first things students learn is the difference between debate and dialogue. IB stresses respectful conversations and tolerance for other opinions and view no matter how much they differ from one's own viewpoint.

Gagnon said the 50 students who have graduated from Bedford High with an IB diploma program over the past three years have found they have a real edge in their college classes. And because many of them have received college credit for their IB work, most have started at least a semester, and often a year, ahead of other freshmen.

'I feel like we do a tremendous job getting these kids prepared,' he said. 'These kids are going to be great thinkers and leaders.'

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